Hello, Blue! If you missed last week's edition – Mary Oliver on how differences bring couples closer together, why some people are left-handed, Virginia Woolf on why she became a writer, Oliver Sacks on music's singular power over the human soul, and more – you can read it right here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation – every little bit helps, and comes enormously appreciated.
In Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life – one of the finest, most insightful reflections on the creative experience ever committed to words – writer Dani Shapiro mentions a set of instructions by the poet Jane Kenyon (May 23, 1947–April 22, 1995), a writing mantra of sorts, which she keeps tacked above her desk.
Literature being the original internet, I followed this analog hyperlink to Kenyon's A Hundred White Daffodils: Essays, Interviews, The Akhmatova Translations, Newspaper Columns, and One Poem (public library) – an altogether marvelous posthumous collection.
These uncommonly sage instructions appear in a piece titled Everything I Know About Writing Poetry – Kenyon's notes for a lecture she delivered at a literary conference in 1991, a superb addition to this growing compendium of writers' advice on the craft. Although her advice is aimed at poets, at its heart is tremendous wisdom that applies to every field of creative endeavor and can electrify any artist. Spoken with the unpretentious honesty of her own experience as a working poet with decades of trial and triumph under her belt, Kenyon's counsel comes as an offering of love:
Tell the whole truth. Don't be lazy, don't be afraid. Close the critic out when you are drafting something new. Take chances in the interest of clarity of emotion.
Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings. More here.
The closing passage – the one tacked above Shapiro's desk – contains some of the most ennobling tenets for a human being to live by:
Be a good steward of your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours.
Complement this particular portion of the wholly wonderful A Hundred White Daffodils with psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on the vitality of "fertile solitude," Thoreau on the spiritual rewards of walking, and Mary Ruefle on the nourishment of good books, then revisit Shapiro's indispensable memoir of the writing life.
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"You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you," James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their revelatory conversation on power and privilege. "If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble." The many modes of telling and the many types of trouble are what trailblazing journalist, longtime New York Times theater critic, and Pulitzer winner Margo Jefferson (b. October 17, 1947) explores in Negroland: A Memoir (public library) – a masterwork of both form and substance.
Jefferson transforms her experience of growing up in an affluent black family into a lens on the broader perplexities of privilege and its provisional nature. Her piercing cultural insight unfolds in uncommonly beautiful writing, both honoring the essence of the memoir form – a vehicle for reaching the universal from the outpost of the personal – and defying its conventions through enlivening narrative experimentation.
Jefferson, who came of age in an era when the biological fallacies of racial difference still ran rampant, writes:
I was taught to avoid showing off.
I was taught to distinguish myself through presentation, not declaration, to excel through deeds and manners, not showing off.
But isn’t all memoir a form of showing off?
In my Negroland childhood, this was a perilous business.
Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. Children in Negroland were warned that few Negroes enjoyed privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference, and subservience. Children there were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.
Too many Negroes, it was said, showed off the wrong things: their loud voices, their brash and garish ways; their gift for popular music and dance, for sports rather than the humanities and sciences. Most white people were on the lookout, we were told, for what they called these basic racial traits. But most white people were also on the lookout for a too-bold display by us of their kind of accomplishments, their privilege and plenty, what they considered their racial traits. You were never to act undignified in their presence, but neither were you to act flamboyant. Showing off was permitted, even encouraged, only if the result reflected well on your family, their friends, and your collective ancestors.
Jefferson and her older sister in Canada, during the family's 1956 cross-country road trip.
