Brain Pickings

Amelia Earhart on Sticking Up for Yourself, in a Remarkable Letter of Advice to Her Younger Sister

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“Adult human beings owe as much to themselves as to others, for by asserting individual rights, the baser natures of those who have them are held in check.”

Amelia Earhart (b. July 24, 1897) endures as one of the most beloved cultural figures in history — a trailblazing aviator, a model of the modern independent woman, and an icon of the spirit of adventure, her myth made all the more alluring by her mysterious disappearance. From the out-of-print treasure Letters from Amelia: An Intimate Portrait of Amelia Earhart (public library) — which also gave us her lucid and elevating ideas on education, personal growth, and human nature — comes a remarkable letter of advice she sent to her younger sister Muriel in 1937, shortly before Amelia disappeared over the Pacific never to be seen again.

What occasioned the letter were Muriel’s marital troubles — her husband, Albert, had become a gambling addict and was wasting the family’s funds away, including the money Earhart frequently sent to her sister. Although Albert was widely beloved by the town, never abusive to Muriel and their children, and didn’t drink or smoke, his gambling problem had started taking a significant toll on the family and on Muriel’s contentment.

The morning before her own wedding six years earlier, Amelia had sent her fiancé, George Putnam, a magnificent letter outlining her conditions for marriage, decades ahead of its time. Now, she saw it as her responsibility to instill in her sister the same kind of insistence on personal agency and financial independence:

Dear Muriel,

I am deeply sorry to hear further reports of your unhappy domestic situation. I had hoped that the money GPP and I advanced would help Albert grow up…

You have taken entirely too much on the chin for your own good or that of any man who holds the purse strings. I sometimes feel that adult human beings owe as much to themselves as to others, for by asserting individual rights, the baser natures of those who have them are held in check. That is often very hard to do. One hesitates to bring on a quarrel when it can be avoided by giving in. But perhaps one definite assertion will prevent the slow accumulation of a sense of superiority in a person who really should not claim superiority. Given a little power over another, little natures swell to hideous proportions. It is hopeless to watch a character change of this kind in one you have cared for.

Illustration by Pascal Lemaitre from 'The Book of Mean People' by Toni and Slade Morrison. Click image for more.

After advising her sister to obtain a legal separation in order to ensure her financial independence and encouraging her to move to the East Coast closer to her, Earhart adds an observation that reads rather like Anne Lamott, transcending the particular situation to speak to a universal truth:

Human crises have a way of happening at inconvenient times.

Although Muriel didn’t end up leaving Albert, Earhart’s advice seems to have made a difference — under Muriel’s threat to leave, Albert eventually changed his ways. The family’s financial situation stabilized and for the remainder of their lives they were known as a happy couple by their community. Muriel was able to go back to school, completing her education and becoming a successful and beloved high school teacher.

Letters from Amelia is a fantastic read in its totality — the most intimate and direct glimpse of Earhart’s inner world. What a pity that it perishes out of print — here’s to hoping that there exists a publisher invested enough in cultural preservation to bring it back.

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Robert Graves on Love and Lust

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“Love is really a recognition of truth, a recognition of another person’s integrity and truth.”

Poet, novelist, mythologist, essayist, and translator Robert Graves (July 24, 1895–December 7, 1985) is among the most influential artists of the past century — a piercing mind carried on the wings of a thoroughly free spirit, an unflinching idealist with a certain Mad Hatter quality to his genius. Jorge Luis Borges called him “a soul above.” Virginia Woolf mistook him for a tabloid reporter or a nosy fan and nearly chased him out when he showed up on her door step, “a bolt eyed blue shirted shockheaded hatless man in a blue overcoat.”

In 1963, Graves sat down with Italian actress, photojournalist and sculptor Gina Lollobrigida — one the most prominent European actresses of the era and an international sex symbol — for an invigorating conversation, later included in the wholly rewarding anthology Conversations with Robert Graves (public library). Although they discussed a wide range of subjects — from poetry to gender to the evils of commercialism in literature — the conversation somehow kept circling back to love, the subject of much of Graves’s poetry.

