The Marginalian
The Marginalian

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about

Photograph by Allan Amato.

Hello, kith. My name is Maria Popova — a reader, a wonderer, and a lover of reality who makes sense of the world and herself through the essential inner dialogue that is the act of writing. The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first 15 years) is my one-woman labor of love, exploring what it means to live a decent, inspired, substantive life of purpose and gladness. Founded in 2006 as a weekly email to seven friends, eventually brought online and now included in the Library of Congress permanent web archive, it is a record of my own becoming as a person — intellectually, creatively, spiritually, poetically — drawn from my extended marginalia on the search for meaning across literature, science, art, philosophy, and the various other tendrils of human thought and feeling. A private inquiry irradiated by the ultimate question, the great quickening of wonderment that binds us all:

What is all this?

I am also the author of a very long, very yellow book titled Figuring and a very slender, very colorful book titled The Snail with the Right Heart, editor of an eight-year labor titled A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, and past-life contributor to The New York Times, Wired, The Atlantic, and other editorial exoplanets.

For more about the ethos and the human behind this labor of love, here are some reflections on my most important life-learnings from the first thirteen years of this experiment in living, some answers to The New York Times’ “By the Book” questionnaire, and an On Being conversation with the wonderful and generous Krista Tippett:

The Marginalian has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly solitary labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood.

If you are new here, welcome. Here are some of my favorite pieces from the years, to give you a sense of scope and sensibility:

BP

Growing Through Grief: Derek Jarman on Gardening as Creative Redemption, Consecration of Time, and Training Ground for Presence

“The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end… Here is the Amen beyond the prayer.”

Growing Through Grief: Derek Jarman on Gardening as Creative Redemption, Consecration of Time, and Training Ground for Presence

“In forty years of medical practice,” the great neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote, “I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients…: music and gardens.”

Virginia Woolf, savaged by depression throughout and out of her life, arrived at her buoyant epiphany about what it means to be an artist while walking in her garden.

“I work like a gardener,” the visionary artist Joan Miró observed in reflecting on his creative process.

“It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness,” the bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in her scientific-poetic serenade to gardening.

But if modern gardening has a patron saint, it must be the English artist, filmmaker, and LGBT rights activist Derek Jarman (January 31, 1942–February 19, 1994).

Derek Jarman

In 1989, shortly after his HIV diagnosis and his father’s death, Jarman left the bustling pretensions of London for a simple life on the shingled shores of Kent. He took up residence in a former Victorian fisherman’s hut between an old lighthouse and a nuclear power plant on the headland of Dungeness, a newly designated a conservation area. He named it Prospect Cottage, painted the front room a translucent Naples yellow, replaced the ramshackle door with blue velvet curtains, and set about making a garden around the gnarled century-old pear tree rising from the carpet of violets as the larks living in the shingles sang high above him in the grey-blue English sky.

At low tide, he collected some handsome sea-rounded flints washed up after a storm, staked them upright in the garden “like dragon teeth,” and encircled each with twelve small beach pebbles. These rudimentary sundials became his flower beds, into which he planted a wondrous miniature wilderness of species not even half of which I, a growing gardener, have encountered — saxifrage, calendula, rue, camomile, shirley poppy, santolina, nasturtium, dianthus, purple iris, hare-bell, and his favorite: sea kale. (A gorgeous plant new to me, which I immediately researched, procured, and planted in my Brooklyn garden.)

Red poppy from A Curious Herbal by Elizabeth Blackwell, 1737. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

As the seasons turned and his flowers rose and the AIDS plague felled his friends one by one, Jarman mourned loss after loss, then grounded himself again and again in the irrepressible life of soil and sprout and bud and bloom. The garden, which his Victorian ancestors saw as a source of moral lessons, became his sanctuary of “extraordinary peacefulness” amid the deepest existential perturbations of death, his canvas for creation amid all the destruction.

The record of this healing creative adventure became Jarman’s Modern Nature (public library) — part memoir and part memorial, a reckoning and a redemption, a homecoming to his first great love: gardening. What emerges from the short near-daily entries is a kind of hybrid between Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom, Rilke’s Book of Hours, and Thoreau’s philosophical nature journals.

