Brain Pickings

Jack Kerouac on How to Meditate

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An intoxicating homage to the ancient practice that milks the brain’s “good glad fluid.”

Centuries after Montaigne contemplated the double meaning of meditation and decades before Western science confirmed what Eastern philosophy has known for millennia — that meditation is our greatest gateway to self-transcendence and that by transforming our minds it is actually transforming our bodies — Alan Watts began popularizing Eastern spiritual teachings in the West and meditation wove itself into the fabric of popular culture.

Among the early converts in the 1950s was Jack Kerouac (March 12, 1922–October 21, 1969), who became so besotted with the ancient practice that he extolled its rewards in a poem, later included in The Portable Jack Kerouac (public library) — the same treasure trove of stories, poems, letters, and essays on Buddhism that gave us Kerouac on kindness, the self illusion and the “Golden Eternity,” the crucial difference between genius and talent, and his “beliefs and techniques” for prose and life.

HOW TO MEDITATE

— lights out —

fall, hands a-clasped, into instantaneous
ecstasy like a shot of heroin or morphine,
the gland inside of my brain discharging
the good glad fluid (Holy Fluid) as
I hap-down and hold all my body parts
down to a deadstop trance — Healing
all my sicknesses — erasing all — not
even the shred of a “I-hope-you” or a
Loony Balloon left in it, but the mind
blank, serene, thoughtless. When a thought
comes a-springing from afar with its held-
forth figure of image, you spoof it out,
you spuff it out, you fake it, and
it fades, and thought never comes — and
with joy you realize for the first time
“Thinking’s just like not thinking —
So I don’t have to think
any
more”

Many more records of Kerouac’s foray into Eastern teachings can be found in The Portable Jack Kerouac. Complement this particular one with neuroscientist Sam Harris on the paradox of meditation, journalist Jo Marchant on how our minds actually affect our bodies, and David Lynch on meditation as a creative anchor, then revisit Patti Smith’s masterful music adaptation of Kerouac.

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Radiant Fatherhood: A Playful and Profound 1925 Meditation on Gender Stereotypes and the Rewards of Parenting

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“It is our knowledge — the things we are sure of — that makes the world go wrong and keeps us from seeing and learning.”

Legendary muckraker Lincoln Steffens (April 6, 1866–August 9, 1936) is one of the greatest journalists who ever lived, his trailblazing exposés on government corruption having pioneered investigative reporting. His passion for social justice and his unflinching dedication to speaking truth to power extended beyond politics and into every realm of life. He had particularly little patience for limiting stereotypes, and frequently took it upon himself to offer an antidote in his writing.

In 1925, while living in Italy with his wife — the Australian-British journalist, activist, and intellectual Ella Winter, of whom Steffens thought the world — the 58-year-old journalist was given the surprising and at first utterly disorienting gift of fatherhood. He captured the experience and its many dimensions in an infinitely wonderful essay titled “Radiant Fatherhood: An Old Father’s Confession of Superiority.” (The title winks at Radiant Motherhood — a groundbreaking book by palaeobotanist, activist, and birth control pioneer Marie Stopes, published five years earlier.) It was eventually included in the anthology Lincoln Steffens Speaking (public library), published the year Steffens died, and reveals Steffens to be not only a warm, wholehearted, genial man with just the right amount of irreverence, but also the kind of father who was the very opposite of Kafka’s.

The essay, at once playful and profound, is without exaggeration one of the most delightful things I’ve ever read — the kind that makes you smile at the page, again and again, wholly unconcerned with how this might appear to your fellow subway passengers. But what makes it triply delightful is that I found out about it from the very product of this radiance — Steffens’s grandson Daneet, who reached out after I wrote about his grandfather’s magnificent letter to that surprise-child, his father, and recommended this long-forgotten gem of a book.

Steffens writes:

A baby was coming, the doctor said, and he smiled when he saw how shocked I was. I did not want a baby. Did I? Fifty-odd years I had lived without one, without a conscious wish for one. Anyhow I had long ago made up my mind that I would not, probably could not have a child of my own and I was not only resigned — as I saw my friends staked out on a home — I had come to appreciate my singular liberty.

For Steffens, a baby had always been “a muling, puling, bawling tyrant” that would stand in the way of happiness. And yet something strange happened the day the doctor delivered the news:

Best of all I remember my surprise at the discovery that I wanted that baby… The doctor, an Italian old in practice and wise in the ways of men, looked at my wife and laughed quietly with her at me. I did not care how weak and ridiculous I appeared.

[…]

It was days before I confessed, it was hours before I knew that I wanted that child for its own sake and mine… It was not pride, it was not possession, it wasn’t any of the sentiments that I had heard attributed to fatherhood. I don’t know yet why I wanted what I wanted, but I believe that, in my bones, all my life I have wanted what I have now — a child.

