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28 JULY, 2015

Beatrix Potter, Mycologist: The Beloved Children’s Book Author’s Little-Known Scientific Studies and Illustrations of Mushrooms

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“Imagination is the precursor to policy, the precondition to action. Imagination, like wonder, allows us to value something.”

Beatrix Potter (July 28, 1866–December 22, 1943) is one of the most beloved and influential storytellers of all time. The Tale of Peter Rabbit and her other gloriously illustrated children’s books tickle the human imagination through the fantastical aliveness of nature and its creatures, in a spirit partway between Aesop and Mary Oliver, between Tolkien and Thoreau. At a time when women had no right to vote and virtually no access to higher education, very rarely owned property and were themselves considered the property of their husbands, Potter became a commercially successful writer and artist, using the royalties from her books to purchase her famed Hill Top Farm, where she lived simply and with great love for the land for the remaining four decades of her life. Potter’s art was a formative influence for Maurice Sendak, who collected her books, traveled to her farm, winked at her famous costumed mice in his reimagining of Nutcracker, and incorporated some of her work into his illustrations for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves. Her 1913 book The Tale of Pigling Bland was a childhood favorite of George Orwell’s and became one of the key inspirations for his allegorical masterwork Animal Farm. (In addition to her extraordinary achievements and far-reaching creative legacy, I have always held special affection for Potter for the absurdly human reason that we share a birthday.)

Teenage Beatrix Potter with her pet mouse Xarifa, 1885 (Princeton University Library, Rare Books and Special Collections)

But no aspect of Potter’s kaleidoscopic genius is more fascinating than her vastly underappreciated contribution to science and natural history, which comes to life in Linda Lear’s altogether magnificent Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (public library) — by far the best book on Potter and one of the finest biographies ever written, Lear’s prose itself a supreme work of art.

The pervasive Victorian enthusiasm for natural history produced quite a few female amateur scientists, including ornithologist Genevieve Jones, lepidopterist Maria Merian, and fossil-hunter Mary Anning — “amateur” being not a reflection of their scientific rigor and dedication, which were formidable, but of the fact that a formal scientific education was virtually inaccessible to women, except for the rare Ada Lovelace or Maria Mitchell, and membership in scientific societies was strictly reserved for men. But Potter’s scientific work was exceptional in that she deliberately tried to penetrate the very institutions that dismissed women’s scientific labor solely on the basis of gender.

Flammulina velutipes (Armitt Museum and Library)

By her early twenties, Potter had developed a keen interest in mycology and began producing incredibly beautiful drawings of fungi, collecting mushroom specimens herself and mounting them for careful observation under the microscope. In the winter months, she frequented London’s Natural History Museum to study their displays. Lear writes:

Beatrix’s interest in drawing and painting mushrooms, or fungi, began as a passion for painting beautiful specimens wherever she found them. She never saw art and science as mutually exclusive activities, but recorded what she saw in nature primarily to evoke an aesthetic response. She was drawn to fungi first by their ephemeral fairy qualities and then by the variety of their shape and colour and the challenge they posed to watercolour techniques. Unlike insects or shells or even fossils, fungi also guaranteed an autumn foray into fields and forests, where she could go in her pony cart without being encumbered by family or heavy equipment.

Hygrophorus puniceus (Armitt Museum and Library)

There is also something quite poetic about Potter’s obsession with fungi — in her later children’s books, she bridged real life and fantasy by transmuting the animals and plants she observed in nature into whimsical characters and stories, and mushrooms have long symbolized this very transmutation, perhaps most prominently in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, which first captured the popular imagination the year Potter was born.

But her interest went far beyond the mere aesthetics or symbolism of mushrooms — she was studious about their taxonomy, taught herself the proper technique for accurate botanical illustration, and worked tirelessly to get an introduction to the eminent mycologist Charles McIntosh. With his help and encouragement, she continued advancing her microscopic observations, which kindled in her an intense fascination with how mushrooms reproduced — something poorly understood at the time. Potter soon began conducting her own experiments with spores she had germinated herself. She was particularly captivated by lichens, considered at the time the “poor peasants of the plant world,” in the words of the great botanist Linnaeus — a statement itself belying the dearth of scientific understanding at the time, for lichens are not plants but a hybrid of fungi and algae.

