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Naomi Shihab Nye’s Beloved Ode to Kindness, Animated

“Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth.”

Naomi Shihab Nye’s Beloved Ode to Kindness, Animated

“Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness,” Leo Tolstoy — a man of colossal compassion and colossal blind spots — wrote while reckoning with his life as it neared its end.

“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now,” Jack Kerouac half-resolved, half-instructed an epoch later in a beautiful letter to his first wife and lifelong friend.

Of course, even the best-intentioned of us are not capable of perpetual kindness, not capable of being our most elevated selves all day with everybody. If you have not watched yourself, helpless and horrified, transform into an ill-tempered child with a loved one or the unsuspecting man blocking the produce aisle with his basket of bok choy, you have not lived. Discontinuous and self-contradictory even under the safest and sanest of circumstances, human beings are not wired for constancy of feeling, of conduct, of selfhood. When the world grows unsafe, when life charges at us with its stresses and its sorrows, our devotion to kindness can short-circuit with alarming ease. And yet, paradoxically, it is often in the laboratory of loss and uncertainty that we calibrate and supercharge our capacity for kindness. And it is always, as Kerouac intuited, a practice.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop from her 1922 fairy-poems. (Available as a print.)

In 1978, drawing on a jarring real-life experience, Naomi Shihab Nye captured this difficult, beautiful, redemptive transmutation of fear into kindness in a poem of uncommon soulfulness and empathic wingspan that has since become a classic — a classic now part of Edward Hirsch’s finely curated anthology 100 Poems to Break Your Heart (public library); a classic reimagined in a lovely short film by illustrator Ana Pérez López and my friends at the On Being Project:

KINDNESS
by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Complement with a fascinating cultural history of how kindness became our forbidden pleasure, Jacqueline Woodson’s letter to children about how we learn kindness, and George Sand’s only children’s book — a poignant parable about choosing kindness and generosity over cynicism and fear — then revisit other soul-broadening animated poems: “Singularity” by Marie Howe, “Murmuration” by Linda France, and “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry.

BP

Leo Tolstoy on Kindness and the Measure of Love

“Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.”

“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now,” Jack Kerouac wrote in a beautiful letter to his first wife and lifelong friend. Somehow, despite our sincerest intentions, we repeatedly fall short of this earthly divinity, so readily available yet so easily elusive. And yet in our culture, it has been aptly observed, “we are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us.” In his stirring Syracuse commencement address, George Saunders confessed with unsentimental ruefulness: “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.” I doubt any decent person, upon candid reflection, would rank any other species of regret higher. To be human is to leap toward our highest moral potentialities, only to trip over the foibled actualities of our reflexive patterns. To be a good human is to keep leaping anyway.

In the middle of his fifty-fifth year, Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828–November 20, 1910) set out to construct a reliable springboard for these moral leaps by compiling “a wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all people,” whose wisdom “gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness” — thinkers and spiritual leaders who have shed light on what is most important in living a rewarding and meaningful life. Such a book, Tolstoy envisioned, would tell a person “about the Good Way of Life.” He spent the next seventeen years on the project.

Leo Tolstoy

In 1902, by then seriously ill and facing his own mortality, Tolstoy finally completed the manuscript under the working title A Wise Thought for Every Day. It was published two years later, in Russian, but it took nearly a century for the first English translation, by Peter Sekirin, to appear: A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul, Written and Selected from the World’s Sacred Texts (public library). For each day of the year, Tolstoy had selected several quotes by great thinkers around a particular theme, then contributed his own thoughts on the subject, with kindness as the pillar of the book’s moral sensibility.

Perhaps prompted by the creaturely severity and the clenching of heart induced by winter’s coldest, darkest days, or perhaps by the renewed resolve for moral betterment with which we face each new year, he writes in the entry for January 7:

The kinder and the more thoughtful a person is, the more kindness he can find in other people.

Kindness enriches our life; with kindness mysterious things become clear, difficult things become easy, and dull things become cheerful.

At the end of the month, in a sentiment Carl Sagan would come to echo in his lovely invitation to meet ignorance with kindness, Tolstoy writes:

You should respond with kindness toward evil done to you, and you will destroy in an evil person that pleasure which he derives from evil.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Big Wolf & Little Wolf by Nadine Brun-Cosme.

In the entry for February 3, he revisits the subject:

Kindness is for your soul as health is for your body: you do not notice it when you have it.

After copying out two kindness-related quotations from Jeremy Bentham (“A person becomes happy to the same extent to which he or she gives happiness to other people.”) and John Ruskin (“The will of God for us is to live in happiness and to take an interest in the lives of others.”), Tolstoy adds:

Love is real only when a person can sacrifice himself for another person. Only when a person forgets himself for the sake of another, and lives for another creature, only this kind of love can be called true love, and only in this love do we see the blessing and reward of life. This is the foundation of the world.

Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.

Feast on more of Tolstoy’s deeply nourishing Calendar of Wisdom here. Complement this particular fragment with Albert Einstein on the meaning of kindness, Jacqueline Woodson’s lovely letter to children about kindness, and Naomi Shihab Nye on the remarkable true story behind her beloved poem “Kindness,” then revisit Tolstoy on love and its paradoxical demands, his early diaries of moral development, and his deathbed writings on what gives meaning to our lives.

BP

Jacqueline Woodson’s Lovely Letter to Children About Kindness, Presence, and How Books Transform Us

“Why are you kissing me in the middle of the sentence?!”

Jacqueline Woodson’s Lovely Letter to Children About Kindness, Presence, and How Books Transform Us

“It is we who are passing when we say time passes,” the Nobel-winning French philosopher Henri Bergson insisted just before Einstein defeated him in the historic debate that revolutionized our understanding of time. “If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer,” his compatriot Gaston Bachelard wrote a decade later in contemplating our paradoxical temporal experience. Still, our most intimate relationship with time unfolds not in physics or philosophy but in storytelling — a miraculous technology of thought and feeling that allows us to both contain time and travel through it, to saturate the moment with absolute presence and to leap from it into other eras, places, and experiences.

That is what National Book Award laureate Jacqueline Woodson, one of our era’s most beloved writers of literature for young people, explores in her beautiful contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — a labor of love eight years in the making, comprising 121 illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us from some of the most inspiring humans in our world: artists, writers, scientists, musicians, entrepreneurs, and philosophers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

Art by Lara Hawthorne for a letter by Jacqueline Woodson from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Woodson writes:

Dear Young Reader,

In my memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, I write about “this perfect moment, called Now.” I am thinking about this as I lie beside my seven-year-old son, reading to him from a book I at first disliked but have grown to appreciate over the evenings of reading. Two floors up, my thirteen-year-old daughter is supposed to be doing homework but may be checking her Instagram or texting a friend or hopefully snuggled beneath her covers with her own book (The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie — “Oh my God, Momm — I love this book SO MUCH!”).

It feels like such a short time ago it was her in the crook of my arm, wide-eyed and listening. I impulsively kiss the top of my son’s mohawked head (he wants us to let him dye it green — maybe we will — after all, you’re only seven once) and he looks up at me, brow furrowed.

“Why are you kissing me in the middle of the sentence?!”

“Because this moment won’t always be here,” I say.

“Mommy — just read… please.”

As the child of a single working mom, I didn’t have this moment. There were four of us and at the end of a long workday, my mother was exhausted. Sometimes, my older sister read out loud to all of us and those are some of my deepest memories. Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates, The House On Pooh Corner, Harriet the Spy. While I never read any of those books to my own children — preferring to read from books where their young brown selves were/are represented on the page — my sister’s stories in my ear put me on a journey toward my own stories. I wanted to see myself in books, wanted to know that I existed… fully… out in the world.

The book I am reading to my son is about a troll who is despised in his small town, loves a girl who may or may not love him back. We’ve just found out the girl is the daughter of Little Red Riding Hood and now the story has my attention — a twist I didn’t see coming.

“I don’t know why the king is so mean,” my son says. “That’s not kindness, right Mommy?”

I refrain from kissing the top of his head again and try not to think that this moment of my youngest child beside me, the two of us inside one story, won’t always be here. This now is what matters, young reader. The moment we’re all living in is what counts — how will this moment, and the stories we’re living inside of change us… forever? The smell of my son’s hair, his laughter, his whispered “Oh man!” and now, him saying softly “That’s not kindness, right Mommy?” This is what reading does. This is what matters most. I smile and turn the page.

Sincerely,

Jacqueline Woodson

Complement with other wonderful letters from A Velocity of Being by Jane Goodall, Rebecca Solnit, Alain de Botton, and a 100-year-old Holocaust survivor.

BP

Killed by Kindness: Virginia Woolf, the Art of Letters, the Birth and Death of Photography, and the Fate of Every Technology

An elegy for the triumph of commodity over creativity.

Killed by Kindness: Virginia Woolf, the Art of Letters, the Birth and Death of Photography, and the Fate of Every Technology

At its dawn, every technology — like every new love — is aglow with the exhilaration of endless possibility. Its dark sides and eventual demise are unfathomable to the wildly optimistic psyche of the besotted, and besotted we invariably are with each new medium that sweeps across the landscape of culture with the forceful promise of a revolution.

