Losing the Birds, Finding the Words: Eve Ensler’s Extraordinary Letter of Apology to Mother Earth

“I am the reason the birds are missing… I am made of dirt and grit and stars and river, skin bone, leaf, whiskers and claws. I am a part of you, of this, nothing more or less. I am mycelium, petal pistil and stamen… I am energy and I am dust. I am wave and I am wonder. I am an impulse and an order.”

Losing the Birds, Finding the Words: Eve Ensler’s Extraordinary Letter of Apology to Mother Earth

“Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” the visionary marine biologist and lyrical author Rachel Carson wrote as she was making ecology a household word and getting ready to awaken the modern environmental conscience with her epoch-making book Silent Spring.

Silent Spring was titled after the book’s most chilling chapter, detailing the gruesome mass deaths of songbirds in pesticide-assaulted habitats, inspired by a verse from a classic ballad of heartbreak by Carson’s favorite poet, John Keats — “The sedge is withered from the lake, / And no birds sing!” — for she saw no greater heartbreak than the deadly silencing of Mother Nature. In her bittersweet farewell to the world — Carson never lived to see her work inspire the creation of Earth Day and the Environmental Protection Agency — she beckoned posterity, beckoned us, to face our “grave and sobering responsibility [which] is also a shining opportunity”; to “go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.”

Image via the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

We have failed to rise to her challenge. We have failed our origins and our very humanity. In the decades since Carson’s death, 3 billion birds have vanished. Just vanished. And as species seem to be falling off the face of the Earth, their names are falling out of the dictionary, out of our consciousness, out of children’s imaginations. If “finding the words is another step in learning to see,” then losing the words is ceasing to see — a willful blindness to our own responsibility, which thrusts us blindfolded on the steep and winding path to redemption.

Playwright, activist, and V-Day founder Eve Ensler — who is perhaps as close as an artist can get to being a cultural superhero: redeemer of the unspeakable, voice of the unspoken, instrument not only of social change but of that “revelation in the heart” (to borrow Leonard Cohen’s lovely phrase) where all change begins — lifts the blindfold in an extraordinary letter of apology to Mother Earth. Ensler composed the letter as an addendum of sorts to her altogether magnificent book The Apology (public library), read it at Bioneers, then kindly granted me the honor of premiering it to the Brain Pickings ecosystem.

She contextualizes her courageous self-inspection in the disquieting mirror of personal responsibility, where any atonement must begin:

After I finished writing The Apology, a book in which I wrote a letter I wrote from my father to myself apologizing and exploring, explaining in detail all the ways he had abused and harmed me, I realized there was an apology I needed to make — an apology that would force me to confront my deepest sorrow, guilt and shame, an apology that I had been avoiding since I moved out of the city to the woods where I now live with the oaks, locust and weeping willows, Lydia the snapping turtle, running spring water, foxes, deer, coyotes, bears and cardinals and my precious dog, Pablo. It is my offering to you. It is my apology to the Earth, herself.

The letter, consonant with Whitman’s insistence that “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,” evocative of Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem “Please Call Me by My True Names,” is a masterwork of empathy, that highest measure of consciousness. Its gift is the selfsame gift for which the Trappist monk and teacher Thomas Merton thanked Rachel Carson in his gorgeous letter of appreciation after reading Silent Spring — the gift of civilizational self-awareness.

Eve Ensler (Photograph: Paula Allen)

Ensler writes:

Dear Mother,

It began with the article about the birds, the 2.9 billion missing North America birds, the 2.9 billion birds that disappeared and no one noticed. The sparrows, black birds, and swallows who didn’t make it, who weren’t ever born, who stopped flying or singing or making their most ingenious nests, who didn’t perch or peck their gentle beaks into moist black earth. It began with the birds. Hadn’t we even commented in June, James and I that they were hardly here? A kind of eerie quiet had descended. But later they came back. The swarms of barn swallows and the huge ravens landing on the gravel one by one. I know it was after hearing about the birds, that afternoon I crashed my bike. Suddenly falling, falling, unable to prevent the catastrophe ahead, unable to find the brakes or make them work, unable to stop the falling. I fell and spun and realized I had already been falling, that we have been falling, all of us, and crows and conifers and ice caps and expectations — falling and falling and I wanted to keep falling. I didn’t want to be here to witness everything falling, missing, bleaching, burning, drying, disappearing, choking, never blooming. I didn’t want to live without the birds or bees and sparkling flies that light the summer nights. I didn’t want to live with hunger that turned us feral or desperation that gave us claws. I wanted to fall and fall into the deepest, darkest ground and be finally still and buried there.