On the last day of February, after planting lavender in a circle of stones he collected from the beach under the clear blue sky, he writes:

Apart from the nagging past — film, sex and London — I have never been happier than last week. I look up and see the deep azure sea outside my window in the February sun, and today I saw my first bumble bee. Plated lavender and clumps of red hot poker.

It is a different garden of Eden he is building on these windblown shores, living with a deadly disease while his friends — his kind, our kind — are dying of it in a world too indifferent to human suffering, too bedeviled by millennia of religion-fomented homophobia. Gardening becomes not only his salvation, but his act of resistance:

Before I finish I intend to celebrate our corner of Paradise, the part of the garden the Lord forgot to mention.

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

Acutely aware that he could finish any moment, that he could be the next to go, Jarman turns his garden into processing ground for grief — a personal grief, a cultural grief, a civilizational grief:

The wind calls my name, Prophesy!

[…]

Time is scattered, the past and the future, the future past and present. Whole lives are erased from the book by the great dictator, the screech of the pen across the page, your name, Prophesy, your name!

But the ultimate gift of gardening is the way it concentrates and consecrates time, grounding the gardener in a present both conscious of and undistracted by the ongoing cycles of seasonality stretching across all past and all future.

Iris by Elizabeth Blackwell, 1737. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

In the first week of March, Jarman arrives at what may be the greatest reward of gardening, evocative of poet Ross Gay’s lovely sentiment that time spent gardening is “an exercise in supreme attentiveness.” He writes:

The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end. A time that does not cleave the day with rush hours, lunch breaks, the last bus home. As you walk in the garden you pass into this time — the moment of entering can never be remembered. Around you the landscape lies transfigured. Here is the Amen beyond the prayer.

I am reminded of the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s insight about film, Jarman’s primary creative medium — that its raw material and its gift to the viewer is time: “time lost or spent or not yet had.” I am reminded, too, of Seneca, writing two millennia earlier about mastering the existential math of time spent, saved, and wasted — I have found few that better clarify the difference between the three than the quiet lessons of gardening.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener.

In the garden, Jarman discovers — or rather befriends — the most disquieting byproduct of time: boredom. Half a century after his Nobel-winning compatriot Bertrand Russell placed a capacity for boredom and “fruitful monotony” at the heart of human flourishing, Jarman contemplates his new cottage life away from London’s familiar “traps of notoriety and expectation, of collaboration and commerce, of fame and fortune,” and writes:

I have re-discovered my boredom here… where I can fight “what next” with nothing.

His boredom, like all of our boredom, becomes a laboratory for presence — a nursery in which to grow the capacity for paying attention, a studio in which to master the vital art of noticing, out of which our contact with beauty and gladness arises — the wellspring of all that makes life livable. In an entry from the last day of March, Jarman shines the beam of his garden-honed attention directly at the poetics of reality:

Sun a pure white globe in a chalky sky, mist blowing across the Ness in milky veils, silent pussy willow woods the palest pastel yellow luminous in the silvery light.

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

He finds again and again that the attention of presence and the attention of remembrance are one:

My garden is a memorial, each circular bed a dial and a true lover’s knot — planted with lavender, helichryssum and santolina.

And so this living temple of the present becomes a memorial of the future past and a monument to conservation. In one of the short poems punctuating his journal, penned as he records news of a government summit on global warming, Jarman addresses a visitor from the barely recognizable future:

to whom it may concern
in the dead stones of a planet
no longer remembered as earth
may he decipher this opaque hieroglyph
perform an archeology of soul
on these precious fragments
all that remains of our vanished days
here — at the sea’s edge
I have planted a stony garden
dragon tooth dolmen spring up
to defend the porch
steadfast warriors

Complement Modern Nature — which I discovered through Olivia Laing’s magnificent essays on art, artists, and the human spirit — with Debbie Millman’s illustrated love letter to gardening and poet-gardener Ross Gay’s yearlong experiment in willful gladness.

BP

John Muir on the Calm Assurance of Autumn as a Time of Renewal and Nature as a Tonic for Mental and Physical Health

“Although the dying time, it is also the color time, the time when faith in the steadfastness of Nature is surest… The seeds all have next summer in them, some of them thousands of summers.”

