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Hello, Blue! If you missed last week's edition – Hermann Hesse on why we read and always will, John Cage's love letters, artist Lia Halloran's beautiful cyanotype tribute to women in astronomy, Anne Lamott on the life-expanding power of great teachers, and more – you can catch up right here. If you're enjoying my newsletter, please consider supporting this labor of love with a donation – I spend countless hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.
There is a kind of loneliness that lodges itself in the psyche and never fully leaves, a loneliness most anguishing not in solitude but in companionship and amid the crowd. If solitude fertilizes the imagination, loneliness vacuums it of vitality and sands the baseboards of the spirit with the scratchy restlessness of longing — for connection, for communion, for escape. And yet it is out of this restlessness that so many great works of art are born.
Virginia Woolf (Photography: George Charles Beresford)
In the late summer of 1928, a month before the publication of Orlandosubverted stereotypes and revolutionized culture, 44-year-old Woolf found herself grappling once more with the yin-yang of loneliness and creation. In a diary entry penned at Monk’s House — the countryside cottage she and her husband had bought in Sussex a decade earlier, where she crafted some of her most beloved works — she writes:
Often down here I have entered into a sanctuary … of great agony once; and always some terror; so afraid one is of loneliness; of seeing to the bottom of the vessel. That is one of the experiences I have had here in some Augusts; and got then to a consciousness of what I call “reality”: a thing I see before me: something abstract; but residing in the downs or sky; beside which nothing matters; in which I shall rest and continue to exist. Reality I call it. And I fancy sometimes this is the most necessary thing to me: that which I seek. But who knows — once one takes a pen and writes? How difficult not to go making “reality” this and that, whereas it is one thing. Now perhaps this is my gift: this perhaps is what distinguishes me from other people: I think it may be rare to have so acute a sense of something like that — but again, who knows? I would like to express it too.
The following fall, thirteen days before the publication of A Room of One’s Own — that ultimate paean to the relationship between loneliness and creative vitality — Woolf revisits the subject in her diary, contemplating the strange ways in which we deny or confer validity upon our loneliness. Loneliness, after all, is an interior chill independent of externalities and often thrives precisely when our circumstances appear most enviable to the outside world — a warping of reality that is itself intensely, almost unbearably real. Woolf writes:
These October days are to me a little strained and surrounded with silence. What I mean by this last word I don’t quite know, since I have never stopped “seeing” people… No, it’s not physical silence; it’s some inner loneliness.
I was walking up Bedford Place is it — the straight street with all the boarding houses this afternoon — and I said to myself spontaneously, something like this. How I suffer. And no one knows how I suffer, walking up this street, engaged with my anguish, as I was after Thoby [Woolf’s brother] died — alone; fighting something alone. But then I had the devil to fight, and now nothing. And when I come indoors it is all so silent — I am not carrying a great rush of wheels in my head — yet I am writing… And it is autumn; and the lights are going up… and this celebrity business is quite chronic — and I am richer than I have ever been — and bought a pair of earrings today — and for all this, there is vacancy and silence somewhere in the machine. On the whole, I do not much mind; because what I like is to flash and dash from side to side, goaded on by what I call reality. If I never felt these extraordinarily pervasive strains — of unrest or rest or happiness or discomfort — I should float down into acquiescence. Here is something to fight; and when I wake early I say to myself Fight, fight. If I could catch the feeling, I would; the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world… Anything is possible. And this curious steed, life, is genuine. Does any of this convey what I want to say? But I have not really laid hands on the emptiness after all.
In Strange Trees and the Stories Behind Them (public library), French author Bernadette Pourquié and illustrator Cécile Gambini choreograph an illustrated tour of the world’s greatest arboreal wonders, from species that have witnessed the dinosaurs roam this Earth to exotic marvels like Brazil’s “Walking Tree” (Red Mangrove) and the Philippines’ “Rainbow Tree” (Mindanao gum tree) to underappreciated procurers of human delights, such as the sapodilla tree that gives us chewing gum and the cocoa tree without which there would be no chocolate.
Rainbow Tree (Mindanao gum tree)
Ghost Tree (Davida)
Walking Tree (red mangrove)
Chewing Gum Tree (sapodilla)
Bottle Tree (Brachychiton rupestris)
Alongside each imaginative illustration, partway between botany and fairy tale, is a one-page autobiography of the respective tree, describing its natural and cultural habitat in a short first-person story fusing curious science facts, history, and local customs.
Chocolate Tree (cacao tree)
Don’t worry about getting bonked on the bean with a pod: cocoa trees don’t lose their seed pods, even when ripe. They dry up, unless, of course, a hungry parrot happens by.
I hope you didn’t forget your adventurer’s cooking kit: a club, a banana tree leaf, an oven, some rocks, and a healthy dose of patience.