Nearly a century before contemporary standards of equal parenting, and long before even Margaret Mead’s prescient case for it, Steffens offers a spirited rebuttal of cultural norms and the self-appointed authorities (capital-T “They”) policing them:

They say that the father has nothing to do with child-bearing. He is a negligible, ridiculous figure, and they neglect and laugh at him. They set him aside, him and all men. Child-bearing is women’s business: the mother’s, the nurses’, the women-neighbors’. Even the doctor is called in only to stand around ready to act as surgeon in an emergency at the actual birth. The woman nurse delivers the child normally. And, as for the father, from the first kick to the final weaning and beyond, he is out of it, of no use, a hindrance, whose duty is to vanish.

Well, like so many of the things They say, this is bunk. It is an item in the Great Lie that They tell and live and fight for. They have put it over on young husbands for centuries. I am not a young husband, I am an old father, and so I have something to put over on Them. I repeat:

I, the father, first gave my baby love; and I, not the mother, gave him Life, a soul, personality.

Steffens, of course — being a kind and just man — means this not as an insult to the mother but as a literal and rather self-derisive comment on the sweetly sheepish ways in which he projected his hopes on the child-to-be:

I gave [the baby] the wrong sex. I thought I wanted a girl. My theory was that, as a father who cared not a whoop for what They say and do, I could give a girl a chance for once. To a boy I could offer only the opportunities many boys have, but I could give a girl of mine everything that They waste now only upon the most favored boys. That was my great idea and it still hangs over as an idea. Ideas, however, are the products of intellectualism. They cannot rise higher than their source, the mind. Having been a feminist in theory, I said that I believe I preferred a girl baby and, since the wish is father to the thought, I thought of my coming child as a girl.

Paradoxically — and prophetically, as it later turns out — he named his wished-for girl Pete. Steffens captures all the complexities of gender and personhood, of parental expectation and social reality, an absolutely delicious play on pronouns:

While the mother was still calling him (her) “it,” I was addressing her (him) as a human being.

His wife eventually began referring to the baby “as alive, to think of her as a person, as a little girl,” too. But in another charming bout of amicable contrariness, he writes:

“Pete is very active,” she would say, laying down her book to look up with wonder and a smile. She liked it. She was loving the baby almost as much as I.

Mother-love is a fact. I do not deny that… The love of the mother for her husband’s child is a big, a helpful, and a very beautiful natural phenomenon. I can understand Man’s wonder at it. But mother-love is not only late of birth and slow of growth, it is not so complete, unscrupulous, and not nearly so sympathetic as the father’s love for his child. Pete’s early stirrings, for example, were mere movements to his mother. I understood at once that he was trying to communicate with us.

“Pete’s kicking,” she would say, with maternal pride.

“What about?” I would ask with paternal concern.

“Oh, nothing; life,” she answered with the indifference of the practical sex.

Steffens weaves little-big remarks like this throughout the essay, as if to make sure it registers with the reader just how highly he thinks of women in general, and of his wife in particular, and how little he cares for his era’s gender stereotypes — particularly those concerned with reason and irrationality as masculine and feminine qualities respectively. (So prevalent and deep-seated were those stereotypes, in fact, that nearly two decades later Walt Disney made a sexist short film based on them.) He furthers this reversing of roles by relaying his delightfully excitable response to the baby’s kicking and his wife’s coolly rational dismissal of it:

Nonsense! Any man with the least gift of imagination would feel in his heart that the child wanted to tell us something, and so, to the mother’s amusement I set about arranging with the helpless baby a code of signals by which he and I could talk together, he knocking on the inside, I on the outside. This took time. It was a little like communicating with Mars, and she declared that to be impossible. But I declare that if Mars were inhabited by the children of men, devoted fatherhood would find a way to get in touch with the star.

And then, as one has already come to expect, the parents-to-be find out that Pete is a boy after all. In a passage that once again emanates Steffens’s progressive views on gender and his contempt for stereotypes, he writes:

Fortunately, in between her work on her novel and a translation she was making of a German tome, the mother hand-made some other garments, underpinnings that go beyond, below or above the sex line. And so in looking for a house to hold our growing family, I demanded a garden for Little Pete. The mother kept asking about the heating system and things like that. A warm, sanitary house with plenty of hot water was her ideal of a home. Mine was flowers and pretty walks, sunshine with shady, romantic corners, and views of hills and sea. Father-love has some sentiment, the mother’s is calculating and business-like. Both of us being obstinate, we got both: a villetta with modern conveniences and a lovely garden and views. And neighbors.

Art by Livia Signorini for 'Pictures from Italy' by Charles Dickens. Click image for more.

Steffens enthusiastically extols the virtues of Italy as a mecca for fatherhood:

Italy is the best place in the world for a father to have his children in. The Italians adore children. They are not polite to animals and women ordinarily. The men stare at every woman they meet, especially a married woman, especially if she is with her husband. And the women don’t look at a man (if he is old enough to be a father). But when the Italians see that a woman is carrying a child, they all look, men and women too — they look and smile and nod approvingly, and not only at the mother. The Italians take the father in also then. I advise any man about to become a father to go to Italy…

Among the neighbors that came with their new home was one extremely conscientious contessa — a Scot by birth, Italian countess by marriage. Shortly after they moved in, she introduced herself cautiously, mindful of the fact that not all people wish to befriend their neighbors, and offered her help should they need any on their journey to parenthood. She owned one particularly uncommon commodity that proved itself helpful indeed: a telephone. Steffens recounts the rather comical events of the birth itself:

About a week before the date fixed, the predicted “first signs” occurred. The doctor had warned me that “she,” the mother, would mistake the first for the final symptoms, so, when, after midnight one dark, cold night she awoke with pains, I got up, of course. I knew from the novels how to behave. She asked anxiously for the doctor.

