Hello, Blue! If you missed last week's edition – Oliver Sacks's sublime memoir of love, lunacy, and a life fully lived, Adrienne Rich on how silence fertilizes the soul, Anne Sexton animated, and more – you can catch up right here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation – every little bit helps, and comes enormously appreciated.
“Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet..." So begins Wendell Berry's "How to Be a Poet," tucked into which is tremendous sagacity on how to be a good human being. “The impulse to create begins... in a tunnel of silence," wrote Adrienne Rich in her tremendous lecture on art and freedom. "Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence."
No poet breaks the silence with silence, nor slices through its vitalizing, clarifying, and transcendent power, with more piercing elegance than Pablo Neruda (July 12, 1904–September 23, 1973) in a poem titled "Keep Quiet" from his 1974 volume Extravagaria (public library), translated by Alastair Reid.
The only thing to lend Neruda's words and wisdom more mesmerism is this beautiful reading by the venerable Jewish-Buddhist teacher and prolific author Sylvia Boorstein, excerpted from the closing moments of her conversation with Krista Tippett on one of the finest podcasts for a fuller life.
by Pablo Neruda
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let's not speak in any language;
let's stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I'll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
Every single poem in Extravagaria is rewarding beyond words, beyond time. Complement it with Neruda's beautiful metaphor of the hand through the fence and the story of his extraordinary life adapted in an illustrated love letter to language, then revisit Paul Goodman on the nine types of silence and the lovely The Quiet Book.
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At least since Plato's Allegory of the Cave, we've seen shadows as a metaphor for the illusory and wicked aspects of life, for that which we must eradicate in order to illuminate the truth and inherent goodness of existence. And yet we forget that the darkness they cast evidences the light – palpable proof without which we might not appreciate or even notice the radiance itself.
The 1933 gem In Praise of Shadows (public library) by Japanese literary titan Junichiro Tanizaki (July 24, 1886–July 30, 1965) belongs to that special order of slim, enormously powerful books that enchant the lay reader with an esoteric subject, leaving a lifelong imprint on the imagination – rare masterpieces like Robin Wall Kimmerer's love letter to moss and Glenn Kurtz's paean to the pleasures of playing guitar.
Tanizaki, translated here by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker, examines the singular standards of Japanese aesthetics and their stark contrast – even starker today, almost a century later – with the value systems of the industrialized West. He writes:
We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates... Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.
At the heart of this philosophy is a fundamental cultural polarity. Unlike the Western conception of beauty – a stylized fantasy constructed by airbrushing reality into a narrow and illusory ideal of perfection – the zenith of Japanese aesthetics is deeply rooted in the glorious imperfection of the present moment and its relationship to the realities of the past:
The quality that we call beauty ... must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows toward beauty's ends.
One of the most enchanting celebrations of shadows is manifested in the Japanese relationship with materials. Tanizaki writes:
Japanese paper gives us a certain feeling of warmth, of calm and repose... Western paper turns away the light, while our paper seems to take it in, to envelop it gently, like the soft surface of a first snowfall. It gives off no sound when it is crumpled or folded, it is quiet and pliant to the touch as the leaf of a tree.
Embedded in Tanizaki's lament about how Western innovations have infiltrated Japan's traditional use of materials is a reminder that every technology is essentially a technology of thought. He considers the broader implications of material progress based on assimilation and imitation:
Had we devised independently at least the more practical sorts of inventions, this could not but have had profound influence upon the conduct of our everyday lives, and even upon government, religion, art, and business.
He offers the example of the Japanese writing brush and the Western fountain pen, examining how the latter might differ had it been invented in his homeland:
It would surely have had a tufted end like our writing brush. The ink would not have been this bluish color but rather black, something like India ink, and it would have been made to seep down from the handle into the brush. And since we would have found it inconvenient to write on Western paper, something near Japanese paper – even under mass production, if you will – would have been most in demand. Foreign ink and pen would not be as popular as they are; the talk of discarding our system of writing for Roman letters would be less noisy; people would still feel an affection for the old system. But more than that: our thought and our literature might not be imitating the West as they are, but might have pushed forward into new regions quite on their own. An insignificant little piece of writing equipment, when one thinks of it, has had a vast, almost boundless, influence on our culture.
Tanizaki's point is both poetic and practical. Many decades later, it is now believed that another invention – glass – is what planted the seed for the innovation gap between East and West.
He considers another facet of this perilous proclivity for what he calls "borrowed gadgets":
Had we invented the phonograph and the radio, how much more faithfully they would reproduce the special character of our voices and our music. Japanese music is above all a music of reticence, of atmosphere. When recorded, or amplified by a loudspeaker, the greater part of its charm is lost. In conversation, too, we prefer the soft voice, the understatement. Most important of all are the pauses. Yet the phonograph and radio render these moments of silence utterly lifeless.
