7 YEARS, 7 THINGS
by Maria Popova, an intelligent and creative woman whom I’m barely know but greatly respect. 7 years ago, she started Brain Pickings, and today she shares 7 (of countless) things she’s learned along the way.
1. Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.
2. Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. As Paul Graham observed, “prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning or gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they often distract from the things that do offer those deeper rewards.
3. Be generous. Be generous with your time and resources, with giving credit and especially with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and be understood, these are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them.
4. Build pockets of stillness into your life. Meditate. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming, even to boredom. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken.
Most importantly, sleep. Besides being the greatest creative aphrodisiac, sleep affects our every waking moment, dictates our social rhythm, and even mediates our negative moods. Be as religious and disciplined about your sleep as you are about your work. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of badge of honor that validates our work ethic. But what it really is is a profound failure of self-respect and of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your health and your sanity, from which all else springs?
5. When people tell you who they are, Maya Angelou famously advised, believe them. Just as importantly, however, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.
6. Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Our culture measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
7. “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.” This is borrowed from the wise and wonderful Debbie Millman, for it’s hard to better capture something so fundamental yet so impatiently overlooked in our culture of immediacy. The myth of the overnight success is just that — a myth. The flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.
"You know, when I came to the river I thought I’d be an Ophelia type. Wispy, light, floating in the river. I’ve always loved Ophelia. I studied paintings and renderings of her throughout history. But you said it best, ‘the water shows people how they are,’ and I’m so grateful for that. Because when I sank into those waters I didn’t feel light or wispy. I didn’t feel like Ophelia. I felt powerful. When you turned the photos to me and said I looked like a medicine woman, I was taken aback at first. And then I thought, that’s who I am. I’m not wispy. I’m not airy. I’m not simple. I’m not soft. I’ve wanted (so wanted) to be those things. I’ve wanted to be the light one, the small one, the simple one, the sweet one. Last night I learned (or perhaps was reminded) that I am none of those things. I am powerful.
"Last night taught me that being powerful is not something I should apologize for. And it’s not something I have to hide. It’s something I should be proud of. It’s something no other person can give me or take away. It’s in my bones…" – Micaela
Michelle Gardella’s River Story is a soulful collection of photographs and words stitched together and bound. It reminds me of that scene in Lord of the Rings when Arwen is being chased by Ringwraiths. She stops in the river and begins to speak, Nîn o Chithaeglir lasto beth daer; rimmo nín Bruinen dan in Ulaer! (“Waters of the Misty Mountains, hear the word of power, rush, waters of Bruinen, against the Ringwraiths!”) Her voice grows in strength until the river comes rushing obediently to her aid. I’ve always loved that scene. It resonates with something very deep in me, every time.
Listen to Michelle speak about her River Story here.
Four days in the far north: trees turning gold, salmon moving upstream, moose tromping through, thousands and thousands of birch trees with images and symbols carved into their silvery skin as if holding untold tales, picking back up with friends, picking our own lingonberries, eating cloudberries over cream, trying to breath deeper, trying to remember how, and why, quietness, sleep, active dreams, morning fog, the wild geese calls at dusk and dawn, I’m back, I’m nourished, so full, so grateful.
A foodie sort of weekend
i. Fika (afternoon coffee break) at Rosendals Trädgård: a slice of carrot cake with coffee, a slice of lingonberry cake with rooibos tea, some edible flowers, and two happy people.
ii. Preparations for Stockholms Byfest, where chefs from Mathias Dahlgren, Gastrologik, Esperanto, Oaxen Slip, Svartengrens, Restaurang Volt, Ateliér Food, and Rosendals Trädgård came together for one night, for one meal. All the ingredients were harvested from Rosendal’s gardens, or they were foraged from the surrounding wild (except for the salt, butter, cream, milk, eggs, grains, and wine. And even they were locally produced).
iii. Bondens egen marknad (the farmers market) on Södermalm. Because our growing season is so short here, the farmers market comes only once a week, for only six weeks out of the entire year. Needless to say, I don’t miss a one of them.
iv. Cauliflower and fennel soup made at home with a rich chicken broth, rosemary, and lots of toasted almonds. It made a big pot, so we’ll have leftovers for lunch this week.
Two months ago, the woods around my neighborhood smelled sweet, like honeysuckle and jasmine.
Today it smells more like celery, a very pungent stalk of celery, slightly bitter, herbaceous.
Two weeks ago the lake was full of splashing, squealing kids, the younger ones toddling around without their diapers, just their soft ivory skin, while the others wore bright bathing suits. Neon colors flecked across the green hill, and at the end of the day, birds came to feast on the crumbs.
Today it’s 6:11 and I’m walking by the lake in a light coat and still feeling a bit chilly. No one is here. Except for the wind, which breathes across the water so calmly erasing those echoes of summer. And here comes some ducks now, just three of them, drifting silently toward the shore, carrying a triangular wake behind them like tail feathers.
School started back last week, and so it was time for us to set our alarm clocks, to pull out the buttoned shirts and greet our professional selves in the mirror again. We work hard through the winter. But in the summer we rest and we lay and are laid bare. The rest is all over now, and though I could’ve used a little bit more, just another week or two, I’m eager to get back to work.
My work is changing quite drastically, and though the change feels sudden, I know that’s not true. Every experience, every choice I’ve ever made both privately and publicly in my life has led me to this door, this room, this task. This is not something that is happening to me. It’s something I have birthed throughout the course of my days, across several nations, in every love, in every loss, every pastime, purchase, crime and kindness. Though I didn’t understand it till now.
The forest is changing too – its scent, its color, its murmurings are deeper and more obscure, like a pianist moving his fingers down the keys into those low, murky notes. Tomorrow refuses to be defined. But there are clues, you know there always are, because nothing happens out of the blue. Look up right now and ask the blue sky where its clouds came from, and it’ll tell you, they blew in from yesterday, and as for tomorrow, where will they go? Well who can say yet? That all depends on today.