The Bee’s Midsummer Song

What a fleeting world of beauty surrounds us — beauty essentially tragic in its transience. Beauty that is never possible to drink in, however wide we open our mouth, however far we extend the hand, except for metamorphosizing it into another medium — memory or art. So I thought, savoring the nectar of the tragic blossoms, understanding the full human incapacity to do so, and the words came of themselves. Oh, to cherish each moment — not like the final, but as the eternal.

Can you imagine what it's like to be
A bee inside an apple tree, 
Legs sticky with golden nectar-wine, 
Emanating from my bed a perfume divine, 
Wildly abuzz inside the petal bloom? 
Can you imagine or even see
My arabesque of to and fro, 
No minutes counting, no days rememb'ring 
Except for dew-decked morn - 
The hour when I greet my love
Adorned in silky gowns of pink, 
More blissfully intoxicated than a faun?
Can you imagine what it's like
To be a golden honey bee
Wildly in love with the flower
Of an apple tree:
Here one day, 
On the morrow - gone. 

Destigmatizing Emotion, “The Wind’s Messenger”


Say “emotion” out loud and you’ll get a variety of reactions. A blissful smile. A giggle. A skeptical smirk. Emotions mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. Yet, as states of being, all emotions have common ground. Anyone who has ever been under their influence can attest to the phases: the initial sweeping force, the strong conviction, the eventual fading back to “normalcy”. Or, since normalcy is a subjective principle in itself (barely any of us would pass all its requisites) and there is no constant in the definition, we may simply call it the “after” in the “post-sweeping” phase of the emotional cycle.

Emotions have always fascinated me. Like many of my millennial generation, it feels like I’ve been born already skeptical of their purpose and, if anything, proud of the fact that I had little to do with being under their influence. Similar to one who rarely drinks or smokes not because of either “morality” or even health implications, but because of the lack of desire to attach to one more thing within a life that puts a heavy toll on attachment, one that can expect to backfire at any moment — similar to such “practical abstinence”, I have treated emotions for the better part of life as a hindrance. Even my teenage years steered away from emotional conflicts, such was my determination not to be influenced by any short-lived and temporary feelings as I had seen emotions to be. Barely mention to me the word, and I would be the disdainful smirk in the crowd. I would be the adamant stoic preaching the vanitas vanitatum of all things emotional.

In this skepticism, I am certainly not alone. In fact, I feel as part of a considerable bunch of relatively young people calling to the intellect to banish emotion, but in reality, also refusing to open up a part of themselves to the possibility of pain that may enter them through emotion. Yet gathering evidence from my side of camp hasn’t led me to any new angles. And as a journalist, different angles to one and the same story fascinate me. The only solution? Keeping a sound portion of my skepticism (wouldn’t expect such a lovingly nurtured habit to just evaporate, would you?), I wanted to dig deeper into the heart of my “opponent”: emotion.


The stir…

I’m in love with etymology. Mention to me a meaningful idea, and I’ll rush out to see what its roots can tell me. Thus, I decided, my journey to the “other side of emotion” would start not far from home.

Unsurprisingly, digging into the “emotional stuff” my first impulse was to wander at what clues the representation — or misrepresentation — of the word “emotion” holds. My research showed that the feeling we define as “emotion” has gone through some etymological metamorphoses. Prior to becoming mainstream in English as late as the 1800s, the concept was known variously as “moods”, “states of being”, and “passions” — in any case, something transitory and, from Stoic times, something “sinful”. In 1579, with the emergence of the French word émotion, meaning literally “movement, stirring”, I silently rejoiced as a more accurate definition, it seems, has entered the English language — though it took over two centuries more to get into the English dictionary. Yet this definition too, has made little progress in the fact of destigmatizing emotions as “sinful passions”.

Thus emotion has traveled the path from shunned (Stoics) to scrutinized (Western philosophy) to idealized (19th-century literature) to irrelevant for moral principle (Kantian philosophy) to MRI-examined (20th century). Over this course of time, we have steadily conceptualized and intellectualized emotion. Most recently, we have attempted to accessibly order human psychologies into the image of an “IKEAlized” order, with every sugar, bean, and pasta bin transparent, labeled, and filed alphabetically. Yet must we attempt such alphabet order with, precisely, those impetuses that lead us to feel a stir to feel, to act, to create? At their deepest, do not these impetuses also stir up our being like an inner dusting procedure — not always comfortable, but preventing decay?

Now, finally, if you had to picture the word “stir”, what is it that would come to mind? Close your eyes, for a moment, and with me feel the circles, rotation, motion, movement, sweeping, swishing … rush…


The wind

Have you ever noticed when the winds are at their strongest? It’s not in winter, no, but in spring. People who are close to the Earth say the Earth is thus awakened: the trees’ deepest roots, the shrubs, the grasses, the flowers are violently shaken back into rebirth, into motion. But what about us? Aren’t we, our seasons, our development, subject to similar laws of nature?

Oh, the beautiful, warm, early days of summer! When it is not hot, and the clouds are just enough to cover the blazing sun. When there’s no wind, and all is still! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in such stillness, equanimity, all year, an entire life? Wait — do I hear a “no”? And … is it coming from my own mouth?

Emotions — are they, in essence, not like the winds of the heart? We know that without wind there is no change of weather, ultimately season; there is no motion; there is a kind of unnatural, impossible petrification on Earth’s surface and above it. Unnatural, because movement is universal life, and since the creation of the universe, not a molecule has ever stood still.

Yet winds differ greatly in power over the Earth and above it. From hurricanes to gentle breezes; from winds that awaken to winds that bend; from winds that make trees’ roots resilient to winds that bend to destroy. Emotions are no different. Eliminate them from a sunny, well-tempered day (read: life), and you will be scorched by the heat of the sun (read: ego). But encourage them to swirl and pick up speed, get caught up in that brilliant show for too long, and you may wake up to the aftermath of a storm (read: havoc in life).


