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An Illustrated Field Guide to the Art, Science, and Joy of Tea

From leaf to cup, by way of the history of human civilization.


An Illustrated Field Guide to the Art, Science, and Joy of Tea

“The first sip is joy, the second is gladness, the third is serenity, the fourth is madness, the fifth is ecstasy,” Jack Kerouac wrote of tea in his 1958 novel The Dharma Bums. Late one night that year, he walked five miles with an enormous tape recorder strapped to his back to keep the woman he loved from taking her own life.

Lois Beckwith didn’t die that night. She and Jack soon parted ways as lovers, but remained friends. Eventually, he introduced her to the man who would become her husband. Their son would go on to devote his life to tea.

In Pursuit of Tea founder Sebastian Beckwith fell in love with tea while working as a trekking guide in Bhutan and northern India in the 1980s, and has spent the years since procuring and advocating for the planet’s finest, most sustainably grown and ethically harvested teas. Traveling to and working with small farms in Asia’s most historic tea-growing regions, he sources teas that grace the menus of some of New York City’s finest restaurants and have powered much of my own writing over the years. In his workshops, seminars, and lectures, he has brought the art-science of tea to the American Museum of Natural History, the French Culinary Institute, and Columbia University.

Now, Beckwith harvests the wisdom of his life’s work in A Little Tea Book: All the Essentials from Leaf to Cup (public library) — part practical field guide to choosing, preparing, and enjoying tea, part love letter, co-written with his childhood friend, former firefighter, and Gutsy Girl author Caroline Paul, and splendidly illustrated by Caroline’s wife and my dear friend Wendy MacNaughton.

Radiating from the pages are deep knowledge, good-natured humor, and a largehearted love of tea — the plant, the experience, the ecosystem of botany and labor and ritual, which George Orwell considered “one of the main stays of civilization.” What emerges is an encyclopedia of fact and joy, delving into the cultural and political histories of tea alongside its practical science and daily delights, bridging the sensorial and the spiritual dimensions of this ancient tradition turned modern staple.

Punctuating the book are various curiosities from the history of tea, emanating broader insight into human culture, the nature of creativity, and the serendipitous, often haphazard ways in which new ideas take root. Take, for instance, the story of the tea bag:

Tea bags were invented in the late 1800s but became wildly popular only after a New York tea purveyor named Thomas Sullivan sent samples of tea in silk bags. These were intended to be opened, the tea emptied out and then brewed, but customers instead dropped the bags straight into the water — and then complained that the material did not allow for the tea to steep. Sullivan turned to a more porous cloth and the tea bag was quickly embraced in America (though most of Britain turned up its nose, using loose tea until the mid-1970s.)

There are also invaluable antidotes to various oft-repeated myths, misconceptions, and half-truths — from the elemental fact that the six basic types of tea (white, green, yellow, oolong, black, and dark) all come from a single plant, Camellia sinensis, to the complex matter of caffeine. Beckwith and Paul offer a scientific corrective:

Many of us drink tea to wake up at the beginning of our day. You may even have heard that Camellia sinensis contains more caffeine than coffee beans. This is true, but misleading. We use much less tea than coffee by weight for a serving, so your cup of tea actually has at most one half the amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee. The relative level varies depending on the leaf used (the buds have higher concentrations), the cultivar, the leaf shape (a larger leaf results in a slower infusion because there is less surface area than, say, a fanning tea grade in your cup), and the brew time and technique (since caffeine is water-soluble, the longer tea steeps, the more caffeine is extracted; powdered tea like matcha has more caffeine because the leaves are consumed, not infused). It is important to note that caffeine does not correspond with tea type, so one cannot categorically say that black tea has more than green, or yellow tea has more than white.

Tea also contains the unique calming and relaxing — but not sedative — amino acid theanine, which has been found only in Camellia sinensis and one mushroom, Boletus badius. Theanine has been shown to improve mood and increase focus when combined with caffeine. This may be why tea drinkers often avoid the anxiety and jitters of those who imbibe coffee (known to some of us tea lovers as “devil juice.”)

Complement the lovely Little Tea Book with Orwell’s eleven golden rules for making the perfect cup of tea and the MacNaughton-illustrated field guide to wine, then revisit the touching, improbable story of how Kerouac saved Beckwith’s mother’s life.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 16 Oct 2018 | 3:46 pm

The Dalai Lama on Science and Spirituality

“What science finds to be nonexistent we should all accept as nonexistent, but what science merely does not find is a completely different matter.”


The Dalai Lama on Science and Spirituality

“The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both,” Carl Sagan wrote in his final book nearly four centuries after Galileo made the same point in his famous letter defending his life.

A recent Pioneer Works conversation about science and spirituality with physicist Alan Lightman, based on his immensely insightful and poetic book on the subject, reminded me of a different, older conversation contemplating the relationship between these two hallmarks of the human experience.

In the early 1990s, shortly after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, the Dalai Lama sat down for a five-day dialogue with a group of ten Western scientists and one philosopher of mind, seeking a scientific perspective on what Buddhism calls the Three Poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion — the primary classes of emotion that cause us to harm ourselves and those around us. The wide-ranging conversation, the synthesis of which was later published as Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama (public library), aimed to bridge ancient spiritual practices and modern findings in biology, cognitive science, psychology, and neuroscience in an effort to reveal the human mind’s capacity to transcend its own fundamental flaws.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet (Photograph: Tenzin Choejor)

With an eye to the complementarity between Buddhism, which has been exploring the human mind for millennia, and Western science, whose neuroscience and psychology are barely a century and a half old, the Dalai Lama writes in the preface to the book:

Buddhism and science are not conflicting perspectives on the world, but rather differing approaches to the same end: seeking the truth. In Buddhist training, it is essential to investigate reality, and science offers its own ways to go about this investigation. While the purposes of science may differ from those of Buddhism, both ways of searching for truth expand our knowledge and understanding.