What is perhaps most disorienting about visibilia like race, age, and gender is that they externalize the inner contradictions with which we live – those tug-of-wars between dignity and self-doubt, between the yearning to belong and the fear that we don't. Jefferson captures these dimensions beautifully:
Nothing highlighted our privilege more than the menace to it. Inside the race we were the self-designated aristocrats, educated, affluent, accomplished; to Caucasians we were oddities, underdogs and interlopers. White people who, like us, had manners, money, and education… But wait: “Like us” is presumptuous for the 1950s. Liberal whites who saw that we too had manners, money, and education lamented our caste disadvantage. Less liberal or non-liberal whites preferred not to see us in the private schools and public spaces of their choice. They had ready a bevy of slights: from skeptics the surprised glance and spare greeting; from waverers the pleasantry, eyes averted; from disdainers the direct cut. Caucasians with materially less than us were given license by Caucasians with more than them to subvert and attack our privilege.
Caucasian privilege lounged and sauntered, draped itself casually about, turned vigilant and commanding, then cunning and devious. We marveled at its tonal range, its variety, its largesse in letting its humble share the pleasures of caste with its mighty. We knew what was expected of us. Negro privilege had to be circumspect: impeccable but not arrogant; confident yet obliging; dignified, not intrusive.
Among the most poignant threads in Jefferson's cultural memoir is the paradoxical notion of privilege earned. Privilege, after all, is granted by definition – earned privilege is the simulacrum of privilege, staked at the entrance to the power club and demanding the price of admission: endless self-contortion.
A self-described "chronicler of Negroland, a participant-observer, an elegist, dissenter and admirer; sometime expatriate, ongoing interlocutor," Jefferson writes:
That’s the generic version of a story. Here’s the specific version: the midwestern, midcentury story of a little girl, one of two born to an attractive couple pleased with their lives and achievements, wanting the best for their children and wanting their children to be among the best.
To be successful, professionally and personally.
And to be happy.
Children always find ways to subvert while they’re busy complying. This child’s method of subversion? She would achieve success, but she would treat it like a concession she’d been forced to make. For unto whomsoever much is given, of her shall be much required. She came to feel that too much had been required of her. She would have her revenge. She would insist on an inner life regulated by despair... She embraced her life up to a point, then rejected it, and from that rejection have come all her difficulties.
Illustration by Tove Jansson for a rare edition of Alice in Wonderland
One of Jefferson's most unsettling points – lest we forget, Emerson wrote: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” – is that depression, or at least its cultural performance, is a disease of the privileged:
She rages against bigotries, big and small; falls into a depression (“I wonder that every colored person is not a misanthrope. Surely we have everything to make us hate mankind”), then upbraids herself for being insufficiently stoic. She strives for perfect selflessness. “Conscience answers it is wrong, it is ignoble to despair… Let us take courage, never ceasing to work, – hoping and believing that if not for us, for another generation there is a better, brighter day in store.” She sinks back into self-doubt. She is not a misanthrope, she is a melancholic – a depressed gentle-woman.
While vulnerability might be the crucible of self-transcendence, Jefferson – whose generation was expected to march to the motto "Achievement. Invulnerability. Comportment." – argues that it is also a crucible of social status:
One white female privilege had always been withheld from the girls of Negroland. Aside from the privilege of actually being white, they had been denied the privilege of freely yielding to depression, of flaunting neurosis as a mark of social and psychic complexity. A privilege that was glorified in the literature of white female suffering and resistance. A privilege Good Negro Girls had been denied by our history of duty, obligation, and discipline. Because our people had endured horrors and prevailed, even triumphed, their descendants should be too strong and too proud for such behavior. We were to be ladies, responsible Negro women, and indomitable Black Women. We were not to be depressed or unduly high-strung; we were not to have nervous collapses. We had a legacy. We were too strong for that.
With an eye to her eclectic lineage – "slaves and slaveholders in Virginia, Kentucky, and Mississippi; farmers, musicians, butlers, construction crew supervisors, teachers, beauticians and maids, seamstresses and dressmakers, engineers, policewomen, real estate businesswomen, lawyers, judges, doctors and social workers" – she writes:
Privilege is provisional. Privilege can be denied, withheld, offered grudgingly and summarily withdrawn. Entitlement is impervious to the kinds of verbs that modify privilege. Our people have had to work, scrape for privilege, gobble it down when those who would snatch it away weren’t looking.