Himeola auricula (Armitt Museum and Library)

This hybrid nature, first proposed by the Swiss botanist Simon Schwendener in 1869 and believed by no one else for decades, seemed so laughable a concept that “Schwendenerist” became a term of derision. But young Beatrix’s experiments convinced her that Schwendener was on to something with his “dual hypothesis.” She set down her theories and empirical findings in a paper titled “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae,” accompanied by her breathtakingly detailed illustrations.

Strobilomyces strobilaceus (Armitt Museum and Library)

But between her and the acceptance of the truth stood formidable sociocultural forces: London’s Linnean Society, the bastion of Victorian botany, was exclusively male and barred women from membership, denied them access to the research library, and wouldn’t even allow them to attend the presentations of scientific papers. One of the Society’s most influential gatekeepers was William Turner Thiselton-Dyer, the despotic director of the famed Kew Gardens and a man of particularly misogynistic conviction — and it was he whom thirty-year-old Potter had to sway in order for her paper to be presented at the Society. His response was blatantly patronizing — he called her ideas unimportant “mares’ nests” that couldn’t possibly measure up to a subject this “profound” and dismissed her drawings without even looking at them.

That night, an indignant and furious Potter wrote in her diary:

I informed him that it would all be in the books in ten years, whether or no, and departed giggling.

Lepiota friesii (Armitt Museum and Library)

Hydrocybe coccinea (Armitt Museum and Library)

Amanita excels (Armitt Museum and Library)

Potter’s uncle, a respected scientist himself, was equally appalled by Thiselton-Dyer and took it upon himself to see to her paper’s presentation at the Society. Lear writes:

The general membership of the Society met at seven o‘clock on Tuesday evening, 1 April 1897 with President Albert C. L. G. Gunther in the chair. The business of the meeting was the reading of a paper, “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae by Miss Helen B. Potter,” and the presentation of several exhibits by five distinguished fellows, including Thiselton-Dyer and George Murray. Since women were not allowed to be members or to participate in the meetings, Beatrix was not present… Afterwards, together with any slide drawings as exhibits, it was ‘laid on the table’ where it could be examined… “Laid on the table” had the specialized meaning in Linnean Society parlance of the time of “received but not seriously considered in open forum.” In short, while Beatrix’s paper was read at least in part, no substantive notice was given to it… Like other women at the time who attempted to gain a hearing for their scientific research at the Linnean, Beatrix’s theories were never seriously considered.

So the paper never even got to the point of peer-reviewing Potter’s actual reproduction hypothesis to determine whether it was correct — she (any “she”) was, it was made clear, not a peer and thus not worthy of such consideration.

A century later, the Linnean Society issued an apology of sorts for its historic sexism — its executive secretary formally acknowledged that Potter’s research had been “treated scurvily.” And yet to this day, Potter’s remarkable fungi illustrations are studied for their scientific accuracy and consulted by mycologists all over the world in identifying mushroom species. And, who knows, perhaps one day a kindly mycologist will discover a new species and name it after Potter.

Clitocybe ampla (Armitt Museum and Library)

But Potter wasn’t too perturbed by the rejection — she channeled her genius and creative energy in a different direction. Only five years later, the self-published first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit sold out before the next commercial edition was even printed, and Potter became one of the most famous and successful children’s book artists and writers of her time, and soon of all time. The same reverent fascination with nature that had fueled her scientific work now appeared in a new guise in her stories, full not of the fantastical beings of fairy tales but of the realistic animals and plants native to the very woods in which she had collected her mushroom specimens.

Lepitoa procera (Armitt Museum and Library)

In the epilogue to the book, Lear captures Potter’s larger legacy as a naturalist, environmentalist, and singular artisan who dedicated her life to weaving a profound reverence for nature into the very fabric of culture:

Beatrix Potter brought nature back into the English imagination with her books and her illustrations. She wrote most of them at a time when nature was viewed as something of little value, when the plunder of nature was more popular than its preservation. After her marriage [to William Heelis] in 1913 the emphasis of her imaginative work shifted more and more away from literature towards the land and the animals it sustained. Beatrix cared about the old ways, and about what was necessary to live simply in nature.