“But you know, don’t you,” I said coolly, “that this will go on now for a week.”

She answered that she did, and she really did know about everything. An “intellectual,” a college lecturer, she had been making just such a study of child-bearing as she would have made for a course of lectures. Our house contained a complete library of Radiant Motherhood, with all the classics on biology, breeding, feeding — everything, all read, marked, and I noted well that the doctors conversed in technical terms with her, as with an insider; with a respect that they did not show to me. But science and art still differ. As the pains grew that night, she asked if I did not think we might risk a false alarm and summon the doctor and nurse.

And so they did:

Nurse and doctor came together, both cross, and — so sure were they that it was a false alarm — the doctor did not bring his instruments. The nurse saw or heard at once that it was “a case,” and she took command. Brushing rudely past me, she gave the Contessa one fierce look, stepped in between her and the patient. “Oh, I will go,” the Contessa said, and she did, advising me also to “get out.” The nurse bade the doctor scoot for his things, gave orders to me, to the mother, the servants. The doctor scooted, so did the rest of us, every man to his post, while the nurse whirled about her preparations. By the time the doctor got back, that nurse had everything ready and everybody at work and scared — the hateful, dominating, efficient thing.

She put me out of the room. The doctor soon followed, with a shrug. Women’s business. Bah!

Indeed, Steffens paints the Italian doctor as a rather detestable character — on the matter of what to do if the baby arrived “obviously defective,” the doctor offered some counsel “utterly without human feeling.” He goes on to describe the farcical unfolding of the situation:

I had a cigarette and I had also an ugly feeling against professionalism, especially in a doctor and more especially at child-birth. I went downstairs to the kitchen and swatted flies. I killed forty-three before I rejoined the doctor. We were standing there silent when the nurse stuck her British, red, professional face in the door.

“It’s peeping,” she said, and was gone, shutting the door firmly.

“What?” the doctor asked. “Peeping? I never heard that term.”

“It’s not a technical term,” I said. “I take it for a descriptive announcement that Pete is peeping out upon the world with a view to –”

“Oh!” he exclaimed, and throwing away his cigarette, he darted into the room, he likewise closing the door, pointedly.

Steffens, still harboring hope that the baby might be a girl after all, was eventually faced with the newborn reality:

A boy! Not a girl, a boy. They say I groaned. But it was over! I started in to the room. All I had time to see was the detestable nurse, rising with something in her arms and a face of fury for me. “Not yet!” she spat. I retreated out of sight, but not so far that I could not hear what was going on. A child was crying, people were bustling about, and the quiet voices of the doctor, nurse, and the mother were chatting pleasantly about how quick it had been, how easy and how extraordinarily successful.

In another amusing passage, which calls to mind Ann Friedman’s excellent essay on what it means for a woman to be a “badass,” Steffens writes:

Reviewing all these evidences laboriously, I arranged my mind to the amazing conclusion that the baby was born, the mother was all right and I had not suffered at all. It was nothing like in the novels. They say that the father suffers terribly, more than the mother. It is not so. I did not suffer, not so much even as the mother herself and I heard her say it was “not very much worse than the grippes.”

In a remark that the English would find particularly delightful, Steffens recounts disobeying the nurse’s suggestion that he take a walk while they “clear up”:

That nurse, being British, knew what is done; she knew the etiquette as she knew everything else about her business; and, being English, she was disgusted when I did what is not done. I went in and saw the mother and child.

But what he saw was a stark testament to the fact that the crucible of all love is fantasy — we imbue the object of our love, be that a lover or a newborn, with our own subjective ideas and needs and desires, heeding little the inherent presence or absence of the qualities we project. Steffens captures this perfectly:

The child was a thing by itself, stuck off in a corner on a cot. It did not look like Pete: not as I had imagined him; not in the least. And not only because he was not a girl. He looked like anybody’s new-born infant in everybody’s novel, red, ugly, and out for himself alone. There was no sign of recognition of me as the fellow that used to talk with him o’ nights. He was a sight, a sound, too, but his head was so elongated, so deformed that I was glad the doctor had forgotten, as I had, my instructions about “the obvious defective.” A stranger, he was still a human being and — well, as They say, I say live and let live.

His mother made up for him, for everything. She was Radiant Motherhood personified. A good phrase. She gave forth light. Still, pale, smiling (with surprise, she said afterwards) she really seemed to be illuminated from within.