But Mother, you had other plans. The bike landed in grass and dirt and bang, I was ten-years-old, fallen in the road, my knees scraped and bloody. And I realized that even then nature was something foreign and cruel, something that could and would hurt me because everything I had ever known or loved that was grand and powerful and beautiful became foreign and cruel and eventually hurt me. Even then I had already been exiled, or so I felt, forever cast out of the forest. I belonged with the broken, the contaminated, the dead. 
Maybe it was the sharp pain in my knee and elbow, or the dirt embedded in my new jacket, maybe it was the shock or the realization that death was preferable to the thick tar of grief coagulated in my chest, or maybe it was just the lonely rattling of the spokes of the bicycle wheel still spinning without me. Whatever it was. It broke. It broke. I heard the howling. 
Mother, I am the reason the birds are missing. I am the cause of salmon who cannot spawn and the butterflies unable to take their journey home. I am the coral reef bleached death white and the sea boiling with methane. I am the millions running from lands that have dried, forests that are burning or islands drowned in water. 
I didn’t see you, Mother. You were nothing to me. My trauma-made arrogance and ambition drove me to the that cracking pulsing city. Chasing a dream, chasing the prize, the achievement that would finally prove I wasn’t bad or stupid or nothing or wrong. Oh my Mother, what contempt I had for you. What did you have to offer that would give me status in the market place of ideas and achieving? What could your bare trees offer but the staggering aloneness of winter or greenness I could not receive or bear. I reduced you to weather, an inconvenience, something that got in my way, dirty slush that ruined my overpriced city boots with salt. I refused your invitation, scorned your generosity, held suspicion for your love. I ignored all the ways we used and abused you. I pretended to believe the stories of the fathers who said you had to be tamed and controlled — that you were out to get us.
I press my bruised body down on your grassy belly, breathing me in and out. I have missed you, Mother. I have been away so long. I am sorry. I am so sorry. 
I am made of dirt and grit and stars and river, skin bone, leaf, whiskers and claws. I am a part of you, of this, nothing more or less. I am mycelium, petal pistil and stamen. I am branch and hive and trunk and stone. I am what has been here and what is coming. I am energy and I am dust. I am wave and I am wonder. I am an impulse and an order. I am perfumed peonies and the single parasol tree in the African savannah. I am lavender, dandelion, daisy, dahlia, cosmos, chrysanthemum, pansy, bleeding heart and rose. I am all that has been named and unnamed, all that has been gathered and all that has been left alone. I am all your missing creatures, all the sweet birds never born. I am daughter. I am caretaker. I am fierce defender. I am griever. I am bandit. I am baby. I am supplicant. I am here now, Mother. I am yours. I am yours. I am yours.
Eve Ensler

Complement with “After Silence” — Neil Gaiman’s stunning poem celebrating Rachel Carson’s legacy and culture-shifting courage — and Ensler on how a tree saved her life, then visit Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab to see what you, my fellow naked ape, can do to help save the birds, whose salvation is inseparable from our own. For, in the poetic words of the naturalist John Muir — one of Carson’s great heroes — “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?

Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

First up, an admirable post from steevieb, who has had a change of heart about Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge:

Some time ago (years) I began reading Olive Kitteridge. Just couldn’t get on with it though, got bored with the small town America bit. Last week I decided to give it another go, I am so glad I did, totally blew me away, beautifully written, I loved every page so much that I immediately bought Amy and Isabelle, which to me was even better. How I could have been bored by it (Olive K) the first time around is a puzzle. Moods, I guess.

Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, not for the first time. It is wonderful, perfect even. I found some of it a little tougher to read this time, particularly the killing of the sharks (I had been reading a LOT of Cormac McCarthy around the time I read it before so was likely very desensitised!) but it stands up magnificently to repeated reading.

I must be in the mood for old stuff as I also recently reread The Swimmer, John Cheever’s glorious masterpiece of a short story. It’s one of my all-time favourites and shows what a sharp writer he was.

Set on the fictional Scottish island of Colonsay, academic Anna is trying to juggle the challenges of motherhood, marriage, her academic career and a fair amount of sleep deprivation – and then a mystery around a baby’s skeleton buried outside her house on the island. Overlaid on top of this is a separate timeline where we see, throughout the book, a series of letters written by a midwife sent to the island back in the late 1800s to improve infant mortality. So, Moss has a lot to juggle but she does it brilliantly and the two separate stories and all the loose threads are brought together at the end of the book for a very satisfying conclusion.

What a marvellous adventure I have been on, taking a tour of the various organ systems within a human being. Although I studied biochemistry and physiology in my student days, I have learned some interesting new things and revisited already known facts.

What I particularly like about Bryson’s style here is that he has taken some complex subject areas such as immunology and transfusion science and distilled them into something which can be mentally digested by those without a scientific background and does so without patronising the reader.

The story of a woman traveller and her son returning from chaotic lives in England to live on a traveller’s site in Ireland with her father, where she also hopes to find her daughter, left there as a baby. The landscape is beautifully described and the story very sad but in the end hopeful.

I was expecting straight biographies of some jazz greats, but it’s an altogether stranger beast – part imagined, part true, full of shifting perspectives and illusions and some really perceptive and evocative prose. I can recommend it if you like jazz, or even if you don’t.