The wind’s messenger…

For a considerable part of my life, I had thought the best way to “manage” emotions is through stoicism and intellect. Nay, I didn’t even think so —thinking is open to debate — I took pride in it, just as people usually take pride in some queer quirk of their personality.

In the midst of this certainty, I never asked myself another question: what is the very purpose of emotion? For our mind, if we only look at it, never creates a feeling without purpose. There is never meaninglessness in our psychology. And emotion too, is only a vector, a messenger that by virtue of its power over our minds and bodies, we should find hard to ignore.

To answer this question for myself, I returned to the allegory of the wind. If for the moment, we accept the allegory of emotion as the wind, then we can see that the idea of taming the winds over the Earth would lead to nothing but a dead Earth. Likewise, taming most emotions, especially those that make us vulnerable before other people, would give us dead hearts, sensitive only to their own stirrings. Perhaps this is the reason most people find it hard to cut off emotions, and when we do that, we feel not resilience, but a sort of staleness enter our hearts?

Indeed, taming is not the answer — the answer is listening to, hearkening what our emotions — the psychological messengers — are trying to whisper (or shout) in our ear. For behind every wind, there is an approaching change of weather that the wind is hearkening, and behind every emotion, there is a wish, a fear, an intolerance, a disappointment, a goal, a secret desire, an injustice, a hurt, etc. rising to surface. It is perhaps at this point of deeper self-analysis that our journey to the “other side” of emotion should really begin.

As the great French philosopher Simone Weil once wrote in her Notebooks, “We do not choose our sensations. But we do choose (subject to an apprenticeship) what we feel through their medium.”

What a poignant way to start coming out of emotional stoicism and into emotional wisdom.

We’re 7 Billion Strong for a Reason: On Fear, Future, and Love

Note: I wrote this on Thanksgiving Day 2019, as a note of gratitude to our planet and a reminder to each other to preserve life and love in all its fragility. In our present pandemic reality, I feel this resonates as strongly as ever.

As I prop up my laptop in a dark room, the throbbing connectivity to the world and its every atom blinds my mind with an awareness of heartbreaking helplessness.

What is the invisible energy-matter upholding existence; the reason for the piercing cry we’re birthed into life with; the Mona Lisa smile briefly captured somewhere in the middle of being, left to figure out later, if ever, if lucky? My cry of helplessness is that of watching the tapestry of our interconnected world unwind string by string before my children-to-be are ever able to ask those questions.

At the brink of 2020, ours feels like a world praying for a miracle. A world of desperate struggle — for equality, for a sense of forgotten peace, for love. A world of ‘liking’ strangers but still having trouble loving our true selves and anyone different from us. A world writhing in pain — through shushed yet ongoing wars, innocent deaths, the disconnectedness of people and the digitalization of relationships.

As I sit still, wondering if I ever come to live to the age of my grandparents, and how that world will look like, what its identity will be, world leaders engage in power battles, never once turning to face the excruciating death of the human race nor striving to fathom why young people are massively questioning their very existence within the future.

From my humble place in the universe, I boldly question those in power — do they ever stoop down to hear the life of this planet beseeching for love, the life they incite towards hate in order to raise their power to yet another degree? Do they comprehend that an atom in this world is worth more than all human power, for it will outlive their skeleton by millennia?

And then I shudder: what will we do if love fails us? Love for each other, and love for our planet?

 


What if it were for your children,” he asks me over coffee, “would you leave apocalyptic earth for a state-of-the-art spaceship to save them?” It’s not like I always talk about the end of the world over lunch, so this might have qualified for the most disruptive coffee I’ve had in a long time. I’m also no great fan of space travel — SpaceX and such have me a lot concerned. Nonetheless, this time, there’s still the reassuring hope we’re talking theory.

“Any normal mother would do everything to protect her children,” I say, wondering how hypothetical a question this is. Like every someday-mother-to-be, all my knowledge of motherhood ‘normality’ comes down to theory, not practice. But all of it absolutely extends to sacrificing personal interests for the life of my children. Yet I also know how many utopias proclaimed “for the sake of children” are veiled projections of the parents’ own dystopian vanity.

Even outside of motherhood, I keep going back to that strange question, “would you leave earth for the sake of your children” over and over, now fiercely wishing that if everyone were leaving earth and flying off to space, I — and my family — would still have the courage to fight. To fight for the rebirth of this world, of our world to the end — not just flee and seek another.

In that hypothetical apocalypse, I’ve got a lot of hypothetical questions for myself as a human being. Would I have the courage to persist, to survive, to question the mainstream? What about the courage to teach my children to fight for their own planet? The ability to protect them in this endeavor and inspire with my own example? Not wishing to drop into Sarah Connor’s shoes, I still occasionally replay the scenario as a thought experiment within my head.

In my version of a ‘happy end’, I always imagine landing on a morning summer field following a seemingly endless exile. I imagine that kind of Earth — wet with dew and all ready to spring from the ashes. And I understand that to breathe fully, I’ll always need the puffy white clouds over my head as the safety pillow of existence.

“Since light is carried by photons, we could reproduce an earthly sky and absolutely anything on the spaceship,” he says with an enthusiasm I can’t reciprocate. “Do you mean the photons of light, i.e. brightness? Or the luminescence in my heart as I practically inhale the sunset in the ocean?” —  I shake my head a little and my heart a lot. He thinks I’m being emotional. Or feminine. Or otherwise. It doesn’t really matter.

For a moment, I wonder if I’m being emotional, too. And then I wince — how does that kind of bio-tech, space-savvy future sound? A future where we would have given up on Earth, forever?

 


I stand under the starry canopy of millennia staring back at me with but a twinkle in its eye, the throbbing connectivity to this world washing me over with a feeling of heartbreaking unity.

All the beauty that our planet has gifted us with — every bee pollinating a flower, every ocean drop carried off by the tide, every child rocked to sleep at this moment — all are part of one ecosystem of interdependence and unity. It is an ecosystem of love that our planet has gifted us with while asking for nothing except gratitude and love in return.