Lincoln Steffens with his wife, Ella Winter, and young Pete

And yet in the ugliness of his newborn son Steffens finds the most beautiful thing in the world — the very thing he would later counsel Pete never to lose. He writes:

I turned again to the child, the ugliest but the latest and therefore, biologically, the most advanced human being on earth. What did he know? It is our knowledge — the things we are sure of — that makes the world go wrong and keeps us from seeing and learning from God’s everyday revelations of the truth. This “knowledge and belief” that is so false and so impious is said to be inborn. Is it? I asked my new-born baby boy and he answered; and his answer is the best news I, a veteran reporter, have ever had to report.

He did not know a thing.

In a passage reminiscent of Descartes’s view of animals as “automata,” Steffens adds:

He did not know how to eat. His sucking apparatus worked; his machine was a going concern, but the nurse put in two days of hard, patient work teaching him to take the breast. He did not know when he was tired. As his machine ran down, it squeaked and They said he cried for sleep. He did not. He resisted drowsiness as if he were in a fight for his life; as if he did not know the difference (if any) between sleep and death. He has not yet learned that he will wake up again.

Illustration by Øyvind Torseter from 'My Father's Arms Are a Boat' by Stein Erik Lunde. Click image for more.

So when “a kindly clergyman” shows up one day to christen the baby and “start the process of mind-fixing and standardization,” Steffens adamantly refuses, on account of “Pete’s superior ignorance and scientific open-mindedness” — something contemporary scientists would heartily commend. And therein lies Steffens’s most profound, most elevating point — his passionate case for the power of not-knowing, of keeping our “baby eyes (which are the eyes of genius)” and unlearning all the falsehoods our grownup compulsion for certitude inflicts on us. Decades before the great Rachel Carson argued that “for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel, Steffens writes:

And believe me, a father at last, it is true. There is hope for the race. Babies are born all right. They are not born with, they don’t know any of the bunk that makes us grown-ups make war and money, constitutions and best-sellers. They don’t know respect, they don’t know fear, they don’t know any of the evils we call virtues. They are clean-minded and clear-eyed and empty-headed; and curious. They are fit to go out and climb God’s tree of life, eat the fruit thereof and see (and see the beauty of) all things as they are. They have no convictions, no principles to blind them.

Anyhow my baby hasn’t, and I am going to try to save him from all such sure things. I don’t know what to teach him, but I do know what to keep him from learning. He will have to go to Their schools and a college and They will force him, with Their authority to — recite. But I can warn him against Their authority and Their worse than ignorance. But that is later. The damage is done earlier, in babyhood.

That hedge against absorbing society’s limiting beliefs and dogma of conformity, Steffens argues, is what the father can offer the child:

I am old enough to be through with that silly servitude. The father’s place is in the home and there I am and there I mean to stay — on guard — to protect my child from education… There I am all the time and always, as now, when the mother picks up Pete I join her.

He ends with a return — at once tongue-in-cheek and incredibly profound — to the urgency of undoing the damage of gender stereotypes:

I can afford to let the mother, with her brains, provide the science and the business side of my child’s up-bringing; I, the father, will furnish the love (which women call “spoiling”), the art, the sport, the doubt divine. She can impart knowledge, I the highly cultivated ignorance. As I explained to Pete one day when we lay back bloated and contemplative after a deep feed of mother’s milk, his dear mamma will make of him a strong, knowing, successful man, I will leave him a fine fellow, who, whether he is a poet or a politician, a businessman, a reporter or a lounge lizard, can play the game and win, without believing in it or in his own lies: a humorous man of the world, a true prophet of the beautiful life to come on this earth and, perhaps, if he is good, the father of a girl baby.

Lincoln Steffens Speaking is an immensely ennobling trove of wisdom on life and liberty from one of the noblest men who ever lived, and the fact that it has vanished out of print is nothing short of a cultural tragedy. Still, used copies are findable and well worth looking for. Complement it with Steffens’s spectacular letter of life-advice to two-year-old Pete, then revisit history’s greatest letters of fatherly advice and the Scandinavian treasure My Father’s Arms Are a Boat.

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Pioneering Early-Twentieth-Century Artist and Creative Entrepreneur Wanda Gág on Our Two Selves and How Love Lays Its Claim on Us

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“There is nothing better for us to do than to take ourselves as we find ourselves and make the best of ourselves.”

At the age of fifteen, long before she became a successful artist, a Newbery- and Caldecott-honored children’s book pioneer, and an influence for creative legends like Maurice Sendak, Wanda Gág (March 11, 1893–June 27, 1946) began keeping an illustrated diary, eventually published as Growing Pains (public library). Although it covers her adolescence and early twenties, it is anything but teenage in character — not in the least because by the time the word “teenager” was coined, Gág was already on her deathbed. Rather, it is the precocious, deeply alive record of how a young woman dragged herself out of poverty by her own talents and her dogged dedication, and became a great artist and creative entrepreneur in an era before women could even vote. (That she would eventually write and illustrate a glorious proto-feminist children’s book only adds to her emboldening story.)

