Brain Pickings

Beloved Poet Nikki Giovanni on Love, Friendship, and Loneliness

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“Some people forget that love is tucking you in and kissing you ‘Good night’ no matter how young or old you are.”

In his magnificent meditation on the nature of creativity, the late poet Mark Strand defined poetry as the art of “meaning carried to a high order,” adding: “It’s not just essential communication, daily communication; it’s a total communication.” Few poets embody this ideal of totality more boldly and bridge the daily with the essential more beautifully than writer, activist, educator, and queer icon Nikki Giovanni (b. June 7, 1943), recipient of twenty honorary degrees from some of the world’s most renowned universities and the Langston Hughes Medal for Distinguished Contributions to Arts and Letters.

Giovanni shares a kinship of sensibility with such diverse peers as e.e. cummings, Denise Levertov and Wislawa Szymborska. Her poetry is, perhaps above all, a masterwork of translation — the personal into the universal, the mundane into the monumental, the traumatic into the transcendent. Inside and between her verses, the most elemental human longings and concerns — love, loss, friendship, loneliness, freedom — at once new and even more immutable.

Here are my readings of five of Giovanni’s most beautiful poems — please enjoy.

From The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni: 1968–1995 (public library):

CHOICES

if i can’t do
what i want to do
then my job is to not
do what i don’t want
to do

it’s not the same thing
but it’s the best i can
do

if i can’t have
what i want … then
my job is to want
what i’ve got
and be satisfied
that at least there
is something more to want

since i can’t go
where i need
to go … then i must … go
where the signs point
through always understanding
parallel movement
isn’t lateral

when i can’t express
what i really feel
i practice feeling
what i can express
and none of it is equal

i know
but that’s why mankind
alone among the animals
learns to cry

I’M NOT LONELY

i’m not lonely
sleeping all alone
you think i’m scared
but i’m a big girl
i don’t cry or anything

i have a great
big bed to roll around
in and lots of space
and i don’t dream
bad dreams like i used
to have that you
were leaving me
anymore

now that you’re gone
i don’t dream
and no matter
what you think
i’m not lonely
sleeping
all alone

From the 1997 volume Love Poems (public library), one of Giovanni’s most delicious:

LOVE IS

Some people forget that love is
tucking you in and kissing you
“Good night”
no matter how young or old you are

Some people don’t remember that
love is
listening and laughing and asking
questions
no matter what your age

Few recognize that love is
commitment, responsibility
no fun at all
unless

Love is
You and me

A POEM OF FRIENDSHIP

We are not lovers
because of the love
we make
but the love
we have

We are not friends
because of the laughs
we spend
but the tears
we save

I don’t want to be near you
for the thoughts we share
but the words we never have
to speak

I will never miss you
because of what we do
but what we are
together

From her most recent and most exhaustive volume, The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni: 1968–1998 (public library):

WHEN I DIE

when i die i hope no one who ever hurt me cries
and if they cry i hope their eyes fall out
and a million maggots that had made up their brains
crawl from the empty holes and devour the flesh
that covered the evil that passed itself off as a person
that i probably tried
to love

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How a Dream Came True: Young Jane Goodall’s Exuberant Letters and Diary Entries from Africa

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How the beloved scientist transformed a childhood fantasy into the rugged reality of revolutionary work.

When Jane Goodall (b. April 3, 1934) was a little girl, she was given a stuffed toy chimpanzee, whom she named Jubilee. From that moment on, little Jane and Jubilee became inseparable, but she especially enjoyed sitting with him on a tree branch in her family’s backyard, where she would read the Tarzan novels for hours on end. Like most children, Jane transformed the toy and the books into raw material for dreams — in her case, the dream of going to Africa to study the curious lives of monkeys. Unlike most children, she spent the next two decades turning that childhood dream into a reality by becoming the world’s most influential primatologist and the most celebrated woman in science since Marie Curie.