Art by Oliver Jeffers for Love Letter America

Four millennia after the Buddha laid down his tenets of critical thinking, known as The Charter of Free Inquiry, the Dalai Lama points to the scientific method as our mightiest tool in the pursuit of truth, but also insists on applying it to science itself:

I have often said that if science proves facts that conflict with Buddhist understanding, Buddhism must change accordingly. We should always adopt a view that accords with the facts. If upon investigation we find that there is reason and proof for a point, then we should accept it. However, a clear distinction should be made between what is not found by science and what is found to be nonexistentby science. What science finds to be nonexistent we should all accept as nonexistent, but what science merely does not find is a completely different matter. An example is consciousness itself. Although sentient beings, including humans, have experienced consciousness for centuries, we still do not know what consciousness actually is: its complete nature and how it functions.

Calyces of Held — synapses made by axons carrying auditory information and contacting neurons in a brainstem structure called the trapezoid body. One of neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s stunning drawings of the brain.

The purpose of spirituality in a secular world, he argues, is that of a moral compass that tempers the destructive emotions that so often accompany our modern materialism. In consonance with Adam Gopnik’s insight into the essential nonreligious value of the Bible, the Dalai Lama echoes Martin Luther King’s assertion that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere [for] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” and writes:

The more we pursue material improvement, ignoring the contentment that comes of inner growth, the faster ethical values will disappear from our communities. Then we will all experience unhappiness in the long run, for when there is no place for justice and honesty in people’s hearts, the weak are the first to suffer. And the resentments resulting from such inequity ultimately affect everyone adversely.

With the ever-growing impact of science on our lives, religion and spirituality have a greater role to play in reminding us of our humanity. What we must do is balance scientific and material progress with the sense of responsibility that comes of inner development. That is why I believe this dialogue between religion and science is important, for from it may come developments that can be of great benefit to mankind.

The concrete manifestations of and path to that civilizational benefit is what the remainder of Destructive Emotions explores — questions of whether these destructive emotions are an elemental part of human nature, what lends them their formidable power, and how much plasticity there is in the brain to allow for outgrowing them. Complement this excerpt with Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr on subjective vs. objective reality and the uses of religion in a secular world, pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell on mathematics, divinity, and the human search for truth, and Albert Einstein’s 1931 conversation about science and spirituality with the Nobel-winning Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 16 Oct 2018 | 11:46 am

The Original Marriage of Equals: The Love Letters of Feminism Founding Mother Mary Wollstonecraft and Political Philosopher William Godwin

“We love as it were to multiply our consciousness… even at the hazard… of opening new avenues for pain and misery to attack us.”


The Original Marriage of Equals: The Love Letters of Feminism Founding Mother Mary Wollstonecraft and Political Philosopher William Godwin

At the end of the eighteenth century, no woman anywhere in the world could obtain higher education. Women’s right to vote was more than a century away in both England and America. Marriage was a tyrannical institution from which women could liberate themselves legally only with great difficult and at great cost — in the entire eighteenth century, only four women in Great Britain were able to obtain legal separation from their husbands. In divorce, which only men could initiate, children were considered the father’s property — the mother was automatically denied custody. Married women had no share of the household’s property and no legal protection — a husband could violate his wife with impunity. In Great Britain, chimpanzees and other nonhuman animals would obtain legal protection from abuse in 1824 — two decades before the first legislature addressing violence against women. Even these laws exempted husbands from prosecution — a wife was still considered personal property, to do with as the husband pleases. No term for marital rape existed and the crime wouldn’t be codified as such for another two centuries.

Against this backdrop, the self-educated political philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759–September 10, 1797) composed her epoch-making 1792 treatise Vindication of the Rights of Woman — the ignition spark of what we now call feminism. “I do not wish [women] to have power over men,” Wollstonecraft wrote, “but over themselves.” Her dedication of the book read:

Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue; and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath.

Four years after she published her landmark Vindication, having survived a heartbreak so deep that it drove her to attempt suicide, Wollstonecraft met the political philosopher William Godwin. Their courtship was slow, even reluctant — not the mad and maddening magnetic pull of instant infatuation, but the gradual and careful advance by which two people come to know the depths of each other’s being and arrive at a love that springs from those depths.

William Godwin (portrait by James Northcote) and Mary Wollstonecraft (portrait by John Opie)

They were married on March 29, 1797, with Mary four months pregnant, and entered a true marriage of equals — a notion not merely radical but utterly countercultural at the time. Godwin, a feminist long before feminism existed, considered marriage a necessary evil in society — necessary for its structural and legal value, evil for its inequitable treatment of women. Their marriage would be different — a beautiful bond not based on bondage, one in which neither lost themselves in the other, embodying instead Rilke’s insistence that the richest love is “the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes.” They each continued working on their respective literary projects, exchanging ideas while sharing household duties.

They were different, too — undergirding Mary’s intense intellect was an emotionally expansive imagination, while William placed reason at the center of his character and conveyed his emotions, however strong, with great reserve. But these differences, despite occasionally frustrating the couple, complemented each other and enlarged each of their natures. Two centuries later, the poet Mary Oliver would speak to such complementarity in her beautiful meditation on how differences bring couples closer together: “All of it, the differences and the maverick uprisings, are part of the richness of life. If you are too much like myself, what shall I learn of you, or you of me?”

