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Wonder and the Grandeur of the Universe as the Antidote to Human-Manufactured Bias and Divisiveness: Marilyn Nelson’s Stunning Poem “The Children’s Moon”

Saturday 01st August 2020
A lyrical time-capsule of human history being made under the unblinking eye of cosmic time.

In one of her love letters, Margaret Fuller — who laid the foundation of American feminism, advocated for black voting rights generations before women won the vote, and believed in every fiber of her being that genius is “common as light” when given the chance — wrote of “that best fact, the Moon.” A century, a Civil War, and two World Wars after her, amid the golden age of space exploration, the great Italian scientist, humanist, and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi considered the spiritual value of our cosmic dreams in his gorgeous essay “The Moon and Man,” insisting that “for good or evil, we are a single people: the more we become conscious of this, the less difficult and long will be humanity’s progress toward justice and peace.”

Marilyn Nelson shines a sidewise gleam on that best, most unifying fact in her stunning poem “The Children’ Moon,” written in the voice of her own mother — one of the first black women to teach at an all-white elementary school, spearheading a classroom of twenty white second-graders at an Air Force base school in Kansas four months after Brown v. Board of Education.

Illustration by Judith Clay from Thea’s Tree

Performed at the On Being gathering in 2018 and published a year earlier in Mrs. Nelson’s Class (public library) — the conceptually brilliant anthology Nelson edited, featuring persona poems by twenty different poets, each taking on the voice of one of the bodies in her mother’s classroom to imagine what the experience of making history together might have been like — the poem is a stunning reminder that the human capacity for wonder at the grandeur of the universe and the natural world, a capacity “common as light” among us all, will always eclipse the capacity for diminishment and divisiveness along artificial lines, lines drawn not by the reality of nature but by the selectively consensual non-reality we call culture, lines that constrict and confine and desecrate what is best and largest in our nature.

THE CHILDREN’S MOON
by Marilyn Nelson

In my navy shirtwaist dress and three-inch heels,
my pearl clip-ons and newly red-rinsed curls,
I smoothed on lipstick, lipstick-marked my girls,
saluted and held thumbs-up to my darling Mel,
and drove myself to school for the first day.

Over the schoolyard a silver lozenge
dissolved into the morning’s blue cauldron.
Enter twenty seven-year-old white children.
Look, children, I said as they found their desks:
The children’s moon! A special good luck sign!

We pledged allegiance, and silently prayed.
George Washington watched sternly from his frame.
I turned to the blackboard and wrote my name.
I thought I heard, She’s the REAL teacher’s maid!
I thought I heard echoes of history.

But when I turned, every child in the room
had one hand up, asking, What is the children’s moon?

Complement with Nelson’s entrancing performance of her existential-scientific poem “Faster than Light” at the third annual Universe in Verse and savor her On Being conversation with Krista Tippett (who also read an existential-mathematical poem in the same show), then revisit other titanic poets of our time performing their own work: Marie Howe reading “Singularity,” Ross Gay reading “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt,” Elizabeth Alexander reading “The Venus Hottentot,” U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading from “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” and Jane Hirshfield reading “Today, Another Universe.”

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The Science and Splendor of Australian Butterflies: How Two 19th-Century Teenage Sisters’ Forgotten Paintings Sparked a Triumph of Modern Conservation

Thursday 30th July 2020
A bittersweet story of staggering talent, obsessive curiosity, countercultural courage, and posthumous redemption.

A century after the self-taught German naturalist and artist Maria Merian laid the foundations of modern entomology with her stunning pictorial studies of butterflies in Surinam and a century before Vladimir Nabokov applied his glorious intellectual promiscuity to advancing the field, the Australian sisters Harriet and Helena Scott unleashed their immense talent and curiosity on the natural history of butterflies and moths. A century after their death, their stunning, scrumptious paintings would furnish one of the most heartening conservation triumphs in history.

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Available as a print and as a face mask. (A portion of proceeds benefits The Nature Conservancy.)

Daughters of the Bombay-born Australian entomologist Alexander Walker Scott, Helena and Harriet were barely out of childhood when they started harmonizing their father’s scientific studies with their shared artistic gift. When the girls were in their teens, the family moved from Sydney to Ash Island — an isolated patch of native wilderness in the middle of Hunter River — where they filled their days and their minds with activities reserved for the era’s boys. The sisters spent twenty years adventuring into nature — probably wearing pants, certainly climbing trees — and documenting their astonishment, their awed curiosity, in field notebooks and collecting boxes and elaborate paintings. They lived on the timescale of the insects they studied, staying up at night to observe and illustrate in real time the metamorphoses unfolding in the span of hour, minutes, in creatures with life-cycles of days — transformations so subtle that the sisters often used the single hair of a paintbrush to render the delicate details.

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Available as a print and as a face mask. (A portion of proceeds benefits The Nature Conservancy.) Detail from Helena and Harriet Scott’s art for Australian Lepidoptera.

A generation before Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology and a century before Rachel Carson made it a household word, the Scott sisters spent innumerable hours in the wilderness, studying the plants that sustained the insects, seeking to understand and document the intricate relationships of life. At a time when most natural history illustration depicted animals in black and white, islanded on the page as specimens extracted from their natural context and splayed for the human viewer’s eye, they chose to honor the vibrant living creatures within the web of life.

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Available as a print and as a face mask. (A portion of proceeds benefits The Nature Conservancy.) Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Available as a print. (A portion of proceeds benefits The Nature Conservancy.)

Paper, imported from England, was so precious that they used each sheet twice — painting on the front, writing on the back, in a tiny script that could compress the maximum amount of information, the greatest volume of coded curiosity, into the finite physical space. They organized and catalogued their father’s specimens, watched the glasswing, Acraea andromacha, lay her innumerable eggs inside the passionflower, watched the caterpillar turn pupa turn butterfly, and rendered what they saw in consummate detail.

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott. (Australian Museum archives)

In an era when scientific illustrators were often uncredited in the works they illustrated, an era when hardly any women were published authors and of the few who were, most published under initials or male pseudonyms, Alexander Walker Scott made the bold and loving decision to print his daughters’ names in the book’s title itself, honoring them as collaborators. After a thirteen-year delay due to its exceedingly costly production bent on preserving the vibrancy and integrity of the original art, the two-volume Australian Lepidoptera and their transformations, drawn from the life by Harriet and Helena Scott was published in 1864.

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Available as a print and as a face mask. (A portion of proceeds benefits The Nature Conservancy.)

Although they could only afford to print a fraction of the 100 artworks Harriet and Helena, now in their early thirties, had painted as teenagers between 1846 and 1851, the book just about bankrupted the Scotts without garnering the recognition they had hoped for. Soon after its publication, their mother died of a heart attack — a devastation to the young women who shared a close bond with her and whose grief was compounded by the sudden loss of the freedom their mother’s domestic care had afforded them to pursue their artistic-scientific career. The family was forced to sell Ash Island and move into humbler dwellings back in Sydney. Harriet wrote to a friend at the Australian Museum of natural history:

In a week or so we shall leave this place poorer than we ever were in our lives, and I am and shall be until poor Papa gets something to do, working to gain a livelihood for us three. We give up every article that belongs to us and if I can take my drawing materials I shall think myself fortunate. With these I hope to be able to make enough to live in a very small way for a time.

