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The Art of Knowing What to Do in Life: Pioneering Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Purpose Beyond Expectation and Choice Unbounded by Convention

On rising above the maze of conditions and conditionings that limit who we can be.

The Art of Knowing What to Do in Life: Pioneering Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Purpose Beyond Expectation and Choice Unbounded by Convention

“To know what one ought to do is certainly the hardest thing in life. ‘Doing’ is comparatively easy,” pioneering 19th-century astronomer Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889), who paved the way for American women in science, wrote as she contemplated science and life in her diary. A century earlier, the French mathematician Émilie du Châtelet, who defied the vocational expectations of her era to become a world authority on Newtonian physics, articulated the same sentiment in writing about gender and the nature of genius: “One must know what one wants to be. In the latter endeavors irresolution produces false steps, and in the life of the mind confused ideas.”

And yet there are myriad conditions and conditionings outside ourselves that color and confuse that knowing — not even the fortunate few whose inner eye is animated by an uncommon clarity of vision can claim such a thing as absolute purity of purpose. Even if we were to lay aside the perennially thorny question of free will, the choices we make in life in discerning what we ought to do are invariably limited by our perception of what we can do, which are in turn a function of our individual talents and the cultural canvas of permission and possibility onto which these talents can unfold.

Portrait of Maria Mitchell (Maria Mitchell Museum, photograph by Maria Popova)

I was reminded of this dependency in a recent conversation with an astrophysicist friend about Maria Mitchell and the following generation of women astronomers, many of whom never married and chose science over family life. We wondered how much of a choice that really was — what the opportunities were for women, decades before they could vote or even attend university, to pursue and excel at occupations only available to men at the time, men who were able to devote their days to science because they had someone at home to launder their long-johns and boil their breakfast porridge.

My friend then relayed a turning point in her own life and career as a scientist: In watching a male colleague emulate their shared elders — those typically and therefore stereotypically masculine scientists of yore — she realized, almost with a shock, that being this person was simply not an option available to her. But with the horror and the wistfulness of the realization also came a tremendous sense of liberation — it was in that moment that she found herself free to create different options, to be a different kind of scientist unbounded by the convention of expectations she could never meet. That she is now one of the world’s most venerated astrophysicists is in no small measure thanks to that moment of permission to choose for herself a destiny beyond convention — one which was, then and only then, not a prescription but truly a choice.

In a full revolution, our conversation reminded me of something Maria Mitchell herself, always eons ahead of her time, had articulated in her diary exactly a decade after America’s first class of women astronomers graduated from her program at Vassar. In an entry from August of 1886, found in Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library | free ebook), Mitchell considers the interplay of convention and opportunity with relation to gender in light of the then-novel trend of cooking colleges for women:

I am always afraid of manual-labor schools. I am not afraid that these girls could not read, for every American girl reads, and to read is much more important than to cook; but I am afraid that not all can write — some of them were not more than twelve years old.

And what of the boys? Must a common cook always be a girl? and must a boy not cook unless on the top of the ladder, with the pay of the president of Harvard College?

Maria Mitchell, at telescope, with her students

It seems both obvious and necessary to note that the gendered hierarchy and pay scale in the culinary world has hardly changed in the century and a half since. But Mitchell’s larger point has to do with the question of meritocracy — with the necessity of institutions and social structures that nurture excellence in fields freely chosen on the basis of individual interest and talent rather than on societal expectation. Far from looking down upon the culinary arts as demeaning of women, she argues instead that such careers should be chosen only by those, be they male or female, who are truly passionate about them; that, most important, an equal opportunity for pursuit should be offered in intellectual endeavors, so that the choice between cooking and science becomes truly a choice.

With her characteristic wit and spirited wisdom, she writes:

If the food for the body is more important than the food for the mind, let us destroy the latter and accept the former, but let us not continue to do what has been tried for fifteen hundred years, — to keep one half of the world to the starvation of the mind, in order to feed better the physical condition of the other half.

Let us have cooks; but let us leave it a matter of choice, as we leave the dressmaking and the shoe-making, the millinery and the carpentry, — free to be chosen!

There are cultivated and educated women who enjoy cooking; so there are cultivated men who enjoy Kensington embroidery. Who objects? But take care that some rousing of the intellect comes first, — that it may be an enlightened choice, — and do not so fill the day with bread and butter and stitches that no time is left for the appreciation of Whittier, letting at least the simple songs of daily life and the influence of rhythm beautify the dreary round of the three meals a day.

Mitchell herself fully embodied her credo of authenticity and hard work, writing in her diary at the peak of her improbable, pathbreaking career:

The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not.

