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10 MAY, 2013

From Abigail Adams to Anne Sexton to Maya Angelou, History’s Finest Letters of Motherly Advice

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“Live to the HILT!”

Last year, we celebrated Father’s Day with an omnibus of history’s finest letters of fatherly advice, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Jackson Pollock, and Neil Armstrong. Later adding to them was more timeless epistolary advice from notable dads like Ted Hughes, Sherwood Anderson, Richard Dawkins, and Charles Dickens.

There’s no need to wait until Mother’s Day to enjoy a similarly spirited selection of history’s finest motherly advice, spanning nearly half a millennium of poignant and prescient counsel from notable moms.

From Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters (public library), which also gave us the author’s surprising report card, comes this remarkable 1969 missive she penned aboard an airplane for her daughter Linda to revisit later in life:

Dear Linda,

I am in the middle of a flight to St. Louis to give a reading. I was reading a New Yorker story that made me think of my mother and all alone in the seat I whispered to her “I know, Mother, I know.” (Found a pen!) And I thought of you — someday flying somewhere all alone and me dead perhaps and you wishing to speak to me.

And I want to speak back. (Linda, maybe it won’t be flying, maybe it will be at your own kitchen table drinking tea some afternoon when you are 40. Anytime.) — I want to say back.

1st I love you.

2. You never let me down.

3. I know. I was there once. I too, was 40 with a dead mother who I needed still. . . .

This is my message to the 40 year old Linda. No matter what happens you were always my bobolink, my special Linda Gray. Life is not easy. It is awfully lonely. I know that. Now you too know it — wherever you are, Linda, talking to me. But I’ve had a good life — I wrote unhappy — but I lived to the hilt. You too, Linda — Live to the HILT! To the top. I love you 40 year old, Linda, and I love what you do, what you find, what you are!—Be your own woman. Belong to those you love. Talk to my poems, and talk to your heart — I’m in both: if you need me. I lied, Linda. I did love my mother and she loved me. She never held me but I miss her, so that I have to deny I ever loved her — or she me! Silly Anne! So there!

XOXOXO
Mom

Anne Sexton

In Letter to My Daughter (public library), which also gave us her beautiful meditation on home and belonging, beloved author and reconstructionist Maya Angelou writes to the daughter she never had:

You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them. Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud. Do not complain. Make every effort to change things you do not like. If you cannot make a change, change the way you have been thinking. You might find a new solution.

Never whine. Whining lets a brute know that a victim is in the neighborhood.

Be certain that you do not die without having done something wonderful for humanity.

Maya Angelou

Clare Boothe Luce was blond, athletic, and good-looking in an age when those attributes came with a set of expectations quite different from who she was. Ambitious and feisty, she emerged as a trailblazing media maven and went on to become the managing editor of Vanity Fair, a celebrated playwright, and a formidable congresswoman. In 1944, she became the first woman ever to deliver the keynote address at a national political convention. Her 1953 appointment as Ambassador to Italy made her the first female American ambassador to major post abroad. On November 24, 1942, Luce penned a letter to her 18-year-old daughter Ann, a sophomore at Stanford, found in Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (public library) — the same wonderful anthology that gave us Sherwood Anderson’s timelessly poetic advice on the creative life. Amidst counsel on Ann’s first romantic relationship, Luce offers the following advice:

Don’t worry about your studies. When you want to do them well you will do them superbly but for the moment the main thing is to get what little happiness there is out of life in this wartorn world because “these are the good old days” now.

Clare Boothe Luce

The first American female poet, Anne Bradstreet also became the first American in history to have a book of poetry published when her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, printed a selection of her poems in 1650 against her will. The mother of eight children, her poems had been largely a private treat for her family and a great personal joy. In March of 1664, Bradstreet sent her second son, Simon, the following selection of “Meditations” on life, of which she’d go on to produce another seventy-three besides the four included here. The letter, featured in the 1897 tome The Poems of Mrs. Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672): Together with Her Prose Remains (public library), was found after Bradstreet’s death in 1672 at her home in Massachusetts.

For my deare Sonne Simon Bradstreet.

PARENTS perpetuate their lives in their posterity, and their maners in their imitation. Children do natureally rather follow the failings then the vertues of their predecessors, but I am perswaded better things of you. You once desired me to leave something for you in writeing that you might look upon when you should see me no more. I could think of nothing more fit for you, nor of more ease to my self, then these short meditations following. Such as they are I bequeath to you: small legacys are accepted by true friends, much more by duty full children. I have avoyded incroaching upon others conceptions, because I would leave you nothing but myne owne, though in value they fall short of all in this kinde, yet I persume they will be better prif’d by you for the Authors sake. The Lord bless you with grace heer, and crown you with glory heerafter, that I may meet you with rejoycing at that great day of appearing, which is the continuall prayer, of your affectionate mother,

A. B.

Meditations Divine and Morall.

