Naomi Shihab Nye's beloved poem "Kindness" animated; Gertrude Stein on writing and belonging; an illustrated celebration of the aurora borealis

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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 — our greatest misunderstanding about love; stunning vintage Japanese prints of trees and the Moon; poet Joy Harjo's astronomy-inspired meditation on landscape and spirit — you can catch up right here. If my labor of love enriches your life in any way, please consider supporting it with a donation – for a decade and a half, 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.

Naomi Shihab Nye's Beloved Ode to Kindness, Animated

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"Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness," Leo Tolstoy — a man of colossal compassion and colossal blind spots — wrote while reckoning with his life as it neared its end.

"Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you're already in heaven now," Jack Kerouac half-resolved, half-instructed an epoch later in a beautiful letter to his first wife and lifelong friend.

Of course, even the best-intentioned of us are not capable of perpetual kindness, not capable of being our most elevated selves all day with everybody. If you have not watched yourself, helpless and horrified, transform into an ill-tempered child with a loved one or the unsuspecting man blocking the produce aisle with his basket of bok choy, you have not lived. Discontinuous and self-contradictory even under the safest and sanest of circumstances, human beings are not wired for constancy of feeling, of conduct, of selfhood. When the world grows unsafe, when life charges at us with its stresses and its sorrows, our devotion to kindness can short-circuit with alarming ease. And yet, paradoxically, it is often in the laboratory of loss and uncertainty that we calibrate and supercharge our capacity for kindness. And it is always, as Kerouac intuited, a practice.

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Art by Dorothy Lathrop from her 1922 fairy-poems. (Available as a print.)

In 1978, drawing on a jarring real-life experience, Naomi Shihab Nye captured this difficult, beautiful, redemptive transmutation of fear into kindness in a poem of uncommon soulfulness and empathic wingspan that has since become a classic — a classic now part of Edward Hirsch's finely curated anthology 100 Poems to Break Your Heart (public library); a classic reimagined in a lovely short film by illustrator Ana Pérez López and my friends at the On Being Project:

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngKINDNESS
by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Complement with a fascinating cultural history of how kindness became our forbidden pleasure, Jacqueline Woodson's letter to children about how we learn kindness, and George Sand's only children's book — a poignant parable about choosing kindness and generosity over cynicism and fear — then revisit other soul-broadening animated poems: "Singularity" by Marie Howe, "Murmuration" by Linda France, and "The Peace of Wild Things" by Wendell Berry.

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For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.

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Seeking an Aurora: A Wondrous Illustrated Celebration of Earth's Most Otherworldly Spectacle of Light and Color

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In 1621, already questioning his life in the priesthood — the era's safest and most reputable career for the educated — the 29-year-old Pierre Gassendi, a mathematical prodigy since childhood, traveled to the Arctic circle as he began diverting his passionate erudition toward Aristotelian philosophy and astronomy. There, under the polar skies, he witnessed an otherworldly spectacle on Earth — our planet's most intimate and dramatic contact with its home star, a chromatic swirl of the ephemeral and the eternal unloosed as solar winds blow millions of charged particles from the Sun across the orrery of the Solar System and into Earth's atmosphere, where our magnetic fields carry them toward the poles. As they collide with the particles of different atmospheric gasses, they ionize and discharge energy as photons of different colors — red, blue, green, and violent — painting the nocturne with the waking dream of a pastel-technicolor dawn.

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Awestruck with the natural poetry and the mythic feeling-tone of the luminous spectacle, Gassendi named what he saw Aurora borealis — after Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, and borealis, the Latin word for "northern." Eventually, as explorers braved the icy oceanic expanses to visit the polar regions of the Southern hemisphere over the following centuries, they adapted Gassendi's etymology to name the Antarctic version of the luminous display Aurora australis, after the Latin word for "southern."

From the land of Aurora australis comes Seeking an Aurora (public library) — a work of transcendence and tenderness by New Zealand author-artist duo Elizabeth Pulford and Anne Bannock, whose spare poetic prose and soulful paintings interleave to enlush an inner landscape of wonder, suspended between the creaturely and the cosmic.