Imagination is the precursor to policy, the precondition to action. Imagination, like wonder, allows us to value something. Imagination allowed Beatrix Potter to value the natural world and to share the treasures she found in the Lake District and its culture. As a far-sighted businesswoman she understood that their preservation was inherently linked to the success of fell farming.

Beatrix Heelis’s stewardship created a singular moment in the recovery of nature in the twentieth century; a paradigm of environmental awakening.

Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature is a glorious read in its entirety, detailing Potter’s creative evolution, her era-defying development as a businesswoman and entrepreneur, her intimate relationship with place and landscape, and much more. Complement it with the butterfly drawings of entomological illustrator Maria Merian and the bird eggs of self-taught artist Genevieve Jones, then revisit Jon Mooallem’s magnificent modern-day appeal to the environmental imagination.

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27 JULY, 2015

Albert Einstein’s Love Letters

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“How was I able to live alone before, my little everything? Without you I lack self-confidence, passion for work, and enjoyment of life — in short, without you, my life is no life.”

Under the tyranny of our present productivity-fetishism, we measure the value of everything by the final product rather than by the richness of the process — its rewards, its stimulating challenges, the aliveness of presence with which we fill every moment of it. In contemporary culture, if a marriage ends in divorce — however many happy years it may have granted the couple, however many wonderful children it may have produced — we deem it a failed marriage. What is true on the scale of personal history is triply true on the scale of cultural history, and few public marriages have been subjected to a more unnuanced verdict than that of Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić. The twenty years between the time they met as first-year university students and the time of their final legal separation get compressed into one blunt word itself emptied of dimension: divorce. And yet those were the years in which Einstein did his most groundbreaking work, forever changing the course of modern science; years which produced the only progeny of the quintessential modern genius; years filled with enormous, all-consuming love, which comes to life in Albert Einstein / Mileva Marić: The Love Letters (public library) — a collection of fifty-four missives exchanged between the beginning of their romance in 1897 and their marriage in 1903.

Of course, the missives display the genre’s most prominent caveat — love letters are almost always exchanged by lovers during time apart, the distance only amplifying their desire and the longing adding a layer of intensity to their correspondence that may not exist in their daily life when reunited. And yet they capture a more intimate side of Einstein than any of his other published texts and reclaim the full dimension of a relationship gravely marred by our culture’s incapacity for nuance. In doing so, they are redemptive beyond the couple’s particular circumstances, reminding us of the dignity and dimension of all human relationships when untethered from the tyrannical verdict of their final outcome.

Young Albert and Mileva’s correspondence flows seamlessly from gentle taunting and sarcasm to besotted earnestness, always undergirded by a common tone of sweetness. Tucked between the amorous confessions are frequent discussions of science — in her first surviving letter, Marić confronts the paradox of infinity and tussles with the limits of science; in one of his early letters, Einstein shares the seed for his groundbreaking work: “I’m convinced more and more that the electrodynamics of moving bodies as it is presented today doesn’t correspond to reality, and that it will be possible to present it in a simpler way.”

Since the very beginning, Mileva was poised to be Albert’s equal — the only female student of physics in her university class and two years his senior, she was an intellectually and emotionally mature young woman. Einstein was immensely drawn to her. Like Vladimir Nabokov, who ended an earlier affair with an inferior partner when he fell in love with the brilliant Véra, young Albert grew disillusioned with his previous girlfriend, whom he quite bluntly described as a “foolish darling that can neither do, nor understand anything.” His feelings for Mileva were of a different order — they delighted in reading and discussing the scientific classics together, he frequently remarked on her intellect as superior to his own, and he considered her the grounding rational counterpart to the emotional roller coaster of his extreme moodiness.

Reading their correspondence, rife with deep intellectual companionship, steadfast affection, and extraordinary tenderness, makes one suddenly aware that while Einstein may have stood on the shoulders of giants as he made his monumental scientific breakthroughs, he also stood on the wings of love.

