Albert Camus on how to live whole in a broken world, Anne Morrow Lindbergh on the beach and the soul, an illustrated celebration of the changing light

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The Marginalian

Welcome Hello Reader! This is the weekly email digest of The Marginalian by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition — befriending a blackbird, Terry Tempest Williams on change and denial, an illustrated celebration of how John Cage revolutionized music through silence — you can catch up right here. And if my labor of love enriches your life in any way, please consider supporting it with a donation — for seventeen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to reader patronage. If you already donate: I appreciate you more than you know.

Albert Camus on How to Live Whole in a Broken World

Born into a World War to live through another, Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) died in a car crash with an unused train ticket to the same destination in his pocket. Just three years earlier, he had become the second-youngest laureate of the Nobel Prize, awarded him for literature that “with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience” — problems like art as resistance, happiness as our moral obligation, and the measure of strength through difficult times.

During WWII, Camus stood passionately on the side of justice; during the Cold War, he sliced through the Iron Curtain with all the humanistic force of simple kindness. But as he watched the world burn its own future in the fiery pit of politics, he understood that time, which has no right side and no wring side, is only ever won or lost on the smallest and most personal scale: absolute presence with one’s own life, rooted in the belief that “real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”

Camus addresses this with poetic poignancy in an essay titled “The Wrong Side and the Right Side,” found in his altogether superb posthumous collection Lyrical and Critical Essays (public library).

Albert Camus

In a prescient admonition against our modern cult of productivity, which plunders our capacity for presence, Camus writes:

Life is short, and it is sinful to waste one’s time. They say I’m active. But being active is still wasting one’s time, if in doing one loses oneself. Today is a resting time, and my heart goes off in search of itself. If an anguish still clutches me, it’s when I feel this impalpable moment slip through my fingers like quicksilver… At the moment, my whole kingdom is of this world. This sun and these shadows, this warmth and this cold rising from the depths of the air: why wonder if something is dying or if men suffer, since everything is written on this window where the sun sheds its plenty as a greeting to my pity?

Echoing the young Dostoyevsky’s exultant reckoning with the meaning of life shortly after his death sentence was repealed (“To be a human being among people and to remain one forever, no matter in what circumstances, not to grow despondent and not to lose heart,” Dostoyevsky wrote to his brother, “that’s what life is all about, that’s its task.”), Camus adds:

What counts is to be human and simple. No, what counts is to be true, and then everything fits in, humanity and simplicity. When am I truer than when I am the world?… What I wish for now is no longer happiness but simply awareness… I hold onto the world with every gesture, to men with all my gratitude and pity. I do not want to choose between the right and wrong sides of the world, and I do not like a choice… The great courage is still to gaze as squarely at the light as at death. Besides, how can I define the link that leads from this all-consuming love of life to this secret despair?… In spite of much searching, this is all I know.

These reflections led Camus to conclude that “there is no love of life without despair of life”; out of them he drew his three antidotes to the absurdity of life and the crucial question at its center.

Couple with George Saunders — who may be the closest we have to Camus in our time — on how to love the world more, then revisit Wendell Berry’s poetic antidote to despair.

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Each month, I spend hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars keeping The Marginalian going. For seventeen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, not even an assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with a one-time or loyal donation. Your support makes all the difference.

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There Was a Shadow: A Lyrical Illustrated Celebration of the Changing Light, in the World and in the Inner World

“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty,” Junichiro Tanizaki wrote in the 1933 Japanese classic In Praise of Shadows. As a physical phenomenon, shadows are one of the most beguiling phenomena of nature, emissaries of the entwined history of light and consciousness; as a metaphor, they are one of the most illuminating perspectives on human nature. The lower our level of conscious awareness, the longer the shadow our past casts on the present. But even under the noonday sun of our highest consciousness, we are still rooted in our shadows and must befriend them in order to fully inhabit our lives. “Learn to look when the sun of destiny plays with your shadows,” Hermann Hesse wrote in his passionate field guide to being yourself.

The world of shadows, physical and psychic, comes alive with uncommon tenderness in There Was a Shadow (public library) by writer Bruce Handy and artist Lisk Feng — the story, unfolding with a lovely rhythm partway between lullaby and villanelle, of a girl who ventures outside to discover that everything casts a shadow.