As a species, we can survive practically anywhere — history has seen us in caves, in deserts, in exile, in ruin. Each time, we’ve risen from the ashes. This means that surviving in a spaceship, probably even on Mars, with the right bunch of stuff, won’t be an impossibility.

The question, however, is not whether we shall survive — it is whether we shall retain our humaneness in an environment where the chain of our millennia-long communion with mother nature and each other is broken.

At its current rate, every thirteen years, the population of mothership Earth grows by a billion more. By 2030, the UN projects it topping 8.5 billion. Population charts showing the stats for the past century resemble one panicky rollercoaster climb. The kind of climb where you’re blindfolded in a dark tunnel but your stomach is already tensing up in fear.

And then it drops on us. Just like that — as we look at the surging violence in our societies, the ongoing fight to respect each human identity and body, the struggle to protect our environment for our kids and theirs — our body and mind feel like they’re falling through darkness and shutting off from sheer overdrive. Paradoxically for spaceship Earth, being 7.7 billion strong is sending us into the overdrive of helplessness.

Many a day, I feel nothing but the overdrive mode shutting off my emotions and will to believe in change. Many a day, I’m someone who doesn’t believe in flying off to Mars because — hell, we’d just start the same thing all over again up there and blow Mars up sooner or later. And yet, in the middle of this helplessness, I realize that the reason our world is still alive is because of the beauty we create, the hope we dare to feel, and our togetherness in times of pain.

Our world is alive because, within each personal identity, there is a part of our mutual identity. Being strikingly unique, we’re also part of the single identity of the universe that was once a burning, united mass of energy — once, before the Big Bang brought us all apart. This is the ‘once’ those billion-year-old stars are there to remind us of; the ‘once’ of a baby’s cry piercing through the night air; the ‘once’ that Mona Lisa is (perhaps) smiling about.

In 1939, on the verge of a world catastrophe, Wystan Hugh Auden wrote his most provocative verse, “We must love one another or die.” Eighty years later, as we struggle to hold hands and unite in a society that’s still trying to tear us apart, these verses remind us that we already know what to do.

The history of humankind may have started with bloodshed, but the survival of humankind depends on our will to love. The love that becomes action and gratitude towards each other and our planet. The gratitude that can still save our planet.

There are 7.7 billion of us at this very moment — hoping, dreaming, suffering, loving on Earth — a Pale Blue Dot in the universe. We may seem disconnected in real life, helpless, lost. But we’ve also got a power much greater than any single world power — the power of the pre-overdrive, gut-driven, disruptive will to create change through love and gratitude.

The will that declares: we’re 7+ billion strong for a reason — we cannot be coerced into hate, ever again.

Image: Notre Dame de Paris, Rose Window

Our Future Is Endangered. And Not Just Due to #Coronapocalypse

Image credit: “We will never leave here”: oil painting by Borda via DeviantArt


As you’re reading this, the world isn’t just fighting a pandemic of COVID-19, already labeled #coronapocalypse — a tiny biological organism that will affect every one of us in a social, economic, or healthcare way and teach us how fragile a society we are.

As you’re reading this, the world is also fighting an invisible, stifled, secretive pandemic — and more than one. So much more that neither the planet nor we can really handle the burden, a burden that would demand a second mother Earth to provide for our gargantuan appetites in just a few dozen years. But even if we did have the option of second Earth, it seems our subconscious knows better than to believe in a happily-ever-after outcome for colonizing Mars.

As of 2020, suicide has become the 10th leading cause of death in the United States with about 17x more people annually taking their life in the U.S. than the coronavirus death toll in China; depression rates among college-age adults are spilling over into a national mental-health issue of psychologically unstable future parents, workers, employers; and “the loneliness epidemic” has a health toll analogous to 15 cigarettes a day — with no ban from the CDC over Facebook coming soon. All this while we’re trying to convince ourselves that dodging coronavirus, having more sex, and once upon a time booking a seat on a Space X rocketship can save the world’s future.

As of now, we aren’t just stacking up on beans, cans, and toilet paper for the coronavirus outbreak. Nothing wrong with that. But every single year, we’re collectively dumping 420+ million tons of waste on mother Earth, turning what was once rain forest, wildlife refuge, town, someone’s neighborhood into a dump stinking with gone-out-of-fashion smartphone models, cars, appliances, and crumpled soda bottles. As our supermarkets throw out 43 billion pounds of food every year, we’re simultaneously running out of food resources and “unable” to feed the 12% of the global population still suffering from hunger — in the year 2020, after 59 years of flying regularly to space.

As we dig and dig for resources, with over 17 billion extracted globally this year; as we need more and more power for having those anticipated tech releases on schedule — we force masks upon the population catering to our technological and manufacturing whims long before those masks are in need for the coronavirus. Just take a look at the pollution maps from before and during the coronavirus outbreak in China — how drastically the skies have cleared since manufacturing slowed down. The downside? We’ll ship iPhone 9 a few months later.

Pollution levels in China before (left) and during (right) the coronavirus outbreak. NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using modified Copernicus Sentinel 5P data processed by the European Space Agency. Screenshot via The Verge.

 

If there’s anything COVID-19 can teach us, it is the extreme fragility of our society. A society that’s so interconnected and interdependent that a tiny microorganism can wreak tremendous havoc within it.

And if so, now may be a good time to ask ourselves — what kind of panic will we be in when the risk to our population isn’t the 2%-5% of the coronavirus, but the 90% threat of draining all the major resources of our planet by the time it takes our grandchildren to go to college.

For a moment, think of that and how those stats compare to the coronavirus epidemic we’re all on our toes about. And yet, world governments aren’t taking unprecedented measures, aren’t proclaiming cautionary guidelines, aren’t pushing for drastic bills to cure our environment, society, and the planet.

Instead, we’ve fled to our psychological “isolation pods” and shut them tight. People like Elon Musk tell us — if worst comes to worst, how about exporting those pods straight to Mars on a Space X mission? But even if the idea fools some, it does not fool our young generation — including the 123 people per day in the USA alone who’re taking their own life because the world they see is not the world they can believe in.

