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A Brother’s Love August 2, 2020

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“Impossible is just a word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”

 

– Muhammad Ali

Yesterday I referred to Maria Mitchell as an impossible woman. Back in 2016, thanks to Justin Timberlake quoting Muhammad Ali to a bunch of teens, I started thinking about what it meant to be an impossible person and spent the first week in August highlighting impossible people. Born today in Harlem, New York, in 1924, the author James Baldwin is – by his own words – my second impossible person.

“Given the conditions in this country to be a black writer was impossible. When I was young, people thought you were not so much wicked as sick, they gave up on you. My father didn’t think it was possible—he thought I’d get killed, get murdered. He said I was contesting the white man’s definitions, which was quite right.”

 

– James Baldwin, quoted from the interview “James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No. 78” by Jordan Elgrably (printed in The Paris Review, Issue 91, Spring 1984)

Mr. Baldwin’s life (and career) were, in so many ways, shaped by a combination of the opinions of his father (who he referred to as his father), his stepfather’s opinion of how the world would view him, how the world actually viewed him, and his own ideas about what was possible – or, what was necessary. He spent the ages of 14 – 17 following his father’s footsteps into the ministry and then, when his father died, he took a giant leap. He said, “Those were three years [preaching] which probably turned me to writing.”

Mr. Baldwin not only leapt into writing. He leapt across the pond to Paris, France, twice, even as his writing challenged Western society’s conceptions about race, class, gender, and sexuality. His essays, novels, and plays include Giovanni’s Room, Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Next Time, If Beale Street Could Talk (which was recently made into a movie) and the unfinished manuscript Remember This House (which was adapted to create the 2016 Academy Award-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro). Mr. Baldwin first went to Paris with $40 and not a lick of French. He was 24 years old, coming to grips with his sexuality, and escaping what he viewed – what he had witnessed – was a death sentence at the hands of American society.

“Not so metaphorically. Looking for a place to live. Looking for a job. You begin to doubt your judgment, you begin to doubt everything. You become imprecise. And that’s when you’re beginning to go under. You’ve been beaten, and it’s been deliberate. The whole society has decided to make you nothing. And they don’t even know they’re doing it.”

 

– James Baldwin, quoted from the interview “James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No. 78” by Jordan Elgrably (printed in The Paris Review, Issue 91, Spring 1984)

From Paris, he was able to not only gain perspective about his experiences of being Black in America (and of being Black and Gay in America), but also to offer those experience back to the United States – in the form of a literary mirror. In words that very much echo Miss Maria Mitchell’s words, he said wanted to see himself, and be seen as, more than “merely a Negro; or, merely a Negro writer.”

In his late 30’s/early 40’s, Mr. Baldwin briefly returned to the United States and physically participated in the Civil Rights Movement and Gay Liberation Movement that he had (from Paris) helped to literally inspire. He became friends with Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Lorraine Hansberry, Nikki Giovanni, and Nina Simone (who he and Mr. Hughes convinced to become active in the Civil Rights Movement). He worked with Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark, as well as Lena Horne and Miss Hansberry, to discuss the importance of civil rights legislation with President John F. Kennedy.

His friendships, however, were not only with Black artists and activists. He worked with his childhood friend Richard Avedon, marched with Marlon Brando and Charlton Heston, collaborated with Margaret Mead and Sol Stein, and also knew Rip Torn, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Dorothea Tanning. In fact, to read a biography or biography of James Baldwin is to read a who’s who of activism and artistry in the 20th century. But, you don’t have to settle for a reading a measly biography. If you can get your hands on the 1,884 pages of documents compiled by the FBI, you would be in for quite a treat.

Yes, you read that correctly. For a little over a decade, the FBI collected nearly two thousand pages worth of documents on a man many Americans may not realize helped convince President Kennedy to send federal troops to defend the civil rights activists marching from Selma to Montgomery. True, it’s not the well-over 17,000 pages they compiled on Martin Luther King (not including the wire-tap documents). Here, however, is some perspective: the FBI only collected 276 pages on authors like Richard Wright (Native Son), 110 pages on Truman Capote (In Cold Blood), and Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer). Additionally, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover showed a particular interest in Mr. Baldwin and actually worked with agents to figure out ways they could ban Mr. Baldwin’s 1962 novel Another Country – despite the fact that the report of the Justice Department’s General Crimes Section “concluded that the book contains literary merit and may be of value to students of psychology and social behavior.”