Late one night, a father awakens his child — a child of ambiguous gender and ethnicity, a touching effort to approximate the universal in the human — to slip out of the house together, past the soundly sleeping mother and the baby in the crib, and out into the winter nocturne on a quest of wonder.

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They walk with brisk excitation across the open field and through the skeletal trees as the warm humanity of their breath puffs into the cold night air, into the silence they share with the other breathing creatures that make this planet a world.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngOutside everything was still.
Even the dogs were quiet, and the cows looked like prehistoric creatures, their noses streaming smoke.

The adventure unfolds from the narrative vantage point of the child, who turns around to look back at the house with its "warm, buttery light spilling from the kitchen window," back at the two sets of "footprints in the silvery frost," then up at the sky, "a ship of shivering stars."

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As the pair ascend the steep hill toward their lookout, the cows and the dogs recede into the distance, leaving only the stars, the Moon, and the swell of anticipation.

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And then, suddenly, the aurora appears, its "wide wings of light" sweeping across the sky to widen the child's eyes with wonder.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngDancing light, glowing and glimmering,
shimmering and shining.
Colored ribbons swirling and twirling,
lighting up the sky on the still, dark night.

Father and child are silent under the soft technicolor sky — an awed silence that evokes the works of the poet Diane Ackerman, who wrote long ago in her stunning Cosmic Pastoral of feeling "stricken by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else."

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On the walk home, back to the house with the warm buttery light, the father shares everything he knows about the aurora — a secret everythingness revealed on the last page of the book, in a brief science primer of an afterword, sweetly titled "Everything Dad Knew about the Aurora."

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Couple Seeking an Aurora with the inspiring picture-book biography of trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, then revisit a literary titan's account of the other great cosmic spectacle visible from Earth — Virginia Woolf's arresting meditation on the total solar eclipse.

Gertrude Stein on Writing and Belonging

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"You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all," Maya Angelou told Bill Moyers in their fantastic forgotten conversation about freedom. Beneath the surface of this paradoxical sentiment is a kind of koan, simple yet profound, replete with layered truth for those of us living expatriated lives — expatriated from a place or a culture, in space or in time.

Two generations before Angelou, Gertrude Stein (February 3, 1874–July 27, 1946), living out her great love story as an American expatriate in Paris, addressed this paradox with uncommon insight and her own characteristic koan-like style in a passage from her 1940 novel Paris France (public library).

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Gertrude Stein by artist Maira Kalman from her superb illustrated edition of Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

Stein — Jewish and gay, writing while the world was coming undone by warring nationalisms and gas chambers disbelonging human beings from life itself — observes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngEverybody, that is, everybody who writes is interested in living inside themselves to tell what is inside themselves. That is why writers have to have two countries, the one where they belong and the one in which they live really. The second one is romantic, it is separate from themselves, it is not real but it is really there.

Stein notes that the Victorians found their romantic home in Italy, Americans found theirs in Spain in the first half of the nineteenth century and in England in the second, and her own generation found it in Paris. Prefiguring Angelou's sentiment, she adds:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngOf course sometimes people discover their own country as if it were the other… but in general that other country that you need to be free is in the other country not the country where you really belong.

I read this and think of Leonard Cohen's lovely notion of poetry as "the Constitution of the inner country." For me, living an unbelonging life in a country other than the one in which I was born and raised, poetry has been an increasingly vital portal to that inner landscape of freedom that Stein contours — a way of tending to and befriending the interior wilderness from which all creative work springs and which remains a sovereign territory of psychogeography, wherever one's body may be located and whatever artificial borders may be drawn around it by outside observers.

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Art by Maira Kalman from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

Complement with poet and philosopher David Whyte on how to be at home in yourself and Toni Morrison on borders and belonging, then revisit Maria Kalman's magnificent illustrated love letter to Gertrude and Alice's love.

donating=loving

For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with a 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.
Start Now Give Now

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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ALSO, NEW CHILDREN'S BOOK BY YOURS TRULY:

The Snail with the Right Heart: A True Story

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