Helena and Harriet Scott

Shortly after the migration, Harriet and Helena were thrust into even deeper dispossession and grief — their father died. Forced to lean on their talent not along their passions but against their survival, they began taking commissions decorating wedding photographs with drawings of wildlife and plants, they painted commercial dinner plate sets, they made botanical illustrations for railway guides, they illustrated the first holiday cards featuring native Australian wildflowers. Scholars consider them Australia’s first paid female artists.

Even so, the income was not enough for the sisters to subsist on. They made the difficult decision to sell their life’s work to the Australian Museum, of which their father had been a trustee. The museum, where the scrumptious Scott collection now lives among the country-continent’s largest and oldest natural history and rare books archive, bought it for £200, or around £25,000 today.

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Available as a print. (A portion of proceeds benefits The Nature Conservancy.)

For a century, the Scott sisters’ work lay brown-papered in the underbelly of the museum, until curator Marion Ord rediscovered it with a gasp of awe and set about bringing it back to life in a book celebrating the museum’s bicentenary — a book on which conservationists began leaning to restore and rewild Ash Island, which industrial farming had left razed of trees and bereft of insects in the twentieth century.

A turning point for the conservation effort was the discovery of a crucial document among the Scott sisters’ papers: Helena’s full list of the plants growing on Ash Island in 1862 — a function of the sisters’ understanding of ecology before the term existed. More than 240 species, ranging from trees to ferns to fungi, were each meticulously catalogued as a complete phylogenetic listing.

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Available as a print. (A portion of proceeds benefits The Nature Conservancy.)

A century after Harriet and Helena Scott returned their borrowed atoms to the web of life, more than 250,000 native trees have been replanted on their beloved Ash Island with the help of hundreds of volunteers, restoring the flood-plane rainforest of their childhood. Ash Island is now a national park.

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Available as a print. (A portion of proceeds benefits The Nature Conservancy.) Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Available as a print. (A portion of proceeds benefits The Nature Conservancy.) Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Available as a print. (A portion of proceeds benefits The Nature Conservancy.)

Australian Museum curator, historian, and archivist Vanessa Finney tells the Scott sisters’ previously untold story in the consummately illustrated Transformations (public library). Complement it with Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter’s groundbreaking studies and illustrations of mushrooms, which mycologists still use to identify species, trailblazing 18th-century artist Sarah Stone’s natural history paintings of exotic, endangered, and extinct species, some of them native to Australia, and the remarkable story of her young contemporary Elizabeth Blackwell, who taught herself botanical illustration and created the world’s first illustrated encyclopedia of medicinal plants to save her husband from debtor’s prison.

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John McPhee on Writing and the Relationship Between Artistic Originality and Self-Doubt

Wednesday 29th July 2020
“Never stop battling for the survival of your own unique stamp.”

“I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were.” So wrote John Steinbeck as he was working on the book that earned him a Pulitzer and paved the way for his Nobel Prize. “I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability,” he exorcised the demon of self-doubt in his diary — the demon that discomposes every writer until, as Virginia Woolf observed while revolutionizing literature with Orlando, they no longer know whether they are “the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.” Few are the Whitmans who can proclaim: “I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood.” Even Whitman was not a Whitman but many Whitmans, fractured and dissonant — even for him, this was but one multitude speaking; another, in the very verses that prompted the divinest genius in him to cry out in such self-celebration, whispered this universal assurance:

It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,
My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?

How to live with the dark patches of self-doubt, how to regard their umbra not as an obstacle on the path to good writing but as the path itself, is what John McPhee addresses in a portion of one of those supremely rare, supremely helpful meta-masterworks of literature, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process (public library).

John McPhee (Photograph: Princeton University)

From the hard-conquered promontory of his half-century contributorship for The New Yorker, he looks back on his early days as a freelancer, still adrift in the torrents of self-doubt despite his early successes:

In some twenty months, I had submitted half a dozen pieces, short and long, and the editor, William Shawn, had bought them all. You would think that by then I would have developed some confidence in writing a new story, but I hadn’t, and never would. To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me. It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you. Square 1 does not become Square 2, just Square 1 squared and cubed.

Considering what helped him through the disorientation of self-doubt, what helps anyone, he adds:

Writers come in two principal categories — those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure — and they can all use help. The help is spoken and informal, and includes insight, encouragement, and reassurance with regard to a current project.

But whatever the hue and texture of self-doubt may be, McPhee argues, its very presence is evidence of correctly calibrated creative aspiration:

If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer. If you say you see things differently and describe your efforts positively, if you tell people that you “just love to write,” you may be delusional. How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists? And unless you can identify what is not succeeding — unless you can see those dark clunky spots that are giving you such a low opinion of your prose as it develops — how are you going to be able to tone it up and make it work?

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

In consonance with Rachel Carson’s insistence that “if you write what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in… you will interest other people” — a downright countercultural orientation in our era of catering to ever-lowering existing tastes rather than elevating and cultivating new sensibilities, new interests, new frames of reference — McPhee shines a sidewise gleam on the relationship between self-doubt and originality. Resonating between the lines of this excellent part-manual part-memoir of writing, reverberating throughout his own symphonic body of work, is the subtle, splendid assurance that self-doubt is a function of daring to try the untried, daring to move beyond the template and the formula that leave little room for doubt and rise to the challenge of the unexampled. Whatever improvements may be made on your writing — stylistically or conceptually, by an editor or by your own redrafting eye — McPhee urges for the fierce preservation of that unexampled insignia:

Never stop battling for the survival of your own unique stamp.

And yet that stamp, he reminds us, is carved by the blade of existing excellence. Echoing Mary Oliver’s charming insistence that “the perils of not imitating are greater than the perils of imitating” and affirming Oliver Sacks’s insight into the progression from imitation to originality, McPhee cites what he told his own daughter when she lamented that her style either feels “overwhelmingly self-conscious and strained” or mimics whatever she is reading at the moment:

The developing writer reacts to excellence as it is discovered — wherever and whenever — and of course does some imitating (unavoidably) in the process of drawing from the admired fabric things to make one’s own. Rapidly, the components of imitation fade. What remains is a new element in your own voice, which is not in any way an imitation. Your manner as a writer takes form in this way, a fragment at a time. A style that lacks strain and self-consciousness is what you seem to aspire to, or you wouldn’t be bringing the matter up. Therefore, your goal is in the right place. So practice taking shots at it. A relaxed, unself-conscious style is not something that one person is born with and another not. Writers do not spring full-blown from the ear of Zeus.”

Or, as Auden observed in one of his singular strokes of wry perspicacity, “some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.”