“The occurrence of an event is not the same thing as knowing what it is that one has lived through. Most people had not lived — nor could it, for that matter, be said that they had died– through any of their terrible events. They had simply been stunned by the hammer. They passed their lives thereafter in a kind of limbo of denied and unexamined pain. The great question that faced him this morning was whether or not had had ever, really, been present at his life.”

 

– quoted from Another Country by James Baldwin

 

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.

 

– quoted from The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

When so many of his friends, who were also the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, were killed, Mr. Baldwin made his second leap back to Paris. Again, it was a leap made out of fear and the basic desire to survive. His grief, anger, horror, and disappointment are all on full display in later works like If Beale Street Could Talk, Just Above My Head, and the 1985 non-fiction book  Evidence of Things Not Seen (about the Atlanta child murders). Yet, until his dying day he wrote about love and hope – even using a portion of the Epistle to the Hebrews, from the Christian New Testament, as the title of the his book about the Atlanta child murders.

Another place where you can see Mr. Baldwin’s devotion to love, life, and humanity is in the words of his friends; people, who actually knew him, were inspired by him, and some who called him Jim or Jimmy. When he died in 1987, Maya Angelou wrote a tribute for The New York Times, entitled “James Baldwin: His Voice Remembered; Life In His Language.” In addition to describing how Mr. Baldwin introduced her to his family as his mother’s newest daughter, she explained that he “opened the [unusual] door” and encouraged her to tell her story.

“Well, the season was always Christmas with you there and, like one aspect of that scenario, you did not neglect to bring at least three gifts. You gave me a language to dwell in, a gift so perfect it seems my own invention….

 

The second gift was your courage, which you let us share: the courage of one who would go as a stranger in the village and transform the distances between people into intimacy with the whole world; courage to understand that experience in ways that made it a personal revelation for each of us…. Yours was the courage to live life in and from its belly as well as beyond its edges, to see and say what was, to recognize and identify evil, but never fear or stand in awe of it….

 

The third gift was hard to fathom and even harder to accept. It was your tenderness – a tenderness so delicate that I thought it could not last, but last it did and envelop me it did. In the midst of anger it tapped me lightly like the child in Tish’s womb…. Yours was a tenderness, of vulnerability, that asked everything, expected everything and, like the world’s own Merlin, provided us with the ways and means to deliver. I suppose that was why I was always a bit better behaved around you, smarter, more capable, wanting to be worth the love you lavished, and wanting to be steady enough to bear while it broke your heart, wanting to be generous enough to join your smile with one of my own, and reckless enough to jump on in that laugh you laughed. Because our joy and our laughter were not only all right, they were necessary.”

– quoted from  “James Baldwin: His Voice Remembered; Life In His Language” by Maya Angelou (printed in The New York Times Book Review December 20, 1987)

I have cancelled class today and tomorrow night, but encourage you to practice. Practice with those aforementioned gifts and especially the second and third gifts – with courage and tenderness that has you lifting the corners of your mouth up to your ears and laughing out loud.

In the past, I have used a variation of my “Langston Hughes” playlist, which features Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, and a whole lot of Bach. You are welcome to use my “Selma to Montgomery” playlist, which is available on YouTube. However, if you have time, I would encourage you to grab some Nina Simone, Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte (“Merci Bon Dieu” comes to mind, of course), Sammy Davis, Jr., and Joan Baez – and then mix in some of the aforementioned jazz.

“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

“Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word love here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth….Love is a growing up.”

 

 

– James Baldwin

 

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Some Things are Universal August 1, 2020

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“There can be no doubt, that, in most cases, their judgment may be equal with the other sex; perhaps even on the subject of law, politics or religion, they may form good judgment, but t would be improper, and physically very incorrect, for the female character to claim the statesman’s birth or ascend the rostrum to gain the loud applause of men, although their powers of mind may be equal to the task.”