When she boarded the S.S. Kenya Castle one chilly spring day, 22-year-old Goodall was burning with exuberant enthusiasm for the work she was heading to Kenya to do. But she had no idea that this work, at first met with enormous resistance, would revolutionize not only our understanding of chimpanzees — her lifelong locus of curiosity and expertise — but our understanding of the complexities of all animal consciousness.

Jane Goodall with the young chimp Flint at Gombe (Photograph: Hugo van Lawick, Goodall's first husband, courtesy of Jane Goodall Institute)

In a letter to her family penned aboard the Kenya Castle in March of 1957, found in the altogether magnificent Africa in My Blood: An Autobiography in Letters (public library), Goodall writes:

Darling Family,

It is now 4 p.m. on Thursday and I still find it difficult to believe that I am on my way to Africa. That is the thing — AFRICA. It is easy to imagine I am going for a long sea voyage, but not that names like Mombasa, Nairobi, South Kinangop, Nakuru, etc., are going to become reality.

The first page of Goodall's letter to her family from aboard the Kenya Castle

On April 3 — her twenty-third birthday — Goodall finally arrived in the dreamsome reality of Nairobi. Her first letter home brims with uncontainable gusto for the life she was about to begin — a life she had purposefully pursued since childhood:

I really do simply adore Kenya. It’s so wild, uncultivated, primitive, mad, exciting, unpredictable. It is also slightly degrading in its effect on some rather weak characters, but on the whole I am living in the Africa I have always longed for, always felt stirring in my blood.

Illustration by from 'Me ... Jane,' a picture-book about Goodall's childhood. Click image for more.

But the most fateful date in Goodall’s journey came more than three years later: On July 14, 1960, she arrived in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park, where she would spend many years conducting the groundbreaking research for which she is celebrated today, and to which she still returns frequently in the course of her tireless environmental conservation work.

It was there that she met, named, and befriended the now-famous David Greybeard — the first chimp to overcome the fear of human contact and the generous gatekeeper who made possible Goodall’s research amid the chimpanzee community.

Jane Goodall with David Greybeard at Gombe

On her very first day at Gombe, Goodall saw her first chimp. It was a highly unlikely occurrence — at that point, scientists considered chimpanzees mysterious creatures at once wild and timid, nearly impossible to sight, let alone approach. In a diary entry from that first day, preserved by The Jane Goodall Institute, the young scientist captures the tremendous thrill of that miraculous event — a visceral affirmation that she was indeed living her childhood dream:

We woke at dawn … Left about 9 and arrived about 11. The fisherman were all along the beaches frying their dagga fish. It looked as though patches of sand had been whitewashed. Above, the mountains rose up steeply behind the beaches. The slopes were thickly covered with accacia and other trees… Every so often a stream cascaded down the vallys between the ridges, with its thick fringe of forest — the home of the chimps.

The lake water was so clear I could scarcely believe it.

Our tent was up in no time, in a clearing up from the fisherman’s huts on the stony beach. We had some lunch together, and then Ma and I spent an exhausting and hot afternoon setting things in order. I say exhausting because I had a foul sore throat, turning into a cold.

Then, about 5 o’clock, someone came along to say some people had seen a chimp. So off we went and there was the chimp. It was quite a long way -too far to tell its sex or even see properly what it looked like — but it was a chimp. It moved away as we drew level with the crowd of fishermen gazing at it, and, though we climbed the neighboring slope, we didn’t see it again. However, we went over to the trees & found a fresh nest there. — Whether that day’s of the day before I couldn’t tell. We returned to the beach and walked back.

We all had dinner together, and after long chats, & helplessly endeavoring to hear the news, Ma and I thankfully retired to bed.