Wanda Gág, 1916

The early portions of the diary capture the formative experiences of Gág’s childhood and adolescence — growing up in poverty and selling her art to earn money for the family (“Made 115 place cards in about 2 days. Wish I could keep the money and buy dresses with, but what’s the use of dreaming all the time?”); living with constant hunger, which she notes only as a matter of fact rather than a complaint (“Ate only doughnuts and coffee for supper to-day.”); being the eldest of seven siblings, of whom she took care after her father died and her mother fell gravely ill (“Mama was in bed and we had the worst time getting dinner and giving the kids their things.”); wanting nothing more than a steady education, but having to drop out of school over and over to take care of her siblings and earn income for the family (“Oh dear, I wish I could earn a pile of money so that I could draw a little for myself, and so that I could go to school without having to think of quitting. I can’t see why some kids don’t like school. I can scarcely wait for the Monday’s.”); being unable to afford even the very notebooks necessary for the continuation of the diary, and being immeasurably elated when she finally saved up enough (“Oh glories, joys, beauties, victory, etc. etc. etc! I’ll get a new diary! Talk of being glad!”).

Young Wanda Gág's drawing of her siblings, found in the diary

But despite the extreme practical hardship, Gág grew up in an atmosphere that encouraged and valued art — not merely as something to sell, but as something to celebrate in the soul.

Anton Gág

Gág writes of her artist-father, Anton, who died a few months before she started the diary but remained an enormous spiritual influence for the remainder of her life:

For his livelihood, he decorated houses and churches; but on Sundays, for his inner satisfaction, he painted pictures in his attic studio. We children had learned early how to behave when someone was “making something” and were sometimes allowed in his studio while he painted there. I liked this — there was a silent, serious happiness in the air which, although I had no words for ti then, I recognized as the ineffable joy of creation. I had already experienced this exaltation myself at times, so I knew that on Sundays my father was happy in his soul.

In 1913, thanks to years of hard work and the help of friends, Gág fulfilled her dream of going to art school and enrolled in The Saint Paul School of Art, where she was offered a scholarship. It was a transformative experience in many ways, both in developing her skills as an artist and in finding herself as a person.

Three self-portraits

In the spring of 1914, several years before Freud first formulated his notions of the id, the ego, and the super-ego, 21-year-old Gág developed and became preoccupied with a peculiar theory that personhood consists of two parts always tussling with each other for dominion — a surface “Me,” unstable in its constantly fluctuating needs and desires, and an underlying “Myself,” the stable representation of one’s deepest truth. The main struggle of life, she intuits, is that of integration between these conflicting aspects of the self.

In a diary entry from April of that year, she captures with extraordinary introspective insight the interplay of these two parts in herself:

Myself, you see, stands for my better judgement, for my permanent self, and Me is my unstable self, the part that is continually changing. Myself is the part of me that sees its way out of my “self-to-me” arguments…; and Me is that part that writes things in diaries in angular words, angular phrases and angular thoughts.

She illustrates this with a small sketch in the margin and writes:

Like this: — Myself is inside, and Me is trying to sort of fit around the outside only it can’t very well because it’s so angular, you see, and can do no more than touch myself and feel that myself is there.

Myself laughs, sometimes mockingly and sometimes indulgently but encouragingly withal, at my poor attempts to express Myself. I do not mind its laughing, for some day I hope to become one with myself.

She captures this inner divide in action as she chronicles her day:

I was kept busy sketching until almost twelve. I was a fool to do it for I was very tired, but I (that is, Me, you know) am often a fool. Myself made only feeble remonstrances for at times I am stronger than it, and besides It seems at times to believe in letting Me do as I please so that I can learn by actual experience.

With the very ambivalence for which this dichotomy of self is culpable, she adds:

In a way I am rather glad I discovered this Me and Myself business because it seems to explain so many things, but on the other hand I don’t like it at all for I can just see where it will jump into my thoughts and conversation all the time.

In June of 1914, Gág considers how this plays into the dynamic of self and other:

I always have a feeling — I may be mistaken of course — that some people think that I am just a common heart breaker — or else a girl who is serious about her art, but one with everyday feelings about love and life and her fellow beings. They do not know that art to me means life. It may sound egotistical for me to say so but I know that I have seen, and see every day, a beautiful part of life which the majority of them never have and never will see. It isn’t egotistical when you think it over — I deserve no credit for that. It is my heritage. My father had that power before me, but because he was unselfish it could not be developed as much as Himself wanted it to be. So he handed it to me, and it’s my duty to develop it. If I ever turn out anything worth while I will not feel like saying that “I did this,” but “My father and I did this.” Aside from that, I will have to include all Humanity to a greater or lesser extent too; and the Great Power that names the Myselves in things will be the most important thing, of course.

The ebb and flow of daily living, Gág’s model suggests, keeps eddying the “Me” part; but life itself pulses through the “Myself” and registers in its deepest trenches, to be transmuted into art after a period of unconscious incubation. She illustrates this with great subtlety in relaying an exchange with a young suitor, Armand, as they go to the fair in early May and he begins pointing out parts of the landscape to her:

Armand sometimes thinks I don’t see as much of my surroundings as I do, simply because I don’t say anything about them. I usually pack them up silently and store them away within me. There are a number of scenes that I saw that day, that I disposed of that way and sometime, perhaps in a few weeks, perhaps in a few months, I will use them — or maybe it will take a few years until they will really go thru Myself so that they will have their fullest effect on me.