I.

THERE is no object that we see; no action that we doe; no good that we inioy; no evil that we feele, or fear, but we may make some spirituall advantage of all: and he that makes such improvment is wise, as well as pious.

II.

MANY can speak well, but few can do well. We are better scholars in the Theory then the practique part, but he is a true Christian that is a proficient in both.

III.

YOUTH is the time of getting, middle age of improving, and old age of spending; a negligent youth is usually attended by an ignorant middle age, and both by an empty old age. He that hath nothing to seed on but vanity and lyes must needs lye down in the Bed of sorrow.

IV.

A SHIP that beares much saile, and little or no ballast, is easily overset; and that man, whose head hath great abilities, and his heart little or no grace, is in danger of foundering.

Anne Bradstreet

In January of 1780, amidst America’s War of Independence, Abigail Adams wrote to her twelve-year-old son, John Quincy Adams, urging him to follow his father, future American president John Adams, across the Atlantic to France in pursuit of a fine education. The letter, found in Noble Deeds of American Women: With Biographical Sketches of Some of the More Prominent (public domain), examines the foundation of character — a topic particularly fitting for the boy’s formative age, given it would be another four years until Adams would see her son again.

My dear Son

[…]

Some Author that I have met with compares a judicious traveler, to a river that increases its stream the farther it flows from its source, or to certain springs which running through rich veins of minerals improve their qualities as they pass along. It will be expected of you my son that as you are favourd with superiour advantages under the instructive Eye of a tender parent, that your improvements should bear some proportion to your advantages. Nothing is wanting with you, but attention, diligence and steady application. Nature has not been deficient.

These are times in which a Genious would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. Would Cicero have shone so distinguished an orater, if he had not been roused, kindled and enflamed by the Tyranny of Catiline, Millo, Verres and Mark Anthony. The Habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. All History will convince you of this, and that wisdom and penetration are the fruits of experience, not the Lessons of retirement and leisure. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the Heart, then those qualities which would otherways lay dormant, wake into Life, and form the Character of the Hero and the Statesman.

[…]

The strict and inviolable regard you have ever paid to truth, gives me pleasing hopes that you will not swerve from her dictates, but add justice, fortitude, and every Manly Virtue which can adorn a good citizen, do Honor to your Country, and render your parents supreemly happy, particuliarly your ever affectionate Mother,

AA

Abigail Adams

In another letter found in Posterity and dated December 1, 1872 — nearly half a century before women were legally allowed to vote in America and two centuries before the letters of the second wave of feminism — social justice pioneer and women’s rights champion Elizabeth Cady Stanton gives her twenty-year-old daughter Margaret, at the time a student at Vassar, essential advice on independence as the root of happiness:

I am so glad, dearest, to know that you are happy. Now, improve every hour and every opportunity, and fit yourself for a good teacher or professor, so that you can have money of your own and not be obliged to depend on any man for every breath you draw. The helpless dependence of women generally makes them the narrow, discontented beings so many are.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Pair these timeless words with the letters of the women who ushered in the second wave of modern feminism, raising a generation of sons and daughters with an eye on true equality.

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10 MAY, 2013

Darwin’s Daily Routine

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“Darwin made a point of replying to every letter he received, even those from obvious fools or cranks.”

In between weighing the pros and cons of marriage, grumbling to his friends, and changing our understanding of human emotion, Charles Darwin spent a decade perfecting a radical scientific theory of how the world worked. In part because it demanded intense intellectual investment and in part because it challenged the accepted paradigms of the era enough to offend the public eye, Darwin needed a near-monkish environment to develop his framework of evolution. In 1842, he moved from London to the English countryside, where he would spend the next seventeen years working on The Origin of Species — a kind of intellectual endurance that required systematic, daily dedication of unfaltering rhythm.

Illustration from The Smithsonian's graphic biography of Darwin. Click image for more.

From Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (public library) — which previously gave us the routines of Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov, and James Joyce — comes this curious chronology of Darwin’s day:

The first, and best, of his work periods began at 8:00 a.m., after Darwin had taken a short walk and had a solitary breakfast. Following ninety minutes of focused work in his study—disrupted only by occasional trips to the snuff jar that he kept on a table in the hallway—Darwin met his wife, Emma, in the drawing room to receive the day’s post. He read his letters, then lay on the sofa to hear Emma read the family letters aloud. When the letters were done, Emma would continue reading aloud, switching to whatever novel she and her husband were currently working their way through.