John Muir on the Calm Assurance of Autumn as a Time of Renewal and Nature as a Tonic for Mental and Physical Health

In the final year of his twenties, penniless and hungry for meaning, John Muir (April 21, 1838–December 24, 1914) left the Wisconsin frontier, where his family had emigrated from Scotland two decades earlier in search of a better life, to wander across the wilderness of his new homeland. He began recording his encounters with nature, with its beauty and its capacity for transcendence, in a small pocket notebook — the first of the sixty journals he would keep for the remainder of his life, on the pages of which he emerged as the prose-poet laureate of nature, his soulful sensibility echoing across the generations in the writings of lyrical scientists like Rachel Carson and modern naturalists like Terry Tempest Williams and Robert Macfarlane. He would live as an ecstatic lover of the wilderness and die as a founding father of the National Parks.

John Muir

Growing up, the notion of becoming a writer never entered Muir’s imagination. Instead, he dreamt of becoming an inventor; then a physician; then a botanist. He took to “the making of books” only late in life, recounting: “When I first left home to go to school, I thought of fortune as an inventor, but the glimpse I got of the Cosmos at the University, put all the cams and wheels and levers out of my head.” It was during those school years that the polymath Alexander von Humboldt’s epoch-making book Kosmos first captivated the popular imagination with the notion of nature as a cosmos of connections, inspiring the young Walt Whitman to declare that “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars” and the young John Muir to write his address on the flyleaf of his first journal as “John Muir, Earth-Planet, Universe.” On the pages of his journals, Muir would arrive at his animating credo that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Still in his twenties, a century and a half before neurologists began uncovering the healing power of nature, Muir began discerning the immense psychological and physiological rewards of immersion in the living cosmos of nature and its uncommon salve for the various malaises, distempers, and wearinesses of body and mind we accrue in the course of living as thinking, feeling creatures in a perpetually precarious world. In one of those notebooks, posthumously collected in the 1938 treasure John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir (public library), he writes:

Nature, while urging to utmost efforts, leading us with work, presenting cause beyond cause in endless chains, lost in infinite distances, yet cheers us like a mother with tender prattle words of love, ministering to all our friendlessness and weariness.

In an entry from the journals he kept during his transformative time in the Sierra Mountains, he celebrates nature not only as a mental, emotional, and spiritual buoy but as a holistic sanity tonic distilled in the body. Well before Walt Whitman devised his marvelous outdoor workout while recovering from his paralytic stroke, well before William James advanced his revolutionary theory of how our bodies affect our feelings, Muir writes:

Gain health from lusty, heroic exercise, from free, firm-nerved adventures without anxiety in them, with rhythmic leg motion in runs over boulders requiring quick decision for every step. Fording streams, tingling with flesh brushes as we slide down white slopes thatched with close snow-pressed chaparral, half swimming or flying or slipping — all these make good counter-irritants. Then enjoy the utter peace and solemnity of the trees and stars… Find a mysterious presence in a thousand coy hiding things.

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

In another fragment from his Yosemite notebook bearing the heading “Indian Summer,” in a sentiment Colette would echo generations later in her soulful meditation on the splendor of autumn and the autumn of life as a beginning rather than a decline, Muir reflects on the singular, counterintuitive life-affirmation of autumn:

In the yellow mist the rough angles melt on the rocks. Forms, lines, tints, reflections, sounds, all are softened, and although the dying time, it is also the color time, the time when faith in the steadfastness of Nature is surest… The seeds all have next summer in them, some of them thousands of summers, as the sequoia and cedar. In the holiday array all go calmly down into the white winter rejoicing, plainly hopeful, faithful… everything taking what comes, and looking forward to the future, as if piously saying, “Thy will be done in earth as in heaven!”

Garden Supernovae by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Several passages later, he adds:

Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal, or heaven cannot heal, for the earth as seen in the clean wilds of the mountains is about as divine as anything the heart of man can conceive!

Couple the altogether soul-salving John of the Mountains with a cinematic tribute to Muir’s wilderness legacy, then revisit Mary Shelley on nature’s beauty as a lifeline to regaining sanity and other beloved writers on the natural world as a remedy for depression.