 

– quoted from “II: Becoming an Advocate” in Observations on the Real Rights of Women , with Their Appropriate Duties, Reminiscences and Traditions of Boston, Agreeable to Scripture, Reason and Common Sense  by Hannah Mather Crocker (published 1818)

 

Believe it or not, Hannah Crocker was advocating for women’s rights when the wrote the above, in 1818, and stated that “It is woman’s peculiar right to keep calm and serene under every circumstance in life, as it is undoubtedly her appropriate duty, to soothe and alleviate the anxious cares of men, and her friendly and sympathetic breast should be found the best solace for him, as she has an equal right to partake with him the cares, as well as the pleasures of life.” Taken out of context, and viewed with a modern mind, it is easy to think that Crocker would have disapproved of Maria Mitchell, who was born today in 1818 (on the island of Nantucket in Massachusetts).

Miss Mitchell, as the king of Denmark would refer to her, was the first acknowledged female astronomer. Her Quaker parents believed in equal education for the 10 offspring, regardless of gender, and her father shared his love of astronomy with all of his children. Miss Mitchell, however, was the only one really interested in going deeper into the math and science of what they viewed as “a hymn of praise to God.” She was assisting her father by the age of 12; opened and taught at a school for girls by the age of 17; and starting working as the librarian at the Nantucket Atheneum in her twenties.   On October 1, 1848 she observed what she initially thought was a distant star, but quickly suspected was actually a comet. Further observation proved her correct and, after her father wrote to the Harvard Observatory, her conclusion was reported to the King of Denmark who awarded her a gold medal and named the newly sighted object “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.”

Maria Mitchell would go on to be the first woman appointed to the American Association of the Advancement of Science (also in 1848), the first woman to earn an advanced degree (1853), the first woman appointed to the faculty of Vassar Female College (as their astronomy professor and head of their observatory, in 1865), and, therefore, the first woman in American history to earn a position as an astronomy professor. She is what I refer to this week as an impossible woman (more on that in a later post) and Hannah Crocker may or may not have approved.

“First, no woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be? Born a woman — born with the average brain of humanity — born with more than the average heart — if you are mortal, what higher destiny could you have? No matter where you are nor what you are, you are power.”

 

– quoted from Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters, and Journals by Maria Mitchell

Whether or not Hannah Crocker approved of Maria Mitchell’s life choices is kind of beside the point. What’s relevant here is the idea that all things being equal, there are still people who believe there should be different rules (and therefore different rules of moral conduct) for different people based on gender, race, or other external factors. A quick glance at religious and philosophical commandments and precepts, however, indicates that (in most cases) the big commandments and precepts are intended for all, they are universal.

Yoga Sūtra 2.30: ahimsāsatyāsteyabrahmcaryāparigrahā yamāh

 

 

– “Non-violence (or non-harming), truthfulness, non-stealing, walking in awareness of the highest reality, and non-possessiveness (or non-hording) are the restraints (or universal commandments).”

Yoga Sūtra 2.31: jātideśakālasamayānavacchinnāh sārvabhaumā mahāvratam

 

– “[The five restraints] are not affected by class, race, ethnicity, place, time, and circumstance. They are universal and become a great vow.”

There are times when I am quite perplexed by the different ways people will twist things around so that the  rules and laws no longer apply to them. Hold off (for just a moment) on jumping to conclusions and let me be specific. Over the years, I have been involved in several discussions regarding the Buddhist precepts. There are five basic precepts or rules of training for lay Buddhist: non-harming (or non-killing), non-stealing, not engaging in illicit sex, a commitment to truth/honesty, and not imbibing in intoxicants. Notice how the first four overlap with the yamās from the yoga philosophy and how both philosophies overlap with the last five of the 10 Commandments. Also, just as Jewish practitioners adhere to more than 10 commandments (613 in total), there are additional precepts for people on retreat and people who are taking vows.