Keep a close watch.
Illustration by Isobel Harris for Little Boy Brown by André François
Jefferson considers the interplay of pride, prejudice, and the provisions of privilege in shaping this necessary watchfulness:
Let’s say you are a Negro cleaning woman, on your knees at this moment, scrubbing the bathtub with its extremely visible ring of body dirt, because whoever bathed last night thought, How nice. I don’t have to clean the tub because Cleo / Melba / Mrs. Jenkins comes tomorrow! Tub done, you check behind the toilet (a washcloth has definitely fallen back there); the towels are scrunched, not hung on the racks, and you’ve just come from the children’s bedroom, where sheets have to be untangled and almost throttled into shape before they can be sorted for the wash.
Would you rather look at the people you do this for and think: I will never be in their place if the future is like the past. Or would you rather look at your employers and think: Well, if I’d been able to get an education like Dr. and Mrs. Jefferson, if I hadn’t had to start doing housework at fifteen to help my family out when we moved up here from Mississippi, then maybe I could be where they are. Whose privilege would you find easier to bear? Who are “you”? How does your sociological vita – race or ethnicity, class, gender, family history – affect your answer?
In the remainder of the wholly terrific Negroland, Jefferson goes on to explore the fraught fragments of experience, both individual and collective, that shape our answer. Complement it with Mead and Baldwin's tremendously timely 1970 conversation on privilege, then revisit Einstein's little-known correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois on race and racial justice.
For more of Jefferson's genius and generosity of spirit, see this wide-ranging conversation with her on the Longform podcast – one of these nine favorite podcasts for a fuller life:
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"Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos," Saul Bellow told an interviewer in 1966, "a stillness which characterizes prayer." Few artists have captured this stillness more movingly than the Spanish painter and sculptor Joan Miró (April 20, 1893–December 25, 1983), whose masterpieces upended the conventions of visual art by giving life to a new aesthetic of vibrant stillness.
One late November afternoon in 1958, the French artist, author, and art critic Yvon Taillandier sat down with sixty-five-year-old Miró for a long conversation about the artist's creative process and his philosophy on art. The result was Miró: I Work Like a Gardener (public library) – a beautiful bilingual volume in French and English, published as a limited edition of 75 copies in 1964. This out-of-print treasure remains the most direct and comprehensive record of Miró's ideas on art.
Miró begins at the beginning:
By nature I am tragic and taciturn. In my youth I passed through periods of profound sadness.
The thing I consciously seek is tension in spirit. But in my opinion it is essential not to provoke this tension by chemical means, such as drink or drugs.
The atmosphere propitious to this tension, I find in poetry, music, architecture — Gaudi, for example, is terrific —, in my daily walk, in certain [sounds]: the [sound] of horses in the country, the creaking of wooden cartwheels, footsteps, cries in the night, crickets.
Joan Miró: 'Horse, Pipe and Red Flower,' 1920
Echoing Virginia Woolf's beautiful notion of the "shock-receiving capacity" of the artist, Miró reflects:
For me an object is alive; this cigarette, this matchbox, contain a secret life much more intense than certain humans. I see a tree, I get a shock, as if it were something breathing, talking. A tree too is something human.
He considers the central role of stillness in his art. The translator's dubious decision to translate immobilité as "immobility," where "stillness" is much more elegant and befitting a choice, dulls the artist's words. But if we were to substitute "stillness" for "immobility," they come alive in a new way:
[Stillness] strikes me. This bottle, this glass, a big stone on a deserted beach – these are motionless things, but they set loose great movements in my mind... People who go bathing on a beach and who move about, touch me much less than the [stillness] of a pebble. (Motionless things become grand, much grander than moving things.) [Stillness] makes me think of great spaces in which movements take place which do not stop at a given moment, movements which have no end. It is, as Kant said, the immediate irruption of the infinite in the finite. A pebble which is a finite and motionless object suggests to me not only movements, but movements without end. This is translated, in my canvases, by forms resembling sparks flying out of the frame as out of a volcano.
