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Three Balls of Wool: An Illustrated Celebration of Nonconformity and the Courage to Remake Society’s Givens

A poignant and hope-giving allegory based on the true story of a refugee family.

Three Balls of Wool: An Illustrated Celebration of Nonconformity and the Courage to Remake Society’s Givens

It may be an elemental property of human nature to fantasize about utopias — a fantasy all the more alluring the more dystopian one’s actual society is. But the inescapable fallacy of the fantasy is that while a utopia promises universal flourishing for everyone, not everyone has the same criteria for flourishing. Homogeneity, as Zadie Smith observed in her superb essay on optimism and despair, is no guarantor of a just and equitable society. We all dream different utopias — something Margaret Mead and James Baldwin tussled with in their fantastic forgotten conversation about the problematic metaphor of the melting pot. An ideal society is not one that seeks to level the differences into a flat universality but one that welcomes them into a glorious topography of diverse human flourishing.

That is what Portuguese writer Henriqueta Cristina and Brazilian artist Yara Kono explore in Three Balls of Wool (Can Change The World) (public library) — an unusual and poignant picture-book about the meaning of freedom and human dignity, published in partnership with Amnesty International.

The story, reminiscent of Umberto Eco’s lovely vintage semiotic children’s books on humanitarian subjects, is told through the perspective of an eight-year-old girl and her refugee family, exiled from their home country under threats of imprisonment and a sense of political gloom, which the young girl can’t quite understand, though she intuits their gravity through the deep lines furrowing her parents’ foreheads.

The family arrives in a new country that at first shines with the promise of a better life, clean and orderly. “Here there are no poor people and all the children go to school,” the girl’s mother tells her. But soon the seeming utopia unravels into a tyranny of uniformity. At school, all the children wear sweaters in one of the three permitted colors — solid gray, solid green, or solid orange — and all the buildings look like “a bunch of gray shoeboxes staked one on top of the other.”

One day, the mother launches a quiet rebellion against the tyranny of homogeneity and conformity — an embodiment of artist Ben Shahn’s insistence that “without the nonconformist, any society of whatever degree of perfection must fall into decay.” It starts with a grey sweater she unravels into a ball of yarn, then an orange one, then a green one. Out of these three balls of wool, she begins knitting sweaters of all stripes and patterns, remixing the solid givens into previously unimagined possibilities.

Soon, the little girl and her brothers are clad in countercultural sweaters that become the awe of the neighborhood.

People begin gathering at the local park each Sunday, unraveling their old solid sweaters and knitting variegated new ones, transfiguring the same three colors of yarn into every imaginable combination of shape and pattern — a testament to Kierkegaard’s assertion that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.”

By springtime, the entire city is an explosion of combinatorial color.

The story doesn’t reveal what country the refugees left, nor what country they arrived in, but through the semiotic description of their new home I sense familiar echoes of my own childhood in Communist Bulgaria. The afterword confirms my intuition — the book is based on the true story of a Portuguese family who fled from Portugal’s right-wing dictatorship at the peak of the Cold War in the 1960s, then lived as refugees in Algeria and Romania before finally settling in Czechoslovakia. They returned home to Portugal shortly before the end of the Carnation Revolution — a peaceful uprising that began on April 25, 1974 and ended the half-century dictatorship. “Today, Portugal has a democratically elected government and every child goes to school,” Cristina writes in the closing of the afterword.

Printed on the last spread of the book is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, before Portugal was a member. Its first article reads:

All human beings are born free and equal in rights. Endowed with reason and conscience, we should act towards one another in a spirit of kindness and community.

Its thirtieth and final article reads:

This declaration does not give any government, group, or person the right to infringe upon the freedoms of any other.

Three Balls of Wool, which is absolutely lovely both as a picture-book and as a symbolic cultural message, comes from Enchanted Lion Books — the Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse that has brought us treasures like Cry, Heart, But Never Break, The Lion and the Bird, The Paper-Flower Tree, and Bertolt. Complement it with Albert Camus on what it really means to be a rebel and Ben Shahn on nonconformity and the creative spirit.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Hymn to Time”

An ode to the eternal “let there be” between death and chance.

Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Hymn to Time”

“The moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity,” Kierkegaard wrote in contemplating the paradoxical nature of time half a century before Einstein forever changed our understanding of it. As relativity saturated the cultural atmosphere, Virginia Woolf was tussling and taffying with time’s confounding elasticity, the psychology of which scientists have since dissected. We are beings of time and in time — something Jorge Luis Borges spoke to beautifully in his classic 1946 meditation on time: “Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”

That riverine dimension of being is what Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) explores with spare words and immense splendor of sentiment in “Hymn to Time” from her final poetry collection, Late in the Day (public library) — a poem embodying her conviction that “science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside, [and] both celebrate what they describe.”

In this recording created as a warmup for our second annual Universe in Verse, astrophysicist Janna Levin — who has written beautifully about the nature of time herself — brings Le Guin’s poem to life in thirty-five transcendent seconds:

HYMN TO TIME
by Ursula K. Le Guin

Time says “Let there be”
every moment and instantly
there is space and the radiance
of each bright galaxy.

And eyes beholding radiance.
And the gnats’ flickering dance.
And the seas’ expanse.
And death, and chance.

Time makes room
for going and coming home
and in time’s womb
begins all ending.

Time is being and being
time, it is all one thing,
the shining, the seeing,
the dark abounding.

Complement with Hannah Arendt on space, time, and our thinking ego, then revisit Le Guin’s feminist translation of the timeless Tao Te Ching and Levin’s splendid reading of “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich from the inaugural edition of The Universe in Verse.

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Anna Deavere Smith on the Importance of Bringing Light to History’s Shadows and Resisting the Destructive Patterns Handed Down to Us by Our Invisible Pasts

“A beating — even a public beating — could happen without anyone so much as striking a blow.”

“Society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed,” Hannah Arendt wrote in reflecting on Jewishness, the immigrant plight for identity, and the meaning of “refugee.” A refusal to perpetrate such social murder is what led Leonard Cohen to leave out the verse about the relationship between Blacks and Jews from his now-iconic song “Democracy.” When asked about the decision, he offered: “I wanted a revelation in the heart rather than a confrontation or a call-to-arms or a defense.”

The everyday bloodless murders that stand in the way of such revelations in the heart are what Anna Deavere Smith limns in a few stirring passages from Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines (public library) — her remarkable memoir exploring the relationship between the personal and the political through the art of listening in a culture of speaking.

Anna Deavere Smith (Photograph: Mary Ellen Mark)

In consonance with poet Elizabeth Alexander’s assertion that “we live in the word,” Smith locates the seedbed of prejudice in the unwillingness to hear each other’s stories:

It may be that cultures with fewer words are in lass danger than we are. So many of our words are being contorted, mangled, stretched, distorted in public life. I’m surprised they survive. I’m surprised they mean anything.

So suspicious is the ear. Its structure has changed. We sit with only one ear toward the speaker, and the other is tuned to the nonexistent next beat.

A self-described “Negro girl from Baltimore raised in segregation,” Smith lived through integration at the age of eleven and attended a predominantly Jewish school in an era of raging antisemitism, in a culture she recalls as one with “no boyfriends and girlfriends across racial lines, or religious lines.” In a sentiment Zadie Smith would come to echo a generation later in observing that “things have changed, but history is not erased by change,” Anna Deavere Smith writes:

History always lurks, changing reality into shadowed moments that are haunted by a past.

Art by Margaret Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

She shines a disquieting beam of awareness on the lattice of shadows lurking in her own childhood:

Whites didn’t play with blacks, or Jews, for that matter, and Reform Jews didn’t play with Orthodox Jews, and Orthodox Jews didn’t play with Jews fresh from Europe who didn’t speak English. Even Jews made fun of a Jewish girl with a Russian accent who brought sandwiches made of meat with a strong smell and purple horseradish, despised her for being so not “of it.”

Children breathing in that cultural atmosphere came to understand, as the young Smith did, that bullying can take many forms — that the archetypal bullies who wield fists are not the only ones who “exploit our unspoken hostility for us.” Reflecting on the less obvious but often more pernicious forms of bullying, Smith recounts the story of a little Jewish girl from her class named Lila:

Perhaps beatings are subverted when “shoulds” appear in a group. Those subverted headings transform into another type of hostility… Lila was beat up with humiliation.