Wollstonecraft and Godwin came to be admired by their contemporaries as “the most extraordinary married pair in existence.” Charlotte Gordon writes in her superb mother-daughter biography Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley (public library):

Young poets and intellectuals gathered at the Polygon to pay court to these middle-aged radicals and to admire the partnership that they had forged. The Godwin/Wollstonecraft marriage seemed to unite all the principles they held most dear: freedom, justice, reason, sensibility, and the imagination — in essence, the ideals of the Enlightenment combined with the exciting new tenets of Romanticism.

But true equality in love cannot exist solely at the level of ideas — of shared interests and values. It springs, rather, from the deepest stratum of the heart — a parity of emotional investment in the relationship and a certain symmetry, certain balance of affection and attention. Wollstonecraft and Godwin’s few surviving love letters emanate such a rare and beautiful marriage of equals at the level of the heart. Several months into her pregnancy, convinced that she is carrying a boy whom the couple nicknamed “Master William,” she writes to Godwin:

I am well and tranquil, excepting the disturbance produced by Master William’s joy, who took it into his head to frisk a little at being informed of your remembrance. I begin to love this little creature and to anticipate his birth as a fresh twist to a knot, which I do not wish to untie. Men are spoilt by frankness, I believe, yet I must tell you that I love you better than I supposed I did, when I promised to love you for ever — and I will add what will gratify your benevolence, if not your heart, that on the whole I may be termed happy.

Godwin is not “spoilt” but stirred by her openhearted outpouring of love — instead of retreating into reserve, he responds with even greater sincerity of affection:

You cannot imagine how happy your letter made me. No creature expresses, because no creature feels, the tender affections, so perfectly as you do: &, after all one’s philosophy, it must be confessed that the knowledge, that there is some one that takes an interest in our happiness… is extremely gratifying. We love as it were to multiply our consciousness… even at the hazard… of opening new avenues for pain and misery to attack us.

The baby turned out to be not a boy but a girl, who would go on to author Frankenstein. Ten days after giving birth to Mary Shelley, the 38-year-old Wollstonecraft would die of childbed fever — one of the era’s most dangerous diseases — leaving behind the foundation upon which the next two hundred years of humanity’s model of gender equality would be built.

“The Child Mary Shelley (at her Mother’s Death)” by William Blake

Complement this particular portion of Romantic Outlaws — which stands as one of the finest, most beautifully written and rigorously researched biographies I have ever read — with the love letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, another rare marriage of equals in an era of grave inequality, and Kahlil Gibran on the essential balance of intimacy and independence in healthy relationships, then revisit Wollstonecraft on the courage of unwavering affection and devour other beautiful love letters by Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, John Keats, Albert Einstein, John Cage, Franz Kafka, Frida Kahlo, Werner Heisenberg, and Hannah Arendt.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 15 Oct 2018 | 1:04 pm

The Mesmerizing Microscopy of Trees: Otherworldly Images Revealing the Cellular Structure of Wood Specimens

Stunning images that occupy the lacuna between art and science.


After a recent march in D.C., where I walked Walt Whitman’s love of democracy and his conviction that “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without,” I set out to temper the tumult of the human world with an immersion in Whitman’s other great love — the natural world. Visiting the National Museum of Natural History’s Objects of Wonder exhibition, a splendid embodiment of Whitman’s admiration of the character of trees stopped me up short: a display of slides revealing the cellular structure of trees and shrubs seen under a microscope — stunning images that occupy the lacuna between art and science, resembling ancient tapestries and Klimt paintings and galactic constellations.

Cornus controversa (giant dogwood), radial view
Cornus controversa (giant dogwood), tangential view
Prosopis juliflora (a Mexican mesquite shrub), transverse view

The slides are drawn from the 4,637 specimens amassed by the prolific wood collector Archie F. Wilson (1903–1960) — the largest private collection of arboreal specimens from around the world, donated to the museum’s already formidable wood collection a year after Wilson’s death.

Cornus stolonifera (red stem dogwood), transverse view
Cornus stolonifera (red stem dogwood), tangential view
Picea pungens (Colorado spruce), transverse view

Wilson, who served as a research associate at the Chicago Museum of Natural History and went on to preside over the International Wood Collectors Society, cut his samples into meticulously sanded 7×3-inch blocks. Each slide presents a thin slice from one of the blocks, stained to reveal specific microscopic features of its structure.

Maytenus micrantha, tangential view
Maytenus micrantha, transverse view
Colubrina arborescens (wild coffee), tangential view

Beyond their aesthetic rapture, these specimens have taken on a wonderfully hope-giving new role in advancing science and the law. Half a century after Wilson’s death, they have become part of a vast database documenting the chemical fingerprints of wood, known as the Forensic Spectra of Trees — or, because scientists do delight in acronymic puns, ForeST. Much like artist Ryota Kajita’s stunning photomicroscopy of Alaskan ice formation are being used to understand climate change, scientists are using Wilson’s samples for vital wood identification, not only in advancing botany, but in combatting the worldwide epidemic of illegal logging and timber trafficking, which has swelled to about a third of the world’s wood trade — ecologically exploitive contraband estimated to be costing the global economy up to $152 billion per year, with unfathomed environmental costs as entire ecosystems are being decimated. (Trees, lest we forget, are the relational infrastructure of the living world.)

Picea (spruce), radial view
Cornus kousa (Chinese dogwood), transverse view

In Brazil, nearly 20% of the Amazon rainforest has been savaged by illegal logging in the decades since Wilson’s death — the loss of woodland approximately equivalent to the size of California. In China, rosewood has become the blood diamond of the wood trade — a species protected under the multilateral endangered species treaty CITES, yet ruthlessly logged for the manufacture of expensive Ming and Qing dynasty furniture reproductions. A quarter of Russia’s timber exports come from illegal logging and a devastating 61% of Indonesian wood production is traded illegally.