Although Tanizaki is writing at a time when a new wave of polymers was sweeping the industrialized West, he paints a subtler and more important contrast than that between the Western cult of synthetics and the Japanese preference for organic materials. This elegant osmosis of art and shadow, he argues, is to be found not only in what materials are used, but in how they are being used:
Wood finished in glistening black lacquer is the very best; but even unfinished wood, as it darkens and the grain grows more subtle with the years, acquires an inexplicable power to calm and sooth.
This temporal continuity of beauty, a counterpoint to the West's neophilia, is central to Japanese aesthetics. Rather than fetishizing the new and shiny, the Japanese sensibility embraces the living legacy embedded in objects that have been used and loved for generations, seeing the process of aging as something that amplifies rather than muting the material's inherent splendor. Luster becomes not an attractive quality but a symbol of shallowness, a vacant lack of history:
We find it hard to be really at home with things that shine and glitter. The Westerner uses silver and steel and nickel tableware, and polishes it to a fine brilliance, but we object to the practice... We begin to enjoy it only when the luster has worn off, when it has begun to take on a dark, smoky patina. Almost every householder has had to scold an insensitive maid who has polished away the tarnish so patiently waited for.
We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in a stone or an artifact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity.
Tanizaki speaks affectionately of "the glow of grime," which "comes of being touched over and over" – a record of the tactile love an object has acquired through being caressed by human hands again and again.
But nowhere does Tanizaki's ode to shadows flow more melodically than in his writing about Japanese lacquerware:
Darkness is an indispensable element of the beauty of lacquerware... [Traditional lacquerware] was finished in black, brown, or red, colors built up of countless layers of darkness, the inevitable product of the darkness in which life was lived.
But lacquerware, Tanizaki notes, isn't merely a visual delight – its magic is multi-sensory, amplified by a sense of mystery:
I know few greater pleasures than holding a lacquer soul bowl in my hands, feeling upon my palms the weight of the liquid and its mild warmth. The sensation is something like that of holding a plump newborn baby... With lacquerware there is a beauty in that moment between removing the lid and lifting the bowl to the mouth when one gazes at the still, silent liquid in the dark depths of the bowl, its color hardly different from that of the bowl itself. What lies within the darkness one cannot distinguish, but the palm senses the gentle movements of the liquid, vapor rises from within forming droplets on the rim, and the fragrance carried upon the vapor brings a delicate anticipation. What a world of difference there is between this moment and the moment wen soup is served Western style, in a pal, shallow bowl. A moment of mystery, it might almost be called, a moment of trance.
This mysterious mesmerism of well-placed darkness is especially vital in the culinary experience:
It has been said of Japanese food that it is a cuisine to be looked at rather than eaten. I would go further and say that it is to be meditated upon, a kind of silent music evoked by the combination of lacquerware and the light of a candle flickering in the dark.
With Japanese food, a brightly lighted room and shining tableware cut the appetite in half.
Our cooking depends upon shadows and is inseparable from darkness.
Indeed, he argues that excessive illumination is the most atrocious assault on beauty in the West. A mere half-century after Edison's electric light shocked American cities with its ghastly glare, Tanizaki contemplates this particularly lamentable manifestation of our pathological Western tendency to turn something beneficial into something excessive. Decades before computer screens and Times Square billboards and the global light pollution epidemic, he writes:
So benumbed are we nowadays by electric lights that we have become utterly insensitive to the evils of excessive illumination.
In most recent Western-style buildings, the ceilings are so low that one feels as if balls of fire were blazing directly above one's head... One of these balls of fire alone would suffice to light the place, yet three or four blaze down from the ceiling, and there are smaller versions on the walls and pillars, serving no function but to eradicate every trace of shadow. And so the room is devoid of shadows.
Light is used not for reading and writing or sewing but for dispelling the shadows in the farthest corners, and this runs agains the basic idea of the Japanese room.
Nowhere, Tanizaki argues, is this vice of ravenous radiance more evident than in the most intimate of rooms. Wincing at "how crude and tasteless [it is] to expose the toilet to such excessive illumination," he extols the virtues of the old-style Japanese toilet – a dimly lit outdoor bathroom typically located a short walk from the main house:
The novelist Natsume Soseki counted his morning trips to the toilet a great pleasure, "a physiological delight" he called it. And surely there could be no better place to savor this pleasure than a Japanese toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks upon blue skies and green leaves... There are certain prerequisites: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and quiet so complete that one can hear the hum of a mosquito... Here, I suspect, is where haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas. Indeed one could with some justice claim that of all the elements of Japanese architecture, the toilet is the most aesthetic. Our forebears, making poetry of everything in their lives, transformed what by rights should be the most unsanitary room in the house into a place of unsurpassed elegance, replete with fond associations with the beautifies of nature.