What I am seeking, in fact, is a motionless movement, something equivalent to what is called the eloquence of silence, or what St. John of the Cross meant by the words, I believe, of dumb music.
Joan Miró: 'The Birth of a Day,' 1968
Perhaps because human beings seek to create that which we lack and our coping mechanisms become our art, Miró reaches for this vital stillness from a place of enormous inner tumult:
When a picture doesn't satisfy me, I feel physical distress, as if I were ill, as if my heart wasn't working properly, as if I couldn't breathe, and was suffocating.
I work in a state of passion and compulsion. When I begin a canvas, I obey a physical impulse, a need to act; it's like a physical discharge.
Of course, a canvas can't satisfy me [immediately]. And in the beginning I feel this distress... It's a struggle between me and what I am doing, between me and the canvas, between me and my distress. This struggle is passionately exciting to me. I work until the distress leaves me.
Joan Miró: 'Catalan Landscape,' 1924
He returns to the notion of "shock" as a central stimulus for his art – the trigger that sets into motion the Rube Goldberg machine of expelling his distress:
I begin my pictures under the effect of a shock... The cause of this shock may be a tiny thread sticking out of the canvas, a drop of water falling, this print made by my finger on the shining surface of this table.
And so a bit of thread can set a world in motion. I start from something considered dead and arrive at a world.
But Miró's most potent point deals with the proper gestational period for art and the painstaking care that goes into any worthwhile creative labor. In an age when the vast majority of our cultural material is reduced to "content" and "assets," factory-farmed by a media machine that turns creators into Pavlovian creatures hooked on constant and immediate positive reinforcement via "likes" and "shares," here comes a sorely needed reminder that art operates on a wholly different time scale and demands a wholly different pace of cultivation. (I'm reminded of Susan Sontag: “Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art… Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.”)
Miró defies this factory-farming model of art with the perfect metaphor:
If a canvas remains in progress for years in my studio, that doesn't worry me. On the contrary, when I'm rich in canvases which have a point of departure vital enough to set off a series of rhythms, a new life, new living things, I'm happy.
I consider my studio as a kitchen garden. Here, there are artichokes. There, potatoes. Leaves must be cut so that the fruit can grow. At the right moment, I must prune.
I work like a gardener... Things come slowly... Things follow their natural course. They grow, they ripen. I must graft. I must water... Ripening goes on in my mind. So I'm always working at a great many things at the same time.
Joan Miró: 'Harlequin's Carnival,' 1924–1925
In considering what makes a great painting, Miró captures the heart of any substantive work of art, whatever its medium:
In a picture, it should be possible to discover new things every time you see it. But you can look at a picture for a week [straight] and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life. For me, a picture should be like sparks. It must dazzle like the beauty of a woman or a poem. It must have radiance, it must be like those stones which Pyrenean shepherds use to light their pipes.
More than the picture itself, what counts is what it throws off, what it exhales. It doesn't matter if the picture is destroyed. Art can die; what matters is that it should have sown seeds on the earth... A picture must be fertile. It must give birth to a world.
In a sentiment that Cheryl Strayed would come to echo decades later in asserting that "when you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice," Miró reflects on the relationship between the deeply personal impulse animating the artist and the universal resonance of his or her art:
A profoundly individual gesture is anonymous. Being anonymous, it allows the universal to be attained... The more local anything is, the more universal.
Anonymity allows me to renounce myself, but in renouncing myself I come to affirm myself more strongly. In the same way silence is a denial of [sound], but as a result, the slightest [sound] in silence becomes enormous.
The same practice makes me seek the [sound] hidden in silence, the movement in [stillness], life in the inanimate, the infinite in the finite, forms in space and myself in anonymity... By denying negation one affirms.
