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BRAINpickings.org Newsletter

welcome to this week’s edition of the brainpickings.org newsletter by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s digest — Stephen Hawking on science and religion; altered states of consciousness: the science of time and self; a vintage illustrated art-science primer on the building blocks of perception — you can catch up right here. And if you are enjoying this labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation – I spend innumerable hours and tremendous resources on it each week, and every little bit of support helps enormously. If you already donate: THANK YOU.

Leo Tolstoy on Kindness and the Measure of Love

acalendarofwisdom.jpg?zoom=2&w=680“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now,” Jack Kerouac wrote in abeautiful letter to his first wife and lifelong friend. Somehow, despite our sincerest intentions, we repeatedly fall short of this earthly divinity, so readily available yet so easily elusive. And yet in our culture, it has been aptly observed, “we are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us.”In his stirring Syracuse commencement address, George Saunders confessed with unsentimental ruefulness: “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.” I doubt any decent person, upon candid reflection, would rank any other species of regret higher. To be human is to leap toward our highest moral potentialities, only to trip over the foibled actualities of our reflexive patterns. To be a good human is to keep leaping anyway.

In the middle of his fifty-fifth year, Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828–November 20, 1910) set out to construct a reliable springboard for these moral leaps by compiling “a wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all people,” whose wisdom “gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness” — thinkers and spiritual leaders who have shed light on what is most important in living a rewarding and meaningful life. Such a book, Tolstoy envisioned, would tell a person “about the Good Way of Life.” He spent the next seventeen years on the project.

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Leo Tolstoy

In 1902, by then seriously ill and facing his own mortality, Tolstoy finally completed the manuscript under the working title A Wise Thought for Every Day. It was published two years later, in Russian, but it took nearly a century for the first English translation, by Peter Sekirin, to appear: A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul, Written and Selected from the World’s Sacred Texts (public library). For each day of the year, Tolstoy had selected several quotes by great thinkers around a particular theme, then contributed his own thoughts on the subject, with kindness as the pillar of the book’s moral sensibility.

Perhaps prompted by the creaturely severity and the clenching of heart induced by winter’s coldest, darkest days, or perhaps by the renewed resolve for moral betterment with which we face each new year, he writes in the entry for January 7:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThe kinder and the more thoughtful a person is, the more kindness he can find in other people.

Kindness enriches our life; with kindness mysterious things become clear, difficult things become easy, and dull things become cheerful.

At the end of the month, in a sentiment Carl Sagan would come to echo in his lovely invitation to meet ignorance with kindness, Tolstoy writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngYou should respond with kindness toward evil done to you, and you will destroy in an evil person that pleasure which he derives from evil.

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Art by Olivier Tallec from Big Wolf & Little Wolf by Nadine Brun-Cosme.

In the entry for February 3, he revisits the subject:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngKindness is for your soul as health is for your body: you do not notice it when you have it.

After copying out two kindness-related quotations from Jeremy Bentham (“A person becomes happy to the same extent to which he or she gives happiness to other people.”) and John Ruskin (“The will of God for us is to live in happiness and to take an interest in the lives of others.”), Tolstoy adds:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngLove is real only when a person can sacrifice himself for another person. Only when a person forgets himself for the sake of another, and lives for another creature, only this kind of love can be called true love, and only in this love do we see the blessing and reward of life. This is the foundation of the world.

Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.

Feast on more of Tolstoy’s deeply nourishing Calendar of Wisdom here. Complement this particular fragment with Albert Einstein on the meaning of kindness, Jacqueline Woodson’s lovely letter to children about kindness, and Naomi Shihab Nye on the remarkable true story behind her beloved poem “Kindness,” then revisit Tolstoy on love and its paradoxical demands, his early diaries of moral development, and his deathbed writings on what gives meaning to our lives.

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I pour tremendous time, thought, heart, and resources into Brain Pickings, which remains free and ad-free, and is made possible by patronage. If you find any joy, stimulation, and consolation in my labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation. And if you already donate, from the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU.

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The Lioness in the Tall Grass: Farmer and Poet Laura Brown-Lavoie’s Extraordinary Letter to Children About the Power of Storytelling

avelocityofbeing_cover-1.jpg?fit=320%2C427

“Literature,” Vladimir Nabokov wrote in his insightful meditation on storytelling, “was born not the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him… Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.”

Not a boy but a girl, not a canine beast but a feline one, and still the tall grass converge to illuminate the shimmering mesmerism of storytelling in one of the most soulful and sinewy contributions to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — my labor of love eight years in the making, collecting 121 original illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us by some of the most inspiring humans in our world: poets, physicists, songwriters, artists, entrepreneurs, philosophers, deep-sea divers.

