…but that’s what happens, you know, especially when you’re trying to play by feeling, which is out of sight, which is the best way. Because you’re not seeing anything that’s been rehearsed and all that, everything we’re doing and every way you’re feeling now is together and it’s natural…
— In October, 1968, Jimi Hendrix played a few shows at the Winterland — an old ice rink/music venue in San Francisco (now, quite sadly, a sterile block of apartments). He played “Red House” — one of the world’s best blues songs — three times over the course of those shows, and after he first played it, he said this. It comes after he apologizes for how slow they were playing (it’s still over 12 minutes — the next time he played it in 9, and the last time in 15). This quote, though, encapsulates a great deal about Hendrix, blues, the 1960s, and little hunches. You get the sense that he is channeling something artistically timeless: it’s Beethoven, van Gogh, and Miles Davis all rolled together, and fueled by a little more LSD.
The context surrounding this letter from Rachel Carson (celebrated author of Silent Spring) to her friend is quite beautiful: it was the final time they saw each other, and they spent it on the coast of Maine watching monarch butterflies. This is my favorite part:
For the Monarch, that [life] cycle is measured in a known span of months. For ourselves, the measure is something else, the span of which we cannot know.
And so, here is another take on uncertainty — the oft-discussed little hunches theme. It’s something we spend our lives wondering about, fighting, and coming to terms with, and it’s a good thing to revisit from time to time.
There are times when it’s nice to sit and watch. During a rainstorm, perhaps, or a beautiful sentence. And those moments might be sacred, where the daily occurrence of a thing becomes quite majestic. Like, for example, turning around on the pier in Santa Barbara and seeing the sun fall behind some palm trees.
The Grapes of Wrath — second only to East of Eden, in my opinion, as Steinbeck’s best novel — was published on this day in 1939. It’s fitting to be in California now, more fitting to have recently spent some time on Route 66, and even more fitting that I’m on the road myself. I am convinced that what matters are moments, and I hope that I spend my life accumulating them in a way that would make Rodin proud.
Let her sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.
— 200 years ago today, Napoleon was banished to Elba — the small island off the coast of Tuscany — when the Treaty of Fontainebleau was signed in Paris. His exile was temporary, he kept his title of “Emperor” (even though it no longer applied to France), and was given sovereignty over the island. This quote (actually in reference to China) is one of his many aphorisms, but likely my favorite. I like to think of it as a perfect complement to Tolstoy, who obviously chronicled the Napoleonic Wars in War and Peace. It also fits nicely with the poetry of Robert Frost — a timeless lesson in endurance — and the wisdom of Paulo Coelho. But perhaps most curiously, Napoleon’s words sent me back to the Tao Te Ching — one of the best expressions of calmness and patience I have read.
Here — on the 89th anniversary of the publication of The Great Gatsby (and following Emily Brontë’s idea of love) — is F. Scott Fitzgerald. This comes from a letter he wrote to his daughter, a rather poignant one, where he is talking about his troubled wife, Zelda.
There has always been something beautiful to me about why-less things — not that they don’t provoke questions, just that standard answers are almost always unsatisfactory. It’s like Neil Gaiman describing the best moments in life, Mr. Darcy abandoning his conventional stoicism in favor of emotion, or more anonymous letters about what it means to truly live.
The Great Gatsby will always remain one of the most incredible things I have read. And I did so in a physics class one week in high school when I was supposed to be learning something else.
Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.
— It is always interesting to spend some time with old books, and Wuthering Heights is no exception. I shy away from (and maybe even gag at) this overly romantic notion of “souls coming together” or “two people completing each other” — in fact, this is the idea of love I better ascribe to — but it’s worth considering. The most enduring legacy of the book is Heathcliff, the complicated character who splits his time as both victim and victimizer. As difficult as it may be to sympathize with his intense change in character — and as hard as it becomes to rationalize how manipulative and calculating he turns — Emily Brontë makes it entirely relatable: she breaks Heathcliff’s heart. This quote comes from the woman he loves more than anyone, Catherine Earnshaw. Her words suggest a reciprocal love, but she chooses a “sensible” relationship instead. And that decision, as the history of the world will also attest to, is a bad one.
This comes from the same man who wrote this:
"Behind the head, instead of painting the ordinary wall of the mean room, I will paint infinity…"
Vincent van Gogh moved to Arles, in Southern France, to paint. In 1888 and 1889, the local cypresses dazzled him, and after he sketched a series of them, he wrote the quote you see in a letter to his brother.
It is his most beautiful motivation, I think, that he was certain — and slightly incredulous — that the world had not yet seen cypresses the way he thought they should be seen (or, the way that he saw them). And further, he was so driven by his awe that he actually acted on it.
That same ability to tell our own story is somewhere inside each of us, and the tragedy is in its suppression. It is something like the rock-pile of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the Don Quixote and Sancho Panza of Pablo Picasso, and the confidence of Frank Sinatra all rolled together.
Because if you don’t, well…
People often say that I’m curious about too many things at once: botany, astronomy, comparative anatomy. But can you really forbid a man from harbouring a desire to know and embrace everything that surrounds him?