Complement Miró: I Work Like a Gardener with Kandinsky on the spiritual element in art, O'Keeffe on art, love, and setting priorities, and Rothko on the transcendent power of art, then revisit some of today's most celebrated artists on what it takes to be a great artist.
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"Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional," Oliver Sacks wrote in contemplating music's singular power over the human spirit – a power that has humbled some of humanity's most brilliant minds into a state of awe that transcends the intellect.
Among them was the great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900). He who proclaimed that "god is dead" and believed that nothing worthwhile is easy found in music life's sole unmerited grace.
In an autobiographical fragment quoted in Julian Young's altogether fantastic Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (public library), the German intellectual goliath writes:
God has given us music so that above all it can lead us upwards. Music unites all qualities: it can exalt us, divert us, cheer us up, or break the hardest of hearts with the softest of its melancholy tones. But its principal task is to lead our thoughts to higher things, to elevate, even to make us tremble... The musical art often speaks in sounds more penetrating than the words of poetry, and takes hold of the most hidden crevices of the heart... Song elevates our being and leads us to the good and the true. If, however, music serves only as a diversion or as a kind of vain ostentation it is sinful and harmful.
Nietzsche wrote these lines two months before his fourteenth birthday – a detail doubly poignant when contrasted with the "vain ostentations" marketed to teenagers today. But his profound reverence for music never left him. Toward the end of his life, he immortalized it in an aphorism included in his 1889 book Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer:
What trifles constitute happiness! The sound of a bagpipe. Without music life would be a mistake. The German imagines even God as a songster.
Complement the wholly illuminating Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography with the great philosopher's ten rules for writers and his heartening 1882 New Year's resolution, then revisit these seven essential books about music and the mind.
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All too often, we carry the notion of love as a checklist of expectations, demanding that the objects of our love conform to them. “To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn wrote in his beautiful meditation on the art of "interbeing." But it also wounds us. Those self-wounding preconceptions of how love should be performed by the other are what novelist Lore Segal and beloved children's book artist Paul O. Zelinsky explore in the 1985 gem The Story of Mrs. Lovewright and Purrless Her Cat (public library) – one of the most delightful children's books I've ever encountered, told with warm wit and enormously expressive illustrations.
It's a story both playful and profound about how we sabotage our deepest longing for connection by demanding that our loved ones love us in exactly the way we expect – a crowning curio in the vast canon of feline parables of our imperfect humanity.
Maurice Sendak – who was once Zelinsky's teacher and who collaborated with Segal on one of the finest reimaginings of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales – wrote of this vintage treasure:
If fresh, imaginative writing and brilliantly animated pictures, all wonderfully syncopated, are the essence of an original picture book, then Mrs. Lovewright and Purrless Her Cat is indeed a dazzling example. With its dry, wry good humor and sympathetic understanding of human – and animal – misbehavior, the book fairly jumps from your hands for the wonder of it.
We meet the always-chilly Mrs. Lovewright, a woman faintly reminiscent of a middle-aged Virginia Woolf. Perhaps too proud and mannered to admit the graver soul-chill of loneliness, she sets out to solve the bodily discomfort by getting herself a cat to keep her warm.
She entrusts Dylan the grocery boy with the task: "I don't care what color so it's little and cute and purrs on my lap," Mrs. Lovewright instructs him. And so he delivers.
Mrs. Lovewright tilted her head and said, "Aw! You are so little, I don't believe it."
She names the kitten Purrly because his ultimate purpose, she has decided, is to lie on her lap and purr.
But Purrly refuses to purr.
"You and I," she said to Purrly, "are going to be cozy," and she poked the fire, took off her shoes, and said, "Hey! That is my stool you're sitting on! That's for me to put my feet up. You have to lie on my lap."
But Purrly folded his paws under him, settled his little chest, and laid his tail as far as it would go around himself.
