“Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.” Every once in a while, amid the serious and often stern prose comprising the canon of great writers’ advice on writing, there glimmers an offering of wisdom no less weighty yet delivered with wondrous levity.
“Informationally speaking, the experience of being sad is a crystal, a fantastically complex shape in a space of a trillion dimensions that is qualitatively different from the brain state that gives rise to sadness.” “I wish you could know what it means to be me,” Nina Simone sang in her 1967 civil rights anthem “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” — an invitation to empathy at the heart of which is the animating question of consciousness: What does the experience of being feel like from the inside and can that subjective experience ever be fully understood from the outside?
“If I swim a mile, the first half hour might be drudgery, but somewhere in the middle it catches fire.” “Live immediately,” Seneca exhorted in his timeless 2,000-year-old meditation on the shortness of life.
“An artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian. His role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are.” “A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven,” James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) wrote in his classic 1962 essay “The Creative Process.” By then, he was already one of America’s most celebrated writers — an artist who shook up the baseboards of society by dismantling the structures of power and convention with unflinching fortitude, dignity, and integrity of conviction.
“Music is ‘significant form,’ and its significance is that of a symbol, a highly articulated sensuous object… Feeling, life, motion and emotion constitute its import.” “Music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts… and the most sensual,” Susan Sontag wrote in one of the most beautiful meditations on the power of music.
“The garden of life is strewn with such dormant seeds and so much of art blossoms from their unwilled and unwillable awakenings.” And now for something a bit out of the ordinary: When editor Andrew Blauner invited me to contribute to an anthology of essays by some of his favorite writers about their favorite Beatles songs, I did something I rarely do — I accepted, because a particular Beatles song happens to be a significant animating force in my family story.
An elegy for time and the mortality of beauty, composed with passionate patience and a sensuous cadence.
“[Art] is the process by which, in imagining itself and the relation of individuals to one another and to it, a society comes to understand itself, and by understanding, discover its possibilities of growth.” “The poets (by which I mean all artists),” James Baldwin wrote in his exquisite 1962 meditation on the artist’s role in society, “are finally the only people who know the truth about us.
“Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul.” “Friendship is unnecessary,” C.S.
“The true artist is not proud… Though he may be admired by others, he is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius only appears as a distant, guiding sun.” “The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself,” E.E.
“Elegant facts await me.” In the early nineteenth century, a young South African woman named Saartje Baartman went to Europe with her employer, a free black man, and an English doctor.
“The smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of the same boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation.” “An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her piercing 1975 meditation on how relationships refine our truths.
“The universe throws down a challenge to the human spirit… We have a right to our moods of sober exultation.” “The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both,” Carl Sagan wrote shortly before his death.
“Feel all the things. Feel the hard things. The inexplicable things, the things that make you disavow humanity’s capacity for redemption… Feel afraid.
An ode to the human zest for “bowing before the oracle-eye, hungry for what it would find.” At the turn of the twentieth century, Henrietta Swan Leavitt — one of the remarkable astronomers known as the Harvard Computers, women who did significant cosmological work long before they could vote — made a discovery that allowed astronomers to calculate the distance between Earth and faraway galaxies for the first time.
Wisdom on mortality and the aliveness of the heart from an ancient tree and the boy who loved it. Since long before researchers began to illuminate the astonishing science of what trees feel and how they communicate, the human imagination has communed with the arboreal world and found in it a boundless universe of kinship.
“In every act of love and will — and in the long run they are both present in each genuine act — we mold ourselves and our world simultaneously.
“These moments are rare, and they come without warning… They are the ineffable reward of him who scans the face of Nature.” “The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of the micrometer,” astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science, wrote in a beautiful 1878 diary meditation on the needle as an instrument of the mind.
“Loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility.” “Every person of ordinary sex endowment has a capacity for diffuse ‘homosexual’ sex expression … according to the temperamental situation,” the influential anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote in a visionary 1933 letter that framed human sexuality as a matter of fluid attraction to temperaments, not a fixed attraction to genders, eight decades before the modern plight for marriage equality ushered in the universal dignity of love.
A lyrical love letter to “the small bipeds with the giant dreams.” “We [are] a species endowed with hope and perseverance, at least a little intelligence, substantial generosity and a palpable zest to make contact with the cosmos,” Carl Sagan wrote in reflecting on the legacy of the Golden Record — the interstellar disc of human culture that sailed into the distant reaches of the cosmos aboard the Voyager spacecraft in 1977.