Today, as we fight a challenge posed to us by coronavirus — a challenge that will strain our everyday life, society, and economy to extremes but will eventually pass, let us consider the challenge that we’ll never gain immunity to: that of our decaying environment and suffering young generation. These two challenges, two ‘pandemics’ in their own right, that in essence, are closely linked.

Today, let us start thinking as earnestly about the environmental threats as about the epidemiological threats, and give the generation that’s unconsciously giving up on their future, a chance to blossom on Earth.

COVID-19 is out to teach us how fragile a society we are. The only thing we can beat it with is the strength of our togetherness, our love, and care for each other: the very same “weapon” we must arm ourselves to fight all the other hidden epidemics of our world.

Otherwise, when we’re all gone, all that will remain of us is a junk pile of outdated smartphones.

 — Angela Yurchenko, March 2020

c.s. lewis need love gift love. c.s. lewis the four loves. image shows cupid and psyche painting by burne jones

C.S. Lewis on the Need and Gift of Love

If ever scientists have the irrational idea to come up with a branch of knowledge studying love, it would be a doomed affair. Fortunately, the closest we’ve come to the study of love is the study of its physical aspects in a science called erotology.  Fortunately, I say, because while it is possible to investigate bodily and chemical reactions, desire, and other elements of the sexual periodic table, studying the mentality of love and its spiritual phenomena is a task for psychologists at best and philosophers in essence.

One such philosopher who boldly ventured into the delicate topic was the great writer C.S.Lewis. In 1960, the famed author of the Chronicles of Narnia wrote a 160-page book called The Four Loves, a throwback to the ancient Greeks’ inquisitive segmentation of our oft-abused word ‘love’ into four words in their own right: ‘Storge’, ‘Philios’, ‘Eros’, and ‘Agape’ — as ‘Familial love’, ‘Friendship love’, ‘Romantic/Erotic love’, and ‘Unconditional Divine love’, respectively.

It is within the boundaries of romantic love that most of us feel troubled by the question of balancing the ‘needs’ and ‘gifts’ of love most poignantly.

The interesting part is that within each ‘type’ of love, Lewis also defined a sub-division, if so it can be called: ‘Need-love’ and ‘Gift-love’. While he highlighted the particularities of this duality especially in the familial bond or ‘affection’ love (i.e. a child’s acute need of its mother’s affection, and the mother’s unconditional Gift-love), it is within the boundaries of romantic love that most of us feel troubled by the question of balancing the ‘needs’ and ‘gifts’ of love most poignantly.

For women, ‘Need-love’ is something that comes almost inherently, having been instilled in us for what looks like millennia past. Part of our emotional makeup that tends to give women the right of way in Need-love and allot to men the feats of Gift-love, Need-love is also the souvenir from the times when women had no place in respected society outside of the men they accompanied. The times when women socially depended on their fathers, husbands or any masculine family available to them. In both cases, Need-love is something we’re still learning to untangle today.

When we zoom in on the question, most of the challenges modern women face can be traced back to the habit of Need-love. Every time society convinces us that ‘single’ isn’t normal and persuades a woman to find someone just not to be alone for the evening or the season, every billboard or TV ad marketing beauty products— all of that is constantly pressing on women’s inherent instinct to need and be needed.

Gift-love is the more resilient form of love, the feeling of the Divine towards the human, the mother towards the child, the stronger towards the weaker.

As women, we’ve accomplished intellectual and social independence some time ago, but we’re still working on emotional independence or the freedom from codependency, a form of emotional addiction. The freedom that teaches us to drop the fake glitter and understand the simple philosophy: we cannot attach our whole human ‘need’ for love to a single human being, however much we love them. We cannot idolize Need-love, for as Lewis reminds us — any love that is made a god becomes a demon.

The instinctual addictiveness of Need-love makes it incredibly hard to get right. In fact, these days it also makes Need-love increasingly stigmatized as the devil of relationships, making us question the righteousness of the sentiment just as the question deeply struck Lewis. If so many problems arise from the sentiment of ‘I need you’ and its sibling ‘I can’t live without you’, perhaps it’s best to eliminate the feeling altogether? Perhaps it’s best to cultivate only the noble Gift-love that feels not inhibited by distance, jealousy, etc. and exists as a gift to itself and the other without the unhealthy attachment and ‘greed’?

Surely, Gift-love is the more resilient form of love, the feeling of the Divine towards the human, the mother towards the child, the stronger towards the weaker. That is why in past centuries when women were considered the weaker sex, Gift-love was the epitome of the knight’s love towards his damsel, while Need-love was considered the feminine sentiment. It is Gift love, after all, that’s the subject of all fairy-tale princely feats and Need-love that is their recipient.

Today, as our society is striving to erase the fine yet existent line between men and women to become simply ‘Humans’ walking this incredible planet side by side, so too, the concept of Need-love and Gift-love ought to become an evolved, matured concept.

“We need others physically, emotionally, intellectually; we need them if we are to know anything, even ourselves.” — C.S. Lewis

To eliminate Need-love altogether as something pathetically addictive and consider only Gift-love as worthy of our time wouldn’t be fair or truthful to the humans that we are. For since our first breath of life, it is Need-love that proves how vulnerable — how human — we are. It is Need-love that makes us survive.

As Lewis writes,

“Where Need-love is felt there may be reasons for denying or totally mortifying it; but not to feel it is, in general, the mark of the cold egoist. Since we do in reality need one another, (“it is not good for man to be alone”), then the failure of this need to appear as Need-love in consciousness — in other words, the illusory feeling that it is good for us to be alone — is a bad spiritual symptom; just as lack of appetite is a bad medical symptom because men do really need food.”

Whether men or women, we do need to acknowledge our need for each other, without ever becoming codependent. In a healthy way, we do need each other, for we are small parts of this gigantic universe. The universe that has created us both as a gift and as a need — to itself and to each other.

