The Marginalian Newsletter


This is the weekly email digest of The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings) by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s edition — artist and philosopher Rockwell Kent on wilderness, solitude, and creativity; David Byrne reads a poem of cosmic perspective; John Lennon on the satisfying torture of making something good — you can catch up right here. And if my labor of love enriches your life in any way, please consider supporting it with a donation — for more than fifteen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive (as have I) thanks to reader patronage. If you already donate: I appreciate you more than you know.

The Flower and the Meaning of Life

“To be a flower,” Emily Dickinson wrote in her pre-ecological poem about ecology, “is profound Responsibility.”

A century later, in one of the most poetic and existentially ravishing children’s* books of all time, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry made his hero’s central preoccupation the responsibility for a single flower — the Little Prince’s beloved rose: fragile and self-concerned, ferociously hungry for love, capable of such tenderness and such cruelty, so ephemeral and so stubborn, so much a miniature of the contradictory animating forces that make us human.

Art by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry from the original 1943 edition of The Little Prince.

In the following century, as all stores in Los Angeles were forced to close at the mortal peak of a global pandemic, my photographer friend Elena Dorfman made her way to the city’s last open flower market, gathered dozens of flowers, and began documenting their slow entropic unblossoming as the days unspooled into weeks — photographs that became an arresting metaphor for a mortal world suddenly fathoming its fragility and resilience in a new way, suddenly awake to the profound responsibility of staying alive.

Elena Dorfman. Flores Vitae / Flores Mortes. 2020.

For as long as humans have been alive and awake to our bittersweet cosmic inheritance as transient constellations of atoms capable of transcendent beauty, we have found in flowers models of moral wisdom, emblems of freedom, nonbinary pioneers, portals to paying attention. Over the epochs of time and thought, flowers have rivaled trees as mirrors for the meaning of our human lives.

Honeysuckle by Rebecca Hey from The Moral of Flowers, 1833. (Available as a print.)

That is what Michael Pollan explores in some lovely passages from The Botany of Desire (public library) — the modern classic that gave us the radical roots of the flying-witch legend and the story of how a virus made the world’s most prized flower.

In consonance with Borges’s conviction that time is the substance we are made of, Pollan considers time as the tendril by which flowers exert their existential pull on us:

Our experience of flowers is so deeply drenched in our sense of time. Maybe there’s a good reason we find their fleetingness so piercing, can scarcely look at a flower in bloom without thinking ahead, whether in hope or regret. We might share with certain insects a tropism inclining us toward flowers, but presumably insects can look at a blossom without entertaining thoughts of the past and future — complicated human thoughts that may once have been anything but idle. Flowers have always had important things to teach us about time.

Specimens from the teenage Emily Dickinson’s herbarium.

Time, of course, is itself a creature of paradoxes — at once the relentless forward momentum of our mortality and the greatest antidote to the anxiety of aliveness. “When you realize you are mortal you also realize the tremendousness of the future,” wrote the poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan in her gorgeous meditation on impermanence and transcendence. “You fall in love with a Time you will never perceive.”

It may be, Pollan intimates, that flowers betoken precisely this elemental duality and through it cast their enchantment upon us. After contouring their astonishing evolutionary history — so astonishing that the baffled Darwin called it “an abominable mystery” — he writes:

Look into a flower, and what do you see? Into the very heart of nature’s double nature — that is, the contending energies of creation and dissolution, the spiring toward complex form and the tidal pull away from it. Apollo and Dionysus were names the Greeks gave to these two faces of nature, and nowhere in nature is their contest as plain or as poignant as it is in the beauty of a flower and its rapid passing. There, the achievement of order against all odds and its blithe abandonment. There, the perfection of art and the blind flux of nature. There, somehow, both transcendence and necessity. Could that be it — right there, in a flower — the meaning of life?

Art by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry from The Little Prince, 1943.

Complement with Rachel Carson on the ocean as a lens on the meaning of life and Rebecca Solnit on trees and the shape of time — for any fragment of nature contemplated closely and sensitively enough becomes a lens on human nature and our search for meaning, as Rockwell Kent so keenly felt amid the wild Alaskan solitude, observing that nature is “a kind of living mirror that gives back as its own all and only all that the imagination… brings to it.”

