There’s an extraordinary free newsletter that I have been following for a year or so, called Brain Pickings. I would describe it, somewhat inadequately, as a weekly compendium of excerpts from the best writing by the best thinkers, in the fields of art, literature, music, philosophy and science, from the ancient world to the present day.
Brain Pickings is generous – there’s always too much in each edition to digest at a sitting. It’s unfailingly thought-provoking and frequently inspiring. And it comes with beautiful illustrations, generally taken from children’s books. I’d go so far as to say that it’s an essential resource for anyone in the least preoccupied by what it means to be human. More than once it has arrived in my inbox when I’m running a workshop (it’s published on Sundays) and provided exactly the quotation or theme needed for the day.
A few weeks ago one of the pickings was an excerpt from a book by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best-selling memoir Eat Pray Love. Big Magic, as the new book is called, is essentially a manifesto for creative living. There are aspects of it I take issue with, particularly its narrow definition of creativity: unless I’ve misread her, Gilbert is talking about creativity only as in the expression of intellectual or artistic inspiration, whereas for me it’s more a question of the fulfilment of personal potential, regardless of the nature of the endeavour.
But the book is engaging and contains much good sense and many interesting ideas: for example that ideas themselves are out there waiting to attach themselves to willing recipients, or that for most people it’s asking too much of their creativity to expect it to pay the bills, or the one that caught my eye in Brain Pickings – that one of the universe’s best and most benign jokes is to plant hidden jewels inside us and then stand back and wait to see whether we can find them. Looking for them is the big magic of the title, the start of creative living.
One of those jewels, I believe, is the ability or willingness to make connections, which I mentioned last week. But that jewel can remain hidden, and we can remain creatively frustrated or unfulfilled, when connections threaten to take us somewhere that seems just too outlandish, too random, too … unconnected, and then our inhibitions kick in.
Here is a case in point. On Tuesday morning it snowed heavily. I sat in my office at home and watched the snowflakes drifting down from a still, leaden sky. Over the next hour or so they grew bigger and bigger until they were enormous, the biggest snowflakes I have ever seen, mesmerisingly large and beautiful, the size and shape of feathers or curlings of tangerine peel.
They stayed with me and I found myself thinking about them again yesterday on the way into Edinburgh. The train was packed, unusually for mid-morning, till I realised that people were heading in to do their Christmas shopping. And although it felt like a cliché, I couldn’t help starting to picture memorable white Christmases I’ve experienced.
In 1986, a couple of days before Christmas, Sarah and I left London and set out for the French Alps and the resort of Méribel, which her father Peter Lindsay had founded, and where she had been brought up. We had been together just a few months and this was a version of my introduction to her family home, although by then her father had been dead for fifteen years and her mother was living in London.
We took the ferry to Brittany, spent a night with friends in Nantes, and then, on Christmas Eve, drove across France under cold, rainy skies. There were flurries of snow as we crossed the Massif Central, but the rain returned as we came down into the Rhone valley. Beyond Lyon the mountains rose into a damp grey murk. We reached Moutiers, the gateway to the Méribel valley, and there was still only slush at the roadside. Then, a few miles further on, came an encouraging sign recommending that from this point on drivers proceed only with chains.
We clanked our way up the mountain and arrived at the family apartment in the dark. There was a sense of snow all around, but whether it was the kind of snow we were hoping for or not, we couldn’t tell. We spent a happy evening decorating a Christmas tree, then fell into bed.
The next morning, Christmas Day, we woke and pulled back the curtains to find that it had snowed heavily in the night. The sky was cloudless, the sun was shining and there were several inches of fresh snow on rooftops, weighing down the branches of the trees, blanketing cars and making the whole valley glisten. And there I was with my new love, in the place of her childhood, on Christmas morning, in the middle of a Christmas card.
The memory is a jewel – one of the easier ones to find, I admit. But so is the chain of connection that brought it to the surface. And now that I have dared to write it down, it doesn’t seem nearly so random, or clichéd, as I might have thought had it remained stuck in the clutter of my mental lumber room.
Big magic? Well – magic of a kind, anyway …