Now this is a funny and wise book. The quips and cultural insights are ridiculously true. Especially about the X and Y generations. Professor Chandra himself is a true delight … I found myself asking, “So who IS this smart guy who wrote this fine book?” That’s when you know it’s a good’un. This book is smart, hilarious, and best of all … kindhearted. Yes, filled with an open hearted way of looking at the people we love and our struggles as well as struggles of our world and culture today.

I loved it. I am so glad her books have come into my life! What an observant author … What trust she places in us as she unfolds her stories. She refuses to bend to the expectation of a happy ending. I fear I am running out of To-Be-Read Fitzgeralds … This is most alarming in a sense because I will run out of new Fitzgeralds, but I am relieved when I think that I can go always go back and reread them all.

Doris Lessing refuses a publisher request to insert a rape scene into The Grass Is Singing.

Matt Salinger talks to the New York Times about opening up his father’s archive to the public.

The fairy tale art of Arthur Rackham.

“Iris Origo might be the most self-effacing writer ever to gain renown as a diarist”: another fascinating entry in the Paris Review’s Feminize Your Canon series.

A Kansas bookseller writes an open letter asking Jeff Bezos to level the playing field.

Continue reading…

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How to Know Which Parts of Your Story Readers Will Like Best (It Isn’t Always What You Think)

You want readers to like your story. You want to give them something to love on every single page. But it’s so much easier said than done. How can you know—really know—which parts of your story readers will like and which will have them yawning and skipping ahead?

So many stories, in all mediums, hit the market with blazing optimism from their creators. Audiences are going to love this! We’ve checked all the boxes!! We’re so excited to share something we’re so sure is going to make you so happy!!!

The optimism isn’t always well-founded. Just watch behind-the-scenes interviews on would-be blockbusters, which were intended as the first in a series only to fall flat at the box office and never be heard from again. Beforehand, directors, producers, and actors might have gushed about how certain they were audiences would geek out over their choices for the film—only to have their enthusiasm met with a big green splat on Rotten Tomatoes. Clearly, they misjudged those parts of the story they thought audiences would particularly like.

Novels don’t usually dive-bomb so obviously or spectacularly, but I can certainly think of a few sequels that failed to live up to their glorious predecessors. Mostly, this is because the authors made clunker decisions that, pretty obviously, were intended to be just the opposite.

So what are you to do? Maybe throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and hope enough sticks to keep readers happy? Or maybe just write the blithering book to the best of your ability and hope it all works out for the best?

Naturally, the latter option is the way to go. But it doesn’t have to be a blind path into the unknown. There are ways to figure out which parts of a story are mostly likely to entertain readers and which are not. And the key words here are “most likely,” because if there’s one thing you can be sure of in this business, it’s that art is subjective.

6 Ways to Figure Out Which Parts of Your Story Readers Will Like Best

Subconsciously, readers are going to judge every single one of your scenes and file each in one of three categories:

  • Entertaining
  • Tolerable
  • Boring

Very few stories manage the brilliance necessary to land every single scene in the Entertaining Category. The good news is that you can still create a story readers like even with a handful of Tolerable scenes and maybe even a (very) small percentage of Boring scenes.

The bad news is that the higher your Tolerable count rises, the more the book as a whole will lean toward Boring. Even if readers finish it, they’re not likely to remember it. And, of course, if the count on the Boring scenes crosses a certain invisible threshold (which is a little different for every reader or viewer), the story is bye-bye.

You can perform a rather sobering exercise by listing all your scenes and ruthlessly judging which falls into which category. Every scene that ends up in the Tolerable or Boring Categories needs some help.

And how do you help them? Here are six ways to judge whether a scene contains the stuff readers love—or the stuff they actually don’t.

1. The Best Part of Your Story Is… Your Characters

So I admit this post is kinda inspired by Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, which left me pretty meh. It’s not exactly a fair example, since the film is exactly what it’s intended to be. But for my money it could have been a lot better. It just needed more of its characters—especially it’s most interesting characters.

Elle was fine, Pfeiffer showed admirable dental work in chewing through the scenery. But is this Maleficent’s show or not? Like so many stories these days, the protagonist appeared in a scant percentage of the actual running time. (I find it a little ironic that in a film supposed to be about the original villain of the Sleeping Beauty story, most of the story and screentime went to the new villain.) The only scenes in the movie I would chuck squarely into the Entertaining bucket were the few moments early on when Maleficent’s sidekick coached her in smiling and then later when Maleficent grudgingly tried to charm the future in-laws. After that… not too much interesting character work going on.

The movie falls into one of the most common pitfalls I see in stories that try really hard to be Entertaining without quite making it: it splits up it’s most interesting characters. For roughly 60% of the story, Maleficent doesn’t interact with any characters except the Dark Fey—whom she mostly just observes. When [SPOILER] the guy she did talk to dies, however crucially, the relationship feels barely developed, almost meaningless, especially in comparison to the preexisting characters back home with whom she could have interacted with so much more entertainment value. [END SPOILER]

This is the single most important trick for genuinely entertaining readers.

