“The secret of success,” Jackson Pollock’s father wrote to the teenage artist-to-be in his wonderful letter of life-advice, “is to be fully awake to everything about you.” Few things beckon our attention and awaken us to life more compellingly than color. “Our lives, when we pay attention to light, compel us to empathy with color,” Ellen Meloy wrote in her exquisite meditation on the chemistry, culture, and the conscience of color. And why else live if not to pay attention to the changing light?
In Daring Baby (public library), artist Maira Kalman, a poet of chromatic tenderness, composes an uncommon ode to aliveness, to the vibrant beauty of life, life that is very new and life that is very old.
As the teaches the baby to look at this color, this shape, this quality of light, we see the grownup relearn to see with those baby-eyes that are awake to the luminous everythingness of everything, undulled by the accumulation of filters we call growing up. What emerges is a celebration of attention as affirmation of aliveness, a vibrant testament to Simone Weil’s exquisite observation that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Page after painted page, a generous presence unfolds — presence with the new life of this small helpless observer of the world, presence with the ancient life of sky and sea.
There are people dancing and geese swimming in formation and “a thousand tiny silver fish” jumping over the water in an arc and a lightning-sliced night and a full Moon reflected in the gentle blue ripples and “a tree filled with yellow sparkly stars.”
Perfectly, it all takes place on the edge of the ocean — that singular place of existential reckoning, the perfect stage for Kalman’s classic dual serenade to life and death, to the mortal as the precious crucible of wonder.
One day, a summer party celebrates the baby’s birth “and everyone’s birthday with cheery cherry pie,” which a man takes home in his hat. “Everyone is born. That is true.” Another day, the grownup protagonist stumbles upon the still cool body of a “a big mossy-green turtle,” washed up from the ocean of life — a subtle, poignant intimation that everybody dies, too.
She tells the baby:
The water carried the turtle out to sea to be buried in the vast ocean. I think that is a good thing. At any rate, it is a thing.
I am telling you this because I know you will understand.
Throughout the story, there are echoes of Kalman’s love of dogs, echoes of her love of walking, echoes of her love of dance and her lovely American Utopia collaboration with David Byrne.
And all throughout, that wondrous overtone of Kalman’s irrepressible love of life.
Complement Daring Baby with an Italian illustrated ode to the science and strange splendors of pregnancy, then revisit Kalman’s tender painted love letter to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s love.
Illustrations courtesy of Maira Kalman; book photographs by Maria Popova