In his first surviving letter to Marić, penned while she was away visiting her family in Serbia, Einstein sets the sweetly sarcastic tone that permeates much of their correspondence:

Dear Fräulein,

The desire to write you has finally conquered the guilty conscience I’ve had about not responding to your letter for such a long time, and which has allowed me to avoid your critical eye. But now, even though you are understandably angry with me, you must at least give me credit for not adding to my offense by hiding behind feeble excuses, and for asking you simply and directly for forgiveness and — for an answer as soon as possible.

[…]

If you don’t my giving you some advice (entirely unselfishly?), you should return as soon as possible, because everything you need to catch up on your studies can be found tightly packed in our notebooks… You will, of course, have to give up your old peasant room which a Zurich philistine now occupies … serves you right, you little runaway!

But now back to the books. Best wishes, your

Albert Einstein

In an 1899 letter to Mileva, penned while visiting his family over spring break, Einstein articulates his sense of having found his soulmate in her:

I’m having a wonderful time at home; I’ve spent much of it tending to the innermost joys, that is to say, i’ve been eating a lot, and well, something which has already caused me to suffer a bit from our favorite poetic ailment, like the time at the Sterns when for hours I sat next to you, my charming table partner. It was then revealed to me in harsh tints how closely knit our psychic and physiological lives are.

Young Albert Einstein as a Zurich Polytechnic student (Photograph: Lotte Jacobi)

But young Albert’s genius came at the cost of a certain social sensitivity. Seeing Mileva as his intellectual equal, he seemed to assume that she was impervious to what he considered the superficial concerns of most women — namely, beauty and the insecurities related to it. In a testament to the toxic and illusory dualism of beauty and brains — the patriarchy, after all, has pitted the two as a tradeoff for millennia — he makes a rather insensitive remark, which he no doubt believes to be a compliment: In reporting on his mother’s response to seeing a photograph of Mileva, who wasn’t considered conventionally beautiful, he writes:

Your photograph had quite an effect on my old lady. While she studied it carefully, I said with the deepest sympathy: “Yes, yes, she certainly is a clever one.” I’ve already had to endure much teasing about it, among other things, but I don’t find it at all unpleasant.

To be sure, Einstein didn’t think highly of his mother’s intellectual capacity — he often described his family by his favorite putdown, “philistine” — so the comment was likely intended as an expression of his conviction that Mileva was different from all other women. In a letter from home penned during summer break a few months later, he affirms this in a particularly poignant passage, speaking to the mystery of how personal identity evolves as he considers how his chosen life-path has diverged from that of his family and writes:

Here is Paradise. I live a nice, quiet, philistine life with my mother hen and sister… You, poor girl, must now stuff your head with gray theory, but I know that with your divine composure, you’ll accomplish everything with a level head. Besides, you are at home being pampered, as a deserving daughter should be. But in Zurich you are the mistress of our house, which isn’t such a bad thing, especially since it’s such a nice household! When I read Helmholtz for the first time I could not — and still cannot — believe I was doing so without you sitting next to me. I enjoy working together very much, and find it soothing and less boring.

[…]

My mother and sister seem somewhat petty and philistine to me, despite the sympathy I feel for them. It is interesting how gradually our life changes us in the very subtleties of our soul, so that even the closest of family ties dwindle into habitual friendship. Deep inside we no longer understand one another, and are incapable of actively empathizing with the other, or knowing what emotions move the other.

