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Sunday, October 9, 2016

Brain Pickings


 
How libraries save lives, the astonishing science of what trees feel and how they communicate, Rilke on how to be a writer, and more.Email formatted oddly or truncated?
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WelcomeHello, Larry! If you missed last week's edition – Some of the finest advice on love ever committed to words, how our experience of time illuminates the central mystery of consciousness, and more – you can catch up right here. If you're enjoying my newsletter, please consider supporting this labor of love with a donation â€“ I spend countless hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.

How Libraries Save Lives

“Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in contemplating the sacredness of public libraries“If librarians were honest, they would say, No one spends time here without being changed,” Joseph Mills wrote in his ode to libraries“You never know what troubled little girl needs a book,” Nikki Giovanni wrote in one of her poems celebrating libraries and librarians
A beautiful testament to that emancipating, transformative power of public libraries comes from one such troubled little girl named Storm Reyes, who grew up in an impoverished Native American community, had her life profoundly changed, perhaps even saved, by a library bookmobile, and went on to become a librarian herself. She tells her story in this wonderful oral history animation by StoryCorps:
The piece was adapted into an essay in Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work (public library) — the collection of tender, touching, and deeply humane stories edited by StoryCorps founder Dave Isay that also gave us pioneering astronaut Ronald McNair, who perished in the Challenger disaster, remembered by his brother
Here is Reyes’s story, as it appears in the book:
Working and living in migrant farmworkers’ fields, the conditions were pretty terrible. My parents were alcoholics, and I was beaten and abused and neglected. I learned to fight with a knife long before I learned how to ride a bicycle. 
When you are grinding day after day after day, there’s nothing to aspire to except filling your hungry belly. You may walk down the street and see a row of nice, clean houses, but you never, ever dream you can live in one. You don’t dream. You don’t hope. 
When I was twelve, a bookmobile came to the fields. I thought it was the Baptists, because they used to come in a van and give us blankets and food. So I went over and peeked in, and it was filled with books. I immediately — and I do mean immediately â€” stepped back. I wasn’t allowed to have books, because books are heavy, and when you’re moving a lot you have to keep things minimal. Of course, I had read in the short periods I was allowed to go to school, but I’d not ever owned a book. 
Fortunately, the staff member saw me and waved me in. I was nervous. The bookmobile person said, “These are books, and you can take one home. Just bring it back in two weeks.” I’m like, “What’s the catch?” He explained there was no catch. Then he asked me what I was interested in. 
The night before, an elder had told us a story about the day that Mount Rainier blew up and the devastation from the volcano. So I told the bookmobile person that I was nervous about the mountain blowing up, and he said, “You know, the more you know about something, the less you will fear it.” And he gave me a book about volcanoes. Then I saw a book about dinosaurs, and I said, “Oh, that looks neat,” so he gave me that. Then he gave me a book about a little boy whose family were farmers. I took them all home and devoured them. 
I came back in two weeks, and he gave me more books, and that started it. By the time I was fifteen, I knew there was a world outside the camps, and I believed I could find a place in it. I had read about people like me and not like me. I had seen how huge the world was, and it gave me the courage to leave. And I did. It taught me that hope was not just a word. 
When I left, I went to vocational school, and I graduated with a stenographer’s degree. Then, when Pierce County Library had an opening, I applied and was hired. I got to spend thirty-two years helping other people make a connection with the library. I have a deep, abiding commitment to them. Libraries save lives.
Complement this particular portion of the thoroughly humanizing Callings with Thoreau on the sacredness of public libraries, Robert Dawson’s photographic love letter to public libraries, and Maurice Sendak’s forgotten, fantastic vintage posters celebrating libraries and reading.

Leonard Bernstein on Cynicism, Instant Gratification, and Why Paying Attention Is a Countercultural Act of Courage and Rebellion

Composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein (August 25, 1918–October 14, 1990) remains one of the most irrepressible creative minds and largest spirits of the past century. He was awarded twenty-three Grammy Awards, ten Emmy Awards, and twenty-two honorary degrees. For Bernstein, his life and his work, his art and his political convictions, coexisted inseparably within the vast container of his unrelenting idealism. During the Hoover administration, the FBI had a file on him almost seven hundred pages long. When JFK was assassinated, Bernstein delivered a remarkable speech about the only true antidote to violence, which has only grown in poignancy and timeliness in recent years. He met tragedy and turmoil with tireless resolve for betterment. â€œWe must believe, without fear, in people,” he wrote in his largehearted personal credo, and he enacted that belief in every realm of his life — but nowhere more so than in his work with children, whom he educated and nurtured into a creative life for more than four decades through his Young People’s Concerts, television specials, books, and lectures.
Leonard Bernstein making notes at the piano, 1955 (Photograph: Al Ravenna / Library of Congress)
On November 20, 1989 — less than a year before his death — Bernstein, who was otherwise averse to interviews, invited into his home longtime Rolling Stone contributing editor Jonathan Cott for a long dinner conversation. A decade after conducting Susan Sontag’s most dimensional interview, Cott took Bernstein by the hand and walked the maestro across the landscape of his own life as Bernstein reflected on everything from music to education to love. 
Their beautifully layered and symphonic conversation was eventually published as Dinner with Lenny: The Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein (public library).
Cott casts his subject:
Leonard Bernstein adamantly, and sometimes controversially, refused to compartmentalize and separate his emotional, intellectual, political, erotic, and spiritual longings from the musical experience.
[…]
Above all, in every aspect of his life and work, Bernstein was a boundless enthusiast. In the course of my dinner conversation with him, he informed me that the word “enthusiasm” was derived from the Greek adjective entheos, meaning “having the god within,” with its attendant sense of “living without aging,” as did the gods on Mount Olympus.
Bernstein’s greatest point of enthusiasm was his lifelong devotion to enamoring young people with music. He understood that love and learning are inextricably linked, that learning is a kind of love and love a kind of learning, and used his robust and radiant enthusiasm as a force of illumination. He tells Cott:
Though I can’t prove it, deep in my heart I know that every person is born with the love of learning. Without exception. Every infant studies its toes and fingers, and a child’s discovery of his or her voice must be one of the most extraordinary of life’s moments… Imagine an infant lying in its cradle, discovering its voice, purring and murmuring MMM to itself.
As we grow up and learn to be cynical, Bernstein argues, we gradually stifle this inherent love of learning, turn off our curiosity, and become calcified. Out of that cynicism springs the impulse for instant gratification — the very opposite of the pleasurably protracted challenge of learning. A generation before the incessant input feed of the Internet gave us continuous quick fixes of on-demand approval and outrage, Bernstein considers the cultural and civilizational conditions that have contributed to this epidemic of instant gratification: 
Everyone who was born after 1945 when that bomb went off is a completely different kind of person from those who were born before then. Because they grew up in a world where the possibility of global destruction was an everyday possibility, to the point where they didn’t even think about it that much. But it conditions the way they live… Anybody who grows up — as those of my generation did not â€” taking the possibility of the immediate destruction of the planet for granted is going to gravitate all the more toward instant gratification — you push the TV button, you drop the acid, you snort the coke, you do the needle… and then you pass out in the bed … and you wake up so cynical… And guilt breeds fear and anxiety, and anxiety breeds fear, and it goes around — it’s that old vicious circle where one thing reinforces the other, which drives you day and night to instant gratification. Anything of a serious nature isn’t “instant” — you can’t “do” the Sistine Chapel in one hour. And who has time to listen to a Mahler symphony, for God’s sake?
[…]
You can’t “do” the Sistine Chapel instantly — you have to lie on your back and look up at that ceiling and contemplate. And we’ve already lost a whole generation of kids who are blind to anything constructive or beautiful, who are blind to love, love, LOVE — that battered, old, dirty four-letter word that few people understand anymore.
Leonard Bernstein in his final years
But rather than despairing over this nascent orientation of spirit, which would itself be an act of cynicism, Bernstein turns to the reasons for hope — hope he devoted his life to seeding and seeing bloom. (Active hope, lest we forget, is the antidote to cynicism.) He tells Cott:
We must get back to faith and hope and belief — things we’re all born with. But unfortunately we’re also born thinking we’re the center of the universe. And of all traumas, that one is the biggest and most difficult to get rid of. And the hardest principle to absorb is the Copernican one: that you’re just another speck on this planet, which is a speck in the solar system, which is a speck in the galaxy, which is a speck in the universe … which is a speck in something even bigger that we don’t have the minds to contemplate.
[…]
No subject is too difficult to talk to the kids about. You just have to know where the pain is.
When Cott brings up the Hasidic Rabbi Dov Baer’s assertion that “each person consists of a certain song of existence, the one by which our innermost being was created and is defined,” Bernstein responds:
We destroy our children’s songs of existence by giving them inhibitions, teaching them to be cynical, manipulative, and all the rest of it… You become hardened, but you can find that playfulness again. We’ve got to find a way to get music and kids together, as well as to teach teachers how to discover their own love of learning. Then the infectious process begins.
Echoing the great cellist Pau Casals — who, at the age of 93, wrote beautifully about how working with love prolongs one’s life and called on us to â€œmake this world worthy of its children” â€” Bernstein reflects on his life’s greatest passion:
Being with young people has kept me alive, I tell you, and I would do anything for them. Think of what we can do with all that energy and all that spirit instead of eroding and degrading our planet on which we live, and disgracing ourselves as a race. I will spend my dying breath and my last blood and erg of energy to try to correct this impossible situation.
[…]
There is so much inherent goodness in people that if they aren’t inhibited by traumas and are given half a chance, it shines through.
Bernstein died eleven months later, having handed this great chance-giving gift to generations through the power of music and the infectiousness of his enthusiasm.
Complement the electrifying and elevating Dinner with Lenny with Bernstein on why we createhow art fortifies our mutual dignity, his stirring tribute to JFK, and his touching letter of gratitude to his mentor, then revisit Cott’s conversation with Susan Sontag about love, sex, and the world between and how cultural polarities like young vs. old, male vs. female, and intuition vs. intellect imprison us.