Tsuga orientalis, tangential view
Mastixia (an evergreen)

Accompanying the ForeST database is an advanced spectrometry instrument that showers the wood sample with heated helium atoms to instantly reveal its chemical profile, enabling customs agents and the various custodians of environmental policy to perform simple, cheap, noninvasive wood analysis that identifies illegally traded species and helps prevent these losses of tree life that take generations to recover.

Ricinodendron heudelotii (West African tropical tree known as “cocoa’s friend”), tangential view
Ampelopsis brevipedunculata (porcelain vine), transverse view
Salix fragilia (brittle willow), transverse view
Quiina negrensis, radial view
Cornus stolonifera (red stem dogwood), transverse view
Capraria biflora (goatweed), transverse view
Cornus controversa (giant dogwood), transverse view
Ailanthus integrifolia (an East Asian rainforest tree), radial view

Complement with French photographer Cedric Pollet’s beautiful photographs of tree bark from around the world and amateur wood collector Romeyn Beck Hough’s remarkable cross-sections of trees from a century ago, then revisit Hermann Hesse’s lyrical love letter to trees and this beautiful illustrated celebration of the forest.

HT Smithsonian Magazine


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Source: Brain Pickings | 11 Oct 2018 | 8:24 pm

Ursula K. Le Guin on Time, the Meaning of Loyalty, and Why Honoring the Continuity of Past and Future Is the Root of Acting Responsibly

“If time and reason are functions of each other, if we are creatures of time, then we had better know it, and try to make the best of it. To act responsibly.”


Ursula K. Le Guin on Time, the Meaning of Loyalty, and Why Honoring the Continuity of Past and Future Is the Root of Acting Responsibly

“Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive,” Zadie Smith wrote in her superb antidote to our ahistorical worldview. So much of our suffering, both personal and political, stems from our inability — or, rather, unwillingness — to take a telescopic perspective of time; to look past the immediacy of symptoms and instead trace the long arc between cause and effect. Only along such an arc can we propel our moral development — again, both personal and political — toward its highest potentiality: justice, dignity, existential fulfillment.

That is what Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) explores throughout her 1974 science fiction novel The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (public library) — an extension of her classic short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, published a year earlier, which remains one of the most powerful and pause-giving thought experiments in literature.

Ursula K. Le Guin (Based on photograph by Benjamin Reed)

Speaking through her protagonist — the mathematician Shevek, modeled on the Nobel-winning physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, a friend of her parents’ — Le Guin writes:

Our sense of time involves our ability to separate cause and effect, means and end. The baby, again, the animal, they don’t see the difference between what they do now and what will happen because of it. They can’t make a pulley, or a promise. We can. Seeing the difference between now and not now, we can make the connection. And there morality enters in. Responsibility. To say that a good end will follow from a bad means is just like saying that if I pull a rope on this pulley it will lift the weight on that one. To break a promise is to deny the reality of the past; therefore it is to deny the hope of a real future. If time and reason are functions of each other, if we are creatures of time, then we had better know it, and try to make the best of it. To act responsibly.

Le Guin’s protagonist revisits the subject of time in a passage that stands as the prose counterpart to her splendid “Hymn to Time”:

Fulfillment… is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal. The variety seeking of the spectator, the thrill hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell.

Outside the locked room is the landscape of time, in which the spirit may, with luck and courage, construct the fragile, makeshift, improbable roads and cities of fidelity: a landscape inhabitable by human beings.

It is not until an act occurs within the landscape of the past and the future that it is a human act. Loyalty, which asserts the continuity of past and future, binding time into a whole, is the root of human strength; there is no good to be done without it.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

In a sentiment which Sarah Manguso would echo in her poignant assertion that “perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing,” Le Guin adds:

The thing about working with time, instead of against it, …is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts.

This tenet applies not only to the sequential record of life we call history, but to life itself, even — or perhaps especially — in its most immediate manifestations. Just as we lose perspective when we fragment history into isolated moments, we lose sight of the whole — of its beauty and of its inherent truth — whenever we fragment any element of life into its constituent parts. Elsewhere in the novel, Le Guin shines a sidewise gleam on this equivalence:

If you can see a thing whole… it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives. . . . But close up, a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death.

Complement this particular fragment of the wholly magnificent The Dispossessed with the psychology of temporality and Jorge Luis Borges’s landmark meditation on time, then revisit Le Guin on poetry and science, the power of art to transform and redeem, the art of growing older, storytelling as an instrument of freedom, and her classic unsexing of gender.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 10 Oct 2018 | 2:00 am

A Stunning Illustrated Celebration of the Wilderness and the Human Role in Nature Not as Conqueror but as Humble Witness

“It is said that the forest has a certain limit if you look straight ahead, but the sides are boundless.”


A Stunning Illustrated Celebration of the Wilderness and the Human Role in Nature Not as Conqueror but as Humble Witness

“When we have learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse wrote in his lyrical love letter to our arboreal companions, “then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.” When Walt Whitman beheld the singular wisdom of trees, he saw in them qualities “almost emotional, palpably artistic, heroic.” Philosopher Martin Buber insisted that trees can teach us to see others as they truly are.

Indeed, whatever the splendor, wisdom, and heroism of trees may be, it stems from the individual’s orientation to the whole — not only as an existential metaphor, but as a biological reality as science is uncovering the remarkable communication system via which trees feel and communicate with one another. Biologist David George Haskell recognized this in his poetic expedition to a dozen of the world’s most unusual trees: “The forest is not a collection of entities [but] a place entirely made from strands of relationship.”

That relational, existential mesmerism is what Italian author Riccardo Bozzi explores in The Forest (public library), illustrated by Violeta Lopíz and Valerio Vidali, and translated from the Italian by Debbie Bibo. Less a book than a tactile expedition into the existential wilderness, the journey unfolds across time and space, in “an enormous, ancient forest that has not yet been fully explored.”