For many of us, our romantic relationships are a way of building a new family from scratch, revising and improving the imperfections of our family of origin. But for Einstein, his life with Mileva was a particularly palpable alternative to the family for which he felt sympathetic affection but no intellectual respect. In another letter a few days later, he further solidifies this sense:

My aunt from Genoa is coming, a veritable monster of arrogance and insensitive formalism. I’m nevertheless enjoying each and every day of my vacation in this wonderfully peaceful place. If only you could be here with me for a while! We understand one another’s dark souls so well, and also drinking coffee and eating sausages etc…

By the end of the summer, they were already addressing each other by their pet names — Albert was “Johnnie” and Mileva “Dollie.” (Lest we forget, name-giving is a high act of intimacy.) “Dear Fräulein” became “Dear Dollie,” then simply “DD.” In a letter from September 28 of 1899, Einstein writes:

DD,

It was nice of you, you sweet girl, to write me when you have so much strenuous work to do. But you should also know that your letters make me so happy that everyone teases me about it. You must have had to swallow a lot of book dust recently, you poor thing, but it will soon be over — I know how you feel. I’ve been quite a bookworm myself lately, trying to work out several ideas, some of them very interesting…

I’ll be back at “our place” around the 15th. I’m really looking forward to returning because it’s still the nicest and coziest place I can think of.

In an earlier letter, Mileva had asked Albert for his foot size so that she could knit him bootees, but he refused on the pretext that he didn't want handicraft to take time away from her studies. A few weeks later, he conceded and sent this sketch under the caption 'Johnnie's foot!' To playfully bridge Mileva's aptitude for science and love of knitting, he wrote next to the drawing: 'Since you have such a great imagination and are accustomed to astronomical distances, I think the adjoining work of art will suffice.'

Over the following year, Einstein’s family grew increasingly disapproving of his relationship with Mileva, which his mother termed “the Dollie affair” — they had come to believe that settling down at such a young age would compromise 21-year-old Albert’s career prospects. In a letter from July of 1900, penned while vacationing with his family, he recounts a tragicomic exchange with his mother over the matter:

So we arrive home, and I go into Mama’s room (only the two of us). First I must tell her about the exam, and then she asks me quite innocently: “So, what will become of your Dollie now?” “My wife,” I said just as innocently, prepared for the proper “scene” that immediately followed. Mama threw herself onto the bed, buried her head in the pillow, and wept like a child. After regaining her composure she immediately shifted to a desperate attack: “You are ruining your future and destroying your opportunities.” “No decent family will have her.” “If she gets pregnant you’ll really be in a mess.” With this last outburst, which was preceded by many others, I finally lost my patience. I vehemently denied that we had been living in sin and scolded her roundly, and was about to leave the room when Mama’s friend Frau Bär came in. She is a small, vivacious lady: an old hen of the most pleasant variety. We immediately began talking about the weather, the new guests at the spa, the ill-mannered children, etc. Then we ate, and afterwards played some music. When everyone had left, and the time came for Mama and me to say good night, it started all over again, but “più piano.” The next day things were better, largely because, as she said herself, “If they have not yet been intimate (which she had greatly feared) and we are willing to wait longer, then ways and means can always be found.” The only thing that is embarrassing for her is that we want to remain together always. Her attempts at changing my mind came in expressions such as: “Like you, she is a book — but you ought to have a wife.” “By the time you’re 30 she’ll be an old witch,” etc.

Mileva was only two years older than Albert, so that would have made her a 32-year-old “old witch.”

To seal his contempt for such judgments, he adds:

The people here and their way of life are so hopelessly empty… Every meal lasts one hour or more — you can imagine what hell that is for me…

If only I could be with you again soon in Zurich, my little treasure! A thousand wishes and the biggest kisses from your

Johnnie

Two days later, he writes:

My sweet little one

I’m so happy to know that you’re back home again with your old lady, who is now fattening up my dear Dollie so she can rest in my arms healthy and happy once again, as plump as a dumpling… I just realized that I haven’t been able to kiss you for an entire month, and I long for you so terribly much. No one as talented and industrious as my Dollie, with her skilled hands, is to be found in this entire anthill of a hotel. Mama-in-law has already more or less made up with me and is slowly resigning herself to the inevitable…

I long terribly for a letter from my beloved witch. I can hardly believe that we will be separated so much longer — only now do I see how madly in love with you I am! Indulge yourself completely so you will become a radiant little darling and as wild as a street urchin… Our hotel is a particularly excellent feeding establishment, but I feel uncomfortable among these indolent and pampered people. Especially when I see these overdressed, lazy women who are always complaining about things. It is then that I think proudly: “Johnnie, your Dollie is a different kind of girl.”