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The Art of Centering: Potter and Poet M.C. Richards on What She Learned at the Wheel About Non-Dualism, Creative Wholeness, and the Poetry of Personhood

“Centering is a verb… an ongoing process… a way of balancing, a spiritual resource in times of conflict, an imagination… an alchemical vessel, a retort, which bears an integration of purposes, an integration of levels of consciousness.”

The Art of Centering: Potter and Poet M.C. Richards on What She Learned at the Wheel About Non-Dualism, Creative Wholeness, and the Poetry of Personhood

Looking back on the first thirteen years of Brain Pickings, I termed my thirteen most important life-learnings “fluid reflections on keeping a solid center.” But how exactly do we locate our center and master its osmotic balance between fluidity and solidity?

That is what poet, potter, and manual philosopher M.C. Richards (July 13, 1916–September 10, 1999) explores in her 1964 counterculture classic Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (public library) — an inspired inquiry into “how we may seek to bring universe into a personal wholeness,” “to feel the whole in every part,” which popularized the now-commonplace notion of “both… and” as the non-dualistic, parallelistic alternative to the dualistic, perpendicularist “either… or” mindset.

After graduating from U.C. Berkeley, Richards was offered a tenure-track position at the University of Chicago, but was soon disillusioned with the hyperfocus on standardized achievement, competitive and vacant. Just after World War II, just before her thirtieth birthday, she made a radical leap of faith and joined the English faculty of the experimental Black Mountain College.

Mary Caroline Richards at Black Mountain College (Getty Research Institute. Photographer unknown.)

One of the school’s most beloved teachers, she founded Black Mountain Press with her students, teaching them the fundamentals of typesetting and publishing, and soon rose to head of faculty. She forged close friendships with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and the famed Black Mountain Poets. Many decades before neurologist Oliver Sacks extolled the healing power of gardening, she lived with mentally handicapped adults in a working community based on biodynamic agriculture — the precursor to organic gardening and farming.

In the 1950s, she returned to Black Mountain College not as a teacher but as a student — of pottery. The beautiful consonance she found between her two arts inspired a larger inquiry into the creative process, in a work of art and in the work of personhood.

M.C. Richards: Four Virgins of the Elk Dance (Courtesy of Black Mountain College)

Governed by her conviction that “poets are not the only poets” and that artists don’t leave their art at the studio, Richards explores the poetry of personhood through the metaphor of centering, drawn from the craftsmanship of pottery — a potter brings the clay to the center of the wheel, then begins the process of giving the amorphous spinning mass the desired shape. She writes:

Centering is a verb. It is an ongoing process… Centering is not a model, but a way of balancing, a spiritual resource in times of conflict, an imagination. It seems in certain lights to be an alchemical vessel, a retort, which bears an integration of purposes, an integration of levels of consciousness. It can be called to, like a divine ear.

[…]

Centering… is the discipline of bringing in (i.e., of sympathy or empathy) rather than of leaving out. Of saying “Yes, Yes” to what we behold. To what is holy and to what is unbearable. But my experience tells me now that there is an important crucial stage of saying Yes to a No. For resistance also must be embraced. Not only accepting resistance but practicing it.

This non-dualistic assent to other universe in all of its expressions is at the center of centering; it is also the lever by which we turn the negative into a generative place, in our individual experience and our collective aspirations. Richards writes:

The hardest and most rewarding lesson has been to learn to experience antipathy objectively, with warmth. For antipathy follows a gesture of separating, and the goal, which is to be both separate and connected, requires that one move inwardly in opposite directions. Toward self-definition and toward community. Toward ethical individualism and toward social justice. It is this fusing of the opposites that Centering enables.

[…]

In centering the clay on the potter’s wheel, one centers down, yes, and then one immediately centers up! Down and up, wide and narrow, letting focus bear within it an expanded consciousness and letting a widened awareness (empathetic) have the commitment to detail of a focused attention. Not “either… or,” but “both… and.” You can perhaps feel the inner movement of a Centering consciousness that plays dynamically in the tides of inner and outer, self and other, in an instinctive hope toward wholeness.

Art by Bhajju Shyam from Creation — a collection of illustrated origin myths from Indian folklore.