Art by Beatrice Alemagna from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Complement this fragment of McPhee’s altogether essential Draft No. 4 with Steinbeck’s astonishing use of the diary as a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt, then revisit James Baldwin’s advice on writing and a dose from Hemingway, T.S. Eliot’s wonderful letter of wisdom and encouragement to an adolescent girl aspiring to be a writer, musician Ben Folds on how to find your artistic voice, and Whitman on how to keep criticism from sinking your creative confidence.

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Nick Cave on Living with Loss and the Central Paradox of Grief as a Portal to Aliveness

Monday 27th July 2020
“The paradoxical effect of losing a loved one is that their sudden absence can become a feverish comment on that which remains… a luminous super-presence.”

Perched near the untimely end of a life strewn with losses, contemplating what remains when a loved one vanishes into “the drift called the infinite,” Emily Dickinson wrote:

Each that we lose takes part of us;
A crescent still abides,
Which like the moon, some turbid night,
Is summoned by the tides.

I too have waded through the tide pool with its lapping waves of grief. It is impossible to get through a life — through half a life, even — without living through the two most universal human experiences: love and loss, each presupposing the other, each haunted either by the specter of the other or by its ever-present prospect. To love is to live always with the possibility of loss; to sorrow with loss is to have loved.

“Broken/hearted” by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

That is what Abraham Lincoln sensed when he told a friend’s bereaved daughter that loss eventually resolves into “a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.” That is what Elizabeth Gilbert articulated a century and a half later in her exquisite meditation on how to move through grief as grief moves through you, drawing on her own experience to observe:

Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted… Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to. In that regard, Grief has a lot in common with Love.

That, too, is what Nick Cave — another lush mind rooted in a large and luminous spirit, another artist of uncommon originality — explores with tremendous sensitivity of insight in answering a young woman’s lyrical question about how to live with the disorientation of grief’s lapping waves, how to parse the almost-thereness with which a loved one gone haunts our days, consecrates the aliveness in all things — trees, birds, wind, night — with the thereness, breaks our heart over and over with the almostness.

“Liminal Worlds” by Maria Popova. Available as a print.

Cave writes:

The paradoxical effect of losing a loved one is that their sudden absence can become a feverish comment on that which remains. That which remains rises in time from the dark with a burning physicality — a luminous super-presence — as we acquaint ourselves with this new and different world. In loss things — both animate and inanimate — take on an added intensity and meaning.

In a sentiment evocative of Pico Iyer’s soulful meditation on the autumn light as a portal to finding beauty and impermanence and luminosity in loss, Cave adds:

This feeling… of alertness to the inner-spirit of things — this humming — comes from a hard-earned understanding of the impermanence of things and, indeed, our own impermanence. This lesson ultimately animates and illuminates our lives. We become witnesses to the thrilling emergency of the present — a series of exquisite and burning moments, each extinguished as the next arises. These magical moments are the bright jewels of loss to which we cling.

At the heart of the young woman’s question is the central paradox of loss: how in grief we can still be profoundly, transcendently moved by beauty — by a symphony or a sunflower or the song of the hermit thrush — and yet a slender screen of unreality slips between us and these motive forces, us and everything. “It’s strange to feel so connected and yet have a feeling of being so disconnected,” she writes. Cave addresses this paradox not as a disconnect but as the very wellspring of our connection to life:

There is, of course, another side where we lose our resolve — we drop our guard, or just grow tired and descend into that other, darker, less-lovely world, as we disconnect and retreat deep into ourselves… These revolving feelings of connection and disconnection… are the opposing forces of loss that define our lived experience… Many of us inhabit this uncanny realm of loss — and all of us will find our way there in time.

Art from Cry, Heart, But Never Break — a stunning Danish illustrated meditation on love and loss.

Complement with Hannah Arendt on love and how to live with the fundamental fear of loss, Seneca on the key to resilience through grief, and a soulful animated short film about loss and the unbreakable bonds of love, then revisit Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence in the age of artificial intelligence and do subscribe to his spare and excellent newsletter.

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The Building Blocks of Moral Revolution: Jacqueline Novogratz on the Art of Accompaniment Along the Path to Justice and the Courage to Defy Cynicism in the Face of Staggering Requisite for Change

Monday 27th July 2020
“Cynics might point to a system of governments, corporations, and technologies so broken that attempts to change it from the edges are futile. But cynics don’t build the future.”

From the hard-earned platform of his revolutionary life, Frederick Douglass looked back on his youth under the “brutalizing power” of slavery, a bodily brutality lashing at the soul as he watched “men and women, … moral and intellectual beings, in open contempt of their humanity, leveled at a blow with horses, sheep, horned cattle and swine.” This grim reality of “manhood lost in chattelhood,” he argued, would take nothing less than a “moral revolution” to overturn.

A century after Douglass’s death, a nun by the name of Felicula Nyiramutarambirwa — one of Rwanda’s first three women parliamentarians — set out to eradicate the country’s epochs-old “bride price” — a practice of reducing women to chattel by having a prospective husband offer his future father-in-law three cows in exchange for the bride-to-be. Her country was not ready — the law banning the practice was rescinded, backlash erupted, and Felicula Nyiramutarambirwa was murdered.

Not long before her death, she had taken under her wing an idealistic young American woman who over the next decades would carry her torch in an unexampled way, irradiating the world with its light on scales neither of them could have predicted or dared dream of. Twenty-five, disillusioned with the hypocrisies of capitalism and a financial world predicated on an erasure of the lives of the poor, she would devote her life to exposing the deep-rooted, centuries-old systemic corruptions of a global economic system in which humanity is lost to chattelhood. She would come to see that because the systemic assault of poverty impoverishes people of much more than wages, the opposite of poverty is not riches but dignity. She would pioneer a new model of flourishing — flourishing of the body as well as the spirit — modeling a world where dignity is the primary stake to be held and each human being, no matter their nationality, ethnicity, gender, religion, race, or income level, is a sovereign and inalienable stakeholder.

Illustration by Jacqueline Ayer from The Paper-Flower Tree, 1962.

In the decades since her formative experience in Rwanda, hardly anyone has made a greater or further-reaching difference in the lives of the world’s poor than microfinance pioneer and Acumen founder Jacqueline Novogratz. In Manifesto for a Moral Revolution: Practices to Build a Better World (public library), she looks back on her own life and forward to our shared future to consider the building blocks of robust, lasting change. She writes:

1986. Kigali, Rwanda. I am standing in a field on a blue-sky day, surrounded by tall, yellow sunflowers. I am a twenty-five-year-old former banker dressed in a flowy skirt, wearing flat, mud-speckled white shoes, my head filled with dreams of changing the world. Beside me is an apple-cheeked, bespectacled nun in a brown habit smiling broadly. Her name is Felicula, and I adore her for taking me under her wing. Along with a few other Rwandan women, she and I are planning to build the first microfinance bank in the country. Today, we’re visiting a sunflower oil-pressing business, the kind of tiny venture our bank might one day support. We plan to call the microfinance organization Duterimbere meaning “to go forward with enthusiasm.”

All I see is upside.