The Secret Life of Trees: The Astonishing Science of What Trees Feel and How They Communicate

Trees dominate the world’s the oldest living organisms. Since the dawn of our species, they have been our silent companions, permeating our most enduring tales and never ceasing to inspire fantastical cosmogonies. Hermann Hesse called them â€œthe most penetrating of preachers.” A forgotten seventeenth-century English gardener wrote of how they â€œspeak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons.”
But trees might be among our lushest metaphors and sensemaking frameworks for knowledge precisely because the richness of what they say is more than metaphorical — they speak a sophisticated silent language, communicating complex information via smell, taste, and electrical impulses. This fascinating secret world of signals is what German forester Peter Wohlleben explores in The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (public library). 
Wohlleben chronicles what his own experience of managing a forest in the Eifel mountains in Germany has taught him about the astonishing language of trees and how trailblazing arboreal research from scientists around the world reveals “the role forests play in making our world the kind of place where we want to live.” As we’re only just beginning to understand nonhuman consciousnesses, what emerges from Wohlleben’s revelatory reframing of our oldest companions is an invitation to see anew what we have spent eons taking for granted and, in this act of seeing, to care more deeply about these remarkable beings that make life on this planet we call home not only infinitely more pleasurable, but possible at all. 
Illustration by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales
But Wohlleben’s own career began at the opposite end of the caring spectrum. As a forester tasked with optimizing the forest’s output for the lumber industry, he self-admittedly “knew about as much about the hidden life of trees as a butcher knows about the emotional life of animals.” He experienced the consequence of what happens whenever we turn something alive, be it a creature or a work of art, into a commodity — the commercial focus of his job warped how he looked at trees.
Then, about twenty years ago, everything changed when he began organizing survival training and log-cabin tours for tourists in his forest. As they marveled at the majestic trees, the enchanted curiosity of their gaze reawakened his own and his childhood love of nature was rekindled. Around the same time, scientists began conducting research in his forest. Soon, every day became colored with wonderment and the thrill of discovery — no longer able to see trees as a currency, he instead saw them as the priceless living wonders that they are. He recounts:
Life as a forester became exciting once again. Every day in the forest was a day of discovery. This led me to unusual ways of managing the forest. When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with large machines.
The revelation came to him in flashes, the most eye-opening of which happened on one of his regular walks through a reserve of old beech tree in his forest. Passing by a patch of odd mossy stones he had seen many times before, he was suddenly seized with a new awareness of their strangeness. When he bent down to examine them, he made an astonishing discovery:
The stones were an unusual shape: they were gently curved with hollowed-out areas. Carefully, I lifted the moss on one of the stones. What I found underneath was tree bark. So, these were not stones, after all, but old wood. I was surprised at how hard the “stone” was, because it usually takes only a few years for beechwood lying on damp ground to decompose. But what surprised me most was that I couldn’t lift the wood. It was obviously attached to the ground in some way. I took out my pocketknife and carefully scraped away some of the bark until I got down to a greenish layer. Green? This color is found only in chlorophyll, which makes new leaves green; reserves of chlorophyll are also stored in the trunks of living trees. That could mean only one thing: this piece of wood was still alive! I suddenly noticed that the remaining “stones” formed a distinct pattern: they were arranged in a circle with a diameter of about 5 feet. What I had stumbled upon were the gnarled remains of an enormous ancient tree stump. All that was left were vestiges of the outermost edge. The interior had completely rotted into humus long ago — a clear indication that the tree must have been felled at least four or five hundred years earlier.
How can a tree cut down centuries ago could still be alive? Without leaves, a tree is unable to perform photosynthesis, which is how it converts sunlight into sugar for sustenance. The ancient tree was clearly receiving nutrients in some other way — for hundreds of years.
Beneath the mystery lay a fascinating frontier of scientific research, which would eventually reveal that this tree was not unique in its assisted living. Neighboring trees, scientists found, help each other through their root systems — either directly, by intertwining their roots, or indirectly, by growing fungal networks around the roots that serve as a sort of extended nervous system connecting separate trees. If this weren’t remarkable enough, these arboreal mutualities are even more complex — trees appear able to distinguish their own roots from those of other species and even of their own relatives. 
Art by Judith Clay from Thea’s Tree
Wohlleben ponders this astonishing sociality of trees, abounding with wisdom about what makes strong human communities and societies:
Why are trees such social beings? Why do they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors? The reasons are the same as for human communities: there are advantages to working together. A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old. To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what. If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age. Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer. 
Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover. Next time, perhaps it will be the other way round, and the supporting tree might be the one in need of assistance.
[…]
A tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.
One can’t help but wonder whether trees are so much better equipped at this mutual care than we are because of the different time-scales on which our respective existences play out. Is some of our inability to see this bigger picture of shared sustenance in human communities a function of our biological short-sightedness? Are organisms who live on different time scales better able to act in accordance with this grander scheme of things in a universe that is deeply interconnected?