In its active practice of non-dualism, centering is thus a deepening of our understanding of reality, consonant with Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek’s observation that “you can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth.” And yet, Richards cautions, centering must not become an item on the checklist of existential achievement — the moment it ceases to be a practice and becomes an object of striving, it becomes subject to corruption and distortion:

“Center” and “centered” have come to be fairly widely used. They tend to imply a connection with the navel, with one-pointedness, on the way to bliss, realization, and inner peace. But these are not the goals of the Centering process. For it is a continual engagement with experience, not a withdrawal from it. It begins with pain and ends with paradox. It wrestles with evil and the daimonic as it does with angels and repentance. It is an activity of consciousness, not a stage of spiritual achievement.

[…]

I have found that Centering, like clay, … bears the future within it. For it contains a space for ongoing development and differentiation. In other words, it proves to be an open image, a vessel, holding a content that is life itself.

Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón.

Writing in the early 1960s — an era marked by the scar tissue of WWII and the new-growth optimism of civil rights and women’s emancipation, of space exploration and the decoding of life’s helix — Richards sees in the notion of centering an emblem of cultural evolution, as relevant to her own time as it is, after a half-century turn of the cultural wheel, to ours:

We find on so many fronts now, political and artistic as well as religious and economic, an imaginative thrust that goes not toward competitive violence and adversary motifs, but toward new social forms. Imagination is more and more recognized as a form of cognition.

Richards defines the creative mind as the “mind that makes connections between things ordinarily thought to be different” — an embodiment of “the highest human capacity”: the capacity for metaphor. Echoing the stunning speech on poetry, power, and freedom that John F. Kennedy delivered in 1963, just as she was finishing her book, she writes:

This is what fires our hearts, is it not? To feel ourselves free to love and to live. Unbullied and unbullying. Unhaunted by a conscience made guilty by social pressures and expectations. To act from source freely.

The moment we begin to act freely, we come into contact with the unknown — contact that can be a shattering shock if we are hardened, or a shape-shifting revelation if we are fluid enough to embody new forms of understanding, of meaning, of being. Centering thus becomes the locus of fluidity:

Centering… brings us what we don’t already know… We may find, yes, that yesterday is over, and we do not perpetuate old confusions. We do not cling to the savagery of nationalisms, or the shame we feel for being as we are. We stand on the shore of an ocean and the pure wind blows us fresh and we wake out of an anguish of inner conflict into a deep breath that lets us rise to our feet and in a new levity we dance. It could be said that fidelity to the processes of Centering is a path to full breathing, to a balance willingly at risk.

[…]

The deeper we go into these realms, the more contact we make with another’s reality. The sharper the sense of pain and bliss as they interweave through the heartbreak and luck of life, the more the line between self and other may dissolve.

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse. Available as a print.

In a sentiment evocative of Wendell Berry’s short and lovely poem about how to be a poet and a complete human being, Richards considers what drew her to the metaphor of centering and what it reveals about the poet in each of us:

I am an odd bird in both academic and craft worlds, perhaps because I am a poet, and thus, by calling, busy with seeing the similarities between things ordinarily thought to be different, busy with feeling the sense of relatedness grow through my limbs like a smoke-tree wafting and fusing its images, busy with the innerness of outerness, eating life in its layers like a magic cake made of silica sounds shapes and temperatures and all the things that appear to be separated stacked together in transparencies of color, and it is perhaps my vocation to swallow it whole. The expanding universe. The resilient appetite. The continuous play. The changing, changeful person, mobile and intact, finding his way on.

[…]

For life — I am sure of this — is not transforming energy, but transforming person. Energy is the means. Being is not what but whom. It is Presence in whom and before whom we show ourselves. Let us ride our lives like natural beasts, like tempests, like the bounce of a ball or the slightest ambiguous hovering of ash, the drift of scent: let us stick to those currents that can carry us, membering them with our souls. Our world personifies us, we know ourselves by it. Let us then speak to each other in our most intimate concern.

Centering is an intimate, universal, revelatory read in its timeless totality. Complement it with Susan Sontag’s astute distinction between being in the middle and being in the center, then revisit Richards’s close friend and collaborator John Cage on the inner life of artists and their contemporary E.E. Cummings on what it really means to be an artist.

BP

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