She encounters the “tall, wide shadow” of a hill and the “tiny, look-closely shadow” of a beetle, the shadows of her friends and the shadows of the birds, the soft blue shadow of moonlight and the warm yellow shadow of the kitchen lamp, the shadow of a feeling and the shadow of a dream.

Along the way, as the day’s shadows grow longer and melt into dusk to become the “delicate shadows, hard-to-see shadows” of the night, she also discovers that no shadow is fixed, that the loveliness of life is largely a matter of attending to the ever-changing light — the play of light on the water, the play of light on a face, the play of light in the mind.

There was a shadow.
It was a thinking shadow,
a shadow you could feel but not see,

It was a worry.

But like a bird’s shadow,
the worry shadow darted,
flickered, and was gone.

Couple There Was a Shadow with The Shadow Elephant — a tender illustrated fable about what it takes to unblue our sorrows and lighten the load of our heaviest emotions — then revisit this lyrical illustrated invitation to find the light in the dark.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova

donating=loving

Each month, I spend hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars keeping The Marginalian going. For seventeen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, not even an assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with a one-time or loyal 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

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Partial to Bitcoin? You can beam some bit-love my way: 197usDS6AsL9wDKxtGM6xaWjmR5ejgqem7

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The Beach and the Soul: Anne Morrow Lindbergh on the Benedictions of the Sea

“Without a body there’s no soul and without the latter there’s no way to speak about the sea,” the poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan wrote in her superb meditation on the sea and the soul. “No one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry,” Rachel Carson insisted. Because the beach is where the body meets the sea, it is a place of encounter with the native poetry of the soul — a place to be “washed of all the excrescences of so-called civilization, which includes the incapacity to be happy under any circumstances,” as Anaïs Nin observed in contemplating the beach as training ground for presence. It was on the beach alone at night that Walt Whitman touched eternity.

One summer in the early 1950s, Anne Morrow Lindbergh (June 22, 1906–February 7, 2001) left her husband and five children home in the suburbs of New York City and headed for beach in search of communion with her own soul. In Gift from the Sea (public library), in lovely prose winged with the poetic, she channels what she found through the patient work of surrender and shimmering receptivity.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Lindbergh writes:

The beach is not the place to work; to read, write or think… Too warm, too damp, too soft for any real mental discipline or sharp flights of spirit… The books remain unread, the pencils break their points and the pads rest smooth and unblemished as the cloudless sky. No reading, no writing, no thoughts even—at least, not at first.

At first, the tired body takes over completely… One is forced against one’s mind, against all tidy resolutions, back into the primeval rhythms of the seashore. Rollers on the beach, wind in the pines, the slow flapping of herons across sand dunes, drown out the hectic rhythms of city and suburb, time tables and schedules. One falls under their spell, relaxes, stretches out prone. One becomes, in fact, like the element on which one lies, flattened by the sea; bare, open, empty as the beach, erased by today’s tides of all yesterday’s scribblings.

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

But this elemental surrender does not come easily, or quickly, to the captive of civilization and all its deadening compulsions of productivity — it takes time to surrender. For Lindbergh, in an era when airplanes were young and the Internet unborn, that time was two weeks. I wonder what the technology-induced inflation would be today.

She writes:

And then, some morning in the second week, the mind wakes, comes to life again. Not in a city sense — no — but beach-wise. It begins to drift, to play, to turn over in gentle careless rolls like those lazy waves on the beach. One never knows what chance treasures these easy unconscious rollers may toss up, on the smooth white sand of the conscious mind; what perfectly rounded stone, what rare shell from the ocean floor. Perhaps a channelled whelk, a moon shell or even an argonaut.

Argonauta argo by Frederick Nodder, 1793. (Available as a print and as a bath mat, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In a caveat central to every meditation practice and every true unbidden love, she adds:

But it must not be sought for or — heaven forbid! — dug for. No, no dredging of the sea bottom here. That would defeat one’s purpose. The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach — waiting for a gift from the sea.

Complement with Rachel Carson on the ocean and the meaning of life, then revisit Lindbergh on embracing change in relationships.

donating=loving

Every month, I spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars keeping The Marginalian going. For seventeen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, not even an assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with a one-time or loyal 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 NowGive Now

Partial to Bitcoin? You can beam some bit-love my way: 197usDS6AsL9wDKxtGM6xaWjmR5ejgqem7

Need to cancel an existing donation? (It's okay — life changes course. I treasure your kindness and appreciate your support for as long as it lasted.) You can do so on this page.

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