1.  You have to write great characters—people with whom the audience will emotionally invest and who will then act with genuine spontaneity and organic energy.

2. You’ve got to put all your best characters in the same room. One awesome character monologuing to a bunch of redshirts (or, worse, musing in solitude) is never going to deliver the same amount of goods as two (or more!) awesome characters impacting each other’s plot progressions.

3. Don’t skimp on the character interaction just to squeeze in other stuff. Other stuff is important. But it is not—it is never—as important as character development.

2. The Best Part of Your Story Isn’t (Necessarily) Genre Beats

Usually, the stories that try really hard to please readers only to fail are those that place too much faith in the importance of genre beats.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Genre beats are important and can be wildly entertaining. Romance readers want the kiss. Superhero fans want the Big Boss battle in the end. Paying nothing but lip service to important genre tropes can make it seem as if you’re phoning in the entire story. But overdoing them, especially at the expense of developing other aspects of the story (*cough*characters*cough*), can create an ironically flat experience even for die-hard fans of the genre.

To my eye, there seems to be a lot of confusion about exactly what to do with genre beats these days. Writers know readers have seen certain beats so often, they’ve become clichéd. So they go meta on the clichés by pointing them out (but, don’t miss, still including them). A super-obvious example is calling out the villain monologue. The subversion of the trope felt fresh and funny when Syndrome did it back in 2004, but not so much anymore.

Truly, the only way to hit genre beats in a deeply satisfying and entertaining way is to go old-fashioned—do it how it was done in the very beginning, back before a particular beat ever became something so obvious as a beat, much less a trope. And what is this old-fashioned way? Write it organically into your story. Make it a crucial and emotionally-important part of the plot-character-theme trifecta. If you can’t be fresh (and, please, be fresh), then at least be so honest with your story that it hurts.

3. The Best Part of Your Story Is That Sweet Spot Between What Readers Have Seen Before and What They Haven’t

What are genre beats? For that matter, what’s plot structure and character arc? Although many writers initially see these beats as something to be arbitrarily added to a story (the “secret sauce,” if you will), these beats are instead an emergent of time-tested archetypal patterns. “Genre beats” are a thing not because readers “like” them, but because readers resonate with them.

Understanding story theory and studying the archetypal patterns in narrative will give you a foundation for writing a type of story that will reliably grab people’s hearts. But as any reader or viewer will immediately tell you, this does not mean they want to see the same thing over and over.

Genre fatigue happens when the same storyform is being told too often in the same way. In a romance, we want to see the leads end up together. But that doesn’t mean we want the 100th rendition of Marry Christmas: A Holiday Happily Ever After. People fall in love every day. It’s the same archetypal story. But to those involved in it, each story is brand new and deeply important—and deserves to be told with honesty and freshness. Hit your genre beats, but do it in a way that is integral to the story you’re trying to tell (a story no one’s ever told before, right?) and with the truth of your own unique experience.

4. The Best Part of Your Story Is (and Isn’t) What You Like Best

Until your story is out there for readers to irrevocably judge (aka, until it’s too late), the only person who can give you a line on whether your story has enough of the “good stuff” is… you.

You know you’re on the right track with any scene you emotionally or viscerally respond to. You know you’re on the right track if you’re writing the kind of scene you would get on your knees and beg your favorite author or director to make for you. (And, note, this doesn’t just mean ripping off the scenes you went nuts over in somebody else’s story.) What’s your favorite scene in your story so far? That scene might well be the most entertaining scene in your whole book (and if it’s not, it should be).

Be careful, however, to distinguish between the scenes you love because they hit you in the gut and the scenes you love just because you think they’re really, really, clever. If you’re realistically acknowledging that you skillfully executed a scene, that’s one thing. But if you’re geeking out because you’re just sure readers will bow to your genius, you might want to double-check your objectivity.

5. The Best Part of Your Story Isn’t the Part That Doesn’t Work

Spoiler alert: if the writing’s bad in any given scene, that’s probably not going to be the scene your readers fall in love with.

In short, as G.R.R. Martin has told us (in a way that seems kinda prescient now):

Ideas are cheap. I have more ideas now than I could ever write up. To my mind, it’s the execution that is all-important.

Funny characters, shiny plot beats, and original ideas won’t save a story that doesn’t come together holistically. Here’s a very short, very incomplete list of the mistakes that can blind readers to even your most entertaining scenes:

  • Plot holes (“It was fun, but… it made. no. sense.”)
  • Authorial condescension (“Yes, yes, the overdone symbolism and on-the-nose dialogue made the thematic message so much more powerful.”)
  • Authorial self-indulgence (“Ten chapters of worldbuilding. There must be a test at the end of the book. There’s a test, isn’t there?”)
  • Wasted time (“We get it. She’s training. Again.”)
  • Boring info (“Ah, my old friend—backstory info dump. What would we ever do without you?”)

