The decades-old classic is suddenly the ultimate pandemic poem, Jeanette WInterson on how storytelling transforms us, a love story of science

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Brain Pickings

Welcome Hello karl! This is the weekly email digest of the daily online journal Brain Pickings by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition — Confucius on the 6 steps to good government and happiness, an animated poem celebrating our connection to nature and to each other, and an illustrated celebration of how Edwin Hubble revolutionized our understanding of the universe and our place in it — you can catch up right here. And if you missed the annual review of the best of Brain Pickings 2020, that is here. If my labor of love enriches your life in any way, please consider supporting it with a donation – for fourteen years, I have spent tens of thousands of hours, made many personal sacrifices, and invested tremendous resources in Brain Pickings, which remains free and ad-free and alive thanks to reader patronage. If you already donate: THANK YOU.

Mass, Energy, and How Literature Transforms the Dead Weight of Being: Jeanette Winterson on Why We Read

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"A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us," Kafka wrote to his childhood friend just as he was setting out on a life of making and honing axes of words. I have always been struck by his metaphor — by both the exquisite truth of its tenor and the awful violence of its vehicle. A good book is indeed a profound transformation and, yes, there can be a violence to how it awakens us from the trance of near-life, but it is often a transformation of great subtlety and tenderness — an act of healing, a self-salvation, a self-creation. "Books and stories are medicine, plaster casts for broken lives and hearts, slings for weakened spirits," Anne Lamott wrote in her lovely letter to children a century after Kafka. As a child, Jane Goodall read herself into her unexampled life. As a girl cusping on adulthood, Helen Fagin read herself alive through the Holocaust.

We read for countless reasons and books transform us in countless ways, reckoned and unreckoned. We read the way we love — with our whole selves, with the flickering constellation of values, longings, traumas, joys, hopes, despairs, formative experiences, and half-remembered impressions composing the self. We read with our whole being, but we also read ourselves into being as each book quietly reconfigures the constellation with its cosmogony of ideas and the emotional voyage on which it takes us, so that we emerge from it a different self. That, too, is how love transforms us.

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Art by Ofra Amit from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print, benefiting The New York Public Library.

Jeanette Winterson — one of the finest writers and thinkers of our time, a maker of axes and lifelines welded and woven of words — takes up the subject of why we read, a subject on which a reader is tempted to think nothing novel could be said, with uncommon splendor of insight in the introduction to the Audible edition of her 1985 classic Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (public library).

Winterson begins where books begin — in the life and mind of the author, a fact so basic we have grown blind to its magic: How is it that a single person's experience can become raw material for something that speaks to generations of strangers, something that shapes selves radically different from the author's and from each other's? She considers what it takes to write from a deeply personal place in a way that bridges the abyssal divide between consciousnesses:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThe trick is to turn your own life into something that has meaning for people whose experience is nothing like your own. Write what you know is reasonable advice. Read what you don't know is better advice.

The unknown in life — the unknown in ourselves, the unknowns of the world — is always a double-edged sword of thrill and terror. The unknown in literature, Winterson observes in consonance with the central fact of life — the fact that we are always figuring ourselves forward in an uncertain universe — becomes a safe vessel from which to explore the uncharted territories of our knowledge and our self-knowledge:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngReading is an adventure. Adventures are about the unknown. When I started to read seriously I was excited and comforted all at the same time. Literature is a mix of unfamiliarity and recognition. The situation can take us anywhere — across time and space, the globe, through the lives of people who can never be like us — into the heart of anguish we have never felt — crimes we could not commit.

Yet as we travel deeper into the strange world of the story, the feeling we get is of being understood — which is odd when you think about it, because at school learning is based on whether or not we understand what we are reading. In fact it is the story (or the poem) that is understanding us.

Books read us back to ourselves.

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Art by Beatrice Alemagna for A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

In a sentiment particularly resonant to those of us who read ourselves through difficult lives, and out of them, and into improbable new lives, Winterson counsels on how to best read for self-transformation:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngOne of the things the story teaches us is this: Read yourself as a fiction as well as a fact.

When I was growing up poor in a poor place with a pair of Pentecostal parents who were waiting for Jesus to return and roll up time and space like a scroll, I never thought my life was narrow or my chances bleak. I thought I was Heathcliff, Huck Finn, Hotspur, Aladdin, the Big Bad Wolf. The Fish with a Golden Ring.