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Art by Ping Zhu for a letter by Laura Brown-Lavoie from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick.

Farmer, poet, doula, and performer Laura Brown-Lavoie writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngDear Reader,

Did you ever read a sentence you loved the way you love your favorite animal? My favorite animal is a lioness; how she doesn’t have a mane but she always has some blood around her mouth. And how the lionesses work together like good friends when they want to kill something. I’ve never seen a lioness in person or touched one or slept in the same bushes where a lioness lives, but I’ve known since I was a little kid that I love them the most.

Sometimes when I’m reading a good book and I’m under a blanket and no one’s trying to talk to me, I forget that I’m reading. The tall grass of the story grows up around me, and I’m just another silent creature whose heart beats in that world. If I sit still and keep reading that way, sometimes a sentence stalks by as lovely as a lioness. Blood around its mouth; that fresh, that killer. I read it once, and I know I have to read it again, not look away, watch closely how it moves.

And then I start to notice my eye muscles moving my eyeballs back and forth again, and see the black of the letters on the gray of the page, and I’m just plain reading under a blanket. It’s still fun. But the reason I read is for the lionesses. For the sentences that pull me in with all their teeth.

Love,
Laura

In a lovely meta-testament to the sentiment of her letter, Brown-Lavoie (to whom I was introduced by the wondrous Sarah Kay, another contributor to A Velocity of Being) also composed one of the most imaginative and delightful author bios in the book:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngLaura Brown-Lavoie is writing stories at the library with dirt on her knees. Born, like we all are, of physical labor, of sunlight and rain. Laura’s stories are born in a war-waging country, written by a war-hating woman. Her poems grow like weeds from the cracks in the asphalt of Providence streets and get hung upside down in the kitchen to dry.

Savor more of A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, all proceeds from which benefit the New York public library system, with Jane Goodall on how reading shaped her life, Rebecca Solnit on how books solace, empower, and transform us, Alain de Botton on literature as a vehicle of understanding, and 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin on how one book saved actual lives.

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Lorraine Hansberry, the Love of Freedom, and the Freedom of Love

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“A small, shy, determined person, with that strength dictated by absolutely impersonal ambition: she was not trying to ‘make it’ — she was trying to keep the faith,” James Baldwin wrote of Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930–January 12, 1965), whom he had met when she fiercely defended him as critics savaged a theatrical production of his novel Giovanni’s Room a year before she herself transformed theater and the cultural vocabulary of civil rights with A Raisin in the Sun — the first play by a black woman to be performed on Broadway, a play so quietly revolutionary that it incited an FBI report and so visionary that it replenished the faith of generations to come. She soon become Baldwin’s dear friend, his “Sweet Lorraine.” Nina Simone, one of her most intimate friends, honored her in the anthem “Young, Gifted and Black” — words drawn directly from a speech Hansberry had given to a group of young writers. W.E.B. Du Bois cherished her as his favorite student. Upon her untimely death at only 34, her model and mentor Langston Hughes — from whose verse Hansberry had borrowed the title of her revolutionary play — wrote in a poem dedicated to her: “In time of silver rain, / The earth puts forward new life again.”

In the decades since, Hansberry’s legacy has showered its life-giving rain upon the civic and spiritual soil in which freedom, redemption, and justice are grown. She has become a black icon, a queer icon, a feminist icon, an icon of artistic integrity, whose body of work emanates Auden’s belief that “the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act” and Achebe’s insistence that “those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art’… are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.” Hansberry dared to upset the system — radically, rapturously, in ways that continue to ripple through our culture with the tidal force of rare genius.

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Lorraine Hansberry, 1950s. Photographer unknown. (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library.)

That genius, epoch-making yet underappreciated today, comes alive in Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (public library) by cultural historian Imani Perry. A biographer of uncommonly poetic scholarship, Perry writes in the introduction:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngTime insists in a multitude of forms. The urgency of her time and its particularities must be understood within the deep sense of possibility that she maintained, a sense that characterizes youth in general and in particular those for whom justice seeking is their life work. We are running out of time, the earth is ravaged, our bodies are indefinite; Lorraine reminds us to make use of each moment.

[…]

Ahead of her time, Lorraine’s witness and wisdom help us understand the world, its problems and its possibilities. In her lonely reckonings, her impassioned reaching for justice, and the seriousness of her craft, she teaches us how to more ethically, more lovingly, witness one another today. There is something quieter but no less important too. In these pages I want to catch a likeness of her to give the reader a sense of the sweet and intimate parts of her: what made her smile and raised her ire, what drove her passions and how she loved.