6. The Best Part of Your Story Is the Foreshadowing

This one almost is a secret sauce. This is because foreshadowing is one of the most powerful tools in a writer’s bag for evoking emotion.

Yep, you heard right.

Foreshadowing, done right, can knock your book out of the park. And I guarantee you’ve got some missed opportunities waiting for you in your story right now. I say this because I see these missed opportunities all the time in published stories.

The key is to remember there are two halves to proper foreshadowing: the setup and the payoff.

It goes without saying that if you pique reader curiosity by setting up a big juicy clue early on, then you must pay that off later in the story. Otherwise, it’s one of those plot holes we took issue with in the previous section.

Most writers know this and are careful to payoff early clues. What is easier to overlook is the opportunity presented by any big event in your story’s second half—especially the Climax. And I do mean anything. Even the smallest reveal or plot turn deep in the story can be transformed into an emotionally resonant moment by planting a little foreshadowing early on (don’t believe me? go watch Endgame again).

Avengers Endgame Captain America Mjolnir

Examine every scene in the second half of your story and make a list of any and all revelations and plot turns. Can you create foreshadowing opportunities for at least some of these early on? Callbacks such as these create the effect of depth, meaning, and thematic resonance (plus, it makes it look like you really know what you’re doing). Skillful foreshadowing has the ability to take a Tolerable scene (even a Boring one, in a few cases) and transform it into an Entertaining and even unforgettable moment in your story.


Ultimately, the parts of your story readers will like best are probably the parts that made you want to write the story in the first place. Look for those scenes, figure out why they are so personally powerful to you, then leverage them for all they’re worth. Readers won’t be able to look away, and they’ll close your book happily wishing you’d given them more of everything rather than grumpily wishing you’d just given them more of the good stuff.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think are the parts of your story readers will like best? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

The post How to Know Which Parts of Your Story Readers Will Like Best (It Isn’t Always What You Think) appeared first on Helping Writers Become Authors.

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The Weighing

A well to the groundwater of our strength.

The Weighing

“All you have is what you are, and what you give,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in a philosophical novel contemplating suffering and getting to the other side of pain. “If equal affection cannot be / Let the more loving one be me,” W.H. Auden wrote in a philosophical poem contemplating the courage to love more, to give more, in the face of even the most heartbreaking and elemental disparity of passions.

Perhaps the deepest measure of our character, of our very humanity, is how much we go on giving when what we most value is taken from us — when a loved one withholds their love, when the world withdraws its mercy. That is what Jane Hirshfield — herself a rare poet with a philosopher’s eye to existence, and an ordained Buddhist — explores in her stunning poem “The Weighing,” originally published in 1994, later included in her soul-salving poetry collection The Beauty (public library), and read here by astrophysicist and poetic thinker Janna Levin:

by Jane Hirshfield

The heart’s reasons
seen clearly,
even the hardest
will carry
its whip-marks and sadness
and must be forgiven.

As the drought-starved
eland forgives
the drought-starved lion
who finally takes her,
enters willingly then
the life she cannot refuse,
and is lion, is fed,
and does not remember the other.

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.

For more of Hirshfield’s resuscitory poetics, savor her wisdom on creativity and her poems “Optimism” and “On the Fifth Day,” then revisit Janna Levin reading “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, “Hymn to Time” by Ursula K. Le Guin, and “The More Loving One” by W.H. Auden.

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


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13 Life-Learnings from 13 Years of Brain Pickings

More fluid reflections on keeping a solid center.

On October 23, 2006, Brain Pickings was born as a plain-text email to seven friends. It was then, and continues to be, a labor of love and ledger of curiosity, although the mind and heart from which it sprang have changed — have grown, I hope — tremendously. At the end of the first decade, I told its improbable origin story and drew from its evolution the ten most important things this all-consuming daily endeavor taught me about writing and living — largely notes to myself, perhaps best thought of as resolutions in reverse, that may or may not be useful to others.

Now, as Brain Pickings turns thirteen — the age at which, at least in the Germanic languages, childhood tips to adolescence; the age at which I first competed in the European Math Olympics; the legal marriage age in my homeland; the number of British colonies that germinated the United States; the number of moons revolving around Neptune; a handsome prime number — I feel compelled to add three more learnings from the past three years, which have been in some ways the most difficult and in some ways the most beautiful of my life; the years in which I made the things of which I am proudest: created The Universe in Verse, composed Figuring, and finally published, after eight years of labor, A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

With dad, year 0
With dad, year 0

Here are the initial ten learnings, as published in 2016, which I continue to stand and live by:

  1. Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.
  2. Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. As Paul Graham observed, “prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract from the things that do offer those deeper rewards.
  3. Be generous. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them.
  4. Build pockets of stillness into your life. Meditate. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming, even to boredom. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken. Most important, sleep. Besides being the greatest creative aphrodisiac, sleep also affects our every waking moment, dictates our social rhythm, and even mediates our negative moods. Be as religious and disciplined about your sleep as you are about your work. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of badge of honor that validates our work ethic. But what it really is is a profound failure of self-respect and of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your health and your sanity, from which all else springs?