[…]

Our homeroom teacher was a black woman who was not particularly popular. She was also our science teacher. She had to fight to get control of the room. I can only imagine what it was for her, too, to be in integration for the first time, probably having been educated in segregation (I know, for example, that she had gone to a black college) and now having to teach in this “loaded” integrated school. By Christmastime, we calmed down. She “proved” herself to us and we actually felt warmly toward her. The class decided to buy her a Christmas present. A rumor started that Lila, who was the quietest person in the room, Lila, who never ever had to be told to sit down, to be quiet, to do anything, Lila, who simply came to school and went home, who never seemed to socialize with anyone . . . Lila was not going to chip in for the Christmas present. Her parents wouldn’t allow it. This became our headline for two weeks or so: what we were going to do about it, how we were going to vote in terms of ostracizing Lila.

A tall, beautiful black girl (who was pregnant and would soon be forced to leave school) began some of the mockery toward Lila. I remember that it pained me. I also remember how surprised I was that the Jewish kids (again, the predominant population) began to turn against Lila too. What had started as a sort of 50–50 vote about whether to buy a Christmas present at all, now turned into 99 percent for the present, and Lila on her own. No one took her to the schoolyard and threatened to beat her up, no one stuck her head down the toilet, but the daily vote would be taken, the vote toward unanimous for buying the present or not, and as the days went on Lila became stronger and stronger in her position. The teacher would be out of the room. The tall, beautiful black girl would take the vote.

Every day Lila would sit with no expression on her face as we lifted our hands. Her hands stayed firmly planted on the desk. Her parents did not celebrate Christmas, and they would not allow her to buy a present for the teacher. I did not know if the fact of the teacher being black complicated it on another level. Lila never cried, she simply sat quietly as all kinds of things were said, and she never explained anything further. In fact, I don’t remember her ever saying anything — it was simply known she would not be chipping in for the gift.

Finally, the teacher got wind of the whole thing and shamed us all by saying, as she should have, that in this spirit she didn’t really want a Christmas present, and that Lila should not be forced to participate if her religion wouldn’t allow it. I remember this story because it was the first time I saw that a beating — even a public beating — could happen without anyone so much as striking a blow.

Smith’s Talk to Me is a fantastic read in its entirety, mapping through the stories of people she talked to over the course of twenty-five years — people ranging from a YMCA lifeguard to an inmate in a women’s prison to Christopher Hitchens — the possible paths before us as we work to unstrike those history-shadowed blows. Complement it with Mark Twain on compassion and how religion is used to justify injustice, Albert Einstein on the interconnectedness of our fates, and Elie Wiesel’s superb Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech about our shared duty in ending injustice, then revisit Anna Deavere Smith on the discipline of not letting others define you.

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Esperanza Spalding Performs William Blake’s Short Existential Poem “The Fly”

A centuries-old, timeless meditation on chance, suffering, and the improbable glory of life.

Esperanza Spalding Performs William Blake’s Short Existential Poem “The Fly”

All artists know that the deeply personal is the only real gateway to the universal; that we are only free to see to the farthest horizons after we have closely examined our most intimate landscapes. Some swing these doors of perception with virtuosity orders of magnitude greater than others, as did William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827). “It is the mark of a genius like Blake,” Alfred Kazin wrote, “that what is purest and most consistent in his thought burns away his own suffering and fanaticism, while his art speaks to what is most deeply human in us.”

Is it any wonder that the man who saw the universe in a grain of sand should see the improbable beauty and tragedy of human existence in the ephemeral life of a fly?

In this beautiful performance from The Academy of American Poets’ annual Poetry & the Creative Mind — which also gave us Meryl Streep reading “Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath and Regina Spektor reading “The Everyday Enchantment of Music” by Mark Strand — musician extraordinaire Esperanza Spalding performs Blake’s poem “The Fly,” originally published in his 1794 masterpiece Songs of Experience and later included in his indispensable Complete Poems (public library).

THE FLY
by William Blake

Little fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath,
And the want
Of thought is death,

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

Spalding’s performance of “The Fly”” also appears on her album Chamber Music Society.

William Blake’s original illustration for “The Fly” from Songs of Experience, 1794 (Yale Center for British Art)

Complement with Blake’s most beautiful letter — a spirited defense of the imagination and the creative spirit — and his haunting illustrations for Milton’s Paradise Lost, then revisit other great performances of great poems: Amanda Palmer reads “Having It Out with Melancholy” by Jane Kenyon, Janna Levin reads “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, Cynthia Nixon reads “While I Was Fearing It, It Came” by Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Boorstein reads “Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda, and Rosanne Cash reads “Power” by Adrienne Rich.

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