Trees often have my attention. I find myself thinking about the spot where a tree is standing. Whether its seed fell there, or someone planted it, that spot is it. The tree is simply going to stand there as the sun whips across the sky thousands of times. I imagine the tree turning its leaves quickly (in tree time) to catch what light it can during each flash overhead.
Intrigued by this unheard of species, Wang set out to see it for himself and to collect specimens, which he shared with colleagues. One of them was Hsen Hsu Hu. A diligent paleobotanist, he had read of Miki’s fossil discovery five years earlier. As soon as he saw the peculiar needle pattern, Hu recognized the “water fir” as a Metasequoia.
~ Maria Popova from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2023/01/31/dawn-redwood-metasequoia/
There’s a lot of interesting leaps in the story Popova shares. Across a war, across two cultures, but the vast time this tree has crossed is insane. We have fossils of this tree… and we still have the live tree. My mind boggles.
But mostly, Popova had my attention at trees.
I’m often paused, even paralyzed, by uncertainty. My hope is that this is a sign that I’ve developed some (originally absent, apparently) humility. I swing wildly between feeling confident in simply doing “the work” simply for the sake of experiencing the process, and panicking in the face of self-criticism for wasting my talents and resources. Literally, the only thing which saves me is the knowledge that it takes a significant amount of self-awareness to even think to write a paragraph such as this.
Never play to the gallery… Always remember that the reason that you initially started working is that there was something inside yourself that you felt that if you could manifest in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you coexist with the rest of society. I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations — they generally produce their worst work when they do that.
~ David Bowie from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/11/24/david-bowie-creativity-advice/
I’m not sure it’s terribly dangerous. But it’s certain that I get twitchy and restless if I go searching for others’ approval. It feels far better to sit down, shut up, and start. Actually, it’s really a double-negative: It feels far less worse to sit down, shut up, and start than it does to seek others’ approval for whatever it is I have the urge to work on.
After this era of great pilots is gone, as the era of great sea captains has gone — each nudged aside by the march of inventive genius, by steel cogs and copper discs and hair-thin wires on white faces that are dumb, but speak — it will be found, I think, that all the science of flying has been captured in the breadth of an instrument board, but not the religion of it. One day the stars will be as familiar to each man as the landmarks, the curves, and the hills on the road that leads to his door, and one day this will be an airborne life. But by then men will have forgotten how to fly; they will be passengers on machines whose conductors are carefully promoted to familiarity with labelled buttons, and in whose minds the knowledge of the sky and the wind and the way of weather will be extraneous as passing fiction.
~ Beryl Markham from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/09/19/beryl-markham-west-with-the-night/
As if there’s anything I could write which would add to that.
The ways in which we are all susceptible to drowning ourselves into drama, and what it takes to float free, is what Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) explores in her subtle, splendid 1978 novel The Sea, the Sea — the story of a talented but complacent playwright approaching the overlook of life, who is ultimately overcome by his tragic flaw: Despite his obsessive self-reflection (or perhaps precisely because of it), his egotism ultimately eclipses his creative spirit — that brightest and most generous part of us, the part rightly called our gift, the part that extends the outstretched hand of sympathy and wonder we call art and invites, in Iris Murdoch’s lovely phrase, “an occasion for unselfing.”
~ Maria Popova from https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/06/23/iris-murdoch-the-sea-the-sea/
I’m not a playwright—but the rest of that character seems too like me. “Drowning ourselves in drama…” “…obsessive self-reflection…” “…egotism ultimately eclipses his creative spirit…” Methinks The Sea The Sea would be a good cautionary tale for me to consume forthwith.
I have taken as my province to restore to the light the art of exercise, once so highly esteemed, and now plunged into deepest obscurity and utterly perished… Why no one else has taken this on, I dare not say. I know only that this is a task of both maximum utility and enormous labor.