Complement with Mitchell on why women are better suited for astronomy than men, the story of how the word “scientist” was coined for the Scottish mathematician and Mitchell’s contemporary Mary Somerville, and pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin, who confirmed the existence of dark matter and whose own career was inspired by Mitchell, on what it’s like to be a woman in science, then revisit Simone de Beauvoir on how chance and choice converge to make us who we are.

UPDATE: Find more of Maria Mitchell, her unusual life, and her far-reaching legacy, in my book Figuring.

BP

Kinship: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Love Poem to Trees, the Interleaving of Life and Death, and the Eternal Flame of Being

A lyrical reminder that “the word for world is forest” and the feeling of forest is love.

Kinship: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Love Poem to Trees, the Interleaving of Life and Death, and the Eternal Flame of Being

I have been thinking a great deal about growth — what it means, what it asks of us, how it feels when unforced but organic. I have been thinking about growth and decay, the interplay between the two, the way all growth requires regeneration, which in turn requires a shedding, a composting, a reconstituting of old material. We don’t always know what needs to be shed, or what the optimal direction of growth is. This is where the “blind optimism” of a tree is helpful — there is consolation in trusting the quiet workings of chemistry and the primal instinct for orienting to the light.

Ever/After by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

I have been thinking about growth and decay while walking long bundled hours in an old-growth forest.

The forest, with its colossal trees that have been part-dead since their saplinghood centuries ago and are at the same time potentially immortal.

The forest, with its ceaseless syncopation of generation and decomposition that composes the pulse-beat of total aliveness.

The forest, this place of constant change that feels somehow atemporal, an everlasting Yes! to life echoed by an ungrudging and vibrant Yes! to death — a place where one feels most intimately the elemental yet counterintuitive fact that death is not the assailant of life but the ultimate consecration of its lucky possibility.

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

This might be why we see ourselves so readily in trees, why we find in them our greatest lessons and the deepest truths about love.

Walt Whitman saw in them models for the highest measure of authenticity and why he, in consequence, celebrated the friend he most loved as “true, honest; beautiful as a tree is tall, leafy, rich, full, free… [she] is a tree.”

Whitman, who two centuries ago declared himself to “know the amplitude of time” and “laugh at what you call dissolution.”

Whitman, whose atoms now belong to some mycelial wonder pushing up the leaves of cemetery grass and nourishing the roots of the two towering trees that stand sentinel on either side of his tomb, trees that were saplings when he laughed out of life.

Little Painting of Fir-Trees, 1922, by Paul Klee, who believed that an artist is like a tree. (Available as a print and a face mask.)

While thinking about life and death and poetry in an old-growth forest, I thought of this immortal line: “The word for world is forest” — the title of a novella by Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018). I thought of the short, stunning tree-poem she wrote at the end of her life, originally published on the pages of Orion Magazine and recently included, fittingly, in Old Growth — their splendid anthology of sylvan literature from the magazine’s decades-deep archive. Here it is, brought tenderly to life by my tree-loving, poetry-loving, life-and-death-loving friend and kindred spirit Amanda Palmer, to which I have added the perfect sonic companionship of an old recording of Bach’s Organ Concerto in D Minor.

KINSHIP
by Ursula K. Le Guin

Very slowly burning, the big forest tree
stands in the slight hollow of the snow
melted around it by the mild, long
heat of its being and its will to be
root, trunk, branch, leaf, and know
earth dark, sun light, wind touch, bird song.

Rootless and restless and warmblooded, we
blaze in the flare that blinds us to that slow,
tall, fraternal fire of life as strong
now as in the seedling two centuries ago.

Complement with Amanda reading “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver and poet Jane Hirshfield reading “Today, Another Universe” — her kindred take on the life and death of a single tree — then revisit Le Guin on anger, the magic of real human conversation, the meaning of loyalty, getting to the other side of suffering, and her timeless “Hymn to Time.”

BP

How (Not) to Love: Unbreaking Our Hearts by Breaking Our Patterns, or, Chekhov’s Insight into the Most Disquieting and Liberating Truth about Love

“We want to believe that love is singular and exclusive, and it unnerves us to think that it might actually be renewable…”

How (Not) to Love: Unbreaking Our Hearts by Breaking Our Patterns, or, Chekhov’s Insight into the Most Disquieting and Liberating Truth about Love

While it is true, as generations of psychologists have found, that “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love” — a process known as limbic revision — it is also true, as generations of self-aware humans have found, that whom we love depends in large part on who we already are. Our original wounds, our formative attachments, our patterned longings all shape how we engage with those we have chosen to love, to the extent that we are choosing them at all. “People can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents,” James Baldwin astutely observed in contemplating the paradox of freedom. “Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.”