A few days later, Einstein — who had a lifelong interest in psychology — captures the root of his parents’ resistance in a remarkably insightful letter to Mileva, in which he addresses his views on gender equality more directly than he ever did elsewhere. Just a few years before George Bernard Shaw’s searing condemnation of marriage as an institution built upon the systematic oppression of women, young Einstein writes:

Papa has written me a moralistic letter for the time being, and promised that the main part would be delivered in person soon. I’m looking forward to it dutifully. I understand my parents quite well. They think of a wife as a man’s luxury, which he can afford only when he is making a comfortable living. I have a low opinion of this view of the relationship between man and wife, because it makes the wife and the prostitute distinguishable only insofar as the former is able to secure a lifelong contract from the man because of her more favorable social rank. Such a view follows naturally from the fact that in the case of my parents, as with most people, the senses exercise a direct control over the emotions. With us, thanks to the fortunate circumstances in which we live, the enjoyment of life is vastly broadened. But we mustn’t forget how many existences like my parents’ make our existence possible. In the social development of mankind, the former are a far more important constituency. Huger and love are and remain such important mainsprings of life that almost everything can be explained by them, even if one regards the other dominant themes. Thus I am trying to protect my parents without compromising anything that is important to me — and that means you, sweetheart!

He then launches into a lyrical love letter brimming with the quintessential lover’s restlessness:

When I’m not with you I feel as if I’m not whole. When I sit, I want to walk; when I walk, I’m looking forward to going home; when I’m amusing myself, I want to study; when I study, I can’t sit still and concentrate; and when I go to sleep, I’m not satisfied with how I spent the day.

…tender kisses form your

Albert

By August, Einstein is back at the couple’s shared apartment, but Mileva is still with her parents in Serbia. He writes:

Though my old Zurich makes me feel very much at home again, I still miss you, my dear little “right hand.” I can go anywhere I want — but I belong nowhere, and I miss your two little arms and that glowing mouth full of tenderness and kisses.

[…]

Have courage, little witch! I can hardly wait to be able to hug you and squeeze you and live with you again. We’ll happily get down to work right away, and money will be as plentiful and manure. And if it’s nice next spring, we’ll pick flowers in Melchtal.

Tender kisses from your
Albert

A few days later, he once again bemoans the psychoemotional strain of being apart from his soulmate:

Dear little sweetheart,

Once again I’ve let a few lazy days slip by without accomplishing anything. You know, the kind of days when you sleep late because there’s nothing important to do, then go out until the room has been made up, and then study until fatigue sets in. Then you loaf around for a while and half-heartedly look forward to dinner, listlessly contemplating highly philosophical questions while whistling a little… How was I able to live alone before, my little everything? Without you I lack self-confidence, passion for work, and enjoyment of life — in short, without you, my life is no life.

Illustration from 'On a Beam of Light,' a children's book about Einstein's life. Click image for more.

After a few habitual laments about his parents, he adds:

Don’t study too hard when your books come; rest instead, so you can become my old street urchin again. There is only one thing I ask of you, and that is to take care of yourself — if not, then I’ll spank you…

With best wishes and tender kisses, the last especially, from your
Albert

By mid-August, Albert’s longing for Mileva has turned him so restless that pens her a playful poem, which he includes in a letter from August 20, masterfully translated by Shawn Smith:

Oh my! That Johnnie boy!
So crazy with desire,
While thinking of his Dollie,
His pillow catches fire.

When my sweetie mopes around the house
I shrivel up so small,
But she only shrugs her shoulders
And doesn’t care at all.

To my folks all this
Does seem a stupid thing,
But they never say a little word
For fear of Albert’s sting!

My little Dollie’s little beak,
It sings so sweet and fine;
And afterwards I cheerfully
Close its song with mine.

He adds:

Oh how happy I’ll be to hold you close to my heart once again! … But in the meantime you should enjoy yourself, my only sweet little woman.

[…]

But you haven’t written me in a long time, you wild witch! Are you afraid it will “miss its mark,” or are you just mad at me, you little rascal? Or do you want me to wonder and hunger for you?