Regarding what might be viewed as discrepancies in practice, all the categories include non-harming/non-killing, but I have heard people very clearly argue that they are not violating the precept/commandment/yamā if they didn’t actually kill the animal that results in their burger. Here, now, I am not judging that argument except to say that it can be confusing (to me), because I think it all comes down to intent. And, speaking of intent, I have listed the third precept as “not engaging in illicit sex” versus “not engaging in adultery,” just as I refer to bramacharyā in the more literal sense so that (in both cases) the focus is on the cause of the action (i.e., intent), rather than on the resulting action.

Intention is important. Yes, you can unintentional harm someone or something. And, sometimes, that unintentional act can be tremendously more harmful than something you did intentional (knowing it would cause “a little” harm). Most legal systems back me up on this, hence the reason there are different penalties for manslaughter versus murder, and even within each of those categories there are various degrees with different punishments. Intention also comes into play when you look at why there are more commandments in Judaism and why there are more precepts if you are on retreat of taking vows as a monk or nun. Intention is also the key to why some would say, from the outside looking in, that Islām only has one rule: avoid what is harām (“forbidden”). That said, if we are going to be dedicated to the truth (i.e., not lie), we have to be honest with ourselves about why we want to practice – or not practice – some aspect of our particular belief system(s).

Ask yourself why you follow certain rules. Is your intention in following the rule(s) to be good? To be holy? To be saved? To be enlightened? To not be reincarnated? To not have people judge you harshly? To not get in trouble? To mitigate (or lessen) harm to yourself or another?

In the commentary for yoga sūtra 2:31, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait and others point to the fact that the intention is always to start where you are, given your particular situation. These practices are intended to set up for success and so the expectation is that you (again) practice with dedication and devotion to the best of your ability. As stated in the sūtra, these restraints can be applied to every situation. They are universal. The last part of the sūtra is equally important, because by practicing where you are and as you are, on every plane of existence, these practices become habit. They become ingrained in your psyche. They become the great vow and you start to think, speak, and act in a way that is mindful of all living beings…without actually having to think about it.

But, of course, we start off thinking about it.

“Killing a human being is murder, but killing a fish is not. Killing a fish is not. Killing a fish is a spiritual offense for a strict vegetarian, but not for a fisherman. Hunting in and around a shrine is an offense, but hunting in the forest is not. For a Hindu, eating meat on the fourteenth day of the moon is an offense, but eating meat on other days is not. In day-to-day life it is a grave offense for a soldier to shoot someone, but it is not an offense for a soldier to kill and enemy on the battlefield.”

 

– commentary on Yoga Sūtra 2.31 from The Practice of the Yoga Sutra: Sadhana Pada by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD

Speaking of “killing a fish,” today is also the anniversary of the birth of Herman Melville. Born today in New York City in 1819, exactly a year to the day after Maria Mitchell, the author shared a love of the sea (and certain other experiences) with Nathanial Hawthorne. During Melville and Hawthorne’s brief friendship, they were both their most prolific and published what would become their most popular works, including Melville’s Moby-Dick and Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Both wrote about people who obsessively purposed their goals (something that is encouraged in yoga), but their characters did not always temper their determination with devoted surrender and non-attachment (which is something that is also encouraged in yoga). Lest you think it was only Hawthorne who focused on commandments, read on.

“Think not, is my eleventh commandment; and sleep when you can, is my twelfth.”

 

– quoted from Moby-Dick, or the Whale by Herman Melville

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

 

– quoted from Moby-Dick, or the Whale by Herman Melville

Per my email, I have cancelled class today due to a family emergency. I still have tomorrow’s class on the schedule, but stay tuned here to see how that works out. If you were planning to practice today, please, practice with yoga sūtras 2.30-2.31 in mind. Since this week’s sūtra focus is a continuation of last week’s, you can use last week’s recording. If you are not on my email list, you can request the audio recording from last week via a comment below or (for a slightly faster reply) you can email me at myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

Last week’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify. (This is the “Hays Code 2020” playlist dated March 31.)

As this is the anniversary of the 1-35 bridge collapse, please hold a neighbor in your hearts and minds today. So many people are suffering with current events, but let us not forget that some people are still grieving and healing from past events. To quote my dad, “Sounds like we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

 

###” CALL ME ISHMAEL, GOD LISTENS” ###