2016. Kigali, Rwanda. I am standing at an outdoor reception on a starry night, surrounded by men and women in dark suits. I am the fifty-five-year-old CEO of Acumen, a global nonprofit seeking to change the way the world tackles poverty. Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, and his top ministers are at the reception to meet potential investors in a new $70 million impact fund Acumen is building to bring solar electricity to more than ten million low-income people in East Africa.

I have become all too familiar with the risks of making and then trying to deliver on big promises. Yet I’m confident Acumen and its partners can launch and implement this fund, and thus prove the power of innovation to help solve one of the continent’s most intractable problems.

Just before I begin to make a formal presentation to the group, a young Rwandan woman wearing a navy suit and low-heeled pumps approaches me.

“Ms. Novogratz,” she says, “I think you knew my auntie.”

“Really?” I ask. “What was her name?” I haven’t a clue to whom she is referring: too many of my friends were murdered in the genocide.

“Her name was Felicula,” she responds brightly.

My eyes well with tears. “I’m sorry,” I stammer. “Would you remind me who you are again?”

“My name is Monique,” the young woman answers with soft-spoken confidence, her eyes holding mine. “I am the deputy secretary-general of Rwanda’s central bank.”

“The longer the lever the less perceptible its motion,” Henry David Thoreau had written in Frederick Douglass’s day in contemplating the long timescales of social change. On the timescale of our civilization, thirty years is an astonishingly short span for change so profound, especially if this particular lever has been intercepted by one of the grimmest genocides in the history of the world. In a single generation, Rwandan women had gone from being priced as chattel to charging the country’s financial system.

With an eye to Felicula Nyiramutarambirwa and the women who dared to dream on timescales beyond their own lifetimes, with an eye to her own work with people around the world who are transforming their communities in ways they might not live to see, Jacqueline considers the fulcrum of the lever. With echoes of Theodor Roosevelt’s famous “Citizenship in a Republic” speech about the cowardice of cynicism in advancing change, a generation after the British economist E.F. Schumacher called for prioritizing people over products and creativity over consumption in what he called “Buddhist economics, she writes:

Cynics might point to a system of governments, corporations, and technologies so broken that attempts to change it from the edges are futile. But cynics don’t build the future. Instead, they often use their jaundiced views to justify inaction. And never before have we more desperately needed their opposite — thoughtful, empathetic, resilient believers and optimists on a path of moral leadership.

[…]

Those I’ve known who’ve most changed the world exhibit a voracious curiosity about the world and other people, and a willingness to listen and empathize with those unlike them. These people stand apart not because of school degrees or the size of their bank accounts, but because of their character, their willingness to build reservoirs of courage and stand for their beliefs, even if they stand alone.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 English edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Along the path of their shared devotion to ending poverty, Jacqueline came to know these outstanding human beings — many of them people radically different from her, inhabiting worlds and shaped by world-forces radically different from those of her own crucible — through what she terms “the practice of accompaniment”:

Accompaniment is a Jesuit idea, meaning to “live and walk” alongside those you serve. It is the willingness to encounter another, to make someone feel valued and seen, bettered for knowing you, never belittled. Guiding another person, organization, or community to build confidence and capabilities requires tenacity, a disciplined resolve to show up repeatedly with no expectation of thanks in return. This kind of accompaniment requires the patience to listen to others’ stories without judgment, to offer skills and solutions without imposition. It is to be a follower as well as a guide, a humble yet aspirational teacher-student focused on coaching another with firm kindness and a steady presence. With those you aim to serve or lead, your job is to be interested, to help make another person shine, not demonstrate how smart or good or capable you yourself are.

Accompaniment is especially important when partnering with those who are from places or families that have been traumatized or marginalized by war, violence, isolation, aggression, or by drugs or generational poverty. Accompaniment recognizes that for many individuals and communities, spiritual poverty is as devastating as material poverty. The simple act of showing up and connecting with another’s humanity can help a person rekindle hope in ways they might not otherwise have dreamed of doing.

Illustration by Jacqueline Ayer from The Paper-Flower Tree

In the remainder of Manifesto for a Moral Revolution, she draws on her three decades of accompanying the world’s poor on a path of dignity, on working with remarkable local entrepreneurs changing the landscape of possibility for their communities, to share hard-earned learnings about listening across lines of seemingly unbridgeable difference, understanding poverty as something larger and more complex than income level, defining success by something larger and more complex than solvency and public acclaim, and inviting constructive conflict — or what the great jazz scholar and writer Albert Murray called “antagonistic cooperation” — within ourselves and among ourselves in order to balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the community, the need for freedom with the need for belonging, in continually honing and refining the instrument of social change toward a more equitable and dignified world.

Complement with the great French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil on the relationship between our rights and our responsibilities and the young poet Marissa Davis’s stunning love letter to the double courage of facing a broken reality while refusing to cease cherishing this beautiful world in its brokenness, then revisit Zadie Smith on the vital interplay of optimism and despair in what we call progress.

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An Illustrated Love Letter to Gardening

Saturday 25th July 2020
A lush serenade to the patience and fortitude of living with uncertainty and letting life unfold on its own terms.

“I work like a gardener,” the visionary artist Joan Miró observed in reflecting on his creative process. It was in a garden bed that Virginia Woolf arrived at her exquisite epiphany about what it takes to be an artist. For poet Ross Gay, time spent in the garden is “an exercise in supreme attentiveness.” Looking back on his life, the great neurologist Oliver Sacks recognized the healing power of gardens as one of only two non-medical interventions that have helped his patients, alongside music. “It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness,” the bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in her gorgeous ode to gardening.

I too have healed, have honed my attention, have fine-tuned my artistic voice and purpose, have learned and practiced happiness in the garden, on my tiny patch of Brooklyn soil. I too have knelt on the frost-bitten ground to press into it the first seed of spring, have craned my neck by midsummer to meet the prayerful face of the sunflower, radiant and rueful in its solitary stature. I too have plunged my hands into the moist dirt, cupping the infant root system of a willow tree I know will outlive me, cupping with it the bewildering, consecrating knowledge that seed and sunflower and willow and I all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, no larger than the dot levitating over the small i, the I lowered from the pedestal of ego, all the while remembering that humility comes from humilis — Latin for low, of the earth.

That — how gardening brings us into intimate contact with the rhythms and relational marvels of nature, with ourselves as humble notes in the rhythm and nodes in the marvel — is what artist Debbie Millman, my longtime former partner and now darling friend, explores in this wondrous illustrated love letter to the garden she started with her then-fiancé, now-wife Roxane Gay, part of a four-part series for TED, narrated in Debbie’s own lush and recognizable voice.

Complement with this illustrated Victorian encyclopedia of poetic lessons from the garden and a lovely contemporary children’s book about how gardening teaches us to work with unselfish purpose, then savor more of Debbie’s splendid visual stories and meditations on her Instagram.

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Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt: Poet Ross Gay’s Subtle, Stunning Meditation on Learning to Live and Learning to Die

Friday 24th July 2020
In praise of practicing the inevitable through the improbable, the mundane moments when we are “as delicate as we can be in this life.”