I suppose we will never fathom the exact ‘science’ of love, or even the depths of those four ancient words defining it: ‘Storge’, ‘Philios’, ‘Eros’, and ‘Agape’. But endeavoring to explore both the Need and Gift of love while placing those we love at what Rainer Maria Rilke (that other great philosopher of love) called the “gate of one’s solitude”, is what makes the frightening addiction of Need-love vanish and be transformed into the humble acceptance of human vulnerability and a promise to safe-keep one another.

To acknowledge the feeling means to control it, which in turn, means to better understand human nature and find the strength to fight our weaknesses, including the part that’s at risk for addiction. As Lewis concludes, “We need others physically, emotionally, intellectually; we need them if we are to know anything, even ourselves.” We must let go of addiction. But to pretend that we don’t need attachment would paralyze us from being human.

Find the Four Loves by C.S. Lewis on Project Gutenburg

Painting by Edward Burne-Jones, ‘Cupid Finding Psyche’ via WikiArt

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog

Caspar David Friedrich: The Landscape Within

I am not so weak as to submit to the demands of the age when they go against my convictions.  I spin a cocoon around myself; let others do the same. I shall leave it to time to show what will come of it: a brilliant butterfly or maggot.

— Caspar David Friedrich

Some of the most beautiful art is art breathed — gently, impulsively, persistently, tenderly — from the depths of the creator into the medium one is using to mold the said art. And through that medium, that tool — to us, its century-old onlookers.

In outstanding paintings the element of breath is always evident, always brushing between the colors, the brushstrokes, the characters, always giving a fresh gust of air to each faculty and sense.

If God once breathed life into Adam, then each creator (artist, musician, writer) reproduces but forms and shapes and syllables unless bestowing that final breath — both to their work and through it, reviving each of us with the original breath of creation.

Caspar David Friedrich is the artist of breath, breadth, and expanse. His works must be seen living or, at the very least — in widescreen format, much better –in a big, glossy book that smells of dry paint.

The latter is how I, personally, made the acquaintance of C.D. Friedrich. As a teenager, I loved two types of books: memoirs and art collections. My favorite holiday gifts were a heap of both that I would enjoy, happily tucked into my private world that involved lots of music, reading, and paintings to freely dive my soul into.

When I traveled across the world for a permanent change of habitat, unable to bring my 100+ lb collection of books along, I chose about a dozen that I loved most dearly. The choice was cruel, moreover since the person who was supposed to mail the others never did so… and yet, among others, today I still have my huge and vibrantly colorful album of Caspar David Friedrich paintings on the bookshelf, knowing that it will travel with me wherever I do.

Caspar David Friedrich Paintings, Life & Quotes

“Caspar David Friedrich (5 September 1774 – 7 May 1840) was a 19th-century German Romantic landscape painter, generally considered the most important German artist of his generation […] His primary interest was the contemplation of nature, and his often symbolic and anti-classical work seeks to convey a subjective, emotional response to the natural world […] Contemporaries such as the French sculptor David d’Angers spoke of him as a man who had discovered ‘the tragedy of landscape'”. –Biographical excerpt from Wikipedia

caspar david friedrich the monk by the sea
Caspar David Friedrich, ‘The Monk by the Sea’ (Der Mönch am Meer). Oil on canvas. Painted between 1808 and 1810 in Dresden.

Caspar David Friedrich did not simply paint Romanticized landscapes, as may come across at first glance. His was a world reimagined and relived from within, a landscape of within. Such is the famous “Monk by the Sea” in its poignant sense of the sea as a metaphor of the anguish of soul, perhaps even the well-known spiritual ‘dark night of the soul’, but also the majestic and overwhelming prowess of God and the universe, the prowess that upholds man on the small stretch of land resembling the palm of an Almighty Hand much closer than a stretch of sand.

The painter should paint not only what he has in front of him, but what he sees inside himself. If he sees nothing within, then he should stop painting what is in front of him.

— Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Easter_Morning_
Caspar David Friedrich, ‘Easter Morning’. Oil on canvas. Painted between 1828-1835.

In most of C.D. Friedrich’s paintings, even the ones that portray people, the main character is undeniably nature — the nature that Friedrich refused to squish into a smaller or tighter angle, as, to his indignation, did his contemporaries:

“What the newer landscape artists see in a circle of a hundred degrees in Nature they press together unmercifully into an angle of vision of only forty-five degrees. And furthermore, what is in Nature separated by large spaces, is compressed into a cramped space and overfills and oversatiates the eye, creating an unfavorable and disquieting effect on the viewer.”

Caspar David Friedrich

caspar david friedrich morning-in-the-sudeten-mountains
Caspar David Fridrich, ‘Morning in the Sudeten Mountains’ c. 1810

Contrary to just ‘staying true’ to nature, what Friedrich did was overflow to the brim with its might and completely surrender to its awe. It was the same sense of overflowing that led him to a solitary lifestyle with his wife and a very close circle of friends where his own prosperity slowly but surely dwindled, yet the true riches he was leaving behind were never placed into doubt.

“I must stay alone and know that I am alone to contemplate and feel nature in full; I have to surrender myself to what encircles me, I have to merge with my clouds and rocks in order to be what I am. Solitude is indispensible for my dialogue with nature.”
Caspar David Friedrich

800px-Caspar_David_Friedrich_018.jpg
Caspar David Friedrich, ‘Woman at a Window’. (The artists’ wife, Caroline Friedrich, in his studio in Dresden) Oil on canvas. 1822

Despite enjoying renown early on in his career, Caspar David Friedrich and his family were fully dependent on the charity of friends by the 1830s when the painter became increasingly ill, and his earlier works refused to sell as they ‘went out of fashion’ — the ‘fashion’ that never guided his creative ideals springing solely from within.

After Caspar David Friedrich’s own death in 1840 and those of his close circle in the coming decades, his works fell into oblivion as a new school of realism discovered its greatest evils in the romantic idealism of its predecessors.

