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The Vital Difference Between Work and Labor: Lewis Hyde on Sustaining the Creative Spirit

“The gifts of the inner world must be accepted as gifts in the outer world if they are to retain their vitality.” It is a gladness to be able to call one’s daily work a labor of love, and to have that labor put food on the table the way any work does, dishwashing or dentistry. And yet such labors of diligence and devotion — the kind William Blake...

Ways of Being: Rethinking Intelligence

“Intelligence is not something which exists, but something one does.” “Intelligence supposes good will,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote. “Sensitivity is nothing else but the presence which is attentive to the world and to itself.” Yet our efforts to define and measure intelligence have been pocked with insensitivity to nuance, to diversity, to the myriad...

What the Heart Keeps When the Mind Goes: May Sarton on Loving a Loved One Through Dementia

On remaining in loving contact with the intangible, immutable part of the self. One of the hardest things in life is watching a loved one’s mind slowly syphoned by cognitive illness — that haunting ambiguous loss of the familiar body remaining, but the person slowly fading into otherness, their very consciousness frayed and reconstituted into that...

Turning Loss and Loneliness into Wonder: How the Victorian Visionary Marianne North Revolutionized Art and Science with Her Botanical Paintings

A vibrant foray into “a perfect world of wonders” fueled by the bittersweet dimension of life. Marianne North (October 24, 1830–August 30, 1890) was twenty-six and had just lost her mother to a long tortuous illness when her father took her to an oasis of wonder in the heart of London — Kew Gardens, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth: a lush...

Rootedness and Reclaiming God

“Everything we do matters, and matters wondrously.” There is a peculiar existential loneliness that entombs us whenever we lose our sense of connection to the web of being — the self begins to feel like a twig torn from the tree of life, and something inside us withers with longing. We are left without sanctuary — a word that comes from the Latin...

Against the Cult of Originality: Emerson on the True Nature of Genius

“Great genial power… consists… in being altogether receptive.” The best things in life we don’t choose — they choose us. A great love, a great calling, a great illumination — they happen unto us, like light falling upon that which is lit. We have given a name to these unbidden greatnesses — genius, from the Latin for “spirit,” denoting the spirit...

The Unphotographable: The Moon, the Tide, and the Living Shore

Sometimes, a painting in words is worth a thousand pictures. I think about this more and more, in our compulsively visual culture, which increasingly reduces what we think and feel and see — who and what we are — to what can be photographed. I think of Susan Sontag, who called it “aesthetic consumerism” half a century before Instagram. In a small act...

The Footpath to Yourself: Robert Macfarlane on Landscape as a Lens on Inner Life

“Paths run through people as surely as they run through places.” “All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are,” Pablo Neruda observed in his soulful Nobel Prize acceptance speech. But paths are more than metaphors — they do lead places and, along the way, do reveal us to ourselves in ways inconceivable at the outset, unattainable...

How to Be with Each Other’s Suffering: Elie Wiesel on the Antidote to Our Paralysis in the Face of World-Overwhelm

“I believe if people talk, and they talk sincerely, with the same respect that one owes to a close friend or to God, something will come out of that, something good. I would call it presence.” There is a phenomenon in forests known as inosculation — the fusing together of separate trees into a single organism after their branches or roots have been...

The Symphony of Belonging: Alfred Kazin on Music as Spiritual Homecoming

On the emotional machinery that suspends us between rapture and tears. “A person’s identity,” Amin Maalouf wrote, “is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.” It is a wonderful metaphor in part because it dances with the literal:...

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