Every act of living is an act of learning to die, of apprenticing ourselves to the loss of this moment, of this collarbone being touched, of this hand doing the touching. If we are thoughtful and tender enough with ourselves, the terror of the loss cusps into transcendence, the grief into gratitude, into a nonspecific gladness enveloping everything that ever was and ever will be, enveloping us in the sense of ourselves as nothing more than particles passing between not yet and no more, nothing less than particular, particulate miracles bewildered and bewildering in their passage.

That is what poet Ross Gay explores with his light and luminous touch in one of the highlights from the fourth annual Universe in Verse, the poem “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirit” from his altogether resuscitating and resucculating 2015 poetry collection Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (public library) — the conceptual womb out of his which his prose miracle The Book of Delights was born.

ODE TO BUTTONING AND UNBUTTONING MY SHIRT
by Ross Gay

No one knew or at least
I didn’t know
they knew
what the thin disks
threaded here
on my shirt
might give me
in terms of joy
this is not something to be taken lightly
the gift
of buttoning one’s shirt
slowly
top to bottom
or bottom
to top or sometimes
the buttons
will be on the other
side and
I am a woman
that morning
slipping the glass
through its slot
I tread
differently that day
or some of it
anyway
my conversations
are different
and the car bomb slicing the air
and the people in it
for a quarter mile
and the honeybee’s
legs furred with pollen
mean another
thing to me
than on the other days
which too have
been drizzled in this
simplest of joys
in this world
of spaceships and subatomic
this and that
two maybe three
times a day
some days
I have the distinct pleasure
of slowly untethering
the one side
from the other
which is like unbuckling
a stack of vertebrae
with delicacy
for I must only use
the tips
of my fingers
with which I will
one day close
my mother’s eyes
this is as delicate
as we can be
in this life
practicing
like this
giving the raft of our hands
to the clumsy spider
and blowing soft until she
lifts her damp heft and
crawls off
we practice like this
pushing the seed into the earth
like this first
in the morning
then at night
we practice
sliding the bones home.

Couple with a gorgeous poem about how to live and how to die, read by the disparticled human miracle who first ignited my love of poetry and inspired the inception of The Universe in Verse, then revisit other highlights from the show: astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson’s staggering “Antidotes to Fear of Death” with original music by Zoë Keating, Pablo Neruda’s prose ode to the forest, Lisel Mueller’s subtle poem about transcending our limiting frames of reference, a stunning tribute to Rachel Carson’s ecological legacy by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, and the most beloved piece from all four years of the show: an animated adaptation of Marie Howe’s masterpiece “Singularity.”

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D.H. Lawrence on Trees, Solitude, and How We Root Ourselves When Relationships Collapse

Wednesday 22nd July 2020
“One must possess oneself, and be alone in possession of oneself.”

To walk among trees is to be reminded that although relationships weave the fabric of life, one can only be in relationship — in a forest or a family or a friendship — when firmly planted in the sovereignty of one’s own being, when resolutely reaching for one’s own light.

A century ago, Hermann Hesse contemplated how trees model for us this foundation of integrity in his staggeringly beautiful love letter to trees — how they stand lonesome-looking even in a forest, yet “not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche.” Celebrating them as “the most penetrating preachers,” he reverenced the silent fortitude with which “they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves.”

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

A supreme challenge of human life is reconciling the longing to fulfill ourselves in union, in partnership, in love, with the urgency of fulfilling ourselves according to our own solitary and sovereign laws. Writing at the same time as Hesse, living in exile in the mountains, having barely survived an attack of the deadly Spanish Flu that claimed tens of millions of lives, the polymathic creative force D.H. Lawrence (September 11, 1885–March 2, 1930) took up the question of this divergent longing with great subtlety and splendor of insight in his autobiographically tinted novel Aaron’s Rod (free ebook | public library), rooting the plot’s climactic relationship resolution in a stunning passage about trees.

D.H. Lawrence

At a tea-party, the novel’s protagonist meets the Marchesa del Torre — an American woman from the South, married to an Italian man and living with him in Tuscany; a woman of composure with an edge of beckoning aloofness, “sitting there, full-bosomed, rather sad, remote-seeming,” a kind of modern Cleopatra brooding from under her dark, heavy-hanging hair out of an Aubrey Beardsley drawing. She strikes him as “wonderful, and sinister,” affects him “with a touch of horror.” He falls under her spell, drawn to her as we are so often drawn to danger by the magnetic pull of the sublime, with its dipoles of beauty and terror.

One of Aubrey Beardsley’s revolutionary illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome. (Available as a print.)

When their affair collapses under the weight of its own impossibility, he finds himself — and finds his self, his sovereignty of soul — among the trees. Lawrence writes:

One must possess oneself, and be alone in possession of oneself.

[…]

He sat for long hours among the cypress trees of Tuscany. And never had any trees seemed so like ghosts, like soft, strange, pregnant presences. He lay and watched tall cypresses breathing and communicating, faintly moving and as it were walking in the small wind. And his soul seemed to leave him and to go far away, far back, perhaps, to where life was all different and time passed otherwise than time passes now. As in clairvoyance he perceived it: that our life is only a fragment of the shell of life. That there has been and will be life, human life such as we do not begin to conceive. Much that is life has passed away from men, leaving us all mere bits. In the dark, mindful silence and inflection of the cypress trees, lost races, lost language, lost human ways of feeling and of knowing. Men have known as we can no more know, have felt as we can no more feel. Great life-realities gone into the darkness. But the cypresses commemorate.

Complement with Robert Macfarlane on how trees illuminate the secret to healthy love, Pablo Neruda’s breathtaking love letter to the forest, and Mary Oliver’s short, shimmering poem “When I Am Among the Trees,” then revisit Lawrence on the antidote to the malady of materialism.

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John Lewis on Love, Forgiveness, and the Seedbed of Personal Strength

Saturday 18th July 2020
“Anchor the eternity of love in your own soul… Lean toward the whispers of your own heart… Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge… But when it is your time don’t be afraid to stand up, speak up, and speak out against injustice.”

“We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their historic conversation about forgiveness. “To forgive is to assume a larger identity than the person who was first hurt,” poet and philosopher David Whyte observed a generation later in considering the measure of maturity — an observation as astute on the scale of individuals as it is on the scale of society. How few of us are capable of such largeness when contracted by hurt, when the clench of injustice has tightened our own fists. And yet in the conscious choice to unclench our hearts and our hands is not only the measure of our courage and our strength, not only the wellspring of compassion for others, but the wellspring of compassion for ourselves and the supreme triumph of personhood. “As we develop love, appreciation, and forgiveness for others over time,” Anne Lamott wrote as she contemplated the relationship between brokenness and joy, “we may accidentally develop those things toward ourselves, too.”

Once in a generation, if we are lucky, someone comes about who in every aspect of their being models for us how to do that, how to be that — how to place love at the center, the center that holds solid as all around it breaks, the solid place that becomes the fort of what is unbreakable in us and the fulcrum of change.