The illustrations, minimalist yet luscious, peek through die-cuts and stretch across gatefolds, emulating the way one lovely thing becomes another when you look closely at nature with generous attentiveness to life at all scales.

Constructed in the tradition of Japanese binding, the book is wrapped in translucent velum that gives the lush cover illustration the aura of a mist-enveloped forest early in the morning.

The story begins when the forest is young — little more than a grove of small trees. With each page, it grows thicker and thicker, more impenetrable and more fascinating at the same time. We see the silhouettes of the explorers — white shadows cast of negative space against the vibrant forest — trek and kneel “to investigate its beauties and its dangers.”

It is said that the forest has a certain limit if you look straight ahead, but the sides are boundless. Here is where the explorers can venture with enjoyment and curiosity.

As the forest grows, so does the explorer: Rising out of the crisp-white page are the subtly embossed faces of different genders and races, also progressing along the way of life — an infant, an adolescent boy, a young woman, an old man.

The vibrant forest and its creatures peeking through the die-cut eyes of the barely visible faces remind us that the human role in nature is not that of conqueror or king but of humble witness and passing visitor — an awareness that calls to mind the founding ethos of the landmark 1964 Wilderness Act, poetically phrased by the naturalist and conservationist Mardy Murie: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Complement The Forest, which comes from Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books, with I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail — a very different die-cut masterpiece, reimagining a 17th-century British poem in Indian tribal art — and Annie Dillard on what mangrove trees can teach us about the human search for meaning, then revisit other Enchanted Lion treasures: Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Big Wolf & Little Wolf, The Lion and the Bird, This Is a Poem That Heals Fish, Bertolt, and Be Still, Life.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova


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Source: Brain Pickings | 9 Oct 2018 | 2:00 am

Borges on Turning Trauma, Misfortune, and Humiliation into Raw Material for Art

“All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.”


Borges on Turning Trauma, Misfortune, and Humiliation into Raw Material for Art

“Forget your personal tragedy,” Ernest Hemingway exhorted his dear friend F. Scott Fitzgerald in a tough-love letter of advice. “Good writers always come back. Always.” It is an insight as true of writers as it is of all artists and of human beings in general, as true of personal tragedy as it is of collective tragedy — something Toni Morrison articulated in her mobilizing manifesto for the writer’s task in troubled times: “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

That is what Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986) — born the same year as Hemingway, writing two decades before Morrison — conveys with uncommon splendor of sentiment in Twenty-Four Conversations with Borges: Including a Selection of Poems (public library) — the record of his dialogues with the Argentine journalist and poet Roberto Alifano, conducted in the final years of Borges’s life, by which point he had been blind for almost thirty years.

Jorge Luis Borges

In a passage Susan Sontag would come to quote in her magnificent letter to Borges composed on the tenth anniversary of his death, he reflects:

A writer — and, I believe, generally all persons — must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.

Complement with Simone Weil on how to make use of our suffering, Marina Abramović on turning trauma into fuel for art, and May Sarton on the artist’s task to rise above the tumult of the times, then revisit Borges on writing, the measure of success, collective joy and collective tragedy, the paradox of time, and the illusion of the self.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 8 Oct 2018 | 2:00 am

Pioneering Conservationist Mardy Murie on Nature, Human Nature, and the Wealth of the Wilderness

“Beauty is a resource in and of itself… I hope the United States of America is not so rich that she can afford to let these wildernesses pass by — or so poor she cannot afford to keep them.”


Pioneering Conservationist Mardy Murie on Nature, Human Nature, and the Wealth of the Wilderness

“After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains?” Walt Whitman asked in contemplating what makes life worth living, then answered: “Nature remains.” But what happens when nature is in peril, no longer the consolatory constant counted on to remain? A decade before Rachel Carson catalyzed the modern environmental movement, she addressed the urgency of this question in a prescient 1953 letter in response to the government’s merciless assault nature for commercial gain: “The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife… Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.”

Another quarter century later, as Carson’s legacy was beginning to blossom into policy change — including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency — the naturalist, conservationist, adventurer, and author Margaret “Mardy” Murie (August 18, 1902–October 19, 2003) echoed Carson in her 1977 congressional testimony for the Alaska Lands Bill:

Beauty is a resource in and of itself. Alaska must be allowed to be Alaska, that is her greatest economy. I hope the United States of America is not so rich that she can afford to let these wildernesses pass by — or so poor she cannot afford to keep them.

Margaret “Mardy” Murie

The seedbed of Murie’s reverence for the wilderness was her childhood in Alaska. There she encountered nature at her most beautiful, most ferocious, and most generous. The winters stretched from October to April and the temperature dropped to fifty below zero for weeks on end, but Murie remembers living “in an atmosphere of tolerance and love” — an orientation that stretched beyond the relationships between humans and into humanity’s relationship with nature. In the preface to her 1962 memoir, Two in the Far North (public library), she writes:

Here in Alaska people still count, as much today as in the twenties. I would love to think the world will survive its obsession with machines to see a day when people respect one another all over the world. It seems as clear as a shaft of the Aurora that this is our only hope. My prayer is that Alaska will not lose the heart-nourishing friendliness of her youth — that her people will always care for one another, her towns remain friendly and not completely ruled by the dollar — and that her great wild places will remain great, and wild, and free, where wolf and caribou, wolverine and grizzly bear, and all the arctic blossoms may live on in the delicate balance which supported them long before impetuous man appeared in the North.

This is the great gift Alaska can give to the harassed world.