In her early twenties, Hansberry had the great good fortune of studying with W.E.B. Du Bois, who became her most beloved intellectual mentor. In a lovely prose poem of sorts, scribbled in her class notebook, she limned “his back against the sunlight of May afternoons… full and confident in his vast knowledge and his splendid sense of interpretation of history.” Admiring his perfectly measured voice and his intelligent wit, she wrote: “Freedom’s passion, refined and organized, sits there.” Under his generous guidance, she read even more passionately and critically than she was already apt to, maturing both as an artist and an activist, training herself to transcend youth’s solipsistic tendency toward cultural and historical myopia. In another notebook, she wrote down words of Du Bois’s that would become a sort of philosophical mantra and creative pillar for her own work:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngSomehow you have got to know more than what you experience individually.

And yet, like every artist, Hansberry made the personal the raw material for the political and the wellspring of the universal. (Audre Lorde, who greatly admired her, captured this artistic inevitability perfectly a few years after Hansberry’s death: “The shortest statement of philosophy I have is my living, or the word ‘I.’”) On the first day of April in 1960, in the final weeks of her twenties, Hansberry divided a page of her daybook into two columns and filled them out in the like-and-dislike list tradition of Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngI LIKE

Mahalia Jackson’s music
My husband — most of the time
dressed up
being admired for my looks
Dorothy Secules eyes
Dorothy Secules
Shakespeare
Having an appetite
Slacks
My homosexuality
Being alone
Eartha Kitt’s looks
Eartha Kitt
That first drink of Scotch
To feel like working
The little boy in “400 Blows”
The way I look
Certain flowers
The way Dorothy Talks
Older Women
Miranda D’Corona’s accent
Charming women
And/or intelligent women

I HATE

Being asked to speak
Speaking getting
Too much mail
My loneliness
My homosexuality
Stupidity
Most television programs
What has happened to Sidney Poitier
Racism
People who defend it
Seeing my picture
Reading my interviews
Jean Genet’s plays
Jean Paul Sartre’s writing
Not being able to work
Death
Pain Cramps
Being hung over
Silly women
As silly men
David Suskind’s pretensions
Sneaky love affairs.

It is noteworthy that Hansberry used the word “hate” for the negatives and not its true opposite but the mere “like” for the positives — perhaps because, given her impassioned precision with language, she reserved the word “love” only for what truly warranted it: her work and her relationships. She had no patience for superficiality in either — when she bonded, she bonded deeply, bringing all of herself to the relationship, just as she brought all of herself to her art. Nina Simone — one of her closest bonds — remembered:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngWe never talked about men or clothes or other such inconsequential things when we got together. It was always Marx, Lenin and revolution — real girls’ talk.

When Simone gave birth to her only daughter, she chose Hansberry as her godmother, who gave the baby a beautiful Tiffany hairbrush. (Although Hansberry loved beautiful objects and beauty itself, in her own life she saw them as a distraction from her primary focus — she had only five dresses and wore no makeup, except for the occasional lipstick accent. “I’m pretty the way I am,” she used to say.) Simone credited Hansberry with awakening her political conscience. “It would take a special kind of friend really to pull me into the ideas of the Black Movement and force me to accept that I had to take politics seriously,” she wrote in her memoir. “That special friend was Lorraine Hansberry.”

Their bond was special in other ways, too — in belonging to that rare, ravishing species of unclassifiable relationship with elements of the platonic, the filial, the romantic, the intellectual, the creative, and the ineffable. Largely unrecorded in their surviving papers and perhaps unrecordable to begin with, it stands as a reminder that no one ever knows, nor therefore has grounds to judge, what goes on between two people, often not even the people themselves, half-opaque as we are to ourselves. The poet Nikki Giovanni captured the only thing that mattered in Hansberry’s relationship with Simone: “What is important is that she loved her and she was loved in return.”

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Lorraine Hansberry, 1959. Photograph by David Attie. (National Portrait Gallery)

Then there was James Baldwin, whose platonic love letter of an essay, “Sweet Lorraine,” opens the posthumous collection of Hansberry’s writings, To Be Young, Gifted and Black. He writes of his chosen title for the piece:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThat’s the way I always felt about her, and so I won’t apologize for calling her that now. She understood it: in that far too brief a time when we walked and talked and laughed and drank together, sometimes in the streets and bars and restaurants of the Village, sometimes at her house, gracelessly fleeing the houses of others; and sometimes seeming, for anyone who didn’t know us, to be having a knock-down-drag-out battle. We spent a lot of time arguing about history and tremendously related subjects in her Bleecker Street, and later Waverly Place, flats. And often, just when I was certain that she was about to throw me out as being altogether too rowdy a type, she would stand up, her hands on her hips (for these down-home sessions she always wore slacks), and pick up my empty glass as though she intended to throw it at me. Then she would walk into the kitchen, saying, with a haughty toss of her head, “Really, Jimmy. You ain’t right, child!” With which stern put-down she would hand me another drink and launch into a brilliant analysis of just why I wasn’t “right.” I would often stagger down her stairs as the sun came up, usually in the middle of a paragraph and always in the middle of a laugh. That marvelous laugh. That marvelous face. I loved her, she was my sister and my comrade.