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Let There Always Be Light: Dark Matter and the Mystery of Our Mortal Stardust (Patti Smith Reads Rebecca Elson)

This is the fourth of nine installments in the 2021/2022 animated season of The Universe in Verse in collaboration with On Being, celebrating the wonder of reality through stories of science winged with poetry. Previously: Chapter 1 (the evolution of life and the birth of ecology, with Joan As Police Woman and Emily Dickinson); Chapter 2 (Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and the human hunger to know the cosmos, with Tracy K. Smith); Chapter 3 (trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell and the poetry of the cosmic perspective, with David Byrne and Pattiann Rogers).

THE ANIMATED UNIVERSE IN VERSE: CHAPTER FOUR

Months before Edwin Hubble finally published his epoch-making revelation about Andromeda, staggering the world with the fact that the universe extends beyond our Milky Way galaxy, a child was born under the star-salted skies of Washington, D.C., where the Milky Way was still visible before a century’s smog slipped between us and the cosmos — a child who would grow up to confirm the existence of dark matter, that invisible cosmic glue holding galaxies together and pinning planets to their orbits so that, on at least one of them, small awestruck creatures with vast complex consciousnesses can unravel the mysteries of the universe.

Night after night, Vera Rubin (July 23, 1928–December 25, 2016) peered out of her childhood bedroom and into the stars, wondersmitten with the beauty of it all — until she read a children’s book about the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, who had expanded the universe of possibility for half of our species a century earlier. The young Vera was suddenly seized with a life-altering realization: Not only was there such a thing as a professional stargazer, but it was a thing a girl could do.

Vera Rubin as an undergraduate at Vassar, 1940s

In 1965 — exactly one hundred years after Maria Mitchell was appointed the first professor of astronomy at Vassar, which Vera Rubin had chosen as her training ground in astronomy — she became the first woman permitted to use the Palomar Observatory. Peering through its colossal eye — the telescope, devised the year Rubin was born, had replaced the one through which Hubble made his discovery as the world’s most powerful astronomical instrument — she was just as wondersmitten as the little girl peering through the bedroom window, just as beguiled by the beauty of the cosmos. “I sometimes ask myself whether I would be studying galaxies if they were ugly,” she reflected in her most personal interview. “I think it may not be irrelevant that galaxies are really very attractive.”

Galaxies had taken Rubin to Palomar, and galaxies — the riddle of their rotation, which she had endeavored to solve — became the key to her epochal confirmation of dark matter. One of the most mesmerizing unsolved puzzles in astronomy, dark matter had remained only an enticing speculation since the Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky had first theorized it when Vera was five.

A generation later, a small clan of astronomers at Cambridge analyzed the deepest image of space the Hubble Space Telescope had yet captured — that iconic glimpse of the unknown, revealing a universe “so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back” — to discern the origin of the mysterious dark matter halo enveloping the Milky Way. Spearheading the endeavor was an extraordinary young astronomer back to work during a remission of a rare terminal blood cancer ordinarily afflicting the elderly.

Rebecca Elson, 1987

Nursed on geology and paleontology on the shores of a prehistoric lake, Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999) was barely sixteen and already in college when she first glimpsed Andromeda through a telescope. Instantly dazzled by its “delicate wisp of milky spiral light floating in what seemed a bottomless well of empty space,” she became a scientist but never relinquished the pull of the poetic dimensions of reality. During her postdoctoral work at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, Elson found refuge from the narrow patriarchy of academic science in a gathering of poets every Tuesday evening. She became a fellow at a Radcliffe-Harvard institute for postgraduate researchers devoted to reversing “the climate of non-expectation for women,” among the alumnae of which are Anne Sexton, Alice Walker, and Anna Deavere Smith. There, in a weekly writing group, she met and befriended the poet Marie Howe, whose splendid “Singularity” became the inspiration for this animated season of The Universe in Verse.

It was then — twenty-nine and newly elected the youngest astronomer in history to serve on the Decennial Review committee steering the course of American science toward the most compelling unsolved questions — that Elson received her terminal diagnosis.