In the foreword to the 1997 edition of Murie’s memoir, Terry Tempest Williams — a Murie of our own time — quotes from an unpublished manuscript Murie had shared with her in her ninety-fifth year:

There may be people who feel no need for nature. They are fortunate, perhaps. But for those of us who feel otherwise, who feel something is missing unless we can hike across land disturbed only by our footsteps or see creatures roaming freely as they have always done, we are sure there should be wilderness. Species other than man have rights, too. Having finished all the requisites of our proud, materialistic civilization, our neon-lit society, does nature, which is the basis for our existence, have the right to live on? Do we have enough reverence for life to concede to wilderness this right?

Illustration by Matthew Forsythe from The Gold Leaf

Two years after the publication of Two in the Far North, Murie would bring her devotion to conservation and her lyrical language to the 1964 Wilderness Act — a landmark legislative triumph of respect for nature, designating 9.1 million acres of federal land as protected from human exploitation. She helped compose its founding ethos — a precise yet immensely poetic definition of wilderness:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,* where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

In 1998, midway through her ninety-sixth year, Murie’s conservation work earned her the nation’s highest civilian honor: the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Complement with Terry Tempest Williams on the wilderness as an antidote to the war within ourselves, Henry Beston on relearning to be nurtured by nature, Michael McCarthy on nature and joy, Henry David Thoreau on nature as a form of prayer, and Carson on our spiritual bond with nature.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 4 Oct 2018 | 2:00 am

Anton Chekhov’s 6 Rules for a Great Story

Mastering the essential complementarity of compassion and total objectivity.


Anton Chekhov’s 6 Rules for a Great Story

“Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted,” Kurt Vonnegut offered in the first of his 8 tips for writing a good story. “A good story and a well-formed argument are different natural kinds,” the pioneering Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner observed in his essay on what makes a great story. “Both can be used as means for convincing another. Yet what they convince of is fundamentally different: arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their lifelikeness.” What, then, makes for maximally convincing lifelikeness in a story that leaves the reader grateful for the time spent reading it?

That is what Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (January 29, 1860–July 15, 1904) examined in a letter to his brother Alexander, included in the 1973 volume Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentaries (public library),

Anton Chekhov (Portrait by Osip Braz, 1898)

Writing on May 10, 1888, Chekhov lays out his six tenets of a great story:

  1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature
  2. Total objectivity
  3. Truthful descriptions of persons and objects
  4. Extreme brevity
  5. Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype
  6. Compassion

Embedded in the complementarity rather than contradiction of the second and the sixth — total objectivity and compassion — is the recognition that no depiction of reality is realistic unless it include an empathic account of all perspectives, which might be the defining characteristic not only of Chekhov as a writer but of any great storyteller.

Chekhov had put his own principles to fine use — that year, his short story collection At Dusk won him the prestigious Pushkin Prize, named after his famed compatriot Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (June 6, 1799–February 10, 1837), who had articulated a remarkably similar philosophy of storytelling half a century earlier.

In a fragment from 1830, Pushkin considers what makes a great dramatist — the most esteemed species of storyteller in the era’s ecosystem of literature — and lists the following necessary qualities:

A philosophy, impartiality, the political acumen of a historian, insight, a lively imagination. No prejudices or preconceived ideas. Freedom.

Complement with Chekhov — a lover of lists — on the 8 qualities of cultured people, then revisit other abiding advice on the craft from great writers: Susan Sontag on the art of storytelling, Jeanette Winterson’s 10 rules of writing and another 10 from Zadie Smith, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, John Steinbeck’s 6 guideposts, Jack Kerouac’s 30 “beliefs & techniques” for writing and life, Eudora Welty on the art of narrative, Kurt Vonnegut on the shapes of stories, James Baldwin’s advice to writers, and Ernest Hemingway’s reading list of essential books for every aspiring writer to read.


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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 3 Oct 2018 | 2:00 am

Loving vs. Being in Love: Jane Welsh Carlyle on Navigating the Heart’s Contradictions

“A passion, like the torrent in the violence of its course, might perhaps too, like the torrent, leave ruin and desolation behind… My love for you… is deep and calm, more like the quiet river, which refreshes and beautifies where it flows.”


Loving vs. Being in Love: Jane Welsh Carlyle on Navigating the Heart’s Contradictions

Like Alice James — the brilliant diarist who lived and wrote in the shadow of her brothers, Henry and William James — Jane Welsh Carlyle (January 14, 1801–April 21, 1866), unpublished and shadowed by her famous husband, was a literary genius whose private letters stand as masterpieces of prose in their own right. Virginia Woolf admired her as “so brilliant, so deeply versed in life and scornful of its humbugs… the most caustic, the most concrete, the most clear-sighted of women.” Charles Dickens considered her a greater storyteller, with a superior talent for observation and character development, than any of the published women novelists of her day. For a time, she was rumored to have authored the pseudonymously published Jane Eyre.

What lent her letters their shimmering intensity of insight was Jane’s uncommon openness to and insight into the complex, often confusing inner workings of the human heart and is maddening contradictions.

Jane Welsh Carlyle (Portrait by Samuel Laurence, 1952)

Shortly after her twentieth birthday, Jane Welsh met Thomas Carlyle — the essayist, mathematician, historian, and philosopher, who was then a struggling young writer of lower social stature, with no stable income and no intellectual achievement to his name, but would later become Scotland’s most esteemed polymath. At first, she spurned his courtship with the adamant insistence — perhaps out of self-knowledge, perhaps out of self-protection and fear — that she is constitutionally incapable of romantic love, uninterested in marriage at the expense of her intellectual ambitions, and would only hurt him if she consented to a relationship. In a letter from early 1823, found in the devastatingly titled I Too Am Here: Selections from the Letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle (public library), she pushes him away with equal parts magnanimity toward his needs and uncompromising clarity about hers:

To cause unhappiness to others, above all to those I esteem, and would do anything within my duties and abilities to serve, is the cruelest pain I know — but positively I can not fall in love — and to sacrifice myself out of pity is a degree of generosity of which I am not capable — besides matrimony under any circumstances would interfere shockingly with my plans.

