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Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave as Lillian Hellman and Julia

The following excerpts are from the story Julia by Lillian Hellman (1905-1984), which became a movie in 1977 with Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda:

She held my hand for several minutes, and said, “Fine. Everything has gone fine. Nothing will happen now. Let’s eat and drink and see each other. So many years.”

I said, “How long have we got? How far is the other station, the one where I get the train to Moscow?”

“You have two hours, but we haven’t that long together because you have to be followed to the station and the ones who follow you must have time to find the man who will be with you on the train until Warsaw in the morning.”

I said, “You look like nobody else. You are more beautiful now.”

She said, “Stop crying about my leg. It was amputated and the false leg is clumsily made so I am coming to New York in the next few months, as soon as I can, and get a good one. Lilly, don’t cry for me. Stop the tears. We must finish the work now. Take off the hat the way you would if it was too hot for this place. Comb your hair, and put the hat on the seat between us.”

Her coat was open, and the minute I put the hat on the bench she pinned it deep inside her coat with a safety pin that was ready for it.

“I think I have always known about my memory:
I knew when it is to be trusted and when some
dream or fantasy entered on the life, and the dream,
the need of dream, led to distortion of what happened.
 And so I knew early that the rampage angers
of an early child were distorted nightmares of reality.
But I trust absolutely what I remember about Julia.”

She said, “Now I am going to the toilet. If the waiter tries to help me up, wave him aside and come with me. The toilet locks. If anybody should try to open, knock on the door and call to me, but I don’t think that will happen.”

She got up, picked up one of the crutches, and waved me to the other arm. She spoke in German to a man I guess was Albert as we moved down the long room. She pulled the crutch too quickly into the toilet door, it caught at a wrong angle, and she made a gesture with the crutch, tearing at it in irritation.

When she came out of the toilet, she smiled at me. As we walked back to the table, she spoke in a loud voice, saying something in German about the toilet and then, in English, “I forget you don’t know German. I was saying that German public toilets are always clean, much cleaner than ours, particularly under the new regime. The bastards, the murderers.”

Caviar and wine were on the table where we sat down again and she was cheerful with the waiter. When he had gone away she said, “Ah, Lilly. Fine, fine. Nothing will happen now. But it’s your right to know that it is my money you brought in and we can save five hundred, and maybe, if we bargain right, a thousand people with it. So believe that you have been better than a good friend to me, you have done something important.”

The 1934 play The Children’s Hour by Hellman
became a movie in 1961, starring 
Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine.


“About half. And political people. Socialists, Communists, plain old Catholic dissenters. Jews aren’t the only people who have suffered here.” She sighed. “That’s enough of that. We can only do today what we can do today and today you did it for us. Do you need something stronger than wine?”

I said I didn’t and she said to talk fast now, there wasn’t much time, to tell her as much as possible. I told her about my divorce, about the years with Hammett. She said she had read The Children’s Hour, she was pleased with me, and what was I going to do next? . . .

“I have only so much more time in Europe,” Julia said. “The crutches make me too noticeable. The man who will take care of you has just come into the street. Do you see him outside the window? Get up and go now. Walk across the street, get a taxi, take it to Banhof 200. Another man will be waiting there. He will make sure you get safely on the train and will stay with you until Warsaw tomorrow morning. He is in car A, compartment 13. Let me see your ticket.”

I gave it to her. “I think that will be in the car to your left.” She laughed. “Left, Lilly, left. Have you ever learned to tell left from right, south from north?”

“No, I don’t want to leave you. The train doesn’t go for over an hour. I want to stay with you a few more minutes.”

“No,” she said. “Something could still go wrong and we must have time to get help if that should happen. I’ll be coming to New York in a few months. Write from Moscow to American Express in Paris. I have stuff picked up every few weeks.” She took my hand and raised it to her lips. “My beloved friend. . . .”

But March and April came and went and there was no word from Julia. . . . On May 23, 1938, I had a cable, dated London two days before and sent to the wrong address. It said, “Julia has been killed stop please advise Moore’s funeral home Whitechapel Road London what disposition stop my sorrow for you for all of us.”

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The following images are from Anne Carson’s book Nox, published in 2010, about the death of her brother Michael. The book is a scrapbook and comes in a box in an accordion-style notebook, which includes images, poems, collages and part of a letter her brother wrote about a girl he loved in France.

“My brother ran away in 1978, rather than go to jail. He wandered in Europe and India, seeking something, and sent us postcards or a Christmas gift, no return address. He was travelling on a false passport and living under other people’s names. This isn’t hard to arrange. It is irremediable. I don’t know how he made his decisions in those days. The postcards were laconic. He wrote only one letter, to my mother, that winter the girl died.”