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_The_Abbey_in_the_Oakwood_-_WGA08240.jpg
Caspar David Friedrich, ‘The Abbey in the Oakwood’. Oil on canvas. c.1809

Friedrich was first rediscovered in the 1920s, his work exerting considerable influence over artists of the Symbolist and Abstract Expressionist movement such as Mark Rothko. Yet it was not until the 1970s, one hundred and thirty years after his death, that Caspar David Friedrich became known as one of the greatest German painters of all time and the leader of the German Romantics — the name that now seems a mere tag for the breath and breadth of spirit struggling to find space in an artist for whom every canvas was too small for the vastness of the landscape within.

Discover more of C.D.Friedrich’s paintings in the public domain on WikiArt.        

 

girl with baloon wall art. stop the war. pacifist movement

We’re Not Enemies, Whatever Politics Say

By a random slip of fate, I grew up between two countries that are at silent war. The war started a long time ago, and even when it wasn’t a ‘cold one’, and things were going normal, there was no real sense of normalcy — there would be little jokes and pinpricks and suspicious kinds of looks and social downplay.

Being unconsciously stuck in a cultural ‘cold war’, I tried to mix in as well as I could. The word ‘mix in’ sounds neutral enough. In reality, this means I tried to melt in, disown my culture, assimilate, so no one would notice where I came from. In fact, I didn’t want to come from anywhere. I, like most kids, wanted to be normal — and that meant ‘same’.

I understand now and understood just a short while later, that same isn’t possible, and same isn’t normal. Special thanks to my 3rd-grade teacher in a small NJ town who, without even knowing she was doing something I’ll always remember, taught us how to be proud and not disowning of our heritage. Her one project and one lesson meant a lot for one nine-year-old, confused child whom she’ll never see again.

 


I grew up between two countries at silent war, but politics have never been my cup of tea. I always thought that if those running for office fulfilled even a quarter of their campaign promises, we’d be living in paradise by now and wondered — how is it possible to believe anyone who actually talks for a living? But whatever my personal views, 2019 isn’t a time to be politically mute. Too much is at stake in the world. Frankly, our world itself is.

Every day, as I turn on the television, I see a comedy of errors play out. Since that first lesson that taught me cultural independence, I’ve come a long geographical way — back to the country that birthed me biologically and culturally — yet incredibly richer with the experience of half my life lived on the other side of the world (geographically and mentality-wise).

This very day, as I watch the nasty politics unfold between our countries, it hurts me deeply that political conditioning is powerful and successful as ever. It hurts that a world which can live at peace chooses to create war — even if not a war of bombs but “only” a war of blasphemy and mutual accusations. It hurts me that an overwhelming amount of mass media is a marketing tool, not a documentary one. And that in the age of instant access to information, we have so much information that we don’t trust any — anything can be faked, and any of us can be duped.

It hurts me that we believe in fake news and never see the real suffering and death caused by the actions of those in power because we’re taught aggression is “justified” when it’s a means to a patriotic end. It hurts that some people still think a bloody means can lead to anything but a bloody end or that “democracy” covers stains of blood. Most of all, it hurts when the people I grew up with hold such views, people who aren’t strangers, even if I don’t know them personally.

 


I grew up in the USA of the daily “War on Iraq” footage in the aftermath of September 11th. I never held anything against patriotism. Pledges of allegiance, the national hymn every morning at school — that was serious stuff. So were the lockdown drills we had every month following the attacks, sitting lined up against a wall with strictly closed shades and mouths. Exactly like that, thirty years earlier, my parents sat under their school desks in their country across the world. Perhaps that’s why our countries are constantly at ‘cold’ or ‘hot’ war — we’re alike in quite a few ways.

Courtesy of my stepfather, we had a bundle of the latest newspapers in the house daily — all of them with front-page ‘war’ news, a war everybody hated but no one actually saw. So much the easier it was to hate. So much the easier it was to accept graphic execution images of this or that Middle East tyrant. We, as the world’s leading nation, were never physically involved in war but were always right about war — there was no question the country knew what it was doing.

It was only years later, that a senior friend confided to me her apprehension about the national policy on war in the Middle East. It was only when things started to get out of control and information started leaking about the bloody realities of the war no one ever saw through an unconditioned lens. It was only then that people started talking in hushed voices whether they were blindfolded and manipulated into encouraging war all this time…and they were really scared. It was scary to think, even for a moment, that all you were taught to believe over years and years was the projection of a purposefully disfigured lens.

 


Today, both the USA and Europe are standing on the verge of what may become a substantial test for our humanity — and of our humaneness. A test of what we’re capable of deciphering and believing and whether we choose to trust what we research for ourselves, or the stuff we’re spoon-fed by those in power.

Today, we’re no longer silent. But we’re still questioning. We’re still doubtful. We’re once again being taught hatred rather than patience and dialogue, and we stand on the verge of giving in to hatred, personal dissatisfaction, and our differences. We stand on the verge of becoming tools and pawns in the hands of those who have just about the same respect for our lives as they do for those whom they freely kill to justify their politics.

And yet, we have a choice. We have more — we have immense power to start thinking by ourselves. We have the power to never allow anyone to condition us again — culturally, politically, socially. That power is what those in power fear most about us. That power may also hurt — because to move forward, the world has yet to admit: there is no “world leader” and there is no “best country”.

Unless we let go of that conditioning for good, we stand at risk of being manipulated by it again and again — as the world has been by tyrants and Fascists in decades past, every one of whom propagated to its nation the promise of becoming ‘best’ at the “small expense” of someone ‘worse’ becoming extinct.

Our real strength, unity, and power lie in acknowledging:

None of us is ‘best’.

None of us is ‘same’.

We’re all in this (world) together.

And we can all strive to become more united and understanding of one another every day, as long as we don’t give in to becoming enemies — like our real enemies want us to be.

 

 

 

reads for spiritual journey

5 Reads to Light Up Your Spiritual Journey

I can still remember my first dedicated effort at reading a piece of ‘serious’ literature. It was Jane Austen’s Emma which I kept stuffed in my school desk and would read in-between breaks in fourth grade. The Victorian English wasn’t an easy read for a ten-year-old. It was a few months before I mustered the strength to get through the whole book, yet I was relentless in the pursuit.