Carlyle, conflicted in his own right at the prospect of getting hurt but besotted nonetheless, plays into this game of push and pull, charging that it is “useless and dangerous” for him to love her and that she has made his “happiness wrecked” by letting him fall in love with her and then rejecting him. Jane responds by insisting that her love for him is true, but not the kind he yearns for. In the last week of summer, she grows even more resolute in her dual pledge that she will never leave him as a friend but will never be with him as a romantic partner:

My Friend I love you — I repeat it tho’ the expression a rash one — all the best feelings of my nature are concerned in loving you — But were you my Brother I would love you the same, were I married to another I would love you the same — and is this sentiment so calm, so delightful — but so unimpassioned enough to recompense the freedom of my heart, enough to reconcile moe to the existence of a married woman the hopes and wishes and ambitions of which are all different from mine, the cares and occupations of which are my disgust — Oh no! Your Friend I will be, your truest most devoted friend, while I breathe the breath of life; but your wife! never never!

But then, having issued this most vehement of self-protective disclaimers, she adds:

Write to me and reassure me — for God’s sake reassure me if you can! Your Friendship at this time is almost necessary to my existence. Yet I will resign it cost what it may — will, will resign it if it can only be enjoyed at the risk of your future peace — …

They continued this conflicted dance for more than a year, until it became clear they had to make a choice. In a letter penned in the first days of 1825, a week before Jane’s twenty-fourth birthday, she confronts the abiding question of how you know whether you are in love, as opposed to merely infatuated:

I love you — I have told you so a hundred times; and I should be the most ungrateful, and injudicious of mortals if I did not — but I am not in love with you — that is to say — my love for you is not a passion which overclouds my judgement; and absorbs all my regards for myself and others — it is a simple, honest, serene affection, made up of admiration and sympathy, and better perhaps, to found domestic enjoyment on than any other — In short it is a love which influences, does not make the destiny of a life.

Jane Welsh Carlyle (from the miniature by Kenneth Macleay, painted July 1826)

Jane had two primary reservations about marrying Carlyle: that their differences — of class, of means, of ambitions — were too vast, and that a life of domesticity would keep her from actualizing herself as a writer. Asserting that “the idea of a sacrifice should have no place in a voluntary union,” she suggests that marrying him would be a self-sacrifice — a form of settling for a life smaller than the life she wants. And yet she also acknowledges that her choice is not between marrying him and marrying someone else, but between marrying him and not marrying at all. She writes:

I should have goodsense enough to abate something of my romantic ideal, and to content myself with stopping short on this side idolatry — At all events I will marry no one else — This is all the promise I can or will make. A positive engagement to marry a certain person at a certain time, at all haps and hazards, I have always considered the most ridiculous thing on earth: it is either altogether useless or altogether miserable; if the parties continue faithfully attached to each other it is a mere ceremony — if otherwise it comes a galling fetter riveting them to wretchedness and only to be broken with disgrace.

She presents him with her take-it-or-leave-it proposition: If their love is to endure, it must not be rushed into marriage but allowed to grow organically, its rightness and resilience tested in the garden of time:

Such is the result of my deliberations on this very serious subject. You may approve of it or not; but you cannot either persuade me or convince me out of it — My decisions — when I do decide — are unalterable as the laws of the Medes & Persians — Write instantly and tell me that you are content to leave the event to time and destiny and in the meanwhile to continue my Friend and Guardian which you have so long and so faithfully been — and nothing more

Jane struggles with the choice between her heart’s desire, with its conflicted factions of deep love and vibrating doubt, and what she believes is best for her beloved. Unwilling to err on the side of selfishness, she fears that in asking him to go on with their relationship while she wades through her own uncertainties would keep him from pursuing a relationship with someone else better suited for him and would thus stand between him and his happiness. She articulates her ambivalence with exquisite self-awareness:

It would be more agreeable to etiquette, and perhaps also to prudence, that I should adopt no middle course in an affair such as this — that I should not for another instant encourage an affection I may never reward and a hope I may never fulfill; but cast your heart away from me at once since I cannot embrace the resolution which would give me a right to it for ever. This I would assuredly do if youwere like the generality of lovers, or if it were still in my power to be happy independent of your affection but as it [is] neither etiquette nor prudence can obtain this for me.

Unsure whether she can give him the kind of love and kind of life he wants, Jane places the difficult decision — the choice of whether to part ways or carry forth toward an alluring but uncertain future — into her beloved’s hands. After “a sleepless night, with an aching head, and an aching anxious heart,” she writes:

If there is any change to be made in the terms on which we have so long lived with one another; it must be made by you not me — I cannot make any.

When a hurt and angry Carlyle, no doubt himself sundered by the intensity of love and the fear of its loss, accuses her of insensitively causing him unhappiness by framing the choice before them as so binary, she defends its validity as rooted in the respective realities of their two hearts:

I have refused my immediate, positive assent to your wishes; because our mutual happiness seemed to require that I should refuse it; but for the rest I have not slighted your wishes, on the contrary, I have expressed my willingness to fulfill them, at the expense of every thing but what I deem to be essential to our happiness: and so far from undervaluing you, I have shown you, in declaring I would marry no one else, not only that I esteem you above all the men I have ever seen; but also that I am persuaded I should esteem you above all the men I may ever see — What, then, have you to be hurt or angry at?