And later, when I had left home at sixteen and was living in a Mini, I had my favourite books stashed in the boot and whenever I could be in the library, I was there. This wasn't a fantasy world or escapism — though it was an escape; it was the hidden door in the blank wall. Open it.

I opened the book and went through.

The escape into another story reminds us that we too are another story. Not caught, not confined, not predestined, not only one gender or passion. Learning to read yourself as a fiction as well as a fact is liberating — it is the difference between energy and mass. Mass is the beloved object — the world we can touch and feel — but mass is also the dead weight in ourselves and others.

Shifting the dead weight takes energy but at its atomic core the dead weight is energy. Transforming mass into energy, energy into mass is what creative work is about. An idea becomes embodied. A tragedy is released.

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Art by Violeta Lópiz from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print, benefiting The New York Public Library.

Complement with Rebecca Solnit on how books empower, solace, and transform us and Alain de Botton on books as portals to self-understanding, then revisit Winterson on how art and storytelling redeem our inner lives, the paradox of active surrender at the heart of all art, and her 10 rules of writing

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In 2020, I spent thousands of hours and thousands of dollars keeping Brain Pickings going. For fourteen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, not even an assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor made your life more livable in any way last year, please consider aiding its sustenance with a one-time or loyal donation. Your support makes all the difference.

monthly donation

You can become a Sustaining Patron with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a Brooklyn lunch.
 

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The Decades-Old Classic That Became the Ultimate Pandemic Poem

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I will never forget the day I first encountered, in the midst of heartache, "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop (February 8, 1911–October 6, 1979) — a poem I have lived with for years, a poem that has helped me live.

Composed when Bishop was sorrowing after a separation from her partner, Alice Methfessel, it is a staggering poem about love and loneliness, about the feigned fearlessness and forced levity we put on like an armor, like a costume, to cope with the terrifying heaviness of loss. Originally published in The New Yorker on April 24, 1976, twenty years after Bishop won the Pulitzer Prize and six years after she won the National Book Award, the following year it crowned the final book of poems published in Bishop's lifetime and now lives on in her indispensable posthumously collected Poems (public library).

Alongside classics like Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night" and Sylvia Plath's "Mad Girl's Love Song," "One Art" remains one of the greatest and most influential villanelles in the English language — sculptural masterworks of creative constraint, in which the virtuosity of language meets an exquisite mathematical precision in nineteen measured lines: five three-line stanzas and a final stanza of four lines, with the first and third line of the first stanza forming a refrain of alternating repetition across the remaining stanzas and then coming together into a chorus of a couplet in the closing verse. A haiku in the higher mathematics of meter.

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Elizabeth Bishop

It is the only villanelle Bishop ever wrote. She surprised even herself. A spare and careful poet who published very few and very meticulous poems, she composed it with astonishing rapidity, feeling that it was "like writing a letter," redrafting and retitling it over and over.

"How to Lose Things."

"The Gift of Losing Things."

"The Art of Losing Things."

And finally, fifteen drafts later, "One Art."

It is always a delight to witness someone you love discover something you have long loved, and so it was with immense delight that I watched my dear friend Amanda Palmer discover "One Art" in real time while we were smiling at each other screen-mediated and pandemic-strewn across opposite corners of the globe, each comforting the other's recent losses. Having just come upon the poem via one of her patrons and not yet read it, she read it to me extemporaneously while I mouthed the words committed to heart. I watched ripples of deeply personal resonance animate Amanda's face as she made her way through the poem — a poem universal and timeless, a beautiful and brutal emissary of elemental truth, written half a century ago out of the tumults of the poet's personal life, out of her very particular time and place and circumstance, suddenly rendered the ultimate pandemic poem for this moment we share and the myriad personal losses within it — a testament to the young Sylvia Plath's precocious observation that an artist never knows how their work will live in the world and touch other lives, that "once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader."

Bridging this bittersweet unbidden moment with our longtime collaboration around poetry, I asked Amanda to record a reading of the poem as it made its way into her veins to live with her as it has lived with, and as it will live with you.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngONE ART
by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Bishop died not long after composing "One Art," having requested the last two lines of another poem of hers as an epitaph:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngAll the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.

Complement with Bishop on why everyone should experience at least one long period of solitude in life and James Gleick reading her monumental poem about the nature of our knowledge, then revisit Amanda Palmer reading "Spell to Be Said Against Hatred" by Jane Hirshfield, "The Big Picture" by Ellen Bass, "Einstein's Mother" by Tracy K. Smith, "Humanity i love you" by E.E. Cummings, "Hubble Photographs: After Sappho" by Adrienne Rich, and "Questionnaire" by Wendell Berry.