~ Girolamo Mercuriale from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/05/10/sweat-bill-hayes/
That straight–up sounds like the opening of an Edgar Allan Poe novel about a man whose previously unheard of uncle bequeaths him a map to a dark continent . . . No wait. Giro there is talking about exercise. Enlightening installment from Popova, as usual.
“A tree is a little bit of the future,” Wangari Maathai reflected as she set out to plant the million trees that won her the Nobel Peace Prize. But a tree is also an enchanted portal to the past — a fractal reach beyond living memory, beyond our human histories, into the “saeculum” of time.
~ Maria Popova from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/04/07/peattie-giant-sequoia/
I recently flew from Philadelphia to Seattle. At one point in the journey I gazed down at the Cascade Mountains from the miraculous perch of technology that is an airliner, staring silently at countless trees in countless valleys.
In its original Latin use, the word genius was more readily applied to places — genius loci: “the spirit of a place” — than to persons, encoded with the reminder that we are profoundly shaped by the patch of spacetime into which the chance-accident of our birth has deposited us, our minds porous to the ideological atmosphere of our epoch. It is a humbling notion — an antidote to the vanity of seeing our ideas as the autonomous and unalloyed products of our own minds.
~ Maria Popova from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/09/15/samuel-butler-darwin-among-the-machines-erewhon/
This is a delightful meander across time and authors.
There’s an Etruscan word, saeculum, that describes the span of time lived by the oldest person present, sometimes calculated to be about a hundred years. In a looser sense, the word means the expanse of time during which something is in living memory. Every event has its saeculum, and then its sunset when the last person who fought in the Spanish Civil War or the last person who saw the last passenger pigeon is gone. To us, trees seemed to offer another kind of saeculum, a longer time scale and deeper continuity, giving shelter from our ephemerality the way that a tree might offer literal shelter under its boughs.
~ Rebecca Solnit from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/02/09/rebecca-solnit-trees/
Trees are simply magical. Carl Sagan made a point in the original Cosmos series that everything uses the same basic machinery to read, and write using the same four “letters” of DNA. In a very real sense, trees are us with some different initial inputs. (Setting aside the more ephemeral, yet critical ways where we differ starkly from trees, like degree of consciousness, self-awareness, spirit, soul?) Stand next to an old enough tree and one is invariably transported to a higher level of thinking about being.
What a journey this life is! Dependent, entirely, on things unseen. If your lover lives in Hong Kong and cannot get to Chicago, it will be necessary for you to go to Hong Kong. Perhaps you will spend your life there, and never see Chicago again. And you will, I assure you, as long as space and time divide you from anyone you love, discover a great deal about shipping routes, airlines, earth quake, famine, disease, and war. And you will always know what time it is in Hong Kong, for you love someone who lives there. And love will simply have no choice but to go into battle with space and time and, furthermore, to win.
~ James Baldwin from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/01/31/james-baldwin-nothing-personal-love/
I’m not sure how many things I’ve linked to over on Popova’s Marginalian project. By now you should be directly following it and reading everything she’s publishing. I’m frozen by indecision; there are so countless many superlative books, and Nothing Personal is yet another one. Drat!
Nothing you create is ultimately your own, yet all of it is you. Your imagination, it seems to me, is mostly an accidental dance between collected memory and influence, and is not intrinsic to you, rather it is a construction that awaits spiritual ignition.
~ Nick Cave from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/01/20/nick-cave-creativity/
This is a thought which seriously concerns me; What exactly, if anything, am I accomplishing in the totality of my life? In a very micro sense, I’m simply holding back entropy ever so slightly in one minuscule niche of the universe. I like to imagine this is like pushing the cuticles of my finger nails back: Comforting and aesthetically pleasing, but ultimately pointless because my nails continuously grow until they don’t at which point I won’t care any more. I’m not being morbid or pessimistic here. There’s nothing wrong with that micro-scale getting things done. I take comfort in the fact that pushing entropy back a bit is—quiet literally—all that anyone can do.
