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Sylvia Plath and the Loneliness of Love

“Life is loneliness… Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship — but the loneliness of the soul, in its appalling self-consciousness, is horrible and overpowering.” Western psychologists have rightly observed that “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.” Zen Buddhists have rightly observed that “to love without knowing...

Sarah Mapps Douglass’s Flowers: The First Surviving Art Signed by an African-American Woman

A rose is a rose is a revolution. In his thrice-revised and expanded autobiographies, Frederick Douglass, born Frederick Bailey, recounts changing his surname multiple times to cover his fugitive trail. When the time came to settle on a permanent name, he invited the man in whose home was taking refuge — a free black man devoted to helping fugitive...

Probable Impossibilities: Physicist Alan Lightman on Beginnings, Endings, and What Makes Life Worth Living

How our cosmic improbability confers dignity and meaning upon our shared existence. “What exists, exists so that it can be lost and become precious,” Lisel Mueller, who lived to nearly 100, wrote in her gorgeous poem “Immortality” a century and a half after a young artist pointed the world’s largest telescope at the cosmos to capture the first surviving...

The Mirror of Enigmas: Chance, the Universe, and the Pale Blues of Knowing Who We Are

“There is no human being on earth capable of declaring with certitude who he is.” It takes a great sobriety of spirit to know your own depths — and your limits. It takes a special grandeur of spirit to know the limits of your self-knowledge. A recent brush with those limits reminded me of a short, stunning essay by Jorge Luis Borges (August 24,...

The Ocean and the Meaning of Life

“Contemplating the teeming life of the shore, we have an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp… the ultimate mystery of Life itself.” This essay is adapted from Figuring. In June of 1952, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service received a letter of resignation from its most famous marine...

James Baldwin on Love, the Illusion of Choice, and the Paradox of Freedom

“Nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom.” We, none of us, choose the century we are born in, or the skin we are born in, or the chromosomes we are born with. We don’t choose the incredibly narrow band of homeostasis within which we can be alive at all — in bodies that die when their temperature rises above 40 degrees Celsius or...

Alain de Botton’s Animated Field Guide to Surviving Heartbreak and Embracing Need as a Central Dignity of Relationships

A resaning antidote to one of the most dangerous and damaging romantic myths in our culture. All love is asymmetry. Since love is not a state but a skill to be mastered, not a noun but a verb, all loving is the skillful harmonizing of asymmetries across the scales of personhood and preference between those involved. Asymmetries — of taste and temperament,...

The Conscience of Color, from Chemistry to Culture

“Colors are not possessions; they are the intimate revelations of an energy field… They are light waves with mathematically precise lengths, and they are deep, resonant mysteries with boundless subjectivity… Our lives, when we pay attention to light, compel us to empathy with color.” “The deep blue water of the open sea far from land is the color...

Matter, Music, and the Mind

“Sound is sea: pattern lapping pattern… Matter delights in music, and became Bach.” “A rough sound was polished until it became a smoother sound, which was polished until it became music,” Mark Strand wrote in his splendid poem “The Everyday Enchantment of Music,” touching on the materiality of that enchantment: Music is matter dancing in the mind....

I Measure Every Grief I Meet: Emily Dickinson on Love and Loss

“‘Tis good — the looking back on Grief.” Grief is the shadow love casts in the light of loss. The grander the love, the vaster the shadow. So much of who we are — who we discover ourselves to be — takes shape in that umbral space as we fumble for some edge to hold onto, some point of light to orient by. Because the price of living wholeheartedly...

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