Maira Kalman

The Principles of Uncertainty

“How can I tell you Everything in my Heart? Impossible to Begin. Enough. No Begin.”

With the impossible task of emptying her heart, American artist Maira Kalman (b. 1949) begins The Principles of Uncertainty. This collection of drawings and writings from a curious, observational mind is equally soothing and engaging.

There is nothing illusory in this tiny heaven. I am silent with gratitude. I will go and bake a honey cake and that’s all.

Kalman has illustrated so many books, several New Yorker collections and my favorite, a wildly delightful update of the classic The Elements of Style. She writes simply, vigorously and clearly. She says familiar things: “My brain is exploding. Trying to make sense out of nonsense, trying to tell you everything.” Her illustrations are playful yet complex.

I photograph my sister and think she looks so beautiful in her pink hat. What will happen to her? What will happen to all of us?

I have a place in my heart for those who walk about through their worlds, observing and calling proudly “Notice this!” A wonderful quality like Marianne Moore’s poetry celebrating octopods and snails and Oliver Sack’s end of life reminiscences calling our attention to elements.

Environmentalist Rachel Carson observed, in her concise paean to the joys of wonder, that a rainy day was a wonderful time to walk. And indeed, the particular moods of the space around us allows various sight. Kalman paints the world with dynamic vitality.

Angels walking on the earth. Cherubim and Seraphim. I take pictures of people but not everyone is pleased to be photographed. I suppose not everyone is that angelic. Fine by me.

Like authors, E. B. White and Dorothy Parker, Kalman’s primary space of inspiration is New York City. She takes what she calls a “life-affirming” ride on the New York Subway. Whether we see the same things she does in New York or elsewhere isn’t relevant, she teaches us how to see, not what.

You might notice that there are many objects displayed around the apartment. Collections. Tangible evidence of history, memory. Longing, delight. There is my empty box collection.

By connecting disparate things, Kalman emphasizes the rotational change of humanity. She shows us that above all we are all intimately connected in ways to human continuum we don’t understand. That much is certain.