His inquiry into the origin of these cultural differences, paradoxically enough, calls to mind both Buddhism's basic teaching of acceptance and the memorable words of one of the West's greatest thinkers – Albert Camus's observation that people often "refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness." Tanizaki writes:
We Orientals seek our satisfactions in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves, to content ourselves with things as they are, and so darkness causes us no discontent, we resign ourselves to it as inevitable. If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty. But the progressive Westerner is determined always to better his lot. From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light – his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.
But Tanizaki's eulogy to this setting world of shadows transcends the realm of material aesthetics and touches on the conceptual sensibility of modern life in a way doubly relevant today, nearly a century later, as we struggle to maintain a sense of mystery in the age of knowledge. He remarks in the closing pages:
I have written all this because I have thought that there might still be somewhere, possibly in literature or the arts, where something could be saved. I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing. In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration... Perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.
Like its subject, In Praise of Shadows derives its splendor from smallness and subtlety, distilling centuries of wisdom and bridging thousands of miles of cultural divide in an essay-length miracle of a book. Complement it with the breathtaking Little Tree, a pop-up book celebrating the Japanese reverence for darkness and impermanence – one of the most intelligent and imaginative children's books that help kids process loss and mourning – then revisit this rare look at Japan in hand-colored images from the 1920s.
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Few things bypass our culture's codified shell of cynicism more elegantly and powerfully than the commencement address – that singular mode of intravenous wisdom-delivery wherein an elder steps onto a stage and plugs straight into what Oscar Wilde called the "temperament of receptivity," so elusive in all hearts and doubly so in the young. History's greatest commencement addresses – masterworks like Joseph Brodsky's "Speech at the Stadium" and David Foster Wallace's "This Is Water" – deliver not vacant platitudes but hard-earned, life-tested insight into the beliefs, behaviors, and habits of mind that embolden us to live good, rewarding, noble lives.
That is what celebrated writer Tom Wolfe (b. March 2, 1931) delivered when he took the podium at Boston University in 2000 with a magnificent address included in Way More than Luck: Commencement Speeches on Living with Bravery, Empathy, and Other Existential Skills (public library).
Tom Wolfe by Henry Leutwyler
Wolfe begins by putting in perspective the value – the gift – of an education:
As someone who grew up in the Great Depression of the 1930s, I know that a commencement is a family triumph. Forget money. Aside from love, the cardinal virtues, and time, there is no greater gift parents can give a child than an education.
And yet much of the true value of education, Wolfe argues, is being eclipsed by what he calls "pernicious enlightenment" – our idea-fetishism, continually fueled by the challenge of finding wisdom in the age of information, which leads us to mistake surface impressions for substantive understanding. Wolfe writes:
We live in an age in which ideas, important ideas, are worn like articles of fashion – and for precisely the same reason articles of fashion are worn, which is to make the wearer look better and to feel à la mode.
He examines the role of the middle class in the dissemination and uptake of ideas:
The truth is that there is a common bond among all cultures, among all peoples in this world ... at least among those who have reached the level of the wheel, the shoe, and the toothbrush. And that common bond is that much-maligned class known as the bourgeoisie – the middle class... They are all over the world, in every continent, every nation, every society, every culture, everywhere you find the wheel, the shoe, and the toothbrush, and wherever they are, all of them believe in the same things. And what are those things? Peace, order, education, hard work, initiative, enterprise, creativity, cooperation, looking out for one another, looking out for the future of children, patriotism, fair play, and honesty. How much more do you want from the human beast? How much more can you possibly expect?
I say that the middle class around the world ... is the highest form of evolution. The bourgeoisie! – the human beast doesn’t get any better! The worldwide bourgeoisie makes what passes today for aristocrats – people consumed by juvenility who hang loose upon society – look like shiftless children.
Perhaps with an eye to Virginia Woolf's legendary rant against the malady of middlebrow, Wolfe notes:
We writers spent the entire twentieth century tearing down the bourgeoisie! ... We in the arts have been complicit in the denigration of the best people on earth. Why? Because so many of the most influential ideas of our time are the product of a new creature of the twentieth century, a creature that did not exist until 1898 – and that creature is known as “the intellectual."