Robert Graves by Peter Stark (National Portrait Gallery)

Nearly half a century after he penned his magnificent “Advice to Lovers,” Graves adds to history’s greatest definitions of love and tells Lollobrigida:

Love and honor. They are the two great things, and now they’re dimmed and blighted. Today, love is just sex and sentimentality. Love is really a recognition of truth, a recognition of another person’s integrity and truth in a way that is compatible with — that makes both of you light up when you recognize the quality in the other. That’s what love is. It’s a recognition of singularity… And love is giving and giving and giving … not looking for any return. Until you do that, you can’t love.

This crucial difference between love and lust preoccupied Graves in much of his poetry, nowhere more so than in one of his early poems from the 1919 volume The Treasure Box, written when Graves was in his early twenties and later included in the indispensable posthumous tome Robert Graves: The Complete Poems (public library):

THE KISS

Are you shaken, are you stirred
By a whisper of love,
Spellbound to a word
Does Time cease to move,
Till her calm grey eye
Expands to a sky
And the clouds of her hair
Like storms go by?

Then the lips that you have kissed
Turn to frost and fire,
And a white-steaming mist
Obscures desire:
So back to their birth
Fade water, air, earth,
And the First Power moves
Over void and dearth.

Is that Love? no, but Death,
A passion, a shout,
The deep in-breath,
The breath roaring out,
And once that is flown,
You must lie alone,
Without hope, without life,
Poor flesh, sad bone.

Complement with Rilke on love, Adrienne Rich on how relationships refine our truths, and E.B. White and James Thurber on how to tell love from passion, then revisit Graves’s little-known and immeasurably lovely collaboration with Maurice Sendak.

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How Naming Confers Dignity Upon Life and Gives Meaning to Existence

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“Finding the words is another step in learning to see.”

To name a thing is to acknowledge its existence as separate from everything else that has a name; to confer upon it the dignity of autonomy while at the same time affirming its belonging with the rest of the namable world; to transform its strangeness into familiarity, which is the root of empathy. To name is to pay attention; to name is to love. Parents name their babies as a first nonbiological marker of individuality amid the human lot; lovers give each other private nicknames that sanctify their intimacy; it is only when we began naming domesticated animals that they stopped being animals and became pets. (T.S. Eliot made a playful case for the profound potency of this act in “The Naming of Cats.”)

And yet names are words, and words have a way of obscuring or warping the true meanings of their objects. “Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf observed in the only surviving recording of her voice, and so they are more accountable to other words than to the often unnamable essences of the things they signify.

Illustration by Ben Shahn from 'Ounce Dice Trice' by poet Alastair Reid, an unusual children's book of imaginative names for ordinary things. Click image for more.

That duality of naming is what Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Thoreau of botany, explores with extraordinary elegance in Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (public library) — her beautiful meditation on the art of attentiveness to life at all scales.

As a scientist who studies the 22,000 known species of moss — so diverse yet so unfamiliar to the general public that most are known solely by their Latin names rather than the colloquial names we have for trees and flowers — Kimmerer sees the power of naming as an intimate mode of knowing. As the progeny of a long lineage of Native American storytellers, she sees the power of naming as a mode of sacramental communion with the world.

Reflecting on a peculiarity of the Adirondack mountains she calls home, where most rocks have been named — “Chair Rock,” “Elephant Rock,” “Burnt Rock” — and people use them as reference points in navigating the land around the lake, Kimmerer writes:

The names we use for rocks and other beings depends on our perspective, whether we are speaking form the inside or the outside of the circle. The name on our lips reveals the knowledge we have of each other, hence the sweet secret names we have for the ones we love. The names we give ourselves are a powerful form of self-determination, of declaring ourselves sovereign territory. Outside the circle, scientific names for mosses may suffice, but inside the circle, what do they call themselves?

[…]

I find strength and comfort in this physical intimacy with the land, a sense of knowing the names of the rocks and knowing my place in the world.

And yet, echoing Aldous Huxley’s admonition that the trap of language leads us to confuse the words for things with their essences, Kimmerer considers the limiting nature of names from her dual perspective as a scientist and a storyteller:

A gift comes with responsibility. I had no will at all to name the mosses in this place, to assign their Linnean epithets. I think the task given to me is to carry out the message that mosses have their own names. Their way of being in the world cannot be told by data alone. They remind me to remember that there are mysteries for which a measuring tape has no meaning, questions and answers that have no place in the truth about rocks and mosses.

Still, Susan Sontag wrote in contemplating the aesthetics of silence, “human beings are so ‘fallen’ that they must start with the simplest linguistic act: the naming of things.” Naming is an act of redemption and a special form of paying attention, which Kimmerer captures beautifully:

Having words for these forms makes the differences between them so much more obvious. With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see.