  5. When people tell you who they are, Maya Angelou famously advised, believe them. Just as important, however, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.
  6. Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
  7. “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.” This is borrowed from the wise and wonderful Debbie Millman, for it’s hard to better capture something so fundamental yet so impatiently overlooked in our culture of immediacy. The myth of the overnight success is just that — a myth — as well as a reminder that our present definition of success needs serious retuning. As I’ve reflected elsewhere, the flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.
  8. Seek out what magnifies your spirit. Patti Smith, in discussing William Blake and her creative influences, talks about writers and artists who magnified her spirit — it’s a beautiful phrase and a beautiful notion. Who are the people, ideas, and books that magnify your spirit? Find them, hold on to them, and visit them often. Use them not only as a remedy once spiritual malaise has already infected your vitality but as a vaccine administered while you are healthy to protect your radiance.
  9. Don’t be afraid to be an idealist. There is much to be said for our responsibility as creators and consumers of that constant dynamic interaction we call culture — which side of the fault line between catering and creating are we to stand on? The commercial enterprise is conditioning us to believe that the road to success is paved with catering to existing demands — give the people cat GIFs, the narrative goes, because cat GIFs are what the people want. But E.B. White, one of our last great idealists, was eternally right when he asserted half a century ago that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down” — a role each of us is called to with increasing urgency, whatever cog we may be in the machinery of society. Supply creates its own demand. Only by consistently supplying it can we hope to increase the demand for the substantive over the superficial — in our individual lives and in the collective dream called culture.
  10. Don’t just resist cynicism — fight it actively. Fight it in yourself, for this ungainly beast lays dormant in each of us, and counter it in those you love and engage with, by modeling its opposite. Cynicism often masquerades as nobler faculties and dispositions, but is categorically inferior. Unlike that great Rilkean life-expanding doubt, it is a contracting force. Unlike critical thinking, that pillar of reason and necessary counterpart to hope, it is inherently uncreative, unconstructive, and spiritually corrosive. Life, like the universe itself, tolerates no stasis — in the absence of growth, decay usurps the order. Like all forms of destruction, cynicism is infinitely easier and lazier than construction. There is nothing more difficult yet more gratifying in our society than living with sincerity and acting from a place of largehearted, constructive, rational faith in the human spirit, continually bending toward growth and betterment. This remains the most potent antidote to cynicism. Today, especially, it is an act of courage and resistance.

And here are the three new additions, which refine some of the subtler ideas and ideals contemplated above:

  1. A reflection originally offered on the cusp of Year 11, by way of a wonderful poem about pi: Question your maps and models of the universe, both inner and outer, and continually test them against the raw input of reality. Our maps are still maps, approximating the landscape of truth from the territories of the knowable — incomplete representational models that always leave more to map, more to fathom, because the selfsame forces that made the universe also made the figuring instrument with which we try to comprehend it.
  2. Because Year 12 is the year in which I finished writing Figuring (though it emanates from my entire life), and because the sentiment, which appears in the prelude, is the guiding credo to which the rest of the book is a 576-page footnote, I will leave it as it stands: There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.
  3. In any bond of depth and significance, forgive, forgive, forgive. And then forgive again. The richest relationships are lifeboats, but they are also submarines that descend to the darkest and most disquieting places, to the unfathomed trenches of the soul where our deepest shames and foibles and vulnerabilities live, where we are less than we would like to be. Forgiveness is the alchemy by which the shame transforms into the honor and privilege of being invited into another’s darkness and having them witness your own with the undimmed light of love, of sympathy, of nonjudgmental understanding. Forgiveness is the engine of buoyancy that keeps the submarine rising again and again toward the light, so that it may become a lifeboat once more.

And since Brain Pickings is the public record of what I privately think and feel and worry and wonder about daily, here is a time machine of thought and feeling via thirteen of the pieces I have most enjoyed writing these past thirteen years:

  1. The More Loving One

  2. Big Wolf & Little Wolf: A Tender Tale of Loneliness, Belonging, and How Friendship Transforms Us

  3. How to Grow Old: Bertrand Russell on What Makes a Fulfilling Life

  4. The Difficult Art of Giving Space in Love: Rilke on Freedom, Togetherness, and the Secret to a Good Marriage

  5. Love, Lunacy, and a Life Fully Lived: Oliver Sacks, the Science of Seeing, and the Art of Being Seen

  6. Zadie Smith on Optimism and Despair

  7. Telling Is Listening: Ursula K. Le Guin on the Magic of Real Human Conversation

  8. The Writing of “Silent Spring”: Rachel Carson and the Culture-Shifting Courage to Speak Inconvenient Truth to Power

  9. Susan Sontag on Storytelling, What It Means to Be a Moral Human Being, and Her Advice to Writers

  10. Emily Dickinson’s Electric Love Letters to Susan Gilbert

  11. Patti Smith on Time, Transformation, and How the Radiance of Love Redeems the Rupture of Loss

  12. Salvation by Words: Iris Murdoch on Language as a Vehicle of Truth and Art as a Force of Resistance to Tyranny

  13. A Brave and Startling Truth: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Maya Angelou’s Stunning Humanist Poem That Flew to Space, Inspired by Carl Sagan