The Snail with the Right Heart: A True Story

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Great children's books move young hearts, yes, but they also move the great common heart that beats in the chest of humanity by articulating in the language of children, which is the language of simplicity and absolute sincerity, the elemental truths of being: what it means to love, what it means to be mortal, what it means to live with our fragilities and our frissons. As such, children's books are miniature works of philosophy, works of wonder and wonderment that bypass our ordinary resistances and our cerebral modes of understanding, entering the backdoor of consciousness with their soft, surefooted gait to remind us who and what we are.

This is something I have always believed, and so I have always turned to children's books — classics like The Little Prince, which I reread once a year every year for basic soul-maintenance, and modern masterpieces like Cry, Heart, But Never Break — as mighty instruments of existential calibration. But I never thought I would write one.

And then I did: The Snail with the Right Heart: A True Story (public library) is a labor of love three years in the making, illustrated by the uncommonly talented and sensitive Ping Zhu, whom I asked for the honor after she staggered me with the painting that became the cover of A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

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While the story is inspired by a beloved young human in my own life, who is living with the same rare and wondrous variation of body as the real-life mollusk protagonist, it is a larger story about science and the poetry of existence, about time and chance, genetics and gender, love and death, evolution and infinity — concepts often too abstract for the human mind to fathom, often more accessible to the young imagination; concepts made fathomable in the concrete, finite life of one tiny, unusual creature dwelling in a pile of compost amid an English garden.

At the heart of the story, excerpted below, is an invitation not to mistake difference for defect and to recognize, across the accordion scales of time and space, diversity as nature's fulcrum of resilience and wellspring of beauty.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngLong ago, before half the stars that speckle the sky were born and before the mountains rose reaching for them, a giant ocean covered the Earth. One day, something strange happened in the giant ocean — a change so mysterious and magnificent that it was given a special name: mutation.

From this mutation, life was born from non-life: The first living creatures — tinier than a grain of sand, tinier than the tip of the eyelash of a mouse — came into being.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngTime tended to them kindly —
they grew bigger and bigger,
curiouser and curiouser.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngSoon — which in cosmic time means millions and millions of years — they crawled out of the ocean and onto the land. Not knowing whether they would find a home there, some of these brave early explorers carried their homes on their backs. 

And so snails took to the Earth.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngSoon — more millions and millions of years later — humans were walking the Earth alongside them.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngOne autumn afternoon a cosmic blink ago, a human — a retired scientist from the London's Natural History Museum — stopped mid-stride on his walk when he noticed a most unusual garden snail in a pile of compost. It was smaller than the other snails. Its shell was darker than theirs. One of its tentacles had trouble unspooling. And because the snail's tentacles are both its fingers and its eyes, this little snail didn't feel and see the world the way most snails do.  

But the strangest thing was something else still: The spiral of its shell coiled in the opposite direction from other snails — it spiraled left instead of right, the same direction the Earth crawls around the Sun.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThe old man picked up the little snail tenderly and marveled at it.

It just so happened (isn't chance lovely?) that a few days earlier, he had heard on the radio an interview with a snail researcher from an important university. Doctor Angus Davidson was his name. So he decided to send this unusual little snail to Doctor Angus's laboratory. Maybe its strangeness held some beautiful secret waiting to be unlocked.

Carefully, the elderly scientist packed the little snail into a cozy box and sent it on its way.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngWhen it arrived at the famous snail laboratory, Doctor Angus named it Jeremy, after the English politician Jeremy Corbyn. (Grownups believe that this big round world has sides, so they divide their politics into left and right, like shoes or gloves. Because Jeremy Corbyn belongs to the left, Doctor Angus thought it would be funny to name the little lefty snail after him.)

But although Jeremy the snail was given a boy name, Jeremy the snail was neither a he nor a she — Jeremy, like all land snails, was both.

Jeremy was a they.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngOne of the wonders of snails is that they can make babies without a mate, because every snail has a body that is both male and female. Such a wondrous body is called a hermaphrodite.

If a hermaphrodite makes babies alone, they are almost exactly like their parent. But when two parents make a baby together, the baby is partly like each of them.