To be sure, even trees are discriminating in their kinship, which they extend in varying degrees. Wohlleben explains:
Every tree is a member of this community, but there are different levels of membership. For example, most stumps rot away into humus and disappear within a couple of hundred years (which is not very long for a tree). Only a few individuals are kept alive over the centuries… What’s the difference? Do tree societies have second-class citizens just like human societies? It seems they do, though the idea of “class” doesn’t quite fit. It is rather the degree of connection — or maybe even affection — that decides how helpful a tree’s colleagues will be.
These relationships, Wohlleben points out, are encoded in the forest canopy and visible to anyone who simply looks up:
The average tree grows its branches out until it encounters the branch tips of a neighboring tree of the same height. It doesn’t grow any wider because the air and better light in this space are already taken. However, it heavily reinforces the branches it has extended, so you get the impression that there’s quite a shoving match going on up there. But a pair of true friends is careful right from the outset not to grow overly thick branches in each other’s direction. The trees don’t want to take anything away from each other, and so they develop sturdy branches only at the outer edges of their crowns, that is to say, only in the direction of “non-friends.” Such partners are often so tightly connected at the roots that sometimes they even die together.
Art by Cécile Gambini from Strange Trees by Bernadette Pourquié
But trees don’t interact with one another in isolation from the rest of the ecosystem. The substance of their communication, in fact, is often about and even to other species. Wohlleben describes their particularly remarkable olfactory warning system:
Four decades ago, scientists noticed something on the African savannah. The giraffes there were feeding on umbrella thorn acacias, and the trees didn’t like this one bit. It took the acacias mere minutes to start pumping toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the large herbivores. The giraffes got the message and moved on to other trees in the vicinity. But did they move on to trees close by? No, for the time being, they walked right by a few trees and resumed their meal only when they had moved about 100 yards away. 
The reason for this behavior is astonishing. The acacia trees that were being eaten gave off a warning gas (specifically, ethylene) that signaled to neighboring trees of the same species that a crisis was at hand. Right away, all the forewarned trees also pumped toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves. The giraffes were wise to this game and therefore moved farther away to a part of the savannah where they could find trees that were oblivious to what was going on. Or else they moved upwind. For the scent messages are carried to nearby trees on the breeze, and if the animals walked upwind, they could find acacias close by that had no idea the giraffes were there.
Because trees operate on time scales dramatically more extended than our own, they operate far more slowly than we do — their electrical impulses crawl at the speed of a third of an inch per second. Wohlleben writes:
Beeches, spruce, and oaks all register pain as soon as some creature starts nibbling on them. When a caterpillar takes a hearty bite out of a leaf, the tissue around the site of the damage changes. In addition, the leaf tissue sends out electrical signals, just as human tissue does when it is hurt. However, the signal is not transmitted in milliseconds, as human signals are; instead, the plant signal travels at the slow speed of a third of an inch per minute. Accordingly, it takes an hour or so before defensive compounds reach the leaves to spoil the pest’s meal. Trees live their lives in the really slow lane, even when they are in danger. But this slow tempo doesn’t mean that a tree is not on top of what is happening in different parts of its structure. If the roots find themselves in trouble, this information is broadcast throughout the tree, which can trigger the leaves to release scent compounds. And not just any old scent compounds, but compounds that are specifically formulated for the task at hand.
The upside of this incapacity for speed is that there is no need for blanket alarmism — the recompense of trees’ inherent slowness is an extreme precision of signal. In addition to smell, they also use taste — each species produces a different kind of “saliva,” which can be infused with different pheromones targeted at warding off a specific predator. 
Wohlleben illustrates the centrality of trees in Earth’s ecosystem with a story about Yellowstone National Park that demonstrates “how our appreciation for trees affects the way we interact with the world around us”:
It all starts with the wolves. Wolves disappeared from Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, in the 1920s. When they left, the entire ecosystem changed. Elk herds in the park increased their numbers and began to make quite a meal of the aspens, willows, and cottonwoods that lined the streams. Vegetation declined and animals that depended on the trees left. The wolves were absent for seventy years. When they returned, the elks’ languorous browsing days were over. As the wolf packs kept the herds on the move, browsing diminished, and the trees sprang back. The roots of cottonwoods and willows once again stabilized stream banks and slowed the flow of water. This, in turn, created space for animals such as beavers to return. These industrious builders could now find the materials they needed to construct their lodges and raise their families. The animals that depended on the riparian meadows came back, as well. The wolves turned out to be better stewards of the land than people, creating conditions that allowed the trees to grow and exert their influence on the landscape.
Art by William Grill from The Wolves of Currumpaw
This interconnectedness isn’t limited to regional ecosystems. Wohlleben cites the work of Japanese marine chemist Katsuhiko Matsunaga, who discovered that trees falling into a river can change the acidity of the water and thus stimulate the growth of plankton — the elemental and most significant building block of the entire food chain, on which our own sustenance depends. 
In the remainder of The Hidden Life of Trees, Wohlleben goes on to explore such fascinating aspects of arboreal communication as how trees pass wisdom down to the next generation through their seeds, what makes them live so long, and how forests handle immigrants. Complement it with this wonderful illustrated atlas of the world’s strangest trees and an 800-year visual history of trees as symbolic diagrams.