It’s when I shift to a much larger scale that things look quite rosy. I sleep well at night, (both literally and figuratively,) because I like who I am becoming, and I plan to keep at it. Along the way, a quite large number of people have said the equivalent of “what you did there made my life a little better.” What more could one attempt?
For millennia, we have considered language — the magic-box of words — the hallmark of our species. Only in the last blink of evolutionary time have we begun to override our self-referential nature and consider the possibility that other types of channels might carry the magical energy of creatures telling each other what it is like to be alive, in the here and now of a shared reality.
~ Maria Popova from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/01/22/cetacean-communication/
It never ceases to amaze me how my brain—I’d write “our brains” but I can only hope yours works at least slightly like mine does—finds salience in the chaos of everyday life. I found Popova’s short piece a couple of weeks ago, and more recently saw a special about humpback whales; the whales that save humanity in a Star Trek movie, if you recall.
In the documentary, one scientist is trying to understand exactly how Humpbacks use sound as language. She’s literally hoping her research enables the beginning of a conversation, (between humans and whales.) And she found this sound, she calls a “whup.” It seems that each humpback’s “whup” is unique the way our voices are said to be unique. So she composed a “whup”… and supposed it was how they say, “hey what’s up”. Seriously, it even sounds like a mumbled, “wassup.” Her question was, if whales say “whup” to announce themselves, what happens if I say “whup”?
Turns out, they say “whup” in response.
So begins her obsession with dominating the mind by dominating the body, which would follow her throughout her life in various guises — running, karate, yoga, cycling, skiing — always ambivalent and self-conscious, until it finally resolves into a glimpse of the larger truth beneath the mechanics of illusory perfectibility: that we exert ourselves so violently on keeping the package of the body intact in order to keep it from spilling its immaterial contents — the soul, the self — into oblivion.
~ Maria Popova from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/01/01/the-secret-to-superhuman-strength-alison-bechdel/
Ah yes, “oblivion.” Good stuff. Popova is referring to a graphic artist, and midway through the article is an exquisite cartoon example; the author drawing, figuratively and literally, a metaphor for life involving a hill and a bicycle. Reading that cartoon brought to mind my beloved practice of meditating on death. (Try this explanation.) Closely related I often call to mind the impermanence of things. Sometimes I mix the two, thinking…
This is my last sip from this [my favorite, morning coffee] mug. (Knowing it will one day be broken.)
This [regularly scheduled weekly] conversation with this person is our last one. (Imagining when priorities change and we’re no longer working together.)
This conversation I’m recording for a podcast is my last one. (Because I will die.)
This dinner with this person [my mom, my spouse, etc] is my last one. (Because one of us will die first.)
The goal is not to be morbid and depressed; The goal is to maintain a realistic perspective to enable wringing the absolute maximum enjoyment and appreciation from every single waking moment.
And so we get to the crux of our human predicament — the underbelly of our anxiety about every unanswered email, every unfinished project, and every unbegun dream: Our capacities are limited, our time is finite, and we have no control over how it will unfold or when it will run out. Beyond the lucky fact of being born, life is one great sweep of uncertainty, bookended by the only other lucky certainty we have. It is hardly any wonder that the sweep is dusted with so much worry and we respond with so much obsessive planning, compulsive productivity, and other touching illusions of control.
~ Maria Popova from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2021/12/20/four-thousand-weeks-oliver-burkeman/
For years I’ve been finding myself judging my day, each evening as I go to sleep. I lie down, and try as I might, my thoughts go beyond simply reviewing. I tried to stop doing the judging part, to no avail.
There’s a Steve Jobs quote about asking himself a question each morning, and that’s great, (but not something I do.) I realized that I’m asking myself that question at the end of each day after closing my eyes to beckon sleep:
If that was the last day of my life, am I satisfied with what I did?
The universe makes a sound — is a sound. In the core of this sound there’s a silence, a silence that creates that sound, which is not its opposite, but its inseparable soul. And this silence can also be heard.