Perry considers the broader significance of the mutual cherishment binding Hansberry, Baldwin, and Simone into a sacred geometry of art and love:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThe three of them formed a sort of trinity. Geniuses, they produced enduring work at the cusp of the great social transformations of the mid-twentieth century. All three were, according to early twenty-first-century terminology, queer, though only Jimmy’s sexuality was publicly known.

Cynics have criticized Hansberry for marrying a white man, or for marrying any man at all, given her orientation and her commitment to the civil rights movement. Cynics are people willfully and self-righteously blind to the context of others’ lives — their era, their culture, their inalienable personal predilections and choices; cynics are people who deny others the richness of heart and the complex, layered, tessellated inner life they afford themselves. While Hansberry’s richest romantic relationships were with women — most enduringly, with the shy, blue-eyed, sweet but politically opinionated Dorothy Secules, fifteen years Hansberry’s senior — her husband, the theater producer and writer Robert Nemiroff, became her most trusted intellectual and creative partner, the fiercest champion of her work during her short lifetime, and the person singlehandedly responsible for its posthumous preservation.

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Chess players, Washington Square, New York City, late 1950s. Photograph by Molly Malone Cook from Our Worldby Mary Oliver.

One of Hansberry’s most intense and transformative relationships was with the photographer Molly Malone Cook, who had recently migrated to New York from California.(Shortly after their relationship came to a close, Cook would find her lifelong soul mate in the poet Mary Oliver, who wrote stunningly about their four decades together. The two met at the Steepletop artist colony housed in the former home of Edna St. Vincent Millay — one of Hansberry’s heroes, both as an artistic intellect and as a queer woman living by her own rules. “Renascence,” the title poem of Millay’s debut poetry collection, had inspired and lent its title to one of Hansberry’s most daring short stories.)

Perry writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngWhen they were together, Molly took photographs of Lorraine. These photos are different from all the others and tell a story in and of themselves. In them, Lorraine does not have her race-woman armor on as she usually does. Nor is she posed. She is casual, tomboyish. Her hair is mussed. Her back curved, adolescent, languorous, and playful at once. The light and wonder that we know must have often been in her eyes, because of her wicked humor and deep curiosity, I have seen only Molly capture on camera. The images are a dance of love.

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Lorraine Hansberry singing. Photograph by Molly Malone Cook, circa 1957-1958.

Perry surmises — accurately, I believe on the basis of my own long immersion in the poet’s world — that Oliver is writing of Hansberry in this passage from Our World, her adoring memoir of and eulogy for the love of her life, describing Cook’s graciously unnamed previous lover:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngIn 1958 and 1959 she traveled by car across the country to California, leisurely, through the south and back through the northern states — taking pictures. She had, around this time, an affair that struck deeply, I believe she loved totally and was loved totally. I know about it, and I am glad. I have an idea of why the relationship thrived so and yet failed, too private for discussion also too obviously a supposition. Such a happening has and deserves its privacy. I only mean that this love, and the ensuing emptiness of its ending, changed her. Of such events we are always changed — not necessarily badly but changed. Who doesn’t know that, doesn’t know much.

Perry’s Looking for Lorraine is a superb read in its entirety — a rare triumph of doing justice to a life that compresses into its tragically short span tremendous complexity and a vast spectrum of nuances. Complement it with the remarkable story of Harriet Hosmer — another woman of culture-shifting yet underappreciated genius, who blazed the way for generations of artists and queer people a century before Hansberry, then revisit James Baldwin on “the doom and glory of knowing who you are.”

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I pour tremendous time, thought, heart, and resources into Brain Pickings, which remains free and ad-free, and is made possible by patronage. If you find any joy, stimulation, and consolation in my labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation. And if you already donate, from the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU.

monthly donation

You can become a Sustaining Patron with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a Brooklyn lunch.

one-time donation

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---

Did you know…

… that today is Purple Rain Day? On this day in 1984, Prince’s movie “Purple Rain” premiered in Hollywood, California. Prince made his film debut, which was developed to showcase his particular talents, so the film contains several extended concert sequences. The film grossed more than US$80 million at the box office and became a cult classic. Let’s go crazy today! 😉

~~~

Today’s Inspirational Quote:

“People will always have their opinions. Only you know who you really are. Focus on living authentically and honestly, have integrity in all that you do, and those opinions won’t matter.”

— Prince