The polymath John Herschel, nephew of the trailblazing astronomer Caroline Herschel, coined the word photography in 1839 in his correspondence with Henry Fox Talbot — a onetime aspiring artist turned amateur inventor. (The invention of photography and how the new technology revolutionized both art and science occupies Chapter 14 of Figuring, titled “Shadowing the Light of Immortality,” from which this essay is adapted.) For several years, Talbot had been experimenting with techniques for transmuting the impermanence of light and shadow into permanent prints on paper coated with receptive chemicals. But his images failed to last — exposed to natural light, the prints faded over time. Just as he finally perfected the process with help from Herschel, who had proposed using a sodium thiosulfate coating to make the images more permanent, Talbot got word that a French rival by the name of Louis Daguerre had devised an image-making process, which he had named after himself and was planning on presenting at a joint meeting of the Academy of Sciences and the Académie des Beaux Arts in Paris on January 7.

Talbot realized that the revolution he had spent years planning was already afoot and might have another leader. He wrote to Herschel frantically in the last week of January that he must present his own findings before the Royal Society, for “no time ought to be lost, the Parisian invention having got the start of 3 weeks.” He scrambled to rally excitement for his “art of photogenic drawing.”

John Herschel. Photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867.

In a letter of February 28, 1839, Herschel objected to the term “photogeny” to describe Talbot’s new image-making process, noting that it “recalls Van Mons’s exploded theories of thermogen & photogen.” This associative defect, Herschel argued, is amplified by the word’s poetic deficiencies: “It also lends itself to no inflexions & is not analogous with Litho & Chalcography.” Instead, Herschel proposed “photography.” On March 12, he read before the Royal Society a paper titled “Note on the Art of Photography or the Application of the Chemical Rays of Light to the Purposes of Pictorial Representation” — the first public utterance of the word photography.

A quarter century later, an Indian-born Englishwoman by the name of Julia Margaret Cameron pioneered soft-focus photographic portraiture after receiving a camera as a fiftieth-birthday gift from her son. Cameron photographed some of the most prominent figures of her day, including Charles Darwin, Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, Alice Liddell (the real-life girl who inspired Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland), and Herschel himself. In 1926, Virginia Woolf — whose mother was Cameron’s cousin and favorite photographic subject — published a posthumous volume of Cameron’s photographs under her own independent Hogarth Press imprint. She prefaced the monograph with a biographical sketch of her great-aunt, who had died before Woolf’s birth and whom she had gotten to know primarily through family anecdotes and letters.

Julia Jackson (later Julia Stephen, mother of Virginia Woolf). Photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867.

Woolf, who cherished letters “the humane art,” writes:

The Victorian age killed the art of letter writing by kindness: it was only too easy to catch the post. A lady sitting down at her desk a hundred years before had not only certain ideals of logic and restraint before her, but the knowledge that a letter which cost so much money to send and excited so much interest to receive was worth time and trouble. With Ruskin and Carlyle in power, a penny post to stimulate, a gardener, a gardener’s boy, and a galloping donkey to catch up the overflow of inspiration, restraint was unnecessary and emotion more to a lady’s credit, perhaps, than common sense. Thus to dip into the private letters of the Victorian age is to be immersed in the joys and sorrows of enormous families, to share their whooping coughs and colds and misadventures, day by day, indeed hour by hour.

Woolf’s point applies not only to letter writing but to the very medium celebrated by the book in which her essay appears, and in fact to every technology that ever was and ever will be. She couldn’t have — or could she have? — envisioned what would become of photography as the technology became commonplace over the coming decades, much less what digital photography would bring. But her insight holds true — the easier it becomes to convey a message in a certain medium, the less selective we grow about what that message contains, and soon we are conveying the trifles and banalities of our day-to-day life, simply because it is effortless to fill the page (or feed, or screen, or whatever medium comes next). Letters about lunch items have been supplanted by Instagram photographs of lunch items, to which we apply the ready-made filters that have purported to supplant the artistry of light, shadow, and composition. The art of photography, too, is being killed by kindness.

Photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron to illustrate Tennyson’s poems.

Couple with Susan Sontag, writing decades before social media, on the “aesthetic consumerism” of visual culture and Sally Mann, writing nearly a century after Woolf, on the dark side of photography.

For more excerpts from Figuring, drink in Emily Dickinson’s stunning letters to her great love and lifelong muse, her editor’s advice on writing, Nobel-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli on science, spirit, and our search for meaning, the story of how the forgotten sculptor Harriet Hosmer paved the way for women in art, and Moby-Dick author Herman Melville’s passionate and heartbreaking love letters to his literary idol and neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne.

BP

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