At 10:30 Darwin returned to his study and did more work until noon or a quarter after. He considered this the end of his workday, and would often remark in a satisfied voice, “I’ve done a good day’s work.”

[…]

Darwin made a point of replying to every letter he received, even those from obvious fools or cranks. If he failed to reply to a single letter, it weighed on his conscience and could even keep him up at night. The letter writing took him until about 3:00 in the afternoon, after which he went upstairs to his bedroom to rest, lying on the sofa with a cigarette while Emma continued to read from the novel-in-progress.

[…]

At 5:30, a half-hour of idleness in the drawing room preceded another period of rest and novel reading, and another cigarette, upstairs. Then he joined the family for dinner, although he did not join them in eating the meal; instead, he would have tea with an egg or a small piece of meat.

[…]

After two games of backgammon, he would read a scientific book and, just before bed, lie on the sofa and listen to Emma play the piano. He left the drawing room at about 10:00 and was in bed within a half-hour, although he generally had trouble getting to sleep and would often lie awake for hours, his mind working at some problem that he had failed to solve during the day.

Darwin's new study at Down House, engraved shortly after his death by Axel Haig. Image courtesy Darwin Online.

Pair with a graphic novel biography of Darwin, a fine addition to these favorite pieces of graphic nonfiction, and the daily routines of famous authors.

Quoted text excerpted from Daily Rituals by Mason Currey by permission of Knopf. Copyright © 2013 by Mason Currey.

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10 MAY, 2013

The Politics of Homosexuality, 20 Years Later

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“Silence, if it does not equal death, equals the living equivalent.”

On May 10, 1993, The New Republic published a seminal essay by Andrew Sullivan — the magazine’s then-editor, currently purveyor of some of the internet’s finest political and cultural commentary on The Dish — titled “The Politics of Homosexuality.” Based on a series of talks he had given on college campuses around the United States and later included in his fantastic 1996 book Virtually Normal (public library), the intelligent treatise was in large part spurred by the impending ban on openly gay soldiers serving in the military, which spawned the notorious Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, and presages with remarkable lucidity today’s peaking debates about marriage equality.

Those of us who came of age in a culture that would rarely, if ever, entrap us in the pressure chamber of being “in” anything in order to come “out” of it, who have been free to live our lives with dignity and honesty and full ownership of our hearts, owe much of that privilege to Andrew’s tireless, paradigm-shifting advocacy over the past two decades.

He observes the “unnerving confusion of roles and identities”:

Where once there was only the unmentionable, there are now only the unavoidable: gays, “queers”, homosexuals, closet cases, bisexuals, the “out” and the “in”, paraded for every heterosexual to see. As the straight world has been confronted with this, it has found itself reaching for a response: embarrassment, tolerance, fear, violence, oversensitivity, recognition.

Presenting a taxonomy of the politics of homosexuality, Sullivan explores three main archetypes of relating to the issue — the conservatives, the radicals, and the moderates, all of whom engage in various and often conflicting forms of ghettoization and oppression — and offering a remarkably prescient admonition:

This fracturing of discourse is more than a cultural problem; it is a political problem. Without at least some common ground, no effective compromise to the homosexual question will be possible. Matters may be resolved, as they have been in the case of abortion, by a stand-off in the forces of cultural war. But unless we begin to discuss this subject with a degree of restraint and reason, the visceral unpleasantness that exploded earlier this year will dog the question of homosexuality for a long time to come, intensifying the anxieties that politics is supposed to relieve.

[…]

There are as many politics of homosexuality as there are words for it, and not all of them contain reason. And it is harder perhaps in this passionate area than in any other to separate a wish from an argument, a desire from a denial. Nevertheless, without such an effort, no true politics of sexuality can emerge.

He warns against radicalism’s particular brand of toxic paradox:

The trouble with gay radicalism … is the problem with subversive politics as a whole. It tends to subvert itself.

[…]

More important, the notion of sexuality as a cultural subversion distanced it from the vast majority of gay people who not only accept the natural origin of their sexual orientation, but wish to be integrated into society as it is. For most gay people – the closet cases and barflies, the construction workers and investment bankers, the computer programmers and parents — a “queer” identity is precisely what they want to avoid. In this way, the radical politics of homosexuality is caught in a political trap. The more it purifies its own belief about sexuality, the less able it is to engage the broader world as a whole. The more it acts upon its convictions, the less able it is to engage in politics at all.