By the end of the small feat, I was proud of myself and could officially count myself in to read ‘grown-up’ literature. But it wasn’t till a couple of years later, that, as a teenager with a mind full of existential thoughts did I start to pile up my own kind of library.

In that library, there was a strong shift towards spiritual and philosophic writing, personal experiences (memoirs) and biographies. While I did read fiction (a lot of the classics), it was reserved a more humble portion of the bookshelf in comparison.

The real life-changing thoughts came to me from the spiritual and philosophical reads. They were also what kept me sane during the periods of life when giving in seemed so much easier than holding up.

Extracted from years of reading, here are the 5 pieces of writing that have lit up my own spiritual journey with their wisdom and universal truth. I’ll try to keep the chronological order in which I discovered them.


1. “The Interior Castle” by St. Theresa of Avila

“I began to think of the soul as if it were a castle made of a single diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions.”

One of the first purely spiritual books to fall on my bookshelf at the age of 15, St. Theresa’s Interior Castle is a powerful metaphorical insight into the inner labyrinth of spirituality.

In words that resonate as strongly 400+ years after they were first written, St. Theresa goes on to explain her metaphor of the seven interior mansions as the seven spiritual degrees of being. For example, people who enter the First Mansions are those who feel a deeper call to change their life but do not yet understand how to go about it. St.Theresa advises people at this stage to walk the path of humble meditation and prayer to understand how to proceed deeper within themselves and enter the Second Mansions which represent the conscious struggle of the mind and soul towards spiritual grace.

While it seems superhuman to reach the spiritual freedom described in the latter half of the book, “The Interior Castle [public domain]” is an astonishing read that first taught me the importance of facing and assessing the veiled intentions behind actions.


2. “My Young Years” and “My Many Years” by Arthur Rubinstein

“This “rebirth” [i.e. surviving attempted suicide at 21] created a revolution in my whole psychic system. I suddenly started to think. The life I had been leading consisted of a series of events for which I had no responsibility; I acted entirely by instinct, following blindly the road drawn out to me by circumstances.”

Even in the darkest of times, Arthur Rubinstein shows that the way out is always through a smile — even if that smile shines through tears.

Known for his infallible joie de vivre, Rubinstein was one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century who lived out his personal credo of “love life for better or worse” till his 95th birthday. He was also a suicide survivor, war refugee, adventurous lover and lover of adventure who wrote two NY Times bestseller volumes of memoirs.

Both books (but my favorite is the first, “My Young Years”) are amazing reads which will light up your face with a smile and your heart with proof that life never abandons those who love it unconditionally — from a person who’s drunk the bitter cup and barely survived to tell us the story.


3. “On Grief and Reason and Other Essays” by Joseph Brodsky

“Neurosis and depression will enter your lexicon; pills, your medical cabinet…Basically, there is nothing wrong about turning life into the constant quest for alternatives, into leap-frogging jobs, spouses, sorroundings, etc […]The rub, however, is that before long this quest turns into a full-time occupation, with your need for an alternative coming to match a drug addict’s daily fix.”

Brodsky is one author who descended on me at exactly the right time. The time when my life couldn’t have been a bigger mess. Personal life? Career? A comforting shoulder? Forget all that. I was happy just to make it to the next day — emotionally and physically.

It was then that I lazily grabbed a book given to me as a birthday present 4+ years ago. It was a collection of poetry by 1987 Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky. As soon as I swallowed and digested the poetry book, rereading it numerous times, I moved on to anything else to be found by Brodsky.

I chanced upon a collection of essays, including the commencement speech “In Praise of Boredom”. A poignant read for a young person struggling to face the painful but necessary lessons of a life that seems “frozen”, this essay is not an inspirational mantra. Go for it if you’re ready for surgically concise (but always sincere and warm) wisdom from a person who’s suffered through hell of a lot before getting to that Nobel prize.


4. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” by Friedrich Nietzsche

“Hast thou ever known, my brother, the word “disdain”? And the anguish of thy justice in being just to those that disdain thee? [..] Injustice and filth cast they at the lonesome one: but, my brother, if thou wouldst be a star, thou must shine for them none the less on that account!”

A book that sparkles with wisdom like a mountain strewn with a myriad of jewels — from little crystals to diamonds, Zarathustra is the acme of philosophy as a parable.

Starting with one of the best metaphorical representations of the human’s spiritual journey (The Three Metamorphosis of the Spirit [public domain]), Nietzsche balances deep philosophical insights with his inimitable, precise wit and a child’s raveling in overturning conventions to get to the ‘other side of the moon’.

Enlightening in tough times and life-affirming in joyful ones, leafing through just a few pages of Zarathustra is enough to provide an avalanche of thought for anyone seeking the truth on the inside.


5. “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi

“As a doctor, I had had some sense of what patients with life-changing illnesses faced — and it was exactly these moments I had wanted to explore with them. Shouldn’t terminal illness, then, be the perfect gift to that young man who had wanted to understand death? […] But I’d had no idea how hard it would be, how much terrain I would have to explore, map, settle.”

When Breath Becomes Air” is a memoir that shines with life at the doorstep of bidding it farewell.

Cultivating his passion for the human mind with a Master of Arts in English Literature and a deep insight into the human body with a Bachelor of Science in Human Biology from Stanford (before going on to Cambridge and, ultimately, the Yale School of Medicine) neurosurgeon-to-be Paul Kalanithi was always fascinated with the question of human life, and its ultimate riddle — the crossing of life and death.

In a heartbreaking turn of fate, he was destined to stare into and write about that abyss himself as on the verge of a brilliant neurosurgical career, Kalanithi was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Standing at that abyss, Kalanithi also held his newborn daughter, writing and dedicating to her what was to become a unique apotheosis of a life dedicated to discovering the mysteries of both the human mind and spirit, from a perspective so close, it’s both fascinating and terrifying.