"Don't you look cozy!" Mrs. Lovewright said, and smiled into Purrly's eyes. The cat stared at Mrs. Lovewright. He didn't smile back. Mrs. Lovewright was surprised. She sat and she watched Purrly's round, baby-blue eyes close into two blue hyphens. When they had disappeared, Mrs. Lovewright sighed and said, "Chilly in here! I'm going to bed and get under my blanket."
So begins their saga of mutual defiance – Mrs. Lovewright with her demand that Purrly be a compliant companion and unobtrusive accessory, and most of all that he purr; Purrly with his growing spatial entitlement and his refusal to purr.
One day, as Mrs. Lovewright wrestles Purrly into her lap and demands that he perform his function – "Lie down, and I will stroke your back and you purr. You are so warm and so soft! I don't believe how soft you are! Isn't this cozy? Purr! Come on. Don't you know how to purr? You have to go RRR rrr, RRR up, rrr down. Now you. RRR rrr. Try. Lie down. Don't you turn up your tail at me in that rude way!" – Purrly pounces down her legs with his claws out and lands by the door, meowing.
She decides to call him Purrless.
As the days roll on, things only escalate – the more Mrs. Lovewright tries to force Purrless into what she considers proper catlike behavior, the more he lashes out. In one particularly colorful kerfuffle, he bites her little toe, which causes Mrs. Lovewright to scream and kick in pain, sending Purrless across the room; he lands on her broom, which falls and gives Mrs. Lovewright's a black eye – a Rube Goldberg machine of mutually inflicted pain.
But not everything the story says is spoken – for, as E.B. White memorably observed, children are "the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth." As the story progresses, we see the tiny Purrly grow and grown, eventually becoming enormous – he's growing, of course, because Mrs. Lovewright is feeding him; and she's feeding him because, despite his vexing defiance, she really does love him.
Just as Mrs. Lovewright begins making up her mind that Purrless is a foul cat, she walks into the bedroom and discovers him "curled and enormous, middle of the bed."
Elated that she might at last have gotten the cozy-making companion she always wanted, she tries to get into bed. But Purrless wouldn't budge, so she lays down on the very edge, with no blanket to cover her. In the middle of the night, she wakes up with a thump on the floor – Purrless has pushed her off and is standing victoriously in the middle of the bed, yawning.
Mrs. Lovewright is at the end of her rope. In one final attempt to get Purrless to comply, she props him onto her lap and begins stroking him determinately, commanding him to purr. But when she leans in to listen, hopeful that he might be purring only quietly, he turns around and bites her nose.
That's it – Mrs. Lovewright opens the door and sees Purrless out.
When Dylan visits the next day, a dejected Mrs. Lovewright proclaims that she no longer cares about Purrlsess.
There's no being cozy with a cat. Shut the door, Dylan, and good-bye.
But as she crawls into bed, her unbitten toes chilly once again, she hears Purrless meowing.
At first too hurt to relent, her heart eventually softens.
"You don't have to shout," said Mrs. Lovewright. She got out of bed, and went and opened the door. Purrless came streaking in, right between Mrs. Lovewright's legs, lumped on the broom, which fell and tripped Mrs. Lovewright so that Purrless got into the bed ahead of her and curled himself right in the middle of the blanket.
And that's how Mrs. Lovewright and her cat lived many more years together.
And so Mrs. Lovewright learns that although Purrless doesn't love her rigid rules, he does love her – and she loves him. Every real love, after all, writes its own rules of rightness.
Sometimes she was sure that she heard Purrless purring, and she would look to see the end of his tail flicking to and fro. "Don't you want to be cozy?" she would ask him, and she'd stroke his soft, warm, enormous back and she'd say, "Why don't you want to?"
The Story of Mrs. Lovewright and Purrless Her Cat is an immeasurable delight from cover to cover, should you be fortunate enough to find a used copy. Complement it with a kindred spirit from the same era, A Cat-Hater's Handbook, and the perfect contemporary counterpart – nearly thirty years later, Caroline Paul wrote in her own magn
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