A few weeks later, in a passing aside, she adds a related remark that is one of the most poignant lines in the entire diary:

I think people always consider me such a child because I have done my living in silence.

Portrait of Wanda Gág by Adolph Dehn

This tug-of-war between “Me” and “Myself,” for Gág, is often one between emotion and reason — especially when it comes to love, and especially in her particular relationship with Armand, plagued by an asymmetry of affections: she, reluctantly besotted; he, insufficiently interested and manipulative of her affections, giving her just enough to fuel the anguishing infatuation but not so much as to remove the anguish. (A dynamic familiar to anyone who has suffered the cruel ambivalence of a lover.) By the end of May, Wanda and Armand have confronted the issue and “agreed to keep [the] relationship on a Platonic basis.” (Again, a reluctant pseudo-solution familiar to anyone who has ever had intense romantic feelings for a partner incapable or unwilling to reciprocate them.)

In one particularly turbulent entry from May 25, Gág chronicles the rapids of feeling violently dragging her “Me” in its fast-flowing stream of changing emotions:

It is queer — I have gone thru so many stages during the last three days. Saturday morning I was bewildered, at about noon I was happy, by evening I was wretched. By Sunday noon I could smile, in the afternoon I was happy and could laugh. This morning I was mischievous, this afternoon deliciously wicked, right after supper reckless, and right after that wretchedly serious. And now I have come back to the beginning and am bewildered again.

[…]

Just this minute I almost hate him because perhaps I love him, and on the other hand, I almost love him because I almost hate him.

Oh Myself, Myself, where are you? I am surrounded by Me’s and Me’s — bewildered Me’s, wicked Me’s, frivolous Me’s and vindictive Me’s — and I cannot feel you at all.

A couple of days later, she despairs about the possibility of integration:

I think I am not equal at present to wrestle with Myself and Me… Myself and the Me’s are like strings which ought to, and will, guide me when I can understand them, but just now they are tangling up my feet, keeping me from going on.

And yet despite her confusion and her romantic exasperation, Gág coolly notes that she has “a pretty stable record as far as love [is] concerned,” observing that most girls of her age she met in school have already been engaged “once or twice or even thrice.” She cites a poignant exchange with her friend Nina and considers the perilous sublimation of “Myself,” for the benefit of “Me,” in our attempts at love:

She thinks … that she knows more about love than I do. Of course she has been engaged three times and has seen more of the world than I have. But most of the time Herself was obliterated, and you cannot depend upon the judgment of Me’s. Just about all that I know about the subject, I have learned since I have discovered Myself, so I insist that even tho I don’t know as much as she does, I know better.

Page from the diary, 1915

The following year, with patronage from the prominent book collector and publisher Herschel V. Jones — known for his philosophy of “credit based on character and integrity” — Gág transferred to The Minneapolis School of Art. But she brought along both her preoccupation with the “Me”/“Myself” divide and her infatuation with Armand. In an entry from April of 1915, she contemplates with great anguish and poignancy how these two notions — self and love — relate to one another, through the lens of her feelings for Armand:

Where under the sun that man got all that knowledge of human nature, I do not know, but the more I think about it and the more I compare him with other people, the more I realize that his knowledge of people’s innermost selves is not only extensive but beautifully sympathetic. Oh ding it all, Armand is a perfect brick and all his irritating characteristics are but virtues which are misunderstood. I am speaking particularly of those which I deliberately misunderstand.

She adds a pause-giving note on gender double standards:

Oh it is so hard to know that you have to keep caring when you are trying so virtuously to do otherwise. Even the fact that Armand may not care for me at all, and even tho I may be humiliating myself unspeakably in the eyes of the future Wanda Gág, I write, recklessly, that I love him still. If I were a man it would be different. No one thinks a man humiliates himself by loving faithfully and forever a woman who does not care for him. One even admires him for it. But with a woman it is different. She must choke it down and bear it all in silence. I must just act as if I now believe that it was the child in me that had spoken last Spring. Perhaps it was the child-part that spoke, and perhaps I will meet someone whom I like better — but I am certainly not anywhere near believing it.

This mention of the inner child is especially poignant in light of a letter Armand had sent her a year earlier, in which he writes:

The child sees the truth but the genius sees the truth and realizes it.

And yet Gág’s most perceptive remark touches on the very thing that Tom Stoppard would later articulate in the greatest definition of love — the idea that the best kind of love sees through our “Me’s” and straight to the “Myself,” and this seeingness is the source of its irresistible pull on us:

If he did not understand me so very very well, and if he were not so absolutely indispensable to my poor groping Myself, I should almost wish I had never met him. But I’m glad I did, anyway.

The same month, she revisits the subject of duty in the evolution of the self, which is where her theory of “Me” and “Myself” originated:

There is nothing better for us to do than to take ourselves as we find ourselves and make the best of ourselves. If I find myself, as I did, the daughter of an artist who has left me with broadmindedness and a conveniently strong character to resist temptation, I take myself from there and accomplish what I can… I do not even deserve praise for doing my best, for that is my duty and I deserve to be blamed for not doing my best.

