The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Is Your Life a Fairy Tale, a Novel, or a Poem?

When reality fissures along the fault line of our expectations and the unwelcome happens — a death, an abandonment, a promise broken, a kindness withheld — we tend to cope in one of two ways: We question our own sanity, assuming the outside world coherent and our response a form of madness; or we assume ourselves sane and accuse the external — the other person, the situation, the world — of madness. Both are stories we tell ourselves about what is true, how things are, and how things should be. Like all storytelling, both are works of the imagination.

It always takes imagination to understand what is real, for in the human sphere reality is a collaborative condition. It takes imagination to understand what it is like to be anybody else, what the other’s reality might be in the situation we share, and it takes imagination to consider what may live in our blind spots.

Art by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

G.K. Chesterton (May 29, 1874–June 14, 1936), who thought deeply and originally about the meaning of life, frames these two storytelling responses to reality and the problem of sanity as the fairy tale and the novel. In a fragment from his essay collection Tremendous Trifles (public library | free ebook), he writes:

Folk-lore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming. The problem of the fairy tale is — what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world? The problem of the modern novel is — what will a madman do with a dull world? In the fairy tales the cosmos goes mad; but the hero does not go mad. In the modern novels the hero is mad before the book begins, and suffers from the harsh steadiness and cruel sanity of the cosmos.

But while it always takes imagination to understand what is real, it also takes imagination to see beyond the models of reality handed down to us by the world as we know it. (“Everything is in an attitude of mind,” Chesterton conceded.) Perhaps there is a third way beyond this dualism, one that recognizes consciousness as something beyond sanity and madness, one in which being a hero of one’s own life is not a battle between reality and sanity, between self and other, but a matter of peaceful accord with the cosmos, a cosmos capable of consciousness.

Perhaps that is the way of the poem. Perhaps the best way to face reality — especially when it betrays our hopes and expectations — is by being a living poem. “Re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul,” Whitman wrote in his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life, “and your very flesh shall be a great poem.” A poem is not a captive of narrative, has no need for resolution, is not a message but an opening. A poem makes its own meaning.

One of English artist Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a stunning 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Complement with Nobel-winning poet Wisława Szymborska on fairy tales and the necessity of fear, then revisit Lucille Clifton on how to be a living poem.


Leonard Cohen on the Antidote to Anger and the Meaning of Resistance

Leonard Cohen on the Antidote to Anger and the Meaning of Resistance

One of the commonest and most corrosive human reflexes is to react to helplessness with anger. We do it in our personal lives and we do it in our political lives.

We are living through a time of uncommon helplessness and uncertainty, touching every aspect of our lives, and in such times another reflex is the longing for an authority figure selling certainty, claiming the fist to be a helping hand. It is a touchingly human impulse, primal and pacifying — children turn to the parent to remove the overwhelm and uncertainty of a world they don’t yet understand and cannot carry. It is also a dangerous impulse, for it pulsates beneath every war and every reign of terror in the history of the world.

Leonard Cohen (September 21, 1934–November 7, 2016), who thought deeply and passionately about the cracks in democracy and its redemptions, shines a sidewise gleam on this eternal challenge of the human spirit in a couple of pieces found in his Book of Longing (public library) — the collection of poems, drawings, and prose meditations composed over the course of the five years he spent living in a Zen monastery.

Leonard Cohen (courtesy of Leonard Cohen Family Trust)

In a timeless passage that now reads prophetic, he writes:

We are moving into a period of bewilderment, a curious moment in which people find light in the midst of despair, and vertigo at the summit of their hopes. It is a religious moment also, and here is the danger. People will want to obey the voice of Authority, and many strange constructs of just what Authority is will arise in every mind… The public yearning for Order will invite many stubborn uncompromising persons to impose it. The sadness of the zoo will fall upon society.

In such periods, he goes on to intimate, love — that most intimate and inward of human labors, that supreme instrument for magnifying the light between us and lighting up the world — is an act of courage and resistance.

Cohen takes up the subject of what resistance really means in another piece from the book — a poem titled “SOS 1995,” that is really an anthem for all times, a lifeline for all periods of helplessness and uncertainty, personal or political, and a cautionary parable about the theater of authority, about the price of giving oneself over to its false comfort. He writes:

Take a long time with your anger,
Don’t waste it in riots.
Don’t tangle it with ideas.
The Devil won’t let me speak,
will only let me hint
that you are a slave,
your misery a deliberate policy
of those in whose thrall you suffer,
and who are sustained
by your misfortune.
The atrocities over there,
the interior paralysis over here —
Pleased with the better deal?
You are clamped down.
You are being bred for pain.
The Devil ties my tongue.
I’m speaking to you,
“friend of my scribbled life.”
You have been conquered by those
who know how to conquer invincibly.
The curtains move so beautifully,
lace curtains of some
sweet old intrigue:
the Devil tempting me
to turn away from alarming you.