Throughout the bodily brutality of her cancer treatment, she filled notebooks with poetic questions and experiments in verse, bridging with uncommon beauty the creaturely and the cosmic — those eternal mysteries of our mortal matter that make it impossible for a consciousness born of dead stars to fathom its own nonexistence.

Rebecca Elson lived with the mystery for another decade, never losing her keen awareness that we are matter capable of wonder, never ceasing to channel it in poetry. When she returned her borrowed stardust to the universe, a spring shy of her fortieth birthday, she left behind nearly sixty scientific papers and a single, splendid book of poems titled A Responsibility to Awe (public library) — among them the staggering “Theories of Everything” (read by Regina Spektor at the 2019 Universe in Verse) and “Antidotes to Fear of Death (read by Janna Levin at the 2020 Universe in Verse).

Permeating Elson’s poetic meditations, the mystery of dark matter culminates in one particular poem exploring with uncommon loveliness what may be the most touching paradox of being human — our longing for the light of immortality as creatures of matter in a cosmos governed by the dark sublime of dissolution.

Bringing Elson’s masterpiece to life for this series is Patti Smith (who read Emily Dickinson’s pre-atomic ode to particle physics at the 2020 Universe in Verse), with animation by Ohara Hale (who animated Emily Dickinson’s pre-ecological poem about ecology in Chapter One of this experimental season of The Universe in Verse) and music by Zoë Keating (who read Rita Dove’s paleontological poem at the 2018 Universe in Verse).

LET THERE ALWAYS BE LIGHT (SEARCHING FOR DARK MATTER)by Rebecca Elson

For this we go out dark nights, searchingFor the dimmest stars,For signs of unseen things:

To weigh us down.To stop the universeFrom rushing on and onInto its own beyondTill it exhausts itself and lies down cold,Its last star going out.

Whatever they turn out to be,Let there be swarms of them,Enough for immortality,Always a star where we can warm ourselves.

Let there be enough to bring it backFrom its own edges,To bring us all so close we igniteThe bright spark of resurrection.

Previously on The Universe in Verse: Chapter 1 (the evolution of life and the birth of ecology, with Joan As Police Woman and Emily Dickinson); Chapter 2 (Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and the human hunger to know the cosmos, with Tracy K. Smith); Chapter 3 (trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell and the poetry of the cosmic perspective, with David Byrne and Pattiann Rogers).

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Aloneness, Belonging, and the Paradox of Vulnerability, in Love and Creative Work

If we are not at least a little abashed by the people we used to be, the voyage of life has halted in the windless bay of complacency. This renders the interview a curious cultural artifact by design — a consensual homily of future abashment, etching into the common record who we were at a particular point in life, in a particular state of being, with all the temporary totality of thoughts and feelings that we so often mistake for final destinations of personhood. An interview petrifies us in time, then lives on forever, the thoughts of bygone selves quoted back to us across the eons of our personal evolution — a strange and discomposing taxidermy diorama of life that is no longer living.

But a great interview does something else, too. A great touches the nucleus of being and potential, untouched by the forces of time and change.

One January afternoon several selves ago, I entered the corrugated black walls of a snug recording studio at the School of Visual Arts to sit at a microphone across from a woman dressed entirely and impeccably in black — a woman all stranger, all sunshine. I didn’t expect that, over the next hour, the warmth of her generous curiosity and her sensitive attention would melt away my ordinary reticence about discussing the life beneath the work. I didn’t expect that, over the next decade, we would become creative kindred spirits, then friends, then longtime romantic partners, and finally dear lifelong friends and frequent collaborators.

Debbie Millman with Amanda Palmer at the Design Matters studio, 2016.