— Alexander von Humbolt was a German geographer and explorer who left Europe on an epic five-year adventure around South America when he was 29. When he returned, he wrote about all he had seen and discovered, and was praised by Darwin, Jefferson, and Bolívar (among others). He wrote this toward the end of his life, a beautiful acknowledgement that his curiosity — along with his ability to ignore his critics — fueled his legacy. May we all maintain such fidelity to the things that stir us.
Having spent part of the sunny weekend in Austin reading in Zilker Park, I thought this list quite a nice one. The world is full of cozy, lovely, quiet spots to sit with books, and these are just a few.
I have always had a strong connection between what I read and where I read it, and these are my five favorite — or perhaps, most memorable — places:
- Cairns, Australia — I sat at a quiet restaurant on the water night after night reading Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway.
- Avignon, France — I sat on a patch of grass near the Rhone (and the old Pont Saint-Bénézet) reading Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck.
- Muara Beach, Brunei — I lay on the beach and read most of The Counterlife, by Philip Roth, punctuated by some splashing in the South China Sea.
- Lake Atitlán, Guatemala — For a few days I stayed on the side of a mountain on the edge of the lake reading the second volume of Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ, Means of Ascent.
- Ambergris Caye, Belize — This time on the Caribbean, I remember buckling in laughter as I read a particularly absurd part of Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.
At last week’s TED Conference, we were each photographed. And we could write what we wanted to take into the photo with us. This is me, standing with what I wrote.
It reminds me of some other “rules” I wrote a couple of years ago, though I think I’m happier with these ones.
It’s a nice task: what are the most important things to you? And I would have to encourage fearlessness and grandeur when you write them down. You should be drawn to the things you love.
Journeys are the midwives of thought.
— Alain de Botton writes plenty that I disagree with, and a lot that I feel to be too rigid. But, scattered throughout The Art of Travel — a collection of essays on the topic — he occasionally offers ideas like this one. He says it quite beautifully, I think, and adds a more “intellectual” bent to a concept discussed here often: we are shaped by the paths we build and follow. It’s amazing how thematic this is in art: Robert Frost talks about the miles he has to travel, Gus (from Lonesome Dove) sees a cattle drive as a defining journey, and Jack Kerouac always anticipated the next adventure. Uncertainty — especially the kind offered by traveling — may just be the best classroom we ever enter.
You could argue that it might have been Thomas the Tank Engine, but Winnie the Pooh was probably the first character I really loved being around. He is such a simple, happy, teddy bear, and the things he says to his eclectic troupe of friends have a beautiful way of resonating. In fact, very often the picture above is linked to one of his more famous lines:
"If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you."
At yesterday’s TED Conference, Jon Mooallem gave a wonderful talk about animals and how we relate to them, how we engage with them, and how they survive. He arrived at a lovely conclusion:
"The species that survive are the ones we tell stories about. How we feel about an animal affects is survival more than anything we read in ecology textbooks. Storytelling matters. Emotion matters. Our imagination has become an ecological force."
The power of creativity and storytelling can’t be underemphasized. In the case of animals, in fact, those two forces have great impact on their existence. And so it is with everything we tell stories about: our words matter and have a more profound effect than we realize.
What kind of story do you tell yourself? What kind would others tell about you? As abstract or harmless as these answers may seem, they are not.
(I found this photo here.)
We take the things that we love and build on them.
— Mark Ronson is an English musician and producer, and dazzled the TED stage the other night with his talk about borrowed ideas: the notion that the things we do best — the things that really move us — are composed of the things we love. Ronson used music to make his point, and showed us how beats and lyrics repeat, each era adding its own twist (legendary producer Rick Rubin said much the same). In a sense, this is the way to describe little hunches. It is a happy interweaving of thoughts and ideas that I love to present and connect.
Malala Yousafzai is the youngest Nobel Peace Prize nominee, a 16-year-old Pakistani was shot in the head and neck by the Taliban. Her story is incredible.
There are quotes about strength in the face of difficulty on little hunches, there are others about fear, peace, and love. But her story is without rival, a chilling and beautiful reminder that this is never to be forgotten.
Yesterday evening, on a stage in Vancouver, her father gave a TED Talk. He closed with his answer to a question he gets quite often: “What did you do to create this courage in your daughter?”
"Don’t ask me what I did do," he said, "ask me what I didn’t do."
And then this:
"I did not clip her wings."
May our love always be empowering.
Great is the matter of birth and death, all is impermanent quickly passing. Awake! Awake! Don’t waste this life.
— These lines — inscribed most beautifully on gongs — are often used to call Buddhist monks to practice. The idea is quite lovely: when the gong is struck, the reverberations send both sound and word, combining to create something that neither could on its own. Take from it what you will, but maybe it’s worth considering what it means for you to awaken. Is it time for new roads? How about writing your own rules to live by? Maybe pulling closer the things that make you feel alive? Let me suggest one: take a peaceful moment to know how wonderful the things are that stir your heart.