Growing Pains is a wonderful read in its entirety — the living record of how a remarkable artist, who should be appreciated and celebrated far more than she is by our short-termist culture, became herself. Complement it with great writers on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, then revisit Gág’s Grimm illustrations and her delightful alphabet book.

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David Whyte on How to Break the Tyranny of Work/Life Balance

By:

“We are each a river with a particular abiding character, but we show radically different aspects of our self according to the territory through which we travel.”

The equilibrium between productivity and presence is one of the hardest things to master in life, and one of the most important. We, both as a culture and as individuals, often conflate it with the deceptively similar-sounding yet profoundly different notion of “work/life balance” — a concept rather disheartening upon closer inspection. It implies, after all, that we must counter the downside — that which we must endure in order to make a living — with the upside — that which we long to do in order to feel alive. It implies allocating half of our waking hours to something we begrudge while anxiously awaiting the other half to arrive so we can live already. What a woefully shortchanging way to exist — lest we forget, so speaks Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

In The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship (public library) — a book reminiscent of Parker Palmer’s beautiful Thoreau-esque writings on the art of inner wholeness yet wholly revelatory in its own right — English poet and philosopher David Whyte aptly calls “work/life balance” a “phrase that often becomes a lash with which we punish ourselves” and offers an emboldening way out of this cultural trap. In an immensely insightful inquiry into these three primary commitments we all make in life, consciously or not, and the dynamics common to them all — the sequence of recognition, pursuit, disappointment, and recommitment — he explores “all those strange and inexplicable inner ways we belong to ourselves.”

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's original watercolors for 'The Little Prince.' Click image for more.

In a sentiment reminiscent of Emerson — who observed in his reflections on how we grow: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” — Whyte turns a skeptical eye toward the concept of “balance” between work and life:

Poets have never used the word balance, for good reason. First of all, it is too obvious and therefore untrustworthy; it is also a deadly boring concept and seems to speak as much to being stuck and immovable, as much as to harmony. There is also the sense of unbalancing that must take place in order to push a person into a new and larger set of circumstances.

[…]

The current understanding of work-life balance is too simplistic. People find it hard to balance work with family, family with self, because it might not be a question of balance. Some other dynamic is in play, something to do with a very human attempt at happiness that does not quantify different parts of life and then set them against one another. We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way.

This longing for integration has always been part of the human experience, but today we ache for it more than ever as we face a culture that, in the wise and wonderful Courtney Martin’s words, asks us to “show up as only slices of ourselves in different places.” Whyte captures this beautifully:

These hidden human dynamics of integration are more of a conversation, more of a synthesis and more of an almost religious and sometimes almost delirious quest for meaning than a simple attempt at daily ease and contentment.

In a passage that calls to mind Wendell Berry’s glorious meditation on solitude, Whyte details the trifecta of his inquiry:

Human beings are creatures of belonging, though they may come to that sense of belonging only through long periods of exile and loneliness. Interestingly, we belong to life as much through our sense that it is all impossible, as we do through the sense that we will accomplish everything we have set out to do. This sense of belonging and not belonging is lived out by most people through three principal dynamics: first, through relationship to other people and other living things (particularly and very personally, to one other living, breathing person in relationship or marriage); second, through work; and third, through an understanding of what it means to be themselves, discrete individuals alive and seemingly separate from everyone and everything else.

These are the three marriages, of Work, Self and Other.

[…]

We can call these three separate commitments marriages because at their core they are usually lifelong commitments and … they involve vows made either consciously or unconsciously… To neglect any one of the three marriages is to impoverish them all, because they are not actually separate commitments but different expressions of the way each individual belongs to the world.

Whyte draws the prefatory conclusion:

We should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance. Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard in each of the three commitments. In the ensuing exhaustion we ultimately give up on one or more of them to gain an easier life.

Illustration by Gus Gordon from 'Herman and Rosie.' Click image for more.

I have always found the notion of compromising — particularly when it comes to this unfair tradeoff of work and life — to be a double-edged sword of meaning: on the one hand, a compromise implies reaching a happy medium between two conflicting needs; on the other, to compromise requires the trimming off of excess in one area in order to alleviate a deficit in the other, which invariably means compromising — in the sense of undermining — the area deemed excessive. And yet, as Anaïs Nin memorably remarked her passionate case for the importance of excess in creative work, such compromising hardly benefits us in the end.

Whyte gets at this elegantly, noting that each of the three pursuits he explores “is, at its heart, nonnegotiable,” and urges us to start thinking of each not as something to be balanced against the other two but as something “conversing with, questioning or emboldening the other two.” Only then can we begin to shift away from “trading and bartering parts of ourselves as if they were salable commodities.” Because work and life are not separate things, he argues, they can’t be “balanced” against one another; instead, they are best treated as a “movable conversational frontier.”