Over the years, I have witnessed Debbie interview a kaleidoscope of visionaries — artists, writers, designers, scientists, musicians, philosophers, poets. Every time, guests leave the studio with that distinctive glow of feeling deeply understood and appreciated, a little bit more in touch with ourselves beyond our selves, reminded of who and what we are in the hull of our being, in that place from which we make everything we make as we go on making ourselves. In the nearly two decades since the birth of Design Matters — born in that primordial epoch before podcasts, when Debbie actually had to pay for the radio waves transmitting these conversations — she has interviewed more than 450 creative people about the arc of their lives. Roxane Gay — once her interview subject, now her wife — describes the resulting totality as “a gloriously interesting and ongoing conversation about what it means to live well, overcome trauma, face rejection, learn to love and be loved, and thrive both personally and professionally.”

The best parts of the best interviews from this immense body of work are now gathered in Why Design Matters: Conversations with the World’s Most Creative People (public library). Pulsating through them are a handful of common themes — the elementary particles of which any creative life, any life of passion and purpose, any fully human life is built — none looming larger than the relationship between vulnerability and belonging, which constellates our entire cosmos of being: what we make, how we love, why we long for the things we long for, in love and in work.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Rippling the surface of the creative ego is the most visible type of vulnerability, inescapable for anyone who makes what they make with the whole of their being: the self-doubt that seems to always accompany any wholehearted ambition. Artist Maira Kalman captures the nuances with endearingly unselfconscious candor:

I’m constantly tormented. I think that’s the nature of creating anything — that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t have doubts. There is the duality that you have tremendous insecurity and a tremendous drive.

But insecurity is, in some deeper sense, the opposite of vulnerability. V-Day founder and Vagina Monologues creator V looks back on her brush with death — which jolted her from a lifetime of trying to render herself invulnerable behind the armor of achievement and awakened her to a creaturely belonging with all of life — and reflects:

When I woke up from that surgery… I had tubes coming out of every part of my body. I had bags. I was hooked up to machines. I had a scar down my entire torso, but it was the first time in my life that I was a body, that it was fully a body. When you sit in a room and the doctor looks over at you and tells you the odds aren’t good, you die in that moment. There is a death that happens in your body. Then what begins to happen is you realize how much you want to be alive, and how beautiful life is, and how you want to actually live in your body and live fully in your life force.

[…]

That tough veneer doesn’t let us feel our fear. It’s an invulnerability, even though underneath it we’re horribly vulnerable. Now, what I feel is that I’m vulnerable. We’re all vulnerable. We’re human beings on this planet Earth. We have no idea what we’re doing here. The greatest joy is living in that vulnerability. Which is different from insecurity.

Art by Rockwell Kent, 1919. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

There beneath the surface waves of insecurity, in the deepest undercurrents of the soul, dwells our most elemental vulnerability. Brené Brown has made it her life’s work to dive into and study those depths. She tells Debbie:

Vulnerability at its heart is the willingness to show up and be seen when you can’t control perception.

[…]

The one thing that we all have in common is… the paradox of vulnerability: that when I meet you, the very first thing I look for in you is vulnerability, and the very last thing I want to show you is my vulnerability.

We try to control perception by simulating invulnerability from behind various masks and armors. Among those most prevalent and pernicious in our culture is the broadcasting of busyness — this compulsion to signal that our valuable time is highly valued by others, that our presence and attention are in high demand, that how much we matter to the world exceeds the atoms of time at our disposal. (Autoresponders, particularly among creative people with no boss or client, are an especially unfortunate manifestation of this — rather than making the implicit and humane assumption that our response times are a natural function of their load and priorities, and therefore the best we can do no matter how long or short, an autoresponder makes a performative martyrdom of our own choices about how we are prioritizing our time and creative energies.)

With her usual sympathetic intellect, Brown captures the tender humanity beneath these maladaptive self-importances:

Exhaustion is a status symbol because we desperately want to be seen, we desperately want to belong. We want to believe we’re lovable. In the absence of connection, there is always suffering, so we want to feel connected.

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

The paradox of vulnerability, with its underlying longing for connection, comes most fully and ferociously alive in the sea of love. Alain de Botton, who has written about the subject with such uncommon sympathy and sensitivity over the arc of his own creative life, unravels the paradox in his conversation with Debbie:

There’s a real tension in love — at the beginning of love, particularly — between the desire to be honest about who one is and the desire to win the affection of another person. Of course, ideally, we can both be honest and loved for being honest. That’s the dream.