~ Etel Adnan from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2021/11/16/etel-adnan-shifting-the-silence/
I am not a poet. Who knows, maybe if I were, I’d still be at a loss for words. On one hand, having read Popova’s short article I feel relieved; At the least, I’ve now noticed a person named Adnan has lived, and I’ve enjoyed a small sip of her writing. On the other hand, a gripping panic begins to rise up as it’s painfully clear that I will never make even the slightest progress in experiencing the totality of what this universe has to offer. Anyway, go take a sip.
A challenge arises when we make something over a long period of time. As we evolve — as we add experiences, impressions, memories, deepening knowledge and self-knowledge to the combinatorial pool from which all creative work springs — what we make evolves accordingly; it must, if we are living widely and wisely enough. Eventually, the name we once chose for it begins to feel not like a choice but like a constraint, an ill-fitting corset ribbed with the ossified sensibility of a former self.
~ Maria Popova from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2021/10/22/brain-pickings-becoming-the-marginalian/
Popova changed the name of her project a while back, and this is a nice unpacking of her thinking. I’ve a lot of projects, and they have various names; Names that are public and names for them in my own mind.
With each project, I continuously struggle to balance the desire for concision and the desire for clarity. I drive myself mercilessly to find the simplest phrase that is something memorable and meaningful. And then I drive myself mercilessly to be ready and able to explain things as iterative layers of unpacking. That name. A few sentences. A few minutes of explanation. And so on, expanding to a fully dynamic conversation about the thing. On one hand, I know that this zooming in, (towards a concise name,) and zooming out, (toward a coherent and thorough explanation,) improves my thinking and understanding. But on the other hand. It’s really exhausting.
Don’t expect anything to happen. Just wait. This waiting is a deep acceptance of the moment as such. Nietzsche called it amor fati — unquestioning love of whatever has fated you to be here. You reach a point where you’re just sitting there, asking, “What is this?” — but with no interest in an answer. The longing for an answer compromises the potency of the question. Can you be satisfied to rest in this puzzlement, this perplexity, in a deeply focused and embodied way? Just waiting without any expectations?
~ Stephen Batchelor
That’s a quote presented by Maria Popova within a much larger post… which you should totally go read. There’s a stillness, and perhaps even tranquility, which I very much hope you’ve experienced. I’ve mastered the walking meditation which is perambulation. But the fully engaged sense of simpy being, when there’s no sense of expectation, is still a surprise when I manage to get far enough out of my own way.
The Victorian love letter and the text message, the memoir and the Instagram selfie — they are all fragments of self-expression frozen in time, expressing a self fragmentary and discontinuous across the sweep of a life, fragments that can never reconstitute for posterity a complete and cohesive portrait of a person, because to be a person is to be perpetually contradictory and incomplete.
~ Maria Popova from, https://www.brainpickings.org/2021/09/09/aldous-huxley-island-universes/
Today was a good day. Any day wherein I stumble upon a word I do not know is a good day. I think it’s just right as rain that Huxley would be the source of the “salutary” which caused me to reach for my dictionary. (If it’s also new to you, I’ll give you a hint: It has nothing to do with “salutation,” as I had presumed.)
In addition to the unexpectedly salutary new word—a second hint—I was pleasantly held up in my light reading by Popova’s sentiment. I’m certainly not going to truly understand someone in one brief conversation. But I am definitely better off for each of those experiences spending time visiting another island universe. (That’s one of Huxley’s metaphors. Click thru already!)
Saint-Exupéry extends the invitation to reorient to this particular skyborne machine — and, by a proximate leap of imagination, to technology in general — as something that, rather than alienating us from the rest of nature, could bring us into more intimate and conscientious contact with the world of clouds and creatures.
~ Maria Popova from, https://www.brainpickings.org/2021/08/19/saint-exupery-wind-sand-stars-airplane/
The Little Prince is one of those books that has been on the to-read pile for so long. And now Wind, Sand and Stars seems to be another. One of these days! So many good books, so little time.