So I must say it quickly:
Whoever is in your life,
those who harm you,
those who help you;
those whom you know
and those whom you do not know —
let them off the hook,
help them off the hook.
You are listening to Radio Resistance.

Complement with Thich Nhat Hanh’s poetic antidote to anger and Erich Fromm’s psychological antidote to helplessness and disorientation, then revisit Leonard Cohen on the constitution of the inner country and what makes a saint.


200 Years of Solitude: Great Writers, Artists, and Scientists on the Creative and Spiritual Rewards of Fertile Aloneness

There is a silence at the center of each person — an untrammeled space where the inner voice grows free to speak. That space expands in solitude. To create anything — a poem, a painting, a theorem — is to find the voice in the silence that has something to say to the world. In solitude, we may begin to hear in the silence the song of our own lives. “Give me solitude,” Whitman howled, “give me again O Nature your primal sanities!”

Gathered here are some of my favorite voices in praise of solitude, of its ample creative and spiritual rewards, its primal sanities.

Solitude by Maria Popova. Available as a print.

Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) was in his late thirties when he began answering the eager letters of the nineteen-year-old Franz Xaver Kappus — an aspiring poet and cadet at the same military academy that had nearly broken Rilke’s own adolescent soul. Shortly after Rilke’s death of leukemia, Kappus published the correspondence. Letters to a Young Poet came to stand as one of the finest books of the past century. In a wonderful new translation by ecological philosopher, Buddhist scholar, and environmental activist Joanna Macy, and poet and clinical psychologist Anita Barrows, Rilke writes:

What (you might ask yourself) would a solitude be that didn’t have some greatness to it? For there is only one solitude, and it is large and not easy to bear. It comes almost all the time when you’d gladly exchange it for any togetherness, however banal and cheap; exchange it for the appearance of however strong a conformity with the ordinary, with the least worthy. But perhaps that is precisely the time when solitude ripens; its ripening can be painful as the growth of a boy and sad like the beginning of spring… What is needed is only this: solitude, great inner solitude. Going within and meeting no one else for hours — that is what one must learn to attain. To be solitary as one was as a child. As the grown-ups were moving about, preoccupied with things that seemed big and important because the grown-ups appeared so busy and because you couldn’t understand what they were doing.

Art by Giuliano Cucco from Before I Grew Up by John Miller


A lifetime after she composed her stunning ode to solitude as a young poet, after she contemplated solitude as the seedbed of self-discovery upon entering her sixties, May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) moved to Maine to spend the last chapter of her life living alone in a house with a garden on the edge of the sea. Friends came to visit, as did strangers who admired her poetry and had found her address in the phone book — those were the days — but she cherished her solitude above even the most welcome company.

In a passage from her boundlessly rewarding journal The House by the Sea (public library) — which gave us her meditations on the relationship between gardening and writing, how to cultivate your talent, and the art of living alone — Sarton considers the tilting balance of her life. Reflecting on her approach to visitors, she writes:

I try to see them one at a time. I mean every encounter here to be more than superficial, to be a real exchange of lives, and this is more easily accomplished one to one than in a group. But the continuity is solitude. Without long periods here alone, especially in winter when visits are rare, I would have nothing to give, and would be less open to the gifts offered me. Solitude has replaced the single intense relationship, the passionate love that even at Nelson [Sarton’s prior home] focused all the rest. Solitude, like a long love, deepens with time, and, I trust, will not fail me if my own powers of creation diminish. For growing into solitude is one way of growing to the end.

Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach, 1931 — one of Hasui Kawase’s stunning vintage Japanese woodblocks. (Available as a print.)

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in his account of the months he spent at Walden Pond, “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Although Thoreau’s solitude was not in actuality as total as he recounted it, it was deep and transformative. In a long meditation on solitude and the meaning of life, he writes in Walden (public library | public domain):

It is as solitary where I live as on the prairies. It is as much Asia or Africa as New England. I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself.


I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go [out among others] than when we stay in our chambers.

For Thoreau, who suffered bouts of debilitating depression and black grief, solitude was not a way of caving in on himself, as one does in loneliness, but a way of unselfing, of stepping beyond his small human turmoils and into the wider universe that holds:

The most sweet and tender, the most innocent and encouraging society may be found in any natural object, even for the poor misanthrope and most melancholy man. There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

In the last years of the nineteenth century, shortly after he originated an entire new field we now call neuroscience and a decade before he won the Nobel Prize for establishing the neuron as the basic unit of the nervous system, Santiago Ramón y Cajal (May 1, 1852–October 17, 1934) composed a short, passionate book titled Advice for a Young Investigator (public library), predating Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet by three decades. In it, he outlined the six psychological flaws that keep the talented from reaching greatness and pointed to solitude as the supreme incubator of true originality. He writes:

Our major commitment … is to discover ourselves before discovering scientific truth, to mold ourselves before molding nature. To fashion a strong brain, an original mind that is ours alone — this is the preliminary work that is absolutely essential.