John Lewis

Among those rare, miraculous few was John Lewis (February 21, 1940–July 17, 2020), who began his life by preaching to the chickens at his parents’ farm in southern Alabama and went on to teach a nation, a world how to step into that rare courage, that countercultural act of resistance in refusing to stop loving this broken, beautiful world. In every fiber of his being, he upheld that stubborn, splendid refusal as the crucible of justice, of progress, of all that is harmonious and human in us.

If Lewis’s legacy is to be summed up in a succinct way, if his immense and enduring gift to the generations is to be bowed with a single ribbon, it would be these passages from his 2012 memoir Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change (public library):

Our actions entrench the power of the light on this planet. Every positive thought we pass between us makes room for more light. And if we do more than think, then our actions clear the path for even more light. That is why forgiveness and compassion must become more important principles in public life.

A century after Tolstoy wrote to Gandhi that “love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills” in their extraordinary forgotten correspondence about why we hurt each other and how to stop, Lewis writes:

Anchor the eternity of love in your own soul and embed this planet with goodness. Lean toward the whispers of your own heart, discover the universal truth, and follow its dictates. Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Release all bitterness. Hold only love, only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won. Choose confrontation wisely, but when it is your time don’t be afraid to stand up, speak up, and speak out against injustice. And if you follow your truth down the road to peace and the affirmation of love, if you shine like a beacon for all to see, then the poetry of all the great dreamers and philosophers is yours to manifest in a nation, a world community, and a Beloved Community that is finally at peace with itself.

Complement with the young poet Marissa Davis’s stunning love letter to the dual courage of facing a broken reality while refusing to cease cherishing this beautiful world, then revisit this lovely picture-book about the childhood experience that shaped Lewis’s character and courage.

HT Morley

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Viktor Frankl on How Music, Nature, and Our Love for Each Other Succor Our Survival and Give Meaning to Our Lives

Friday 17th July 2020
“Do we not know the feeling that overtakes us when we are in the presence of a particular person and, roughly translates as, The fact that this person exists in the world at all, this alone makes this world, and a life in it, meaningful.”

Who can weigh the ballast of another’s woe, or another’s love? We live — with our woes and our loves, with our tremendous capacity for beauty and our tremendous capacity for suffering — counterbalancing the weight of existence with the irrepressible force of living. The question, always, is what feeds the force and hulls the ballast.

Viktor Frankl (March 26, 1905–September 2, 1997), having lost his mother, his father, and his brother to our civilization’s most colossal moral failure yet, having barely survived himself, Frankl takes up the question of what makes life not only survivable but worthy of living in what now lives as Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything (public library) — a slim, powerful set of lectures he delivered a mere eleven months after the Holocaust, just as he was completing the manuscript of the classic Man’s Search for Meaning.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

Tucked into Frankl’s immensely insightful meditations on moving beyond optimism and pessimism to find the deepest source of meaning is a passage of great subtlety and great splendor — a portal to a truth so elemental that it might appear trite if stated merely as an abstract truism, but one which rises titanic and majestic from the crucible of this human being’s unfathomable lived experience.

In a sublime sidewise testament to the singular power of music, which some of humanity’s vastest minds have so memorably extolled, Frankl writes:

It is not only through our actions that we can give life meaning — insofar as we can answer life’s specific questions responsibly — we can fulfill the demands of existence not only as active agents but also as loving human beings: in our loving dedication to the beautiful, the great, the good. Should I perhaps try to explain for you with some hackneyed phrase how and why experiencing beauty can make life meaningful? I prefer to confine myself to the following thought experiment: imagine that you are sitting in a concert hall and listening to your favorite symphony, and your favorite bars of the symphony resound in your ears, and you are so moved by the music that it sends shivers down your spine; and now imagine that it would be possible (something that is psychologically so impossible) for someone to ask you in this moment whether your life has meaning. I believe you would agree with me if I declared that in this case you would only be able to give one answer, and it would go something like: “It would have been worth it to have lived for this moment alone!”

Viktor Frankl

More than a century after Mary Shelley celebrated nature as a lifeline to sanity in considering what makes life worth living in a world savaged by a deadly pandemic, and decades before Tennessee Williams reflected as he approached his own death that “we live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love… love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend,” Frankl adds:

Those who experience, not the arts, but nature, may have a similar response, and also those who experience another human being. Do we not know the feeling that overtakes us when we are in the presence of a particular person and, roughly translates as, The fact that this person exists in the world at all, this alone makes this world, and a life in it, meaningful.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

In how we suffer and how we love, Frankl concludes, is the measure of who and what we are:

How human beings deal with the limitation of their possibilities regarding how it affects their actions and their ability to love, how they behave under these restrictions — the way in which they accept their suffering under such restrictions — in all of this they still remain capable of fulfilling human values.

So, how we deal with difficulties truly shows who we are.

Yes to Life is a slender, spectacular read in its totality. Complement this fragment with Borges on turning trauma misfortune, and humiliation into raw material for art and Whitman, shortly after his paralytic stroke, on what makes life worth living, then revisit Frankl on humor as a lifeline to survival.

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The Poet of the People Sings of Freedom: Carl Sandburg on Transcending the Pride and Vanity that Paralyze Social Justice

Tuesday 14th July 2020
How to protect yourself from the “misuse and violation of the sacred portions of your personality.”

Carl Sandburg (January 6, 1878–July 22, 1967) left school at the age of thirteen to labor as a milk-wagon driver, then went on to win not one, not two, but three Pulitzer Prizes and to compose verses so beloved he would be remembered as “the Poet of the People.” During the years he spent working for a Chicago newspaper in his thirties, he wrote with passion and lucidity about how economic inequality unsteadies society into disharmony and conflict, about immigration, about poverty, about civil rights. On the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, after completing his Pulitzer-winning biography of the slain President, Sandburg became the first private citizen to deliver a speech before a Joint Session of Congress, which he concluded with the enterally timely observation that “wherever there is freedom there have been those who fought and sacrificed for it.”

Carl Sandburg performing folk songs after a poetry reading. (National Park Service)

Sandburg places the subject of freedom and the toil for it at the center of his contribution to This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women (public library) — the wonderful series envisioned by the courageous broadcaster Ed Murrow in the 1950s and resumed by NPR half a century later, inviting “thoughtful men and women in all walks of life” — nurses and artists, athletes and politicians, composers and construction workers — to convey the animating ethos of their lives and their beliefs, those atomic units of personhood we assemble by our own free will, in compact essays, each part manifesto and part contemplative practice.

Sandburg begins his by beholding the slippery line between the universal and the commonplace, along which the premise of the question sends any answerer:

I believe in getting up in the morning with a serene mind and a heart holding many hopes. And so large a number of my fellow worms in the dust believe the same that there is no use putting stress on it.