Although 26-year-old Goodall was accompanied by her mother at Gombe — a requirement by the park’s chief warden, who was concerned about the young primatologist’s safety, and a reflection of what women scientists had to grapple with in that era — she continued corresponding with her relatives at home. On day three at Gombe, she writes in a picturesque letter to her grandmother Danny and the rest of the family:

We got here, Danny, on your birthday & mentally had tea with you — just after I had seen my first chimpanzee! I could hardly believe I could be lucky enough to see one on my very first day. We were quite far away, but at least close enough to know it was a chimp & not a baboon. There are lots of Baboon here — one Troop comes very close to the tent each morning to watch us. I went out yesterday afternoon to do a little exploring on my own and saw a beautiful bushbuck — a smallish animal, lovely reddish gold colour. He flew away almost from under my feet, barking like a dog.

The country here is quite beautiful, but very rugged. The little stream behind the tent rushes down the steep rock valley, gurgling and splashing down steppes of waterfalls. The water is pure and sweet — doesn’t even have to be boiled. 16 such streams flow down the valleys between the mountain ridges, & along their banks are the forest galleries, the home of the chimps. In between the mountain slopes are fairly bare — really it is ideal country for my job, though at the moment the task seems of a huge magnitude.

To see the passion and perseverance with which Goodall has dedicated her life to the accomplishment of that monumental task is nothing short of breathtaking.

Jane Goodall with David Greybeard at Gombe

Complement the altogether exhilarating Africa in My Blood, a trove of Goodall’s contagious enthusiasm and goodness, with the beloved scientist on empathy and our highest human potential, her answers to the Proust Questionnaire, and a lovely children’s book about her childhood.

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Little Red Riding Hood, Reimagined in Beautiful Laser-Cut Illustrations

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“All the better to eat you with!”

The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm are among the most beloved and enduring storytelling our civilization has produced. Wildly whimsical and highly visual, they have bewitched generations of lay readers and a multitude of celebrated artists, who have reimagined them a thousand times over in the two centuries since Jacob and Wilhelm penned their forgotten original edition — including some extraordinary interpretations like those by Maurice Sendak, Lisbeth Zwerger, and Shaun Tan.

In her exquisite take on Little Red Riding Hood (public library), German illustrator and graphic designer Sybille Schenker blends the beauty of delicate papercraft with the Grimms’ original starkness of sensibility to produce something unusual and utterly beguiling — something partway between Kevin Stanton’s die-cut illustrations for Romeo and Juliet and Andrea Dezsö’s gorgeous black-and-white illustrations of the Grimm tales, yet something wholly original.

Ethereal layers of laser-cut and die-cut paper overlay Schenker’s graphic silhouette illustrations, making tangible the beloved story’s inherent duality of darkness and light from which its enduring enchantment springs.

Complement Schenker’s Little Red Riding Hood with Edward Gorey’s illustrations for classic fairy tales and David Hockney’s vintage twist on the Brothers Grimm, then revisit the die-cut masterpiece I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail, which reimagines a Victorian “trick” poem in traditional Indian folk art.

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How Kindness Became Our Forbidden Pleasure

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“We are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us.”

“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now,” Jack Kerouac wrote in a beautiful 1957 letter. “Kindness, kindness, kindness,” Susan Sontag resolved in her diary on New Year’s Day in 1972. And yet, although kindness is the foundation of all spiritual traditions and was even a central credo for the father of modern economics, at some point in recent history, kindness became little more than an abstract aspiration, its concrete practical applications a hazardous and vulnerable-making behavior to be avoided — we need only look to the internet’s “outrage culture” for evidence, or to the rise of cynicism as our flawed self-defense mechanism against the perceived perils of kindness. We’ve come to see the emotional porousness that kindness requires as a dangerous crack in the armor of the independent self, an exploitable outward vulnerability — too high a cost to pay for the warm inward balm of the benevolence for which we long in the deepest parts of ourselves.

Kindness has become “our forbidden pleasure.”

So argue psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor in the plainly titled, tiny, enormously rewarding book On Kindness (public library).