Oh comforting solitude, how favorable thou art to original thought! How satisfying and rewarding are the long winter evenings spent in the private laboratory, at the very time when educational centers are closed to their workers! Such evenings free us from poorly thought out improvisations, strengthen our patience, and refine our powers of observation.

Art by Giuliano Cucco from Before I Grew Up

In his splendid poem “The Peace of Wild Things,” poet and farmer Wendell Berry located the remedy for despair in learning to “rest in the grace of the world,” which is most readily found amid wild solitude. He deepens the sentiment in one of the essays from his altogether wonderful and wonderfully titled essay collection What Are People For? (public library). Reflecting on the antidote to the two great enemies of creativity, Berry writes:

We enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness…

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.

One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.

In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.

Art by Violeta Lópiz for At the Drop of a Cat

Often, it is only when something is taken away that we fully appreciate its value; in being famished for it, we remember how deeply it nourishes us. In a delightful reckoning with the pleasure of being left alone after entertaining visitors, found in her 1935 collection Personal Pleasures: Essays on Enjoying Life (public library), Rose Macaulay (August 1, 1881–October 30, 1958) writes:

An exquisite peace obtains: a drowsy, golden peace, flowing honey-sweet over my dwelling, soaking it, dripping like music from the walls, strowing the floors like trodden herbs. A peace for gods; a divine emptiness.


The easy chair spreads wide arms of welcome; the sofa stretches, guest-free; the books gleam, brown and golden, buff and blue and maroon, from their shelves; they may strew the floor, the chairs, the couch, once more, lying ready to the hand… The echo of the foolish words lingers on the air, is brushed away, dies forgotten, the air closes behind it. A heavy volume is heaved from its shelf on to the sofa. Silence drops like falling blossoms over the recovered kingdom… It is a gift, a miracle, a golden jewel, a fragment of some gracious heavenly order, dropped to earth like some incredible strayed star. One’s life to oneself again.

Art by Dasha Tolstikova from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader

Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor echoes Berry’s sentiment in his thorough reckoning with solitude as contemplative practice, and writes:

By withdrawing from the world into solitude, you separate yourself from others. By isolating yourself, you can see more clearly what distinguishes you from other people. Standing out in this way serves to affirm your existence (ex-[out] + sistere [stand]). Liberated from social pressures and constraints, solitude can help you understand better what kind of person you are and what your life is for. In this way you become independent of others. You find your own path, your own voice.


Here lies the paradox of solitude. Look long and hard enough at yourself in isolation and suddenly you will see the rest of humanity staring back. Sustained aloneness brings you to a tipping point where the pendulum of life returns you to others.

Art by Ofra Amit for The Universe in Verse

A century after Virginia Woolf made her epochal case for the importance of having a room of one’s own in which to create — that womb of “fertile solitude
from which works of art are born — Australian cartoonist, poet, and philosopher Michael Leunig offers a singsong echo of Woolf’s timeless insistence:


Terry Tempest Williams has devoted her life to giving voice to the dialogue between human nature and the rest of nature, whether we call it wilderness or landscape or environment. In Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (public library) — which also gave us Williams on change and denial — she writes:

Solitude… is what sustains me and protects me from my mind. It renders me fully present. I am desert. I am mountains. I am Great Salt Lake. There are other languages being spoken by wind, water, and wings. There are other lives to consider: avocets, stilts, and stones. Peace is the perspective found in patterns. When I see ring-billed gulls picking on the flesh of decaying carp, I am less afraid of death. We are no more and no less than the life that surrounds us. My fears surface in my isolation. My serenity surfaces in my solitude.

Moonlight, Winter by Rockwell Kent. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

In the wake of WWI, a quarter century before he won the Nobel Prize, Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) composed an impassioned letter to the disaffected young. In it, an epoch before Ursula K. Le Guin so brilliantly unsexed man as the universal pronoun, he writes:

Solitude is the path over which destiny endeavors to lead man to himself. Solitude is the path that men most fear. A path fraught with terrors, where snakes and toads lie in wait… Without solitude there is no suffering, without solitude there is no heroism. But the solitude I have in mind is not the solitude of the blithe poets or of the theater, where the fountain bubbles so sweetly at the mouth of the hermit’s cave.

