What You Need to Be Warm: Neil Gaiman Reads His Humanistic Poem for Refugees, Composed from a Thousand Definitions of Warmth from Around the World

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“There is a huge abyss within every mind. When we belong, we have an outside mooring to prevent us from falling into ourselves,” the late, great Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue wrote as he channeled ancient Celtic wisdom on belonging. But given this mooring is already difficult enough a triumph in the privacy of each personhood, given the abyss already gapes fathomless enough in each inner world, what happens when the outside world — a world in which, as Toni Morrison poignantly put it, “walls and weapons feature as prominently now as they once did in medieval times” — begins to politicize and barricade belonging?

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse. Available as a print.

A century and a half after Walt Whitman wrote, in the middle of a civil war, that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” Neil Gaiman takes up the question of our shared belonging in a project of uncommon originality.

As an ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, he has been lending his voice to the catastrophe of inhumanity we call a “refugee crisis” since its dark dawn. One of the most beloved storytellers of our time, in recent years he has been turning his talents increasingly toward poetry. In 2019, as the cold season drew near and UNHCR launched its winter emergency appeal to help Syrian refugee families survive their eighth below-freezing winter away from home, he invited his sizable Twitter following to share memories and meanings of warmth. Fully aware of the general mediocrity of crowdsourced art, he approached the challenge with an artist’s soaring ability to see the larger pattern tessellated from the constituent parts. Out of the nearly one thousand responses from around the world, out of their cumulative 25,000 words, out of the cabinet of commonplaces — boiling kettles, burning stoves, grandmother-knitted scarves — he wrests something entirely original and beautiful and alive: the sensitive insight that memories of warmth spring not from a quantity of temperature but from a contrast in quality of feeling against the cold — a contrast most memorably kindled by the small kindnesses that make us human.

With his customary generosity of spirit, Neil kindly obliged my request to record himself reading for Brain Pickings the resulting free-verse poem, which stands as a testament to Ada Lovelace’s insistence that the hallmark of creativity is the ability to compose something cohesive, original, and symphonic out of disjoined, seemingly dissonant parts.

WHAT YOU NEED TO BE WARM
by Neil Gaiman

A baked potato of a winter’s night to wrap your hands around or burn your mouth.
A blanket knitted by your mother’s cunning fingers. Or your grandmother’s.
A smile, a touch, trust, as you walk in from the snow
or return to it, the tips of your ears pricked pink and frozen.

The tink tink tink of iron radiators waking in an old house.
To surface from dreams in a bed, burrowed beneath blankets and comforters,
the change of state from cold to warm is all that matters, and you think
just one more minute snuggled here before you face the chill. Just one.

Places we slept as children: they warm us in the memory.
We travel to an inside from the outside. To the orange flames of the fireplace
or the wood burning in the stove. Breath-ice on the inside of windows,
to be scratched off with a fingernail, melted with a whole hand.

Frost on the ground that stays in the shadows, waiting for us.
Wear a scarf. Wear a coat. Wear a sweater. Wear socks. Wear thick gloves.
An infant as she sleeps between us. A tumble of dogs,
a kindle of cats and kittens. Come inside. You’re safe now.

A kettle boiling at the stove. Your family or friends are there. They smile.
Cocoa or chocolate, tea or coffee, soup or toddy, what you know you need.
A heat exchange, they give it to you, you take the mug
and start to thaw. While outside, for some of us, the journey began

as we walked away from our grandparents’ houses
away from the places we knew as children: changes of state and state and state,
to stumble across a stony desert, or to brave the deep waters,
while food and friends, home, a bed, even a blanket become just memories.

Sometimes it only takes a stranger, in a dark place,
to hold out a badly-knitted scarf, to offer a kind word, to say
we have the right to be here, to make us warm in the coldest season.

You have the right to be here.

Complement with Borderless Lullabies — a gorgeous compilation of music and spoken word, benefiting the legal defense of refugee children — and Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon — a lyrical illustrated meditation on otherness and belonging — then revisit Gaiman’s wondrous poetic tributes to the woman who catalyzed the environmental movement, the queer young astronomer who catapulted Einstein into celebrity, and the ancient, unheralded history of women as the original scientists.

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