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

Taylor and Phillips write:

The kind life — the life lived in instinctive sympathetic identification with the vulnerabilities and attractions of others — is the life we are more inclined to live, and indeed is the one we are often living without letting ourselves know that this is what we are doing. People are leading secretly kind lives all the time but without a language in which to express this, or cultural support for it. Living according to our sympathies, we imagine, will weaken or overwhelm us; kindness is the saboteur of the successful life. We need to know how we have come to believe that the best lives we can lead seem to involve sacrificing the best things about ourselves; and how we have come to believe that there are pleasures greater than kindness…

In one sense kindness is always hazardous because it is based on a susceptibility to others, a capacity to identify with their pleasures and sufferings. Putting oneself in someone else’s shoes, as the saying goes, can be very uncomfortable. But if the pleasures of kindness — like all the greatest human pleasures — are inherently perilous, they are nonetheless some of the most satisfying we possess.

[…]

In giving up on kindness — and especially our own acts of kindness — we deprive ourselves of a pleasure that is fundamental to our sense of well-being.

The most paradoxical part of the story is that for most of our civilizational history, we’ve seen ourselves as fundamentally kind and held kindness as a high ideal of personhood. Only in recent times — in large part thanks to Emerson — did the ideal of independence and self-reliance become the benchmark of spiritual success. The need for belonging has become an intolerable manifestation of vulnerability — we’ve stopped believing in our own kindness and the merits of mutual belonging, producing what poet and philosopher David Whyte has elegantly termed “our sense of slight woundedness.” On a mission to examine “when and why this confidence evaporated and the consequences of this transformation,” Taylor and Phillips write:

Kindness’s original meaning of kinship or sameness has stretched over time to encompass sentiments that today go by a wide variety of names — sympathy, generosity, altruism, benevolence, humanity, compassion, pity, empathy… The precise meanings of these words vary, but fundamentally they all denote what the Victorians called “open-heartedness,” the sympathetic expansiveness linking self to other.

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from 'The Well of Being.' Click image for more.

Perhaps because open-heartedness is impossible without vulnerability — an open heart is an aperture through which the world can enter us, but also one through which exploitive and cruel forces can penetrate the softest core of who we are without obstruction — the original meaning of and longing for kindness has been calcified by our impulse for armoring and self-protection. Taylor and Phillips write:

Today it is only between parents and children that kindness is expected, sanctioned, and indeed obligatory… Kindness — that is, the ability to bear the vulnerability of others, and therefore of oneself — has become a sign of weakness (except of course among saintly people, in whom it is a sign of their exceptionality)… All compassion is self-pity, D. H. Lawrence remarked, and this usefully formulates the widespread modern suspicion of kindness: that it is either a higher form of selfishness (the kind that is morally triumphant and secretly exploitative) or the lowest form of weakness (kindness is the way the weak control the strong, the kind are only kind because they haven’t got the guts to be anything else). If we think of humans as essentially competitive, and therefore triumphalist by inclination, as we are encouraged to do, then kindness looks distinctly old-fashioned, indeed nostalgic, a vestige from a time when we could recognize ourselves in each other and feel sympathetic because of our kind-ness… And what, after all, can kindness help us win, except moral approval; or possibly not even that, in a society where “respect” for personal status has become a leading value.

And yet despite our resistance to kindness, some deeper, dormant part of us still registers it, still cringes upon encountering its absence. This paradoxical relationship with kindness, perhaps more so than anything else, explains the “outrage culture” of the internet:

We usually know what the kind thing to do is — and kindness when it is done to us, and register its absence when it is not… We are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us. There is nothing we feel more consistently deprived of than kindness; the unkindness of others has become our contemporary complaint. Kindness consistently preoccupies us, and yet most of us are unable to live a life guided by it.

