I’m on sabbatical and, while my initial impulse to read, read, read, study, study, study has collapsed under the heavy weight of self-imposed and tyrannical responsibility, I’ve begun to settle into a more humane routine. A wise friend recently chastened me:
Stop it! You’re driving yourself too hard. Sabbatical comes from the root “sabbath”. That means renewing yourself in the delights of the Holy. Love yourself fully and you will find your way to all that is sacred. No more ‘to do’ lists. Rather immerse yourself in all that makes you come alive, takes your breath away, leaves you feeling joyful, fills you with awe, calms and quiets all that is restless within, brings true peace, connects you to who you truly are, and makes you shine with Light and emanate Love.
Good words, those.
So, I’m reading only what my soul seems to want to read. That does mean I’m listening here and there to Don Quixote on Audible, reading also a little of Frederico Garcia Lorca’s poetry—that brilliant Spanish poet who confounds the rational mind with his flights into duende, and I’m also sauntering slowly through The Epic of Gilgamesh—I know, an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia may not sound thrilling, but it frankly is. It’s a lyrical tale that’s considered the oldest and still one of the greatest works of literature. There’s a stunning beauty to Stephen Mitchell’s recent translation.
But I keep returning to little meanderings through Maria Popova’s new book, Figuring. The first sentence alone is worth the price of the book (not quoted here); it’s a paragraph-long love affair with language, love, science and history.
In her own words, the book “explores the complexities of love and the human search for truth and meaning through the interconnected lives of several historical figures across four centuries”—artists, writers, and scientists whose public contributions are well-known. Not well-known are their private loves, struggles to love, and the historical forces that often kept them boxed up inside their longings with few, if any, opportunities to express what their hearts and souls longed to express. Most of the personalities in Popova’s lovely book loved persons of the same gender at times when such love was at best frowned upon, at worst illegal.
At a time when a new barbarism has grabbed political power and empowered tense cultural struggles over science, both cosmic and biological, as well as race, gender, and national identity—and when the flowering of human consciousness is wilted by draconian visions of our humanity, bellowed in the public square and enforced through regressive legislation, Popova’s writing is an act of poetic resistance. [for more of her see her important essays on her acclaimed digital journal website, BrainPickings]
Here’s a piece I fell in love with today—
No one ever knows, nor therefore has grounds to judge, what goes on between two people, often not even the people themselves, half-opaque as we are to ourselves. One thing is certain: The quotient of intimacy cannot be contained in a label like “Uranian”—or “queer,” or whatever comes next. The human heart is an ancient beast that roars and purrs with the same passions, whatever labels we may give them. We are so anxious to classify and categorize, both nature and human nature. It is a beautiful impulse—to contain the infinite in the finite, to wrest order from the chaos, to construct a foothold so awe may climb toward higher truth. It is also a limiting one, for in naming things we often come to mistake the names for the things themselves. The labels we give to the loves of which we are capable—varied and vigorously transfigured from one kind into another and back again—can’t begin to contain the complexity of feeling that can flow between two hearts and the bodies that contain them.
Popova’s writing is an exquisite apologia for our own, quite necessary, advocacy on behalf of the freedom of two persons, regardless of their gender, to love one another, and for us to resist the labeling and naming and categorizing of persons and their loves according to old dualisms—unholy binaries—that not only wound persons, but sin against the very nature of God in whose image all of us are made.
Herman Melville once wrote to his love, Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God’s . . . . I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces . . . . truth is ever incoherent and when the big hearts strike together, the concussion is a little stunning” (also in Popova’s book) [I have argued elsewhere that the very nature of God as Trinity (in the Christian tradition) requires us to explore the non-binary nature of human gender and relationship]
Melville, late in life expressed, ruefully, the pain of a love that could not be expressed:
To have know him, to have loved him,
After loneness long;
And then to be estranged in life,
And neither in the wrong;
And now for death to set his seal—
Ease me, a little ease, my song!
We need more love, not less, in these hateful and confused times. We need less hindrances to love, not more, to provide us with the ballast to weather the turbulence of our age.
A little after her opening, paragraph-long sentence, exquisitely celebrating all it means to be in love and to be alive, Popova writes:
There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.
Yes, there are. And the future of our race hinges on our ability—and courage—to protect the right for all to love.