Rilke on Writing and What It Takes to Be an Artist

Even more complex and nuanced than the question of how to be a good writer, which has elicited answers from some of humanity’s most beloved authors, is the question of whybe a writer at all — why, that is, do great writers write?
Among the most memorable and invigorating answers are those sprung forth by W.H. AudenJennifer EganPablo NerudaJoan DidionDavid Foster WallaceItalo Calvino, and William Faulkner. But the finest, richest, truest answer of all comes from Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) in Letters to a Young Poet (public library) — those invaluable packets of wisdom on writing and life, which Rilke bequeathed to a 19-year-old cadet and budding poet named Franz Xaver Kappus.
1902 portrait of Rainer Maria Rilke by Helmuth Westhoff, Rilke’s brother-in-law
In the very first installment from their now-iconic correspondence, the young poet shares some of his writing with his mentor and extends the simple, enormously difficult question of how one knows one is a writer. Echoing Nietzsche’s famous assertion that â€œno one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Rilke offers:
Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Bukowski’s incantation from his poem â€œSo you want to be a writer” â€” â€œunless it comes out of your soul like a rocket … don’t do it,” he admonished — Rilke adds:
This above all — ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.
[…]
A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity. In this nature of its origin lies the judgment of it: there is no other.
But despite his opening caveat, Rilke does offer young Kappus advice both practical and poetic: 
Try, like some first human being, to say what you see and experience and love and lose. Do not write love-poems; avoid at first those forms that are too facile and commonplace: they are the most difficult, for it takes a great, fully matured power to give something of your own where good and even excellent traditions come to mind in quantity. Therefore save yourself from these general themes and seek those which your own everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, passing thoughts and the belief in some sort of beauty — describe all these with loving, quiet, humble sincerity, and use, to express yourself, the things in your environment, the images from your dreams, and the objects of your memory. If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.
Rilke concludes with a numinous definition of what it means, and what it takes, to be an artist: 
I know no advice for you save this: to go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept it, just as it sounds, without inquiring into it. Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what recompense might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and find everything in himself and in Nature to whom he has attached himself.
Letters to a Young Poet remains nothing short of secular scripture for the creative life, replete with Rilke’s wisdom on what books do for our inner livesthe life-expanding value of uncertaintywhat it really means to love, and how great sadnesses bring us closer to ourselves. Complement this particular portion with artist and MacArthur fellow Teresita Fernández on what it really means to be an artist and writer Dani Shapiro on the pleasures and perils of the creative life, then revisit Rilke on our fear of the unexplainable and his stirring letter to his boyhood teacher at the military academy that nearly broke his spirit.
BP