Embedded in our ambivalence about kindness is a special sort of psychological self-sabotage — by denying our own kind impulses, we also deny ourselves the powerful pleasure our acts of kindness produce. Taylor and Phillips consider how, given our natural inclination for kindness, we end up cheating ourselves of this deep spiritual reward:

The forms kindness can take … are partly learned from the societies in which we grow up, and so can be unlearned or badly taught or resisted… Children begin their lives “naturally” kind, and that something happens to this kindness as they grow up in contemporary society.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Picking up where Rousseau left off a quarter millennium ago, Phillips and Taylor consider what it takes to nourish our natural benevolence, asserting that it must begin with embracing the very vulnerability from which kindness springs:

Everybody is vulnerable at every stage of their lives; everybody is subject to illness, accident, personal tragedy, political and economic reality. This doesn’t mean that people aren’t also resilient and resourceful. Bearing other people’s vulnerability — which means sharing in it imaginatively and practically without needing to get rid of it, to yank people out of it — entails being able to bear one’s own. Indeed it would be realistic to say that what we have in common is our vulnerability; it is the medium of contact between us, what we most fundamentally recognize in each other.

Illustration by Benji Davies from 'The Storm Whale.' Click image for more.

At some point in our lives, however, vulnerability becomes a threat and a trauma. Phillips and Taylor trace the developmental origin of that shift:

The child’s first, formative trauma is his growing acknowledgment of his need for others (in actuality the mother is as vulnerable to her need for her baby as the baby is to his need for her; parents need their children not to worry them too much). The needy child experiences a trauma of concern (“How can I take care of my mother to ensure that she takes care of me?”), which calls up his natural kindness; but this concern — and the later forms of kindness that emerge from it — is too easily turned away from. This turning away we call self-sufficiency, and when we want to pathologize it we call it narcissism. The pleasure of kindness is that it connects us with others; but the terror of kindness is that it makes us too immediately aware of our own and other people’s vulnerabilities (vulnerabilities that we are prone to call failings when we are at our most frightened). Vulnerability — particularly the vulnerability we call desire — is our shared biological inheritance. Kindness, in other words, opens us up to the world (and worlds) of other people in ways that we both long for and dread.

In a sentiment that echoes Phillips’s illuminating earlier work on why developing a capacity for risk-tolerance is essential to our self-reliance, Taylor and Phillips elegantly capture the dark counterpoint to our tendency to desire safety at whatever the cost:

If there is no invulnerability anywhere, suddenly there is too much vulnerability everywhere.

[…]

It is not that real kindness requires people to be selfless, it is rather that real kindness changes people in the doing of it, often in unpredictable ways. Real kindness is an exchange with essentially unpredictable consequences. It is a risk precisely because it mingles our needs and desires with the needs and desires of others, in a way that so-called self-interest never can… Kindness is a way of knowing people beyond our understanding of them.

But rather than a lament, undergirding these observations is a powerful message of hope: For all of its pervasive undertones of and platforms for outrage, contemporary culture — and the digital universe that is part of it — offers fertile new soil in which to grow the natural inclinations that give rise to the pleasure of communion and kindness. Taylor and Phillips capture this beautifully:

By involving us with strangers (even with “foreigners” thousands of miles away), as well as with intimates, [kindness] is potentially far more promiscuous than sexuality. But … the child needs the adult — and his wider society — to help him keep faith with his kindness, that is, to help him discover and enjoy the pleasures of caring for others… People have long known this, and long forgotten it. The history of kindness … tells the story of this knowing, and forgetting, and reknowing, as central to Western ideas about the good life.

In the remainder of the altogether wonderful and acutely necessary On Kindness, Phillips and Taylor explore how we can build a society that nurtures rather than corrupting our natural kindness by learning, from childhood on, to feel comfortable with the uncomfortable risks of making ourselves vulnerable enough to be kind. Complement it with Einstein on kindness, Brené Brown on the crucial difference between empathy and sympathy, Adam Smith’s underappreciated wisdom on benevolence, and George Saunders’s magnificent commencement address on the power of kindness, then revisit Phillips’s insightful mediations on balance and the necessary excesses of life and the essential capacity for “fertile solitude”.

Donating = Loving

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