The true enemy of the assimilation of substantive ideas, Wolfe argues, isn't the middlebrow person but the pseudo-intellectual or, even, the "intellectual" – for anyone who describes himself as an "intellectual" (to say nothing of a "public intellectual") already implies the "pseudo" by the very act of such self-description. (You know the type – perhaps he has an exaggerated "European accent" of unidentifiable Germanic origin, perhaps he quotes Voltaire excessively, perhaps he slips one too many French words into ordinary speech where a perfectly good English option exists.) Wolfe makes an important distinction:
We must be careful to make a distinction between the intellectual and the person of intellectual achievement. The two are very, very different animals. There are people of intellectual achievement who increase the sum of human knowledge, the powers of human insight, and analysis. And then there are the intellectuals. An intellectual is a person knowledgeable in one field who speaks out only in others. Starting in the early twentieth century, for the first time an ordinary storyteller, a novelist, a short story writer, a poet, a playwright, in certain cases a composer, an artist, or even an opera singer could achieve a tremendous eminence by becoming morally indignant about some public issue. It required no intellectual effort whatsoever. Suddenly he was elevated to a plane from which he could look down upon ordinary people. Conversely – this fascinates me – conversely, if you are merely a brilliant scholar, merely someone who has added immeasurably to the sum of human knowledge and the powers of human insight, that does not qualify you for the eminence of being an intellectual.
Art by Maira Kalman from And the Pursuit of Happiness
Having often thought about the role of cynicism in our culture – how we use its self-righteous hubris to mask our insecurity and vulnerability – I find myself nodding vigorously with Wolfe's observation about the use of "moral indignation" in public discourse:
One of the things that I find really makes it worth watching all the Academy Awards, all the Emmys, all those awards ceremonies, is to see how today’s actors and television performers have discovered the formula. If you become indignant, this elevates you to the plane of “intellectual.” No mental activity is required. It is a rule, to which there has never been an exception, that when an actor or a television performer rises up to the microphone at one of these awards ceremonies and expresses moral indignation over something, he illustrates Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “moral indignation is a standard strategy for endowing the idiot with dignity."
Wolfe leaves graduates with a clarion call for cultivating the critical discernment necessary for making up one's own mind in the face of such wearable intellectualism:
You’re not going to find many traditional judges who can lead you any longer, since they now wander helplessly, bemused by the willful ignorance of that bizarre twentieth-century organism, the intellectual. You’re going to have to make the crucial judgments yourselves. But you are among the very handful of those who can do it.
Way More than Luck, which also includes advice from Bradley Whitford, Debbie Millman, Nora Ephron, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Safran Foer, is an elevating read in its entirety. Complement it with this evolving archive of the greatest commencement addresses of all time, then revisit Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking.
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“I believe that there is a love that moves the sun and the other stars,” physicist Margaret Wertheim asserted as she turned to Dante in reconciling science and spirituality. Centuries earlier, Ada Lovelace, the world's first computer programmer, had articulated the same sentiment – and yet here we are today, we secular moderns, still struggling to find a form of spirituality without religion.
That's what novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro explores with uncommon elegance, unselfconsciousness, and unaffected candor in Devotion (public library) – her moving memoir of the search for a sense of sacredness as a nonbeliever shackled by the tyrannical routines and responsibilities of contemporary adulthood, longing for some form of tangible assurance that there is a greater meaning to be savored.
Art by William Blake for Dante's Divine Comedy
Jolted out of the trance of productivity by the prod of pain – her father's untimely death, followed by the near-loss of her baby boy by a rare disease that strikes seven out of every million infants – Shapiro finds herself on the so-called spiritual path, skeptical of even its terminology. But the journey that unfolds is unexpectedly revelatory, her record of it profound without the slightest trace of precious.
As she plunges into the Eastern traditions – arguably the most common refuge for those disenchanted with the organized religions of the West and drawn to the philosophical aspects of spirituality – Shapiro is discombobulated to encounter the familiar demons of her Orthodox Jewish upbringing, which she had long left behind and was now, in the wake of her father's death, trying to understand.
Amid a Metta meditation – Metta being the Buddhist practice of "inclining the mind in the direction of good will" – she is suddenly gripped with unease at the required chants:
After a little while, I became troubled by the question of prayer. Was this a prayer? Who was it directed to? Was I petitioning some almighty being? The God of my childhood asserted himself: judging, withholding, all-knowing. In turn, the phrases themselves became supplication, bargaining, appeasement. My mind was aswirl once again, and I could barely sit still.