This, Sullivan argues, is to the detriment of those most in need of an inclusive politics of identity:

“[Q]ueer” radicalism’s doctrine of cultural subversion and separatism has the effect of alienating those very gay Americans most in need of support and help: the young and teenagers. Separatism is even less of an option for gays than for any other minority, since each generation is literally connected umbilically to the majority. The young are permanently in the hands of the other. By erecting a politics on a doctrine of separation and difference from the majority, “queer” politics ironically broke off dialogue with the heterosexual families whose cooperation is needed in every generation if gay children are to be accorded a modicum of dignity and hope.

Despite the discussion of formal politics, in a sentiment that has been recently echoed, twenty years later, Sullivan argues that the most important political act a gay person can take is coming out:

Far more subversive than media-grabbing demonstrations on the evening news has been the slow effect of individual, private Americans becoming more open about their sexuality. The emergence of role models, the development of professional organizations and student groups, the growing influence of openly gay people in the media, and the extraordinary impact of AIDS on families and friends have dwarfed radicalism’s impact on the national consciousness. Likewise, the greatest public debate about homosexuality yet — the military debate — took place not because radicals besieged the Pentagon, but because of the ordinary and once-anonymous Americans within the military who simply refused to acquiesce in their own humiliation any longer. Their courage was illustrated not in taking to the streets in rage but in facing their families and colleagues with integrity.

In debunking the oft-cited similarity between discrimination based on ethnicity and discrimination based on sexual orientation, Sullivan points out that unlike skin color, which travels with the generations and thus offers an implicit bond of belonging, homosexuality occurs sporadically within the community and the family unit, and can thus produce even deeper isolation for the individual. He writes:

To reach puberty and find oneself falling in love with members of one’s own sex is to experience a mixture of self-discovery and self-disgust that never leaves a human consciousness. If the stigma is attached not simply to an obviously random characteristic, such as skin pigmentation, but to the deepest desires of the human heart, then it can eat away at a person’s sense of his own dignity with peculiar ferocity. When a young person confronts her sexuality, she is also completely alone. A young heterosexual black or Latino girl invariably has an existing network of people like her to interpret, support, and explain the emotions she feels when confronting racial prejudice for the first time. But a gay child generally has no one. The very people she would most naturally turn to — the family — may be the very people she is most ashamed in front of.

The stigma attached to sexuality is also different that that attached to race because it attacks the very heart of what makes a human being human: her ability to love and be loved. Even the most vicious persecution of racial minorities allowed, in many cases, for the integrity of the marital bond or the emotional core of a human being. When it did not, when Nazism split husbands from wives, children from parents, when apartheid or slavery broke up familial bonds, it was clear that a particularly noxious form of repression was taking place. But the stigma attached to homosexuality begins with such a repression. It forbids, at a child’s earliest stage of development, the possibility of the highest form of human happiness. It starts with emotional terror and ends with mild social disapproval. It’s no accident that later in life, when many gay people learn to reconnect the bonds of love and sex, they seek to do so in private, even protected from the knowledge of their family.

Arguing that anti-discrimination laws only scratch the surface of the problem rather than addressing its core, he writes:

They want to substitute for the traumatic and difficult act of coming out the more formal and procedural act of legislation. But law cannot do the work of life. Even culture cannot do the work of life. Only life can do the work of life.

But as insufficient as anti-discrimination laws may be, the notion of indoctrinating discrimination into the law is contrary to the very tenets on which a society claiming to be democratic is based:

The military ban is by far the most egregious example of proactive government discrimination in this country. By conceding, as the military has done, the excellent service that many gay and lesbian soldiers have given to their country, the military has helped shatter a thousand stereotypes about their nature and competence. By focusing on the mere admission of homosexuality, the ban has purified the debate into a matter of the public enforcement of homophobia. Unlike anti-discrimination law, the campaign against the ban does not ask any private citizens to hire or fire anyone of whom they do not approve; it merely asks public servants to behave the same way with avowed homosexuals as with closeted ones.

[…]

Its real political power — and the real source of the resistance to it — comes from its symbolism. The acceptance of gay people at the heart of the state, at the core of the notion of patriotism, is anathema to those who wish to consign homosexuals to the margins of society. [Even liberals] find it hard to fit the cause simply into the rubric of minority politics. For instead of seeking access, as other minorities have done, gays in the military are simply demanding recognition. They start not from the premise of suppliance, but of success, of proven ability and prowess in battle, of exemplary conduct and ability. This is a new kind of minority politics. It is less a matter of complaint than of pride; less about subversion than about the desire to contribute equally.