In consonance with Bertrand Russell’s exquisite quip about our self-concern amid a vast and impartial universe — “Optimism and pessimism, as cosmic philosophies, show the same naïve humanism… All such philosophies spring from self-importance, and are best corrected by a little astronomy.” — Sandburg adds:

I can remember many years ago, a beautiful woman in Santa Fe saying, “I don’t see how anybody can study astronomy and have ambition enough to get up in the morning.” She was putting a comic twist on what an insignificant speck of animate stardust each of us is amid cotillions of billion-year constellations.

Part of the Milky Way, from Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s stunning astronomical art painted in the era of Carl Sandburg’s birth. (Available as a print and a face mask.)

Half a century and myriad discoveries before physicist Brian Greene so poetically insisted that our humbling insignificance is the very wellspring of meaning in our ephemeral lives, Sandburg considers how this cosmic antidote to human hubris protects us from our own most perilous tendency:

I believe in humility, though my confession and exposition of the humility I believe in would run into an old fashioned two- or three-hour sermon. Also I believe in pride, knowing well that the deadliest of the seven deadly sins is named as pride. I believe in a pride that prays ever for an awareness of that borderline where, unless watchful of yourself, you cross over into arrogance, into vanity, into mirror gazing, into misuse and violation of the sacred portions of your personality.

A young Charlie (Carl) Sandburg poses at his Confirmation photo. (National Park Service)

Only when misplaced pride and personal self-importance fall away, he intimates, can we really begin to rise to the task of freedom:

I believe in platitudes, when they serve, especially that battered and hard-worn antique, “Eternal vigilance is the pride of liberty.” Hand in hand with freedom goes responsibility. I believe that free men over the world cherish the earth as cradle and tomb… I believe freedom comes the hard way — by ceaseless groping, toil, struggle — even by fiery trial and agony.

Complement this fragment of the thoroughly invigorating This I Believe with James Baldwin, writing in the same epoch, on freedom and how we imprison ourselves, then revisit two other stirring and saning contributions to the collection: Leonard Bernstein on how art fortifies our mutual dignity and Thomas Mann on living with time.

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Two Friends: A Lovely Illustrated Celebration of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony’s Entwined Paths as Pioneers of Freedom, Justice, and Equality

Monday 13th July 2020
The story of two uncommonly courageous people who met in their twenties and spent the rest of their lives determined “to help each other, so one day all people could have rights.”

“How can we use each other’s differences in our common battles for a livable future?” Audre Lorde asked while traveling in a divided world a generation after the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Another generation earlier — an interval imperceptible on the timescales of our evolutionary history — these rights were reserved for only one class of human family members: white men.

That a civilization was able to broaden the legal aperture of civic agency and human dignity so dramatically in so short a time was the triumph of two parallel and consanguine movements: women’s suffrage and abolition, propelled by a small, unrelenting tribe of pioneers in the middle of the nineteenth century. The most active and ardent of them were women — women like Susan B. Anthony and Julia Ward Howe, who spoke and wrote and rallied unrelentingly for human rights and civic agency; women like astronomer and abolitionist Maria Mitchell, who swung open the gates to women’s education in science and whose lovely lifelong friendship with Frederick Douglass was an honor to both; women who, in the aftermath of the Civil War, diverted their suffrage efforts from securing the vote for themselves to securing the vote for African Americans — parallel efforts for which Margaret Fuller had furnished the catalytic spark with her insistence that “while any one is base, none can be entirely free and noble.” (In a disquieting recompense for these women’s efforts, the right to vote was extended to black men half a century before it was extended to women of any ethnicity.)

In the city of Rochester in upstate New York there stands — or, rather, sits — a bronze sculpture depicting two of these courageous champions of freedom having tea: Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) and Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906), whose neighboring braveries blossomed into a real friendship after both moved to Rochester around the same time in their late twenties. It was in Rochester that Anthony voted in a presidential election, well aware she was going to be arrested for it; it was in Rochester that Douglass launched his epoch-making abolitionist newspaper (which he titled the North Star, in homage to the central role of astronomy in the Underground Railroad).

Inspired by the sculpture and the beautiful camaraderie behind it, Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass (public library) by Dean Robbins, illustrated by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls, tells the story of these two pioneering lives entwined in friendship through an imaginary evening of tea and cake.

We see each of them transcend the givens of their condition: Susan, excluded from formal education on account of her gender, educates herself in the founding ideals of her country and is galled by the hypocrisy of proclaiming the rights to live free and to vote, but denying those rights to more than half; Frederick, enslaved, teaches himself to read and write, then learns about the same ideals and is galled by the same hypocrisy of exclusion.

We see Frederick clad in his “gentleman’s jacket, vest, and tie,” and Susan in “a kind of pants called ‘bloomers,'” which she prefers over the cumbersome skirts that make it “hard to get things done.”

Both of them teach themselves to give speeches on justice and equality, both of them deliver those speeches before audiences to the applause of some and the vocal dismay of others, until the two eventually meet in Rochester and promise “to help each other, so one day all people could have rights.”

And so they do: We see them discuss their ideas and their plans over tea and cake and warm conspiratorial smiles.

So many speeches to give.
So many articles to write.
So many minds to change.

Couple Two Friends with a wondrous celebration of the rebels who won women political power, illustrated by the incomparable Maira Kalman, then savor other picture-book biographies of cultural heroes, pioneers, and visionaries: John Lewis, Keith Haring, Wangari Maathai, Maria Mitchell, Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, E.E. Cummings, Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, Frida Kahlo, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, Muddy Waters, and Nellie Bly.

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All Human Beings: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Reading of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Reimagined as a Soulful Serenade to Diversity and Dignity by Composer Max Richter

Friday 10th July 2020
A celebration “of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” as “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

“Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills,” Leo Tolstoy wrote to Mahatma Gandhi in the stirring correspondence that would unspool over four decades until Gandhi’s assassination in 1948. By then, Gandhi had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times, including days before his death. That year, the Nobel Committee awarded all other disciplines except the Peace Prize, for which they found “no suitable living candidate.”

On December 10, 1948 — the day of the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm — the United Nations General Assembly gathered in Paris to adopt the most visionary, idealistic, and poetic document ever composed: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A pioneering effort to standardize the raising of conscience, kindness, and reason above self-interest and the hunger for power, it was the culmination of two years of systematic refinement by a global drafting committee of eight men from five continents, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt (October 11, 1884–November 7, 1962), with her floral dresses and her “spine as stiff as the steel girder of a skyscraper.”

Eleanor Roosevelt (Library of Congress)

Roosevelt’s nomination as a U.N. delegate had had to pass through the United States Senate for approval, where she suspected certain conservative Senators would disapprove — “because of my attitude toward social problems,” she later reflected, “and especially youth problems.” But her nomination was heartily approved — only one Senator voted against her, citing her troublesome devotion to racial equality.

Eleanor Roosevelt arriving at the opening of the Washington labor canteen. (Library of Congress)

Shortly before her U.N. nomination and shortly after the end of WWII, Roosevelt — another indefensible blind spot in the Nobel Commission’s dispensation of the Peace Prize — had lost her husband. In the thick of her bereavement, she wrote in her daybook:

When you have lived for a long time in close contact with the loss and grief which today pervades the world, any personal sorrow seems to be lost in the general sadness of humanity.