Returning to the fear that in choosing to be together, either of them might be settling for a lesser life than their ideal, Jane elects to be a realist rather than a romantic in steering love’s course:

My heart is capable (I feel it is) o fa love to which no deprivation would be a sacrifice — a love which would… carry every thought and feeling of my being along with it — But the all-perfect Mortal, who could inspire me with a love so extravagant, is nowhere to be found — exists nowhere but in the Romance of my own imagination! Perhaps it is better for me as it is — A passion, like the torrent in the violence of its course, might perhaps too, like the torrent, leave ruin and desolation behind. In the mean time, I should be very mad, were I to act as if from the influence of such a passion, while my affections are in a state of perfect tranquility. I have already explained to you the nature of my love for you; that it is deep and calm, more like the quiet river, which refreshes and beautifies where it flows, than the torrent which bears down and destroys.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass

Two years into their relationship, she reminds him how much her feelings have evolved from the initial insistence that she is too closed down to love — strong evidence, though not a perfect guarantee, that they might evolve further still. She writes:

From the change which my sentiments towards you have already undergone, during the period our acquaintance; I have little doubt but, that, in time, I shall be perfectly satisfied with them. One loves you…. in proportion to the ideas and sentiments which are in oneself; according[ly,] as my mind enlarges, and my heart improves, I become capable of comprehending the goodness and greatness which are in you, and my affection for you increases. Not many months ago, I would have said it was impossible that I should ever be your wife; at present I consider this the most probable destiny for me; and in a year or so, perhaps, I shall consider it the only one. “Die Zeit ist noch nicht da!” [“The time is not yet here!”]

With an eye to these sentiments, she maps out the only responsible course forward — they must each endeavor to heal, grow, and refine their separate selves before they can unite their lives:

From what I have said, it is plain (to me, at least), what ought to be the line of our future conduct. Do you what you can to better you external circumstances; always, however, subordinately to your own principles, which I do not ask you to give up, which I should despise you for giving up, whether I approved them or no — While I on the other hand do what I can, subordinately to nothing, to better myself which I am persuaded is the surest way of bringing my wishes to accord with yours. (And let us leave the rest to Fate, satisfied that we have both of us done what lies with [us] for our mutual happiness.)

Jane takes issue with one particular passage of Carlyle’s accusatory letter, in which he narrowed the choices before them as marrying immediately or parting for good. Recognizing in it an insincere and defensive ultimatum based not on his true wishes but on fear and a desire for control in the face of uncertainty, she challenges him:

I will not believe that you have seriously thought of parting from me, of throwing off a heart, which you have taught to lean upon you, till it is no longer sufficient for itself! You could never be so ungenerous! you, who for years have shown and professed for me the most [selfless], most noble affection! How could I part from the only living soul that understands me? I would marry you tomorrow rather! but then,– our parting would indeed need to be brought about by death or some dispensation of uncontrollable Providence — were you to will it, to part would no longer be bitter, the bitterness would be in thinking you unworthy.

If Carlyle were to break things off with her because she stands in the way of his happiness, Jane concedes with “the weight of a millstone” at her heart that she could never begrudge his decision. But she reminds him that he had entered into this courtship willingly, in full awareness of her initial reservations, which she had transparently and repeatedly offered. And so if he has found himself hurt and unhappy, it is on account of unprocessed pain that predates her. In an astute sentiment which the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh would echo nearly two centuries later in his assertion that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” Jane writes:

If indeed your happiness was to suffer from your intercourse with me in our present relation, I would not blame you for discontinuing it; tho’ I should blame you, perhaps, for not examining yourself better before you entered into it — But how can that be? Your present situation is miserable; it must be altered; but is it with reference to me that it must be altered? Is it I who have made it miserable? No! you were as unhappy before we met as ever you have been since: the cause of your unhappiness then must lie in other circumstances of your destiny, which I have no connection with — no real connection, however much I may seem to have, from being frequently associated with them in your mind. It is an alteration in these circumstances which your duty and happiness require from you; and not an alteration in your relation with me.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass

Jane and Thomas did not part ways. Having voiced, faced, and surmounted their respective fears and reservations, they moved closer and closer toward each other in the coming months. They told each other difficult truths. Jane confesses that she had been minimizing her feelings for another man — her engaged former tutor, with whom she knew she could never be but whom she had indeed loved, “once passionately,” even. Imploring Carlyle for forgiveness, she writes:

Woe to me then if your reason be my judge! … Never were you so dear as at this moment when I am in danger of losing your affection or what is still more precious to me your respect.

Jane finds herself “the forlornest, most dispirited of creatures” as she awaits his response. Awash in gladness and relief when an assuring letter from Carlyle finally arrives, she exults:

What is love if it can not make all rough places smooth!

Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle were married on October 17, 1826. Only four people attended the wedding — three of her family and one of his. Although shortly after the ceremony she wrote to a relative that her new husband possessed all the qualities she deemed essential in a mate — “a warm true heart to love me, a towering intellect to command me, and a spirit of fire to be the guiding star-light of my life” — the romantic fantasy soon gave way to the reality of their contrasting natures. For the remaining forty years of Jane’s life — she died considering herself an unrealized woman — they proceeded to have a tortured relationship that syphoned her creative aspiration and relegated her increasingly to the role of her husband’s helpmate. They had no children. Carlyle’s official biographer argued that the relationship was never consummated. Both Thomas and Jane went on to have romantic, though by all evidence not sexual, entanglements with other people — most notably, Jane’s intense relationship with the novelist Geraldine Jewsbury. Jane met Geraldine, as Virginia Woolf would write a century later, with “that uneasy sense that old relationships had shifted and that new ones were forming themselves,” and she became her most significant intimate attachment for the last quarter century of her life.

Complement with the Carlyles’ contemporary Stendhal, writing in the year Jane and Thomas met, on the seven stages of falling in and out of love and the poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran, writing a century later, on the courage to weather love’s uncertainties.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 2 Oct 2018 | 10:50 am

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