The great difficulty, too, is how easily those life-expanding Yeses that can open larger vistas of possibility come fear-concealed as Nos, or how those life-preserving Nos that keep us from entering into experiences too damaging or too small for us bear the momentum of pre-conditioned Yeses. And so we project who we are and what we need onto those we love, and find in them reflections of who we long to be or fear we might be, swarming them and swarming ourselves in all the blooming buzzing confusion of our unmet needs.

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

This is not to demean and diminish love as a mere process of projection — Stendhal’s seven-stage delusion of crystallization and decrystallization — or a mere process of reflection — Ortega’s insightful but limited and limiting theory of what our lovers reveal about us — but to honor the elemental fact that each relationship is not between two people, but between three: the two partners, each with their pre-existing patterns of love and loss, and the third presence of the relationship itself — an intersubjective co-creation that becomes the third partner, endowed with the power to deepen those patters, or to change them.

The great peril and great possibility of every love is that this third partner can be a rewounder masquerading as a healer, and equally a healer in disguise, masked beyond recognition by our own patterned way of seeing. So much of our suffering springs from this confusion and so much of our sanity is redeemed when at last we shed our own blinding masks and come to kneel at the fount of clarity.

That is what George Saunders explores in his immensely insightful and sensitive annotated reading of Chekhov’s short story “The Darling” — one of the seven classic Russian short stories he examines as “seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world” in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life (public library), using each as a portable laboratory for the key to great storytelling.

Art by Margaret C. Cook for Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

After a beautiful translation of “The Darling” — a story about a woman who loves four very different people the same patterned way, the only way she knows how, which has entirely to do with her learned understanding of love and nothing to do with its objects, and so she suffers greatly when each of these loves leaves her in the same lonely place; a story the essence of which Saunders captures perfectly as being “about a tendency, present in all of us, to misunderstand love as ‘complete absorption in,’ rather than ‘in full communication with'” — he pauses to marvel at Chekhov’s subtlety in challenging our reflex toward lazy binaries, his mastery in training our muscle of ambiguity, uncertainty, and nuance — which is, of course, the only we grasp and savor the full Yes of life. Saunders writes:

We see Olenka’s mode of loving, from one angle, as a beautiful thing: in that mode, the self disappears and all that remains is affectionate, altruistic regard for the beloved. From another angle, we see it as a terrible thing, the undiscriminating application of her one-note form of love robbing love of its particularity: Olenka, love dullard, vampirically feeding upon whomever she designates as her beloved.

We see this mode of loving as powerful, single-pointed, pure, answering all questions with its unwavering generosity. We see it as weak: her true, autonomous self is nowhere to be found as she molds herself into the image of whatever male happens to be near her (unless he’s a cat).

This puts us in an interesting state of mind. We don’t exactly know what to think of Olenka. Or, feeling so multiply about her, we don’t know how to judge her.

The story seems to be asking, “Is this trait of hers good or bad?”

Chekhov answers: “Yes.”

Elemental by Maria Popova. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

The story, like every great work of fiction, becomes a mirror for reflection on the most intimate realities of life. Saunders writes:

We want to believe that love is singular and exclusive, and it unnerves us to think that it might actually be renewable and somewhat repetitive in its habits. Would your current partner ever call his or her new partner by the same pet name he/she uses for you, once you are dead and buried? Well, why not? There are only so many pet names. Why should that bother you? Well, because you believe it is you, in particular, who is loved (that is why dear Ed calls you “honey-bunny”), but no: love just is, and you happened to be in the path of it. When, dead and hovering above Ed, you hear him call that rat Beth, your former friend, “honey-bunny,” as she absentmindedly puts her traitorous finger into his belt loop, you, in spirit form, are going to think somewhat less of Ed, and of Beth, and maybe of love itself. Or will you?

Maybe you won’t.

Because don’t we all do some version of this, when in love? When your lover dies or leaves you, there you are, still yourself, with your particular way of loving. And there is the world, still full of people to love.

BP

The Art of Solitude: Buddhist Scholar and Teacher Stephen Batchelor on Contemplative Practice and Creativity

“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.”

The Art of Solitude: Buddhist Scholar and Teacher Stephen Batchelor on Contemplative Practice and Creativity

“Give me solitude,” Whitman demanded in his ode to the eternal tension between city and soul, “give me again O Nature your primal sanities!” In those primal sanities, we come to discover that “there is no place more intimate than the spirit alone,” as May Sarton wrote in her stunning 1938 ode to solitude — her hard-earned testimony to solitude as the seedbed of self-discovery, for it is in that intimate place that we see most clearly what our animating spirit is made of. Solitude, Kahlil Gibran knew, summons of us the courage to know ourselves. Elizabeth Bishop believed — a belief I can attest to with my own life — that everyone must experience at least one long period of solitude in life in order to know what we are made of and what we can make of our gifts. “There is only one solitude, and it is large and not easy to bear,” Rilke wrote in contemplating the relationship between solitude, love, and creativity, “but… we must hold ourselves to the difficult.”