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President Supervillain: behind the alarmingly accurate Trump-Marvel mashup

The popular Twitter account, which puts Trump speeches into the mouth of Red Skull, is so convincing that the creator had to clarify that the president isn’t quoting the supervillain

The presidency of Donald Trump has inspired countless standup comedy routines, nudes, poetry – and now, comic book dialogue. The President Supervillain Twitter account takes quotes from the speeches, letters and tweets of the US president and photoshops them into the mouth of Red Skull, the Marvel archenemy of Captain America. Trump and Red Skull are an alarmingly good match, whether the Red Skull is screeching Trump’s fury at Turkey (“I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done it before!)”) or tying down Bucky Barnes alongside the Trump quote: “I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”

Trump’s language is self-aggrandising to the point of megalomania

Related: Art Spiegelman: golden age superheroes were shaped by the rise of fascism

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Struggling with The Golden Notebook? The hard work is worth it

For every moment of high drama, there are also sections of intense tedium. But Doris Lessing’s masterpiece delivers a big payoff

In my edition of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, the text that forms the titular volume arrives on page 531. These climactic thoughts, supposedly recorded by the novel’s central character, Anna Wulf, take up only 26 pages. That’s not to say Lessing’s title is a misnomer. The story builds towards these 26 pages and finds a kind of resolution within them.

Lessing’s decision to divide her novel into many sections is crucial to the book’s power. She very deliberately split her novel across different aspects of Anna’s personal story and her fractured psychology. The result still seems unique in fiction – it makes for a strange, troubling and difficult reading experience.

Related: Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook is our Reading group book for October

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An Occasion for Unselfing: Iris Murdoch on Imperfection as Integral to Goodness and How the Beauty of Nature and Art Leavens Our Most Unselfish Impulses

“The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself… to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.”

An Occasion for Unselfing: Iris Murdoch on Imperfection as Integral to Goodness and How the Beauty of Nature and Art Leavens Our Most Unselfish Impulses

To recognize that there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives is to step outside the self, beyond its particular conceptions of beauty — which includes, of course, moral beauty — and walking beside it with humble, nonjudgmental curiosity about the myriad other selves afoot on their own paths, propelled by their own ideals of the Good.

Such recognition requires what the great moral philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) termed unselfing — a difficult, triumphant act for which, Murdoch argues in her 1970 masterpiece The Sovereignty of Good (public library), nature and art uniquely train us.

Dame Iris Murdoch by Ida Kar (National Portrait Gallery)

A century and a half after Emerson observed that “the question of Beauty takes us out of surfaces, to thinking of the foundations of things,” Murdoch defines what we commonly call beauty as “an occasion for ‘unselfing’” — an occasion most readily experienced in our communion with nature and our contemplation of art. She writes:

Beauty is the convenient and traditional name of something which art and nature share, and which gives a fairly clear sense to the idea of quality of experience and change of consciousness. I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. And of course this is something which we may also do deliberately: give attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care.

Art from Trees at Night, 1926. (Available as a print.)

Oliver Sacks would come to echo the sentiment decades later in his observation that meeting nature on its own terms and timescales broadens our perspective by effecting “a detachment from the timescale, the urgencies, of daily life.” But this unselfing, Murdoch cautions, cannot come by through a straining of the will, for the will is a clenching of the very self which true beauty decondition; rather, it comes as a gladsome relaxing of the spirit, of our essential nature, into the shared pulse of existence:

A self-directed enjoyment of nature seems to me to be something forced. More naturally, as well as more properly, we take a self-forgetful pleasure in the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones and trees.

Art by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1926 edition of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. (Available as a print.)

This “self-forgetful pleasure” calls to mind Jeanette Winterson’s wonderfully paradoxical notion of active surrender as the crucible of our joy in art and the fulcrum for art’s transforms power over the self. But while there is a distinct difference between how nature and art each effect unselfing, Murdoch argues that what separates great art from the bad and the mediocre is precisely this capacity for stripping down the self rather than inflating the ego — a notion evocative of Tolstoy’s insistence that “a real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist.” Murdoch writes of this dissolution of the self in the presence of great art:

The experience of art is more easily degraded than the experience of nature. A great deal of art, perhaps most art, actually is self-consoling fantasy, and even great art cannot guarantee the quality of its consumer’s consciousness. However, great art exists and is sometimes properly experienced and even a shallow experience of what is great can have its effect. Art, and by “art” from now on I mean good art, not fantasy art, affords us a pure delight in the independent existence of what is excellent. Both in its genesis and its enjoyment it is a thing totally opposed to selfish obsession. It invigorates our best faculties and, to use Platonic language, inspires love in the highest part of the soul. It is able to do this partly by virtue of something which it shares with nature: a perfection of form which invites unpossessive contemplation and resists absorption into the selfish dream life of the consciousness.