Learning to be nourished by solitude rather than defeated by it, Hesse argues, is a prerequisite for taking charge of our destiny:

Most men, the herd, have never tasted solitude. They leave father and mother, but only to crawl to a wife and quietly succumb to new warmth and new ties. They are never alone, they never commune with themselves… It is easier and sweeter to walk with a people, with a multitude — even through misery. It is easier and more comforting to devote oneself to the “tasks” of the day, the tasks meted out by the collectivity.


Solitude is not chosen, any more than destiny is chosen. Solitude comes to us if we have within us the magic stone that attracts destiny.

Complement with Barry Lopez on the cure for our existential loneliness — that archnemesis of solitude — then revisit poet Elizabeth Bishop on why everyone ought to experience at least one long period of solitude in life and artist Rockwell Kent on the relationship between wilderness, solitude, and creativity.


An Illustrated Field Guide to the Science and Wonder of the Clouds

An Illustrated Field Guide to the Science and Wonder of the Clouds

Clouds drift ephemeral across the dome of this world, carrying eternity — condensing molecules that animated the first breath of life, coursing with electric charges that will power the last thought.

To me, a cloud will always be a spell against indifference — a little bloom of wonder to remind us that everything changes yet everything holds.

Two centuries after the amateur meteorologist Luke Howard classified the clouds with Goethe’s aid and two generations after Rachel Carson composed her lyrical serenade to the science of the sky, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, founder of Cloud Appreciation Society (of which I am a pin-wearing member), and artist William Grill bring us Cloudspotting for Beginners (public library) — an illustrated field guide to the science and splendor of the sky, and an ode to the human longing for pattern, for order, for an organizing principle that gives coherence to the chaos of life.


It can be hard to give an artistic interpretation of something so naturally beguiling, so replete with raw wonder, but under Grill’s color pencil, clouds take on an even more whimsical quality, gentle as a child’s song, unhurried as a daydream.


With the plain-worded playfulness of a children’s book and the concise authority of an encyclopedia, the book covers the ten main cloud types — from the rough-hewn patchwork of Stratocumulus, commonest because it forms over the oceans that cover most of our planet’s surface, to Cirrocumulus, the rarest cloud of all and the most ephemeral.


Beyond the main ten, there is the subgroup of special cloud types, from the aerial waves of Undulatus to the spaceship of Lenticularis.

Among them is a touching triumph of citizen science — Asperitas, a cloud species identified and named by members of the Cloud Appreciation Society in 2009 and, with Pretor-Pinney’s advocacy, officially affirmed by the World Meteorological Organization in 2017.


Opening beyond the cloud types is a cabinet of atmospheric curiosities — cloud iridescence, sundogs (which inspired Hilma af Klint), glories (which were central to the discovery of cosmic rays), clouds on other planets, thunder and lightning on our own, crepuscular rays.

Crepuscular rays

Pretor-Pinney details one of the great dramas of this world, which Coleridge saw as a singular portal to the soul:

Inside a storm cloud, the ice crystals bump into one another as they are blown around by violent air currents. Each time hail and ice crystals collide, the larger pieces of ice pick up negative electric charge from smaller ones, which instead become positively charged. This electric charge is like the one you feel when you rub a balloon.

The larger, heavier pieces of ice fall through the cloud’s rising air currents toward its base while the smaller, lighter ice crystals are wafted up toward the top. This is how separate parts of the Cumulonimbus become negatively and positively charged. Eventually, a massive current of electricity in the form of a lightning bolt can shoot through the sky to even out the charge again. Each bolt makes the air much hotter than the surface of the Sun, causing it to expand explosively, which we hear as the crash and boom of thunder.

Like all processes and phenomena of nature, clouds are rife with metaphors for human life. (Coleridge himself used to frequent London’s science lectures, including Luke Howard’s, hunting for metaphors to backbone his poems.) With an eye to the astonishing fact that the average Cumulus weighs as much as eighty elephants, Pretor-Pinney considers how a cloud, composed of myriad small particles known as cloudlets, stays afloat: “A cloud stays up because it’s not one big thing but a group of tiny, tiny things,” he writes, which strikes me as an apt metaphor for how diversity and multiplicity ensure the buoyancy of any society.


Couple Cloudspotting for Beginners with 19th-century Norwegian artist Kund Baade’s haunting cloudscapes, then revisit poet Mark Strand’s love letter to the clouds and the story of how they got their names.


View Full Site

The Marginalian participates in the and affiliate programs, designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to books. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book from a link here, I receive a small percentage of its price, which goes straight back into my own colossal biblioexpenses. Privacy policy. (TLDR: You're safe — there are no nefarious "third parties" lurking on my watch or shedding crumbs of the "cookies" the rest of the internet uses.)