“Like wind in your hair she had epilepsy her life was hell sometimes flipping like a fish I got used to it she lost her fear started to live she missed a lot as a kid felt so different from others Anna was truly a gift she died March 24th”

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Love, too

Below are excerpts from Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, published in 2006 by Elizabeth Gilbert:


I keep remembering one of my Guru’s teachings about happiness. She says that people universally tend to think that happiness is a stroke of luck, something that will maybe descend upon you like fine weather if you’re fortunate enough. But that’s not how happiness works. Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it, you must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it. If you don’t, you will leak away your innate contentment. It’s easy enough to pray when you’re in distress but continuing to pray even when your crisis has passed is like a sealing process, helping your soul hold tight to its good attainments. . . .

This is a practice I’ve come to call “Diligent Joy.” As I focus on Diligent Joy, I also keep remembering a simple idea my friend Darcey told me once — that all the sorrow and trouble of this world is caused by unhappy people. Not only in the big global Hitler-‘n’-Stalin picture, but also on the smallest personal level. Even in my own life, I can see exactly where my episodes of unhappiness have brought suffering or distress or (at the very least) inconvenience to those around me. The search for contentment is, therefore, not merely a self-preserving and self-benefiting act but also a generous gift to the world. Clearing out all your misery gets you out of the way. You cease being an obstacle, not only to yourself but to anyone else. Only then are you free to serve and enjoy other people. . . .

Ketut Liyer, Balinese healer

The Difference Between Heaven and Hell

The other day the medicine man [Ketut] told me that he knows sixteen different meditation techniques, and many mantras for all different purposes. Some of them are to bring peace or happiness, some of them are for health, but some of them are purely mystical — to transport him into other realms of consciousness. For instance, he said, he knows, one meditation that takes him “to up.”

“To up?” I asked. “What is to up?”
“To seven levels up,” he said. “To heaven.”
Hearing the familiar idea of “seven levels,” I asked him if he meant that his meditation took him up through the seven sacred chakras of the body, which are discussed in Yoga.
“Not chakras,” he said. “Places. This meditation takes me seven places in universe. Up and up. Last place I go is heaven.”
I asked, “Have you been to heaven, Ketut?”
He smiled. Of course he had been there, he said. Easy to go to heaven.
“What is it like?”
“Beautiful. Everything beautiful is there. Every person beautiful is there. Everything beautiful to eat is there. Everything is love there. Heaven is love.”
Then Ketut said he knows another meditation. “To down.” This down meditation takes him seven levels below the world. This is more dangerous meditation. Not for beginning people, only for a master.
I asked, “So if you go up to heaven in the first meditation, then in the second meditation you must go down to …?”
“Hell,” he finished the sentence.
This was interesting. Heaven and hell aren’t ideas I’ve heard discussed very much in Hinduism. . . . But here Ketut was talking about heaven and hell in a different way, as if they are real places in the universe which he has actually visited. At least I think that’s what he meant.
Trying to be clear on this one, I asked, “You have been to hell, Ketut?”
He smiled. Of course he’s been there.
“What’s it like in hell?”
“Same like heaven,” he said.
He saw my confusion and tried to explain, “Universe is circle, Liss.”
I still wasn’t sure I understood.
He said, “To up, to down — all same, at end.”
I remembered an old Christian mystic notion: As above, so below. I asked, “Then how can you tell the difference between heaven and hell?”
“Because of how you go. Heaven, you go up, through seven happy places. Hell, you go down, through seven sad places. This is why it better you go up, Liss.” He laughed.
I asked, “You mean, you might as well spend your life going upward through the happy places, since heaven and hell — the destinations — are the same thing anyway?”
“Same-same,” he said. “Same in end, so better to be happy on journey.”
I said, “So, if heaven is love, then hell is …”
“Love, too,” he said.
I sat with that one for a while, trying to make the math work.
Ketut laughed again, slapped my knee affectionately with his hand.
“Always so difficult for young people to understand that!”

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Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

“Virginia Woolf wrote, ‘Across the broad continent of a woman’s life falls the shadow of a sword. On one side of that sword,’ she said, ‘there lies convention and tradition and order, where all is correct.’ But on the other side of that sword, if you’re crazy enough to cross it and choose a life that does not follow convention, ‘all is confusion. Nothing follows a regular course.’ Her argument was that the crossing of the shadow of that sword may bring a far more interesting existence to a woman, but you can bet it will also be more perilous …. The Bhagavad Gita — that ancient Indian Yogic text — says that it is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else’s life with perfection. So now I have started living my own life. Imperfect and clumsy as it may look, it is resembling me now, thoroughly.” from Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

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This semester, we were encouraged to use Greg Mortenson’s book Stones Into Schools, published in 2009, in classroom writing assignments. Several Arts & Letters events have been planned to promote the book to students and faculty and to share history, culture and pressing political issues in Afghanistan addressed in it. Here are some excerpts from chapter one:

The People at the End of the Road

I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve. — Albert Schweitzer

The good people who inhabit the frontiers of civilization do not, as a rule, tend to be the world’s most sophisticated and cosmopolitan human beings. Often, they aren’t especially well educated or refined, nor all that conversant with cutting-edge trends in areas like, say, fashion and current events. Sometimes, they’re not even all that friendly. But the folks who live at the end of the road are among the most resilient and most resourceful human beings you will ever meet. They possess a combination of courage, tenacity, hospitality, and grace that leaves me in awe.