And because diversity is always lovelier than sameness, and because it makes communities stronger and better able to adapt to change, snails prefer to make babies in pairs.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThis is how it happens: When a snail finds a partner, the two face each other, gently touching their tentacles together to feel if they like each other. And if they do, they glide their bodies alongside one another in a slow double embrace, until their baby-making parts fit together like puzzle pieces. Then, they gently pierce each other with tiny spears called "love darts," which contain their genes — the building blocks of bodies.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngGenes are like tiny seeds your parents plant in the garden that becomes your body — your special combination of seeds is what makes you you, what makes your body-garden unlike anyone else's. Genes are how life talks to the future. Your genes decide things like how tall you grow, what color your eyes are, and how your thumbs are shaped.

Many of your gene-seeds come abloom in your own body-garden — you get to see, to be the flowers they become. But not every one of your seeds will bloom — some only sprout when they are near other seeds just like them. These shy seeds may lay dormant in the soil and only bloom in generations of gardens down the line — in your children, or your children's children, or your children's children's children. Those seeds are called recessive genes.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngJeremy was so unusual because in their body, a rare recessive gene came abloom — one of Jeremy's great-great-grand-parents must have passed this dormant seed on, until it awakened to make Jeremy's shell coil in the opposite direction.

Jeremy's shell was just the most obvious expression of that mutation, but the entire soft body hidden inside was also a mirror-image of almost every other snail's body — a condition known as situs inversus, Latin for "inverted internal organs."

In his twenty years of working with snails, Doctor Angus had never before seen a lefty. He believes that situs inversus is rarer than one in 10,000, probably one in 100,000, possibly even one in a million.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngSome humans, too, have such wondrous mirror-image bodies — it is just as rare in us as it is in snails. If you had situs inversus, your heart would be on the right side — which is the wrong side, because almost everyone's heart is on the left side.

Jeremy's heart was also on the right-wrong side, as were all his vital body parts — which meant that Jeremy could only do the double-embrace dance with another snail with situs inversus, or else the puzzle pieces wouldn't fit together to make baby snails.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngLife can be lonesome when your mate is one in a million. And Doctor Angus didn't want Jeremy to be lonesome. He also knew that if Jeremy had babies with another lefty snail, scientists could study this very rare gene and better understand situs inversus not only in snails, but in humans.

So, he went on the radio again and made an appeal to the whole world to help find Jeremy a lefty mate.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngMoved by Jeremy's story, people far and wide got on their knees amid gardens and grasslands and compost piles, determined to find Jeremy's inverted puzzle piece. Within weeks, not one but two potential mates were found — one by a young Englishwoman who kept snails as pets, and another by a snail farmer in Spain. 

The whole round world rejoiced when Lefty, the English snail, and Tomeu, the Spanish snail, were sent to Doctor Angus's lab to meet Jeremy.

But…

But — that three-letter twist of fate that can so instantly take the trajectory of any story, any expectation, any life and coil it in the opposite direction.

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Before the watercolor sun sets beneath the endpapers, the story ends the same way life lives itself through us — unpredictable, heartbreaking, and redemptive, forever planting dormant seeds to come abloom in some future garden, maybe tomorrow, maybe long after the stars that speckle this sky are gone and new stars are born to shine upon new hearts beating to the same primeval pulse-beat of cosmic chance.

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The Snail with the Right Heart, out on February 2, came alive thanks to the invaluable stewardship of my longtime friend, neighbor, and collaborator Claudia Zoe Bedrick — the one-woman powerhouse behind Brooklyn-based independent children's publisher Enchanted Lion.

I have chosen to donate all my author's proceeds from the book to the Children's Heart Foundation, whose quarter-century devotion to funding research and scientific collaborations is shedding light on congenital heart conditions to help young humans with unusual hearts live longer, wider lives.

Special thanks to my biologist pal Joe Hanson for assaying the solidity of the science, to my former partner and darling friend Debbie Millman for hand-lettering the cover text, and to the fine journalists at The Guardian for reporting the true story on which this labor of love is based.

donating=loving

In 2020, I spent thousands of hours and thousands of dollars keeping Brain Pickings going. For fourteen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, not even an assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor made your life more livable in any way last year, please consider aiding its sustenance with a one-time or loyal donation. Your support makes all the difference.

monthly donation

You can become a Sustaining Patron with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a Brooklyn lunch.
 

one-time donation

Or you can become a Spontaneous Supporter with a one-time donation in any amount.
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Partial to Bitcoin? You can beam some bit-love my way: 197usDS6AsL9wDKxtGM6xaWjmR5ejgqem7

A SMALL, DELIGHTFUL SIDE PROJECT:

Vintage Science Face Masks Benefiting the Nature Conservancy (New Designs Added)

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