[…]

Having words also creates an intimacy with the plant that speaks of careful observation.

Moss and air plant sculpture by Art We Heart

What is true of mosses is also true of every element of the world upon which we choose to confer the dignity of recognition. Drawing on her heritage — her family comes from the Bear Clan of the Potawatomi — Kimmerer adds:

In indigenous ways of knowing, all beings are recognized as non-human persons, and all have their own names. It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. Words and names are the ways we humans build relationships, not only with each other, but also with plants.

[…]

Intimate connection allows recognition in an all-too-often anonymous world… Intimacy gives us a different way of seeing.

Gathering Moss is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. See more of it here, then complement this particular passage with poet and philosopher David Whyte on the deeper meanings of everyday words and a wonderful illustrated catalog of untranslatable words from around the world.

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The Rebellious and Revolutionary Life of Galileo, Illustrated

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How a college dropout reordered the heavens and forever changed our understanding of our place in the universe.

In 1564, Galileo Galilei was born into a world with no clocks, telescopes, or microscopes — a world that was believed to be the center of the universe, orbited by the sun and the moon and the stars. By the time he died seventy-seven years later, his ideas had planted the seed for the most significant scientific revolution in human history. In addition to his most notorious astronomical discoveries, which challenged centuries of religious dogma by dethroning Earth as the center of the universe and nearly cost him his life, Galileo also invented modern timekeeping, created the microscope, inspired Shakespeare, and even provided a metaphorical model for understanding how culture evolves.

In I, Galileo (public library), writer and artist Bonnie Christensen — who also gave us the marvelous illustrated story of Nellie Bly — chronicles the life of the great Italian astronomer, physicist, engineer, and philosopher, adding to both the finest picture-book biographies of cultural icons and the best children’s books celebrating science.

The story, quite possibly inspired by Ralph Steadman’s superb I, Leonardo, is told as a first-person autobiography narrated by Galileo himself. Christensen’s beautiful illustrations pay homage to the aesthetic sensibility of Galileo’s era, partway between the stained glass of European cathedrals and the artistic style of the Old Masters.

We meet Galileo as a blind old man, sentenced to lifelong house arrest by the Inquisition for his dogma-defying discoveries, then travel with him back in time.

In childhood, his father’s revolutionary theories bridging music and mathematics instilled in the young boy an ethos of challenging convention; at eleven, he was sent to a monastery for his formal education and decided to become a monk, which alarmed his father into sending him to medical school instead; in late adolescence, he dropped out of medical school without a degree.

For the remainder of his adolescence, Galileo was essentially homeschooled and self-taught, conducting various fascinating experiments with his father — such as manipulating the length, tension, and thickness of a string to produce notes of a different pitch.

But his voracious scientific curiosity came at a cost — by twenty-five, Galileo was already quite unpopular for doing away with tradition, from refusing to wear the professorial robes his peers wore to challenging Aristotle’s sacred laws of physics.

Aristotle, the famous ancient Greek philosopher, claimed a heavy object would fall faster than a light objet. I disagreed. To prove my point, I dropped two cannonballs of different weights from the leaning tower. Just as I predicted, they fell at the exact same rate of speed. But the public was not convinced, even in the face of scientific proof. I was not invited to continue teaching at the University of Pisa.

And yet Galileo persevered, continuing to challenge the dogmas of ancient science and religion. His seminal pendulum insight sparked modern timekeeping and his famous telescopic observations, an attraction for Italian royalty, proved that Sun, not the Earth, was what the heavenly bodies orbited.

Aware of how radical and possibly dangerous his discovery was, Galileo remained silent for seven years, during which he inverted the direction of his curiosity and used his lens-making skills to invent the microscope.

When he eventually published his findings, he did indeed incur the wrath of the Inquisition and was locked away in the hills of Arcetri, where he died a blind old man having seen the truth of the universe. His ideas lived on to usher in a whole new era of science and culture, forever changing our relationship to the cosmos and to ourselves.

Complement Christensen’s I, Galileo with the illustrated story of pioneering Persian astronomer and polymath Ibn Sina, then revisit the picture-book biographies of other trailblazing shapers of culture: Jane Goodall, Pablo Neruda, Frida Kahlo, e.e. cummings, and Albert Einstein.

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