She coped by pouring her indefatigable energy into drafting this buoyant document aimed at protecting human beings from the sorrows they inflict upon one another. Later, she would look back on her life with the unwavering conviction that “in the long run there is no more liberating, no more exhilarating experience than to determine one’s position, state it bravely, and then act boldly.” Now, she was tasked with creating the blueprint for bold action toward justice, contoured with bravely stated words.

She insisted that the document be adopted as a declaration rather than as a treaty, hoping this would confer upon it the inspiriting power to do for the world what the Declaration of Independence had done for her homeland. And so it did: Despite the abiding challenge of our species — the unhandsome fact that there is no universal utopia and that all utopias are built on someone’s subjugation-bent back — the document that emerged became a beacon of justice for generations to come, founded upon the conviction that a “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” radiating Maya Angelou’s stunning lyric insistence that “we are the possible, we are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world.”

Eleanor Roosevelt with the English text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1949. (FDR Presidential Library & Museum)

Translated into more than 500 languages, making it the world’s most translated document, the UDHR went on to shape myriad national and international laws, inspire the constitutions of various newborn countries, and furnish the legal definitions of “fundamental freedoms” and “human rights.” Buried into the language of the document is also a landmark unsexing of man as the universal pronoun (though it would take many more decades to seep into culture) — the trailblazing Indian activist, writer, and feminist Hansa Jivraj Mehta suggested replacing “all men are equal” with “all are equal.”

Today, as we come to see ourselves as Angelou saw us — creatures “whose hands can strike with such abandon that in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness” — some of the articles in the declaration read both as chilling indictments of where we have fallen short and as a defiantly aspirational blueprint for where we can and must go as we rise to our highest human potential.

Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Two generations after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, composer Max Richter honors its legacy and reimagines its spirit for a world more diverse and equitable than even the document’s idealistic creators imagined. (I have noted elsewhere that even the farthest seers can’t bend their gaze beyond their era’s horizon of possibility; but the horizon shifts with each incremental revolution as the human mind peers outward to take in nature, then turns inward to question its own givens.)

In a stunning piece titled “All Human Beings,” part of his record Voices — a soulful sonic landscape of thought and feeling, powerfully transportive yet grounding, a decade in the making — Richter builds a sonic bower of piano, violin, soprano, and choir around a 1949 recording of Eleanor Roosevelt reading the UDHR. It begins with Roosevelt’s voice, then passes the generational and cultural baton to Kiki Layne, who continues reading in English before morphing into a crowdsourced choral reading in multiple languages by human beings all over the world.

Max Richter (Photograph: Mike Terry)

Richter reflects on the project:

I like the idea of a piece of music as a place to think, and it is clear we all have some thinking to do at the moment. We live in a hugely challenging time and, looking around at the world we have made, it’s easy to feel hopeless or angry. But, just as the problems we face are of our own making, so their solutions are within our reach, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is something that offers us a way forward. Although it isn’t a perfect document, the declaration does represent an inspiring vision for the possibility of better and kinder world.

Breathing another layer of life into Richter’s masterpiece is this cinematic adaptation by artist Yulia Mahr:

Complement with a timeless, increasingly timely vision for how to heal an ailing and divided world from the Russell-Einstein Manifesto — another visionary document composed seven years after the UDHR — then revisit Richter’s previous masterpiece, Three Worlds, bringing Virginia Woolf’s most beloved works to sonic life.

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The Storm, the Rainbow, and the Soul: Coleridge on the Interplay of Terror and Transcendence in Nature and Human Nature

Wednesday 08th July 2020
“In the hollow… I sate for a long while sheltered, as if I had been in my own study in which I am now writing: there I sate with a total feeling worshipping the power and ‘eternal link’ of energy.”

“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd wrote in her tiny, tremendous masterpiece The Living Mountain. A couple of mountain ranges south, a century and a half earlier, the great Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (October 21, 1772–July 25, 1834) captured the power of that interpenetration in a stunning letter, later included in The Complete Essays, Lectures & Letters of S. T. Coleridge (public library).

The letter, composed three days before his twenty-eighth birthday, begins with a terrifying, transcendent encounter with the grandeur of nature and ends with a humbling encounter with human nature — with the grandeur of the human spirit, its the capacity for dignity and generosity no matter one’s material circumstances.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Nearly a century before the young Van Gogh contemplated the enchantment of storms in nature and human nature while living in poverty in the Hague, the young Coleridge writes to his closest friend from the English Lake District on October 18, 1800:

Our mountains northward end in the mountain Carrock — one huge, steep, enormous bulk of stones, desolately variegated with the heath plant; at its foot runs the river Calder, and a narrow vale between it and the mountain Bowscale, so narrow, that in its greatest width it is not more than a furlong. But that narrow vale is so green, so beautiful, there are moods in which a man might weep to look at it. On this mountain Carrock, at the summit of which are the remains of a vast Druid circle of stones, I was wandering, when a thick cloud came on, and wrapped me in such darkness that I could not see ten yards before me, and with the cloud a storm of wind and hail, the like of which I had never before seen and felt. At the very summit is a cone of stones, built by the shepherds, and called the Carrock Man. Such cones are on the tops of almost all our mountains, and they are all called men. At the bottom of the Carrock Man I seated myself for shelter, but the wind became so fearful and tyrannous, that I was apprehensive some of the stones might topple down upon me, so I groped my way farther down and came to three rocks, placed on this wise 1 / 3 \ 2 each one supported by the other like a child’s house of cards, and in the hollow and screen which they made I sate for a long while sheltered, as if I had been in my own study in which I am now writing: there I sate with a total feeling worshipping the power and “eternal link” of energy.

Double rainbow from Les phénomènes de la physique, 1868. Available as a print and face mask.

In a passage evocative of Oliver Sacks’s near-death experience in a Norwegian fjord, Coleridge recounts nature’s sudden turn of temper — a turn from terror to transcendence, which then leads him to an unexpected encounter with the most transcendent qualities of human nature:

The darkness vanished as by enchantment; far off, far, far off to the south, the mountains of Glaramara and Great Gable and their family appeared distinct, in deepest, sablest blue. I rose, and behind me was a rainbow bright as the brightest. I descended by the side of a torrent, and passed, or rather crawled (for I was forced to descend on all fours), by many a naked waterfall, till, fatigued and hungry (and with a finger almost broken, and which remains swelled to the size of two fingers), I reached the narrow vale, and the single house nestled in ash and sycamores. I entered to claim the universal hospitality of this country; but instead of the life and comfort usual in these lonely houses, I saw dirt, and every appearance of misery — a pale woman sitting by a peat fire. I asked her for bread and milk, and she sent a small child to fetch it, but did not rise herself. I eat very heartily of the black, sour bread, and drank a bowl of milk, and asked her to permit me to pay her. “Nay,” says she, “we are not so scant as that — you are right welcome.”

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