Smash three pods with your club and save one hundred seeds to make about four ounces of chocolate. Let them ferment for a week, and a white pulp will seep out. Next, let them dry on a banana tree leaf for two weeks, stirring them frequently: you’ll get brown cocoa “beans.” Now break open their shells, wash them, and roast them for twenty to thirty minutes at 215 to 285 degrees Fahrenheit. Then crush them over heat with rocks. Now you have “cocoa paste,” from which you can make chocolate.
In 1990, a promising law student and writer not yet thirty was elected as the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. His editorial work for the journal impressed the publishers of the The New York Times imprint into offering him a book deal and so began his quest to capture “the fissures of race … as well as the fluid state of identity — the leaps through time, the collision of cultures — that mark our modern life.”
A beautiful writer with an unmistakable voice, Obama reflects on the extremes of ambition and self-doubt familiar to writers, all the more amplified by youth:
Like most first-time authors, I was filled with hope and despair upon the book’s publication — hope that the book might succeed beyond my youthful dreams, despair that I had failed to say anything worth saying. The reality fell somewhere in between.
It wasn’t until Obama had ascended in the political realm, more than a decade later, that his potent and poetic writing garnered the attention which its creative merit warrants. (I am reminded here of Hermann Hesse’s wonderfully prescient wisdom on publishing: “That stratum of writers and intellectuals which seems from time to time to lead because it shapes public opinion or at least supplies the slogans of the day — that stratum is not identical with the creative stratum.”) But his mother, Stanley Ann — one of the most captivating presences in the book — didn’t live to savor her son’s success. She had died of cancer, “with a brutal swiftness,” a few months after the book’s publication.
Stanley Ann Obama with young Barack
And yet it was she who had taught Obama about what would become the greatest guiding force of his life — the power of love, not only in the impersonally interpersonal political sense of building on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “experiment in love,” but in its most personal manifestation between two human beings who have chosen each other as partners in every dimension of life, the trying and the triumphant, and continue to choose each other every day of their lives.
In one of the most moving passages in the book, Obama tells the story of how his parents got together — an anecdote his mother once relayed, which illustrates the wonderfully imperfect yet unconditional nature of real love. He writes:
She sighed, running her hands through her hair. “We were so young, you know. I was younger than you are now. He was only a few years older than that…”
She stopped and laughed to herself. “Did I ever tell you that he was late for our first date? He asked me to meet him in front of the university library at one. When I got there he hadn’t arrived, but I figured I’d give him a few minutes. It was a nice day, so I laid out on one of the benches, and before I knew it I had fallen asleep. Well, an hour later — an hour! — he shows up with a couple of his friends. I woke up and the three of them were standing over me, and I heard your father saying, serious as can be, ‘You see, gentlemen. I told you that she was a fine girl, and that she would wait for me.’”
Embedded in the story is a broader meditation on time, the universality of the human experience, and what we each most long for as we surrender, often with enormous resistance and at the price of great discomfort, to love:
My mother laughed once more, and once again I saw her as the child she had been. Except this time I saw something else: In her smiling, slightly puzzled face, I saw what all children must see at some point if they are to grow up — their parents’ lives revealed to them as separate and apart, reaching out beyond the point of their union or the birth of a child, lives unfurling back to grandparents, great-grandparents, an infinite number of chance meetings, misunderstandings, projected hopes, limited circumstances. My mother was that girl with the movie of beautiful black people in her head, flattered by my father’s attention, confused and alone, trying to break out of the grip of her own parents’ lives. The innocence she carried that day, waiting for my father, had been tinged with misconceptions, her own needs. But it was a guileless need, one without self-consciousness, and perhaps that’s how any love begins, impulses and cloudy images that allow us to break across our solitude, and then, if we’re lucky, are finally transformed into something firmer. What I heard from my mother that day, speaking about my father, was … the love of someone who knows your life in the round, a love that will survive disappointment. She saw my father as everyone hopes at least one other person might see him; she had tried to help the child who never knew him see him in the same way. And it was the look on her face that day that I would remember when a few months later I called to tell her that my father had died and heard her cry out over the distance.
Obama began writing this memoir the summer he met the love of his own life, 25-year-old Michelle Robinson. The two were married three years later and he soon came to echo what his mother’s story had taught him about love in articulating his own experience of that supreme human gift. In 1996, when Obama was still unsure of whether he would pursue a political career or become a writer, photographer Mariana Cook — who would later come to photograph some of the world’s greatest human rights leaders — visited Barack and Michelle Obama in their Chicago home as part of a project exploring coupledom in America.
Cook conducted a short interview with the future President and First Lady, in which 35-year-old Obama reflects on the mystery and magnetism of his love for his wife:
Michelle is a tremendously strong person, and has a very strong sense of herself and who she is and where she comes from. But I also think in her eyes you can see a trace of vulnerability that most people don’t know, becaus
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