When she raises the question to the group, the teacher – none other than the venerable Sylvia Boorstein – explains that rather than metaphysical sorcery, the chants are meant to channel our deepest wishes. ("May I feel protected and safe," this particular one goes. "May my life unfold smoothly with ease.") Shapiro's initial reluctance to give the notion of a wish much credence ("Wishing was something children did – wasn’t it?") eventually gives way to grasping the deeper significance of these ritualistic incantations:
What did it mean to fervently, wholeheartedly name a desire? ... To speak out of a deep yearning – to set that yearning loose in the world? ... Could a wish be a less fraught word for a prayer? ... Maybe it wasn’t about who, if anyone, was on the other end, listening. Maybe faith had to do with holding up one end of the dialogue.
Writing itself, she comes to observe, works much like a prayer. With an eye to Buddhist scholar Steve Cope's term for early meditation experiences – "the noble failure" – Shapiro, who has since expanded on this idea in the magnificent Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, reflects:
In novels – as in life – there is no perfection. We do the best we can with the tools we have at our disposal. Given that we are changing, the tools are changing, the thing itself is changing – there must be a moment when we stop. When we say, This is the best I can do for now... There is nobility in the effort, courage in the dailiness – the doggedness. It is a process of trying and failing. Of beginning again.
And so it is with the search for meaning – like writing, its rewards spring not from the finished product but from the integrity of the process, from the act of holding up one's own end of the dialogue along its ongoingness.
Shapiro brushes with a stark testament to this as she nears the end of her journey. Over tea, a friend asks whether she has found an answer to her spiritual inquiry. She recounts the exchange:
There’s nothing trickier than trying to talk about personal belief. Add on top of that trying to talk about personal belief with a very smart atheist. But I had some things to say. And wasn’t that the whole point, really? To opt back in? To form – if not an opinion – a set of feelings and instincts by which to live?
“I would say yes.” I took a leap. “I believe in God more than I did a couple of years ago. But not the God of my childhood. Not a God who keeps score, and decides whether or not to inscribe me – or anybody else – in the book of life.”
“So what exactly do you believe, then?” She sipped her tea and waited for a better answer. I wanted to tell her that exactly and believe don’t belong in the same sentence.
“I believe that there is something connecting us,” I said. “Something that was here before we got here and will still be here after we’re gone. I’ve begun to believe that all of our consciousnesses are bound up in that greater consciousness.”
I looked at my friend for any sign of ridicule, but saw none. She was nodding.
“An animating presence,” she said.
That was as good a word as any: presence. As in the opposite of absence. By training my thoughts and daily actions in the direction of an open-minded inquiry, what had emerged was a powerful sense of presence. It couldn’t be touched, or apprehended, but nonetheless, when I released the hold of my mind and all its swirling stories, this was what I felt. Something – rather than nothing. While sitting in meditation or practicing yoga, the paradox was increasingly clear to me: emptiness led to fullness, nonthought to greater understanding.
I thought of Sylvia Boorstein’s elegant phrase: complicated with it. We were complicated by our history, by the religion of our ancestors. There was beauty and wisdom and even solace in that. I no longer felt that I had to embrace it all – nor did I feel that I had to run away. I could take the bits and pieces that made sense to me, and incorporate them into the larger patchwork of our lives.
Devotion is a beautiful and deeply gratifying read in its entirety. Complement it with Shapiro on vulnerability and how to live with presence and why creative work requires leaping into the unknown, then revisit neuroscientist Sam Harris on cultivating nonreligious spirituality and Alan Lightman on finding transcendence in everyday life.
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Several months ago, a stirring New Yorker article by Sylvia Killingsworth stopped me dead in my bipedal tracks and made me – a longtime pescaterian aglow with the self-satisfied illusion of siding with "sustainable" seafood – suddenly consider the octopus. What does it really means to sustain creaturely empathy for a being so different from us? More than one of our planet's most breathtaking creatures, it is a life form a biologist quoted in Killingsworth's piece believes is "probably the closest we’ll get to meeting an intelligent alien" – and yet, as Killingsworth makes clear, one we murder with such devastating inhumanity that I couldn't help but cringe at the very thought of having once considered it a favorite food. A food – this exquisite masterwork of evolution, this intelligent alien with an order of consciousness so beyond ours that we can barely begin to grasp its extent with the clumsy and insensitive tentacles of our moral imagination.
But no journalist or biologist or ethicist can hold a candle to a little boy named Luiz and his earnest consideration of the octopus. With incredible clarity and simplicity, this tiny-bodied, huge-hearted human animal makes his case – the very best case there is – against eating other animals:
For a grownup take on expanding our circle of empathy, see Laurel Braitman's excellent Animal Madness and Jon Mooallem's Wild Ones, a very different kind of masterwork at the intersection of parenting and interspecies empathy.
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