Beneath these seemingly contradictory demands of work and life, Whyte observes, are two deeper needs pulling us in opposite directions with equal force — our often exhausting desire to belong with our fellow human beings and our longing for solitude, for being “left completely and utterly alone, trawling the deep riches of an inner peace and quiet, where the self can actually seem lithe, movable, limitless and inviolate.” And yet Whyte sees hope for reconciliation:

We can still make a real life even when crowded by other identities, or even when unbalanced and intoxicated with desire, or even when we are disappointed in work or love, and perhaps the way, at the center of all this deep love of belonging and this deep exhaustion of belonging, we may have waiting for us, at the end of the tunnel, a marriage of marriages, a life worth living, and one we can call, despite all the difficulties and imperfections, our very own.

Whyte draws a parallel between the first two marriages:

Work, like marriage, is a place you can lose yourself more easily perhaps than finding yourself. It is a place full of powerful undercurrents, a place to find our selves, but also, a place to drown, losing all sense of our own voice, our own contribution and conversation.

[…]

Good work like a good marriage needs a dedication to something larger than our own detailed, everyday needs; good work asks for promises to something intuited or imagined that is larger than our present understanding of it. We may not have an arranged ceremony at the altar to ritualize our dedication to work, but many of us can remember a specific moment when we realized we were made for a certain work, a certain career or a certain future: a moment when we held our hand in a fist and made unspoken vows to what we had just glimpsed.

[…]

Work is a constant conversation. It is the back-and-forth between what I think is me and what I think is not me; it is the edge between what the world needs of me and what I need of the world. Like the person to whom I am committed in a relationship, it is constantly changing and surprising me by its demands and needs but also by where it leads me, how much it teaches me, and especially, by how much tact, patience and maturity it demands of me.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Parker Palmer’s wisdom on letting your life speak and Van Gogh’s floundering to find his purpose, Whyte writes:

Work is a constant invisible question, sometimes nagging, sometimes cajoling, sometimes emboldening me; at its best beckoning me to follow a particular star to which I belong.

One can’t help but think of Gabriel García Márquez’s unlikely path to becoming a writer as Whyte adds:

If children move into their late teens with no inkling of their future vocation, not even a glimpse of the star, it is time for the adult world around them to become rightly and increasingly worried. At this point a seemingly wrongheaded but determined direction is far better than none at all. It may be, in fact, that most of the great work done by individuals through history has often been accomplished through long years of dedicated wrongheadedness.

And yet the most challenging marriage of all is the invisible, private one behind the two public-facing commitments of work and relationship — “the internal and often secret marriage to that tricky movable frontier called ourselves.” While poets and psychologists agree that the self is a fluid phenomenon and there is no such thing as fixed personality, we still cling to the comforting falsehood that the self is a stable foundation. And yet in its very instability, Whyte suggests, lies its promise of satisfaction — the self “moves and changes and surprises us as much as anything in the outer world to which it wants to commit,” and that outer world invariably shapes our inner experience. He captures this with a philosopher-poet’s lyrical precision:

We are each a river with a particular abiding character, but we show radically different aspects of our self according to the territory through which we travel.

[…]

Neglecting this internal marriage, we can easily make ourselves a hostage to the externals of work and the demands of relationship. We find ourselves unable to move in these outer marriages because we have no inner foundation from which to step out with a firm persuasion. It is as if, absent a loving relationship with this inner representation of our self, we fling ourselves in all directions in our outer lives, looking for love in all the wrong places.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

Echoing Rilke’s exquisite meditation on how we hide from ourselves and Seneca’s on the shortness of life, Whyte adds:

Not only can we become afraid of these internal questions, but also we can become terrified of the spaces or silences in which these questions might arise. The act of stopping can be the act of facing something we have kept hidden from ourselves for a very long time.

[…]

The marriage with the self is difficult because it is connected to the great questions of life that refuse to go away and which are also connected to our own mortality. In the silences that accompany a strong internal relationship with the self we see not only the truth of our present circumstances and a way forward but we also realize how short our stay is on this earth. Life waits for us in this internal marriage, but death waits for us also.

As if driven by Mary Oliver’s existential prod “urgent as a knife,” Whyte reminds us that it pays to imagine immensities and writes:

This willingness to look at the transitory nature of existence [is] not pessimism but absolute realism: life is to be taken at the tilt, you do not have forever, and therefore why wait? Why wait … to become a faithful and intimate companion to that initially formidable stranger you called your self?

He considers what marriage — any marriage, in all three domains — asks of us, and what it stands to give:

It is almost like a mutual invitation to which both partners must respond wholeheartedly. It includes as much of the future in its gravitational pull as it does any present particularities. It is something that lives over the horizon as much as it exists in the here and now. It is full of keen daily pleasures and shattering disappointments. From all of these early, optimistic appearances and depressing disappearances we realize we have had a first glimpse of secret imagined possibilities, until now unspoken.

In the remainder of The Three Marriages — a tremendously rewarding read in its totality — Whyte delves into the details of each domain, fortifying his poetic and practical insights with lived examples from the lives of such creative luminaries as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson. Complement it with Ursula Nordstrom’s letter to young Maurice Sendak on the cohesion of creative purpose, Parker Palmer on how to live with inner wholeness, and the story of how Van Gogh found his purpose.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.