The visionary poets knew — as do the visionaries of scientist, as do all persons engaged in lives of creativity or contemplation, which are often one life — how this solitary self-discovery becomes the wellspring of all the meaning-making that makes life worth living, whether we call it art or love. From solitude’s promontory, we peer out into the expanse of existence and train our eyes to look with wide-eyed wonder at the improbable fact of it all. Solitude, so conceived, is not merely the state of being alone but the art of becoming fully ourselves — an art acquired, like every art, by apprenticeship and painstaking devotion to dwelling in the often lonesome inner light of our singular and sovereign being.

Solitude by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Its mastery, delicate and difficult, is what the Buddhist scholar and teacher Stephen Batchelor explores in The Art of Solitude (public library). Celebrating solitude — not the escapist privilege of it but the practice of it against the real world’s pressures — as “a site of autonomy, wonder, contemplation, imagination, inspiration, and care,” he writes:

True solitude is a way of being that needs to be cultivated. You cannot switch it on or off at will. Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it. When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.

Nearly forty years after he first began bridging Western phenomenology and existentialism with Buddhist precepts in his 1983 book Alone with Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism, Batchelor draws on a lifetime of solitude-mastery — directly, through his own contemplative practice and multiple silent retreats, and indirectly, through his immersion in the lives and works of centuries of solitude-virtuosi ranging from Montaigne to Nietzsche to Ingmar Bergman — to formulate the essence of the inquiry, at once elemental and embodied, at the heart of the art of solitude:

Don’t expect anything to happen. Just wait. This waiting is a deep acceptance of the moment as such. Nietzsche called it amor fati — unquestioning love of whatever has fated you to be here. You reach a point where you’re just sitting there, asking, “What is this?” — but with no interest in an answer. The longing for an answer compromises the potency of the question. Can you be satisfied to rest in this puzzlement, this perplexity, in a deeply focused and embodied way? Just waiting without any expectations?

Ask “What is this?,” then open yourself completely to what you “hear” in the silence that follows. Be open to this question in the same way as you would listen to a piece of music. Pay total attention to the polyphony of the birds and wind outside, the occasional plane that flies overhead, the patter of rain on a window. Listen carefully, and notice how listening is not just an opening of the mind but an opening of the heart, a vital concern or care for the world, the source of what we call compassion or love.

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

Echoing Rachel Carson’s trust in the loneliness of creative work — a byproduct of the solitude necessary for creative work, natural and needed, often terrifying and always clarifying — Batchelor adds:

To be alone at your desk or in your studio is not enough. You have to free yourself from the phantoms and inner critics who pursue you wherever you go. “When you start working,” said the composer John Cage, “everybody is in your studio — the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas — all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.”

[…]

Having shut the door, you find yourself alone before a canvas, a sheet of paper, a lump of clay, a computer screen. Other tools and materials lie around, close at hand, waiting to be used. You resume your silent conversation with the work. This is a two-way process: you create the work and then you respond to it. The work can inspire, surprise, and shock you… The solitary act of making art involves intense, wordless dialogue.

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

Drawing a link between the Buddhist notion of nirvana and Keats’s notion of “negative capability” — that spacious willingness to negate the pull of attachments, reactivities, and fixities, to live with mystery and embrace uncertainty — Batchelor observes that contemplative practice trains the ability to see each moment as a chance to start anew, to savor life as ongoing, unfixed, ever-changing and ever capable of being changed. He considers the essential building blocks and ultimate rewards of contemplative practice:

To integrate contemplative practice into life requires more than becoming proficient in techniques of meditation. It entails the cultivation and refinement of a sensibility about the totality of your existence—from intimate moments of personal anguish to the endless suffering of the world. This sensibility encompasses a range of skills: mindfulness, curiosity, understanding, collectedness, compassion, equanimity, care. Each of these can be cultivated and refined in solitude but has little value if it cannot survive the fraught encounter with others. Never be complacent about contemplative practice; it is always a work in progress. The world is here to surprise us. My most lasting insights have occurred off the cushion, not on it.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince.

In consonance with poet and philosopher Wendell Berry’s life-tested belief that “true solitude is found in the wild places,” where one is without human obligation,” where “one’s inner voices become audible [and,] in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives,” Batchelor adds:

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.

Complement The Art of Solitude with Hermann Hesse on solitude, hardship, and destiny, then savor Batchelor’s spacious On Being conversation with Krista Tippett.

BP

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