But the dream is too often dampened by our sense that we are too imperfect for the total acceptance we imagine love to be. We instead turn to safer counterfeits of love that allow us to dream a perfect dream, channeling the paradox of vulnerability into the paradox of the crush. De Botton observes:

There is often a desire to escape oneself in love. It’s not so much that one wants to be welcomed by another person. It’s that one wants to forget oneself and immerse in the perfection of another… We have this enormous capacity to locate perfection elsewhere, and this is what the crush is all about… The crush is the instantaneous certainty of the location of the ideal, and there’s an awful lot of projection and deception — self-deception — in it… The more information you know, the more you’re forced to realize that actually they are an independent person outside of your fantasy… The less information there is, the more our unconscious can hold onto this rather peculiar piece of emotional trapeze work.

We reach for such counterfeits of love because the terror of real love often feels too great to bear — the terror of being known and cast out of love, which is a miniature of the ultimate terror, the ultimate vulnerability we are born into: being cast out of life. This is why, wherever real love exists, the terror of its loss is the most fearsome of terror — and why the fact of its loss, when it comes, can feel unsurvivable. A generation after Mary Gaitskill offered her splendid advice on how to live through the death of a parent, Saeed Jones reflects on this in the context of his mother’s death:

The finality of death with one of the people who made you is such an overwhelming and fluid and evolving revelation… It’s a proof of love… Love is almost like gasoline reserves in your body, and you don’t know how much is there until it’s all burned out.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print.)

No one has better captured this notion of death as a lens on love — and a reamer for widening our definition of love — than poet Elizabeth Alexander. Reflecting on the sudden death of the love of her life — the subject of her stunning memoir The Light of the World — and how the experience fomented the vision of love in her now-iconic inauguration poem — “love beyond marital, filial, national, / love that casts a widening pool of light, / love with no need to pre-empt grievance” — she tells Debbie:

While I am a great believer in intimacy between two people, between lovers and spouses, with your children, I also believe… that we cannot only belong to our romantic units… If people in heterosexual nuclear families think that it’s all about them and their shimmering perfection in their homes and that their love can stay there, they are mistaken. You have to belong to more, and then hopefully — this is not why you do it — the village will have your back when you need the village, which we all will at some point.

Art from Year of the Whale, 1949.

Indeed, if the paradox of vulnerability has a solution, this might be the most reliable clue to it — this inquisitive insistence that our deepest sense of connection and belonging is found beyond the simple units of romantic love, beyond the likes and the other superficialities of affirmation, beyond the sham of busyness and performative achievement.

Brené Brown considers this with an eye to another visionary’s koan of a statement to another great interviewer in another era — Maya Angelou’s 1973 conversation with Bill Moyers, whom she told that “you only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.” Brown tells Debbie:

True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in, and belonging to, yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require that you change who you are. It requires that you be who you are.

[…]

We’re in… a spiritual crisis of disconnection. I define spirituality as the belief that we’re inextricably connected to each other by something bigger than us. Some people call that bigger thing God. Some people call it fishing. Some people call it art. Spirituality is no more, no less, than the belief that we’re connected to each other in a way that’s unbreakable. You cannot break the connection between human beings, but you can forget it. We have forgotten that inextricable connection between human beings.

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

And yet our capacity for true connection and intimacy with others springs from our capacity for solitude, for intimacy with ourselves — for, as the poet May Sarton wrote in her exquisite ode to solitude, “there is no place more intimate than the spirit alone.” A century after Rilke contemplated the relationship between solitude and creativity, observing that “there is only one solitude, and it is large and not easy to bear,” and that “people are drawn to the easy and to the easiest side of the easy [but] we must hold ourselves to the difficult,” Brown adds:

People are afraid to be alone because they don’t belong to themselves. True belonging is not just about being a part of something but also having the courage to stand alone when you’re called to stand alone: when the joke’s not funny; when you don’t believe in something; when you have a different opinion; when you’re at family dinner and people are saying things that you actually find hurtful. When you’re called to stand alone and you can’t, then true belonging is very elusive. Your level of belonging will never exceed the level of courage you have to stand alone.