Prior to his memoirs, Paul Kalinithi also wrote “How Long Have I Got Left?” for the NY Times, among other essays.


So different yet palpitating with the secret of life, each of these reads reminded me at a poignant moment: there’s no such thing as “no way out”. Even when the exit resembles a fearful unknown and the world momentarily stops rotating under our feet, we exist as long as we leave footprints in the eternally living, throbbing energy field that is our endless universe.

And in this quest, we’re never alone.

joys of hygge season. image shows cup of tea with lemon and book

Try These 8 Joys of Hygge Season Tonight

Since making it to the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year shortlist in 2016, the Danish “hygge” [ hue-guh] lifestyle struck a more global impact than it had over the past two hundred years.

Every year, new “hygge” books spring up on bookshelves and fresh translations try to convey its magic air to non-Danish ears.

With definitions ranging from the dry-cut academic “a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being” to the enticing “cultural concept and value of warm, happy coziness and togetherness”, the hygge lifestyle is like a breath of fresh air in the digital age where “warmth, coziness, and togetherness” are precisely what we’re missing (out on) most.

Let’s start appreciating days like these. Photo by Viacheslav Bida on Unsplash

Come to think of it, there are few countries in the world with a longer, colder and darker fall/winter season than the Scandinavian countries, including Denmark.

Yet, unhindered by the supposedly endorphin-flushing Vitamin D deficiency, year after year the Danes score top spots in the World Happiness Report (yes, there is such a thing and it’s quite serious).

Sure, some of it has to do with the great economics and the fact that they don’t have scandalous impeachments or Brexits on their hands. Most of it though has to do with the culture and lifestyle. But then, who knows, perhaps happiness reaches into all corners of the Danish land, like the fairy-tales of Hans Christian Andersen?

For the rest of us, loving the dark and rainy days of fall-winter doesn’t mean shutting ourselves up in a dungeon (or an office in lieu of such). It does mean creating (and actually scheduling) some endearing rituals for your friends, family, or just yourself (this is perfectly hygge too).

Here are eight “rainy-day” rituals to give yourself a boost in endorphins at any given moment:

  1. Design/update a favorite reading nook. Nothing expensive — the only pre-requisite is a fresh dose of coziness. A new woolen throw or a few fluffy pillows to deliberately over-stuff your couch, plus scented tea-lights on the table (candles are a hygge must-have) are all you need to start appreciating the warmth of a fall evening when time blissfully stands still.
  2. Mix a new hot drink. I recently made fantastic and super-simple Pumpkin Spice Latte minus the pumpkin (didn’t have that at home). The aroma of milk boiled with spices like cinnamon sticks, clove, ginger, and nutmeg and then mixed into the espresso was invigorating enough to spend the darkest of winters at home and totally good enough to skip Starbucks.
  3. Do a get-together with friends in an atmospheric cafe you’d always wanted to go to (not Starbucks). Invite just the girls/guys for an evening devoted to warm conversation or get together with the friends who you’ve dreamed of catching up with outside Facebook.
  4. Do a fairy-tale night with your kids. Hans Christian Andersen’s tales are the timeless classic, incredibly touching reading for the kids and philosophical for the adults. So is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery.
  5. Buy a whole new recipe book. Take a break off social media and cook up a very special something from a very real cookbook. My latest favorite was Alsatian Apple Pie with a personal twist (sliced almonds on top).
  6. Order the books you’ve been meaning to read since your 2019 New Year’s resolutions. Cuddle with them in that pillowed nook, steaming spiced latte in hand. My own latest choice fell on the heartbreaking story of young neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, in his poignant story of the beauty of fleeting life, When Breath Becomes Air.
  7. Research a vacation destination for your next trip, solo or with family. Make the research and prep a really exciting process. The trip can be as close as 50 miles out of town or as far as 5000 miles away from home. Get happy about seeing more of your state, country, or world — right this evening.
  8. Follow a real, actionable strategy for whatever it is you always wanted to do but never found the time for. Make writing a daily habit, enroll in a free online course from a school like Yale, think about a career shift, or get inspired to start a healthy lifestyle!

Perfect hygge-style reading nook. Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Final word

In the times when slowing down is becoming so out of reach and the digital hype can swallow us up unless we really go out and schedule our deepest, most humane needs, it’s hardly surprising how viral of a concept hygge has become.

With all that, it’s important to remember — hygge isn’t about what we do, but how we do it.

Lighting a candle and cuddling in a throw is great, but if you’re still thinking about that annoying co-worker, a stuck project, or sticking your tongue out at your boss (figuratively speaking), you won’t get much hygge out of that. Let go of all that for the time you devote to your happiness.

Hygge is a lifestyle culture that shows us just how important together time with loved ones, family, and our own selves are, and how little (in material terms) it takes to start nurturing and protecting it.

However we define this tricky-to-pronounce word, the best thing about hygge is its reminder that happiness is something money can never buy — or take from us.

To Be or Not to Be: That is Not the Question

The science of absolutism

The behavioral impulses described above are part of the same ‘fight or flight’ response that has been inherent to humans for ages. Known in psychology as absolutist thinking or all-or-nothing thinking, the ‘to be or not to be’ paradigm dominates our life in many shapes. The common denominators are the struggles between extreme emotions and the accompanying verbal expressions (catching yourself not just verbalizing but really existing in terms of totally, completely, never, always, etc.).

Any destination is better than meaningless existence in that grey fog of the mind that’s most feared by our intuition and unknowingly supported by instinct.


The best way out is through

When we think of it, the natural ‘fight or flight’ or ‘ostrich vs martial arts’ response is so instinctive because it’s kind of effortless. It’s much more effortless and thus convenient to the body than gathering an understanding of its own and others’ functioning and piecing it all together — slowly, patiently.

[Read on Medium: Polymathy is Curiosity, Not Science]

Whenever you get stuck in “to be or not to be”, imagine the person you’d like to be, the person outside your own box (and outside everyone else’s). Learn, research, and discover all you need to get there, starting now.

First published on Medium