That, too, he illustrates with a playful verse:

From him she now does hide away,
What should he make of this?
To him she is with all her soul
Devoted with a kiss!

In early September, he once again leaves on vacation with his parents, who launch another offense on the relationship. He reports to Mileva:

My parents are very worried about my love for you. Mama often cries bitterly and I don’t have a single moment of peace here. My parents weep for me almost as if I had died. Again and again they complain that I have brought misfortune upon myself by my devotion to you… Oh Dollie, it’s enough to drive one mad! … If only they knew you! But it’s as if they’re under a spell, thinking all the while that I am…

I’ll only be able to recover from this vacation gradually, by being in your arms — there are worse things in life than exams. Now I know. This is worse than any external problem.

My only diversion is studying, which I am pursuing with redoubled effort, and my only hope is you, my dear, faithful soul. Without the thought of you I would no longer want to live among this sorry herd of humans. But having you makes me proud, and your love makes me happy I will be doubly happy when I can press you close to my heart once again and see those loving eyes which shine for me alone, and kiss your sweet mouth which trembles blissfully for me alone…

Kissing you from the bottom of my heart, your
Sweetheart

Two weeks later, he writes:

No matter what happens, we’ll have the most wonderful life in the world. Pleasant work and being together — and what’s more, we now answer to no one, can stand on our own feet, and enjoy our youth to the utmost. Who could have it any better? When we have scraped together enough money, we can buy bicycles and take a bike tour every couple of weeks.

Wedding photograph of Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić, January 6, 1903

Albert and Mileva were married fourteen months later, in January of 1903. Their first son, Hans Albert — to whom Einstein would one day write that beautiful letter of advice on the secret to learning anything — was born in May of the following year. They remained married for eleven years and together for eighteen, and although the relationship ended in divorce, Einstein did spend his formative years as a scientist enveloped in Mileva’s love and intellectual companionship. The apathy, listlessness, and distractedness permeating so many of the letters penned while away from her do make one appreciate just how creatively and spiritually nourishing their love, the full dimension of which comes to life in the remainder of Albert Einstein / Mileva Marić: The Love Letters, was for young Albert’s developing genius.

Complement these tender missives with the magnificent love letters of Vladimir Nabokov to Véra Nabokov, Franz Kafka to Felice Bauer, Mozart to his wife, Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, Oscar Wilde to Bosie, and Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera.

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27 JULY, 2015

A Zen Master Explains Death and the Life-Force to a Child and Outlines the Three Essential Principles of Zen Mind

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“Zen practice … requires great faith, great courage, and great questioning.”

If death is so enormous a mystery that we remain unable to wrap our grownup minds around it, despite comfort from our great poets and consolation from our great philosophers, how are tiny humans to make sense of it all? Although there exist some exceptional children’s books about loss and grief, explaining death to a child remains one of the most challenging tasks for a human being to undertake.

Because the language of Zen, holding great complexity of experience in great simplicity of expression, is so organically suited to the child — children, after all, have a way of leaning their minds toward the profound by way of the simple — it is perhaps the best language we have in offering a befitting explanation, as much to ourselves as to our young ones.

That’s what the great Korean-born Zen teacher Seung Sahn Soen-sa (August 1, 1927–November 30, 2004) offers in one of the chapters in Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn (public library) — a tiny treasure of a book originally published in 1976, irreverent yet immensely spiritually invigorating, collecting his correspondence and conversations with Zen students in the West.

Soen-sa recounts his conversation with Gita, the seven-year-old daughter of one of his students at the Cambridge Zen Center, after the death of the center’s beloved cat, cleverly named Katz. (“KATZ!” is the transcription of the famous Buddhist belly-shout, used as a way of focusing energy and intention during Zen practice.) Katz had died after a long illness and was given a traditional Buddhist burial, but the little girl remained troubled by his death. One day after practice, she came to the great Zen teacher for an explanation. He relays the exchange:

“What happened to Katzie? Where did he go?”

Soen-sa said, “Where do you come from?”

“From my mother’s belly.”

“Where does your mother come from?” Gita was silent.

Soen-sa said, “Everything in the world comes from the same one thing. It is like in a cookie factory. Many different kinds of cookies are made — lions, tigers, elephants, houses, people. They all have different shapes and different names, but they are all made from the same dough and they all taste the same. So all the different things that you see — a cat, a person, a tree, the sun, this floor — all these things are really the same.”

“What are they?”

Illustration by Edward Gorey from 'Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats' by T.S. Eliot. Click image for more.

With an eye to our tendency to mistake a thing’s name for its thingness, Soen-sa answers by urging the little girl to contact the universal life-force of the metaphorical cookie dough:

“People give them many different names. But in themselves, they have no names. When you are thinking, all things have different names and different shapes. But when you are not thinking, all things are the same. There are no words for them. People make the words. A cat doesn’t say, ‘I am a cat.’ People say, ‘This is a cat.’ The sun doesn’t say, ‘My name is sun.’ People say, ‘This is the sun.’

So when someone asks you, ‘What is this?’, how should you answer?”

“I shouldn’t use words.”

Soen-sa said, “Very good! You shouldn’t use words. So if someone asks you, ‘What is Buddha?’, what would be a good answer?”

Gita was silent.

Soen-sa said, “Now you ask me. “

“What is Buddha?”

Soen-sa hit the floor.

Gita laughed.

Soen-sa said, “Now I ask you: What is Buddha?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What is God?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What is your mother?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What are you?”

Gita hit the floor.

“Very good! This is what all things in the world are made of. You and Buddha and God and your mother and the whole world are the same.”

Gita smiled.

Soen-sa said, “Do you have any more questions?”

“You still haven’t told me where Katz went.”

Soen-sa leaned over, looked into her eyes, and said, “You already understand.”

Gita said, “Oh!” and hit the floor very hard. Then she laughed.

Soen-sa ends the anecdote with an exchange intended to be funny, but in fact a tragic testament to contemporary Western education being a force of industrialized specialization, deliberately fragmenting the unity of all things and deconditioning our inner wholeness:

As she was opening the door, she turned to Soen-sa and said, “But I’m not going to answer that way when I’m in school. I’m going to give regular answers!” Soen-sa laughed.

Illustration from 'The Book of Memory Gaps' by Cecilia Ruiz. Click image for more.

In another section of the book, Soen-sa examines the principles and practices that help us cultivate the pre-thinking mind necessary for truly tasting the metaphorical cookie dough of the universal life-force. Responding to a letter from a Zen beginner, a young woman named Patricia who had trouble grasping the value and very notion of “don’t-know mind,” he writes:

Throw away all opinions, all likes and dislikes, and only keep the mind that doesn’t know… Your before-thinking mind, my before-thinking mind, all people’s before-thinking minds are the same. This is your substance. Your substance, my substance, and the substance of the whole universe become one. So the tree, the mountain, the cloud, and you become one… The mind that becomes one with the universe is before thinking. Before thinking there are no words. “Same” and “different” are opposites words; they are from the mind that separates all things.

A few months later, in another letter to Patricia, he explores the three pillars of Zen’s don’t-know mind:

Zen practice … requires great faith, great courage, and great questioning.

What is great faith? Great faith means that at all times you keep the mind which decided to practice, no matter what. It is like a hen sitting on her eggs. She sits on them constantly, caring for them and giving them warmth, so that they will hatch. If she becomes careless or negligent, the eggs will not hatch and become chicks. So Zen mind means always and everywhere believing in myself…

Great courage … means bringing all your energy to one point. It is like a cat hunting a mouse. The mouse has retreated into its hole, but the cat waits outside the hole for hours on end without the slightest movement. It is totally concentrated on the mouse-hole. This is Zen mind — cutting off all thinking and directing all your energy to one point.

Next — great questioning… If you question with great sincerity, there will only be don’t-know mind.

Complement Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, indispensable in its entirety, with the great D.T. Suzuki on how Zen can help us cultivate our character, Alan Watts on death, and beloved Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn on how to do “hugging meditation.”

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24 JULY, 2015

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

By:

“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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