And yet, in another farsighted insight, Sullivan recognizes that the military ban is a microcosm of a much larger, much more deeply human concern — one currently on the precipice of a historic shift:

The critical measure necessary for full gay equality is something deeper and more emotional perhaps than even the military. It is equal access to marriage. As with the military, this is a question of formal public discrimination. If the military ban deals with the heart of what it is to be a citizen, the marriage ban deals with the core of what it is to be a member of civil society. Marriage is not simply a private contract; it is a social and public recognition of our personal integrity. Denying it to gay people is the most public affront possible to their civil equality.

Like a family engaged in the first, angry steps toward dealing with a gay member, the country has been forced to debate a subject honestly — even calmly — in a way it has never done before. This is a clear and enormous gain. Whatever the result of this process, it cannot be undone.

You can say that again, Andrew. No doubt in another twenty years, we’ll look back on these failings of democracy and human rights with the same profound cultural embarrassment that haunts our collective memory as it uncomfortably traces the issues that spurred Women’s Suffrage and the Civil Rights movement.

The move towards marriage equality between 1970 and 2012 via The Atlantic Wire

The heterosexuality of marriage is civilly intrinsic only if it is understood to be inherently procreative; and that definition has long been abandoned in civil society. In contemporary America, marriage has become a way in which the state recognizes an emotional and economic commitment of two people to each other for life. No law requires children to consummate it. And within that definition, there is no civil way it can logically be denied homosexuals, except as a pure gesture of public disapproval. . . .

In the same way, emotionally, marriage is characterized by a kind of commitment that is rare even among heterosexuals. Extending it to homosexuals need not dilute the special nature of that commitment, unless it is understood that gay people, by their very nature, are incapable of it. History and experience suggest the opposite. It is not necessary to prove that gay people are more or less able to form long-term relationships than straights for it to be clear that, at least, some are. Giving these people a right to affirm their commitment doesn’t reduce the incentive for heterosexuals to do the same, and even provides a social incentive for lesbians and gay men to adopt socially beneficial relationships.

The first couple to receive a same-sex marriage license in Washington state in December of 2012: Jane Abbott Lighty, 77, and Pete-e Peterson, 85, who have been together over 35 years. (Photo: David Ryder/Getty Images)

The law, thus, robs gay people of an essential human aspiration, making them keenly aware of the robbery, which takes place in broad daylight, at the public square:

Gay people always know this essential affirmation will be denied them. Thus their relationships are given no anchor, no endpoint, no way of integrating them fully into the network of family and friends that makes someone a full member of civil society. Even when those relationships become essentially the same — or even stronger — than straight relationships, they are never accorded the same dignity of actual equality. Husbands remain “friends”; wives remain “partners”. The very language sends a powerful signal of fault, a silent assumption of internal disorder or insufficiency. The euphemisms — and the brave attempt to pretend that gay people don’t need marriage — do not successfully conceal the true emotional cost and psychological damage that this signal exacts. No true progress in the potential happiness of gay teenagers or in the stability of gay adults or in the full integration of gay and straight life is possible, or even imaginable, without it.

These two measures — simple, direct, requiring no change in heterosexual behavior and no sacrifice from heterosexuals — represent a politics that tackles the heart of homophobia while leaving homophobes their freedom. It allows homosexuals to define their own future and their own identity and does not place it in the hands of the other. It makes a clear, public statement of equality, while leaving all the inequalities of emotion and passion to the private sphere, where they belong. It does not legislate private tolerance, it declares public equality. It banishes the paradigm of victimology and replaces it with one of integrity. It requires one further step, of course, which is to say the continuing effort for honesty on the part of homosexuals themselves. This is not easily summed up in the crude phrase “coming out”; but it finds expression in the myriad ways in which gay men and lesbians talk, engage, explain, confront, and seek out the other. Politics cannot substitute for this; heterosexuals cannot provide it. And while it is not in some sense fair that homosexuals have to initiate the dialogue, it is a fact of life. Silence, if it does not equal death, equals the living equivalent.

May 2013 New Yorker cover by Chris Ware, celebrating a Mother's Day of equality with a two-mom family

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was signed into law seven months after “The Politics of Homosexuality” was published. It wasn’t repealed until 2011, three months after New York State passed its historic Marriage Equality Act allowing for gender-neutral marriage. On May 9, 2012, President Barack Obama declared his support for marriage equality.

Virtually Normal is excellent and enormously important in its entirety.

Today, Andrew writes about these issues and many more dimensions of contemporary culture, and is at the helm of yet another revolution, defying the broken model of funding journalism by breaking off from the media establishment and building an ad-free, reader-supported haven for intelligent cultural commentary. Join me in supporting him and his small team here.

Donating = Loving

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