What I have discovered over the years is that with just a little bit of help, such people are capable of pulling off astonishing things — and in doing so, they sometimes establish a benchmark for the rest of us. When ordinary human beings perform extraordinary acts of generosity, endurance, or compassion, we are all made richer by their example. Like the rivers that flow out of the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush, the inspiration they generate washes down to the rest of us. It waters everyone’s fields….

The Pashtun elders say that when Allah was finished creating the world, he cobbled together all the leftover bits and pieces, and it was from this pile of rubble that he fashioned Afghanistan. The impression of a landscape that has been pieced together from discarded debris is evident in every part of this country, but nowhere is this sense of brokenness more acute than inside the panhandle of northeastern Afghanistan, which thrusts between Pakistan and Tajikistan for nearly 120 miles until it touches the border of the People’s Republic of China. Some of the loftiest mountain ranges on earth — the Kunlun, the Tien Shan, the Parmis, the Karakoram, and the Hindu Kush — converge inside or near this region. The highest of their summits soars more than twenty thousand feet, and the inhabitants of the forbidding, desolate, bitterly cold alpine plateaus that stretch beneath those peaks refer to this place a Bam-I-Dunya, the “Rooftop of the World.”

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Mary Craik. 56″ x 44″ Cotton

“My, how foolish I am!” my friend cries, suddenly alert, like a woman remembering too late she has biscuits in the oven. “You know what I’ve always thought?” she asks in a tone of discovery and not smiling at me but a point beyond. “I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when he came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don’t know it’s getting dark. And it’s been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling. But I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are”— her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone —” just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.” — from A Christmas Memory, by Truman Capote

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One of my favorite versions of A Christmas Carol is the 1951 film with Alastair Sim, but this year I watched the new Disney 3D digital animation with Jim Carrey. It’s worth watching to hear the commentary at the end and see the characters acting out their parts with dots on their faces and motion-capture outfits.

The novel was published by Charles Dickens in 1843 as A Christmas Carol, a Ghost Story of Christmas. Each year I hear the story, I think Scrooge gets a bad rap. His character undergoes major transformation, but a person is considered a Scrooge if they hate Christmas and regard the holiday as a humbug or fraud. We would never say, “Look at John, he’s such a Scrooge. His life has gone through such transformation, and he’s so much happier now.”

Scrooge’s profession isn’t stated in the story, but it’s believed he’s a banker or money lender. He becomes the tight-fisted character we know because his father abandons him at boarding school, his sister Fran dies, his fiancée leaves him and his employer goes bankrupt. Money becomes the single focus of his life, and he never wants to depend on anyone again. The sequence of events that leads up to his survival-of-the-fittest attitude seems an about-face move because it happens in a matter of scenes, but years of sitting at boarding school while classmates go home for Christmas lead Scrooge to hate the season.

As a teenager, I played Scrooge’s fiancée Belle in a high school production. Today, I looked at the script to see how much it follows Dickens’ novel. It matches the story exactly. As I look at the script again, I see how inflexible and proud both characters are in their attitudes toward each other:

Narrator Again Scrooge saw himself. He was older now; a man in the prime of life. His face had not the harsh and rigid lines of later years; but it had begun to wear the signs of care and avarice. There was an eager, greedy, restless motion in the eye, which showed the passion that had taken root, and where the shadow of the growing tree would fall.
He was not alone, but sat by the side of a fair young girl in a mourning-dress: in whose eyes there were tears, which sparkled in the light that shone out of the Ghost of Christmas Past.
Belle It matters little, to you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.
Scrooge What Idol has displaced you?
Belle A golden one.
Scrooge This is the even-handed dealing of the world. There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth.
Belle You fear the world too much. All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, gain, engrosses you. Have I not?
Scrooge What then? Even if I have grown so much wiser, what then? I am not changed towards you.
(She shook her head.)
Scrooge Am I?
Belle Our contract is an old one. It was made when we were both poor and content to be so, until, in good season, we could improve our worldly fortune by our patient industry. You are changed. When it was made, you were another man.
Scrooge I was a boy.
Belle Your own feeling tells you that you were not what you are. I am. That which promised happiness when we were one in heart, is fraught with misery now that we are two. How often and how keenly I have thought of this, I will not say. It is enough that I have thought of it, and can release you.
Scrooge Have I ever sought release?
Belle In words. No. Never.
Scrooge In what, then?
Belle (looking mildly, but with steadiness, upon him) In a changed nature; in an altered spirit; in another atmosphere of life; another hope as its great end. In everything that made my love of any worth or value in your sight. If this had never been between us, tell me, would you seek me out and try to win me now? Ah, no.
Scrooge (Scrