Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘resolutions’

02 JANUARY, 2014

How Ursula Nordstrom, Beloved Patron Saint of Childhood, Did New Year’s Resolutions

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A lesson on the human condition from one of the biggest hearts in modern history.

History is peppered with famous resolution lists — take, for instance, those of Jonathan Swift, Susan Sontag, Marilyn Monroe, and Woody Guthrie — though we know little about how aspiration translated into actuality. But one of the most wonderful New Year’s resolutions, so heartening and yet so human, comes from legendary mid-century children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom, who brought to life such timeless classics as Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (1947), E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952), Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963), and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (1964).

In a January 2, 1957, letter to children’s book author Mary Stolz, found in Leonard Marcus’s magnificent Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library) — which also gave us Nordstrom’s witty, wise, and prescient 1953 letter on the state of publishing and the infinitely heartwarming story of how she cultivated young Sendak’s genius — Nordstrom, irreverently witty as ever, pens this beautiful aspiration, arguably the greatest resolution a human being can make:

My New Year’s resolution is to be more loving. I don’t know how it will work out as I have been quite loving up to now with some disastrous, or at least misunderstood, results. Anyhow, I will try even more love and I will let you know what happens. So far not so good. But then it is only the second day.

Ten years later, a little over a week into January, Nordstrom articulates another universal human tendency: Our exasperation over broken resolutions as we find ourselves too trapped in our old habits of mind and too swept up in the momentum of familiar behavior to actually rewire our habit loops. Nordstrom bemoans this far too common frustration in a January 11, 1967 letter to Doris K. Stotz, editor of the American Library Association’s Top of the News journal:

Do please forgive me, Miss Stotz. My New Year’s resolution was that I was going to be calm, efficient, poised, but I am starting out 1967 the same old inefficient hectic way.

And yet Nordstrom was a living testament to how it’s possible to fill the world with kindness and light and wonderful things despite this perceived “hectic inefficiency.” Perhaps she was assuring herself as much as she was advising young Maurice Sendak when she wrote to him in 1961:

That is the creative artist — a penalty of the creative artist — wanting to make order out of chaos. The rest of us plain people just accept disorder (if we even recognize it) and get a bang out of our five beautiful senses, if we’re lucky.

For isn’t this the most we can ever aspire to do, whether as a formal resolution or as an everyday intention?

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02 JANUARY, 2014

How to Lower Your “Worryability”: Italo Calvino’s 1950 New Year’s Resolution

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“I would like this to signal the end of ‘wasted angst’ in my life.”

What does it mean to live well, live fully? For most of us, it’s an intricate balancing act that involves enough ambition to grow and enough equanimity to keep ourselves from worrying all the time, about everything. The latter is a mental fallibility especially detrimental amidst a culture entranced by constant worries about productivity and unable to find refuge in presence.

In a beautiful January 1950 letter to his friend Mario Motta, found in Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 (public library) — one of the best biographies and memoirs of 2013, which also gave us Calvino’s advice on writing, his prescient meditation on abortion and the meaning of life, his poetic resume, and his thoughts on America — the 26-year-old aspiring writer lays out this wonderfully timeless and universally resonant resolution for a better, more present and worry-free life:

I would like this to signal the end of “wasted angst” in my life: I’ve never regretted anything so much as having particular individual worries, in a certain sense anachronistic ones, whereas general worries, worries about our time (or at any rate those that can be reduced to such: like your problem in paying the rent, for instance) are so many and so vast and so much “my own” that I feel they are enough to fill all my “worryability” and even my interest and enjoyment in living. So from now on I want to dedicate myself entirely to these latter (worries) — but I am already aware of the traps in this question and that’s why for some time now my first need has been to “de-journalistize” myself, to get myself out of the stranglehold that has dominated these last few years of my life, reading books to review immediately, commenting on something even before having to time to form an opinion on it. I want to build a new kind of daily program for myself where I can finally get into something, something definitive (within the limits of historical possibility), something not dishonest or insincere (unlike the way today’s journalist always behaves, more or less). For that reason I make several plans for myself: … to maintain my contacts with reality and the world, but being careful, of course, not to get lost in unnecessary activities; and also to set up my own individual work not as a “journalist” any more but as a “scholar,” with systematic readings, notes, comments, notebooks, a load of things I’ve never done; and also, eventually, to write a novel.

That year, Calvino focused his efforts on The Cloven Viscount, which was published in 1952 — a fantasy novel Calvino remarked in another letter was “written to give [his] imagination a holiday after punishing it” with the ill-fated unpublished book that preceded it.

Complement Calvino’s meditation with this fantastic 1934 guide to the art of not worrying and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter about what to worry vs. not worry about in life, then revisit other famous New Year’s resolutions from Jonathan Swift, Susan Sontag, Marilyn Monroe, and Woody Guthrie.

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01 JANUARY, 2013

Famous Resolution Lists: Jonathan Swift, Susan Sontag, Marilyn Monroe, Woody Guthrie

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“Stay glad. Keep hoping machine running. Love everybody. Make up your mind.”

‘Tis the season for New Year’s resolutions, but instead of regurgitating the most common ones — like changing habit loops, exercising more, and being more productive — here is a look at some of history’s more unusual resolution lists from the diaries, letters, and personal effects of cultural icons:

JONATHAN SWIFT

Writing in A Tale of a Tub in 1699, at the age of 32, Jonathan Swift — best-known as the author of Gulliver’s Travels — compiled a list of 17 aspirations for his far future, titled “When I come to be old.” Focusing on wisdom, humility, patience, and justice, the list brings to mind Benjamin Franklin’s famous thirteen virtues, penned around the same time.

When I come to be old. 1699.

Not to marry a young Woman.
Not to keep young Company unless they reely desire it.
Not to be peevish or morose, or suspicious.
Not to scorn present Ways, or Wits, or Fashions, or Men, or War, &c.
Not to be fond of Children, or let them come near me hardly.
Not to tell the same story over and over to the same People.
Not to be covetous.
Not to neglect decency, or cleenlyness, for fear of falling into Nastyness.
Not to be over severe with young People, but give Allowances for their youthfull follyes and weaknesses.
Not to be influenced by, or give ear to knavish tatling servants, or others.
Not to be too free of advise, nor trouble any but those that desire it.
To desire some good Friends to inform me wch of these Resolutions I break, or neglect, and wherein; and reform accordingly.
Not to talk much, nor of my self.
Not to boast of my former beauty, or strength, or favor with Ladyes, &c.
Not to hearken to Flatteryes, nor conceive I can be beloved by a young woman, et eos qui hereditatem captant, odisse ac vitare.
Not to be positive or opiniative.
Not to sett up for observing all these Rules; for fear I should observe none.

via Lists of Note

SUSAN SONTAG

In 1972, 39-year-old Susan Sontag noted in her diary:

Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, gelatin silver print, 1975

Kindness, kindness, kindness.

I want to make a New Year’s prayer, not a resolution. I’m praying for courage.

Then, in early 1977, she resolved:

Starting tomorrow — if not today:

I will get up every morning no later than eight. (Can break this rule once a week.)

I will have lunch only with Roger [Straus]. (‘No, I don’t go out for lunch.’ Can break this rule once every two weeks.)

I will write in the Notebook every day. (Model: Lichtenberg’s Waste Books.)

I will tell people not to call in the morning, or not answer the phone.

I will try to confine my reading to the evening. (I read too much — as an escape from writing.)

I will answer letters once a week. (Friday? — I have to go to the hospital anyway.)

MARILYN MONROE

In the winter of 1955, a 29-year-old Marilyn Monroe resolved in her leather-bound address book to do things better. The list comes from Fragments, the fantastic tome that gave us Monroe’s moving unpublished poetry.

Must make effort to do
Must have the dicipline to do the following –

z — go to class — my own always — without fail

x — go as often as possible to observe Strassberg’s other private classes

g — never miss actor’s studio sessions

v — work whenever possible — on class assignments — and always keep working on the acting exercises

u — start attending Clurman lectures — also Lee Strassberg’s directors lectures at theater wing — enquire about both

l — keep looking around me — only much more so — observing — but not only myself but others and everything — take things (it) for what they (it’s) are worth

y — must make strong effort to work on current problems and phobias that out of my past has arisen — making much much much more more more more more effort in my analisis. And be there always on time — no excuses for being ever late.

w — if possible — take at least one class at university — in literature –

o — follow RCA thing through.

p — try to find someone to take dancing from — body work (creative)

t — take care of my instrument — personally & bodily (exercise)

try to enjoy myself when I can — I’ll be miserable enough as it is.

WOODY GUTHRIE

In 1942, 30-year-old Woody Guthrie penned a 33-point compendium of “New Years Rulin’s.” The list, originally featured here in 2011, is equal parts brave and vulnerable, brimming with a kind of heart-warming earnestness we’ve come to be tragically cynical about.

  1. Work more and better
  2. Work by a schedule
  3. Wash teeth if any
  4. Shave
  5. Take bath
  6. Eat good — fruit — vegetables — milk
  7. Drink very scant if any
  8. Write a song a day
  9. Wear clean clothes — look good
  10. Shine shoes
  11. Change socks
  12. Change bed cloths often
  13. Read lots good books
  14. Listen to radio a lot
  15. Learn people better
  16. Keep rancho clean
  17. Dont get lonesome
  18. Stay glad
  19. Keep hoping machine running
  20. Dream good
  21. Bank all extra money
  22. Save dough
  23. Have company but dont waste time
  24. Send Mary and kids money
  25. Play and sing good
  26. Dance better
  27. Help win war — beat fascism
  28. Love mama
  29. Love papa
  30. Love Pete
  31. Love everybody
  32. Make up your mind
  33. Wake up and fight

Now, wash these down with this brief history of the to-do list and the psychology of its success and revisit last year’s resolution to read more and write better.

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