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse: The Astronomy of Walt Whitman. (Available as a print.)

And yet, Murdoch argues, any real understanding of goodness is necessarily an embrace of imperfection — something philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in many ways Murdoch’s only worthy intellectual heir, would argue brilliantly a generation later in her incisive case for the intelligence of emotions. Murdoch writes:

The concept of Good… is a concept which is not easy to understand partly because it has so many false doubles, jumped-up intermediaries invented by human selfishness to make the difficult task of virtue look easier and more attractive: History, God, Lucifer, Ideas of power, freedom, purpose, reward, even judgment are irrelevant. Mystics of all kinds have usually known this and have attempted by extremities of language to portray the nakedness and aloneness of Good, its absolute for-nothingness. One might say that true morality is a sort of unesoteric mysticism, having its source in an austere and unconsoled love of the Good. When Plato wants to explain Good he uses the image of the sun. The moral pilgrim emerges from the cave and begins to see the real world in the light of the sun, and last of all is able to look at the sun itself.


We may also speak seriously of ordinary things, people, works of art, as being good, although we are also well aware of their imperfections. Good lives as it were on both sides of the barrier and we can combine the aspiration to complete goodness with a realistic sense of achievement within our limitations.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

With an eye to the legacy of the Romantics, who married nature and art in their model of happiness and transcendence, Murdoch returns to the notion of unselfing and the beautiful tessellation of possibility and limitation that defines our nature:

The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself, to see and to respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness. This is the non-metaphysical meaning of the idea of transcendence to which philosophers have so constantly resorted in their explanations of goodness. “Good is a transcendent reality” means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is. It is an empirical fact about human nature that this attempt cannot be entirely successful.

The Sovereignty of Good is an immensely insightful read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Robinson Jeffers on nature and moral beauty and Oliver Sacks on the healing power of gardens, then revisit Murdoch on art as a force of resistance to tyranny, the key to great storytelling, and her uncommonly beautiful love letters.

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Ursula K. Le Guin’s Playful and Profound Letter-Poem to Children About the Power of Books and Why We Read

“…for every book contains a world.”

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Playful and Profound Letter-Poem to Children About the Power of Books and Why We Read

When asked in the Proust Questionnaire about his idea of perfect happiness, David Bowie answered simply: “Reading.” But the question of why we read unlatches as many responses as there are flavors of human happiness. Some memorable and poetic answers have come from Hermann Hesse, Rebecca Solnit, Neil Gaiman, C.S. Lewis, and Proust himself.

A thoroughly original and most delightful one comes from the irreplaceable Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) in her contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — which, as far as I am aware, was her last published piece of original writing at the time the book alighted on the world.

Written in verse, in the voice of an aged dragon — “second cousin once removed” of Smaug, Tolkien’s iconic antagonist from The Hobbit — and illustrated by her longtime friend and collaborator Charles Vess, the letter-poem emanates Le Guin’s signature warm wisdom, syncopating the playful and the profound.

Original art by Charles Vess for Ursula K. Le Guin’s contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Zoe Bedrick.

Dear Reader,

Most dragons don’t know how to read. They hiss and fume and guard their hoard. A tasty knight is what they need
For dinner (they spit out the sword),
Then go to sleep on heaps of treasure. They’ve no use for the written word.
But I learned early to take pleasure
In reading tales and poetry,
And soon I knew that I preferred
Reading a book to fighting knights.
I lived on apple pie and tea,
Which a kind lady made for me,
And all my days and half my nights
Were spent in reading story-books,
A life more thrilling than it looks.
Now that I’m old and cannot see
To read, the lady’s youngest child
Comes every day to read to me,
A cheerful child named Valentine.
We’re both as happy as can be
Among the treasures I have piled
In heaps around my apple tree.
No other dragon watches curled
Around such riches as are mine,
My Word-hoard, my dear Library:
For every book contains a world!

       Yours truly,
       Bedraug (Smaug’s Second Cousin Once Removed)

For more tastes of A Velocity of Being — a labor of love eight years in the making, with all proceeds benefiting our local public library system (lest we forget, Le Guin herself passionately championed the sacredness of public libraries) — savor select letters by Alain de Botton, Jacqueline Woodson, and Jane Goodall, then revisit Le Guin on literature as the operating instructions for life, writing as falling in love, the power of storytelling to transform and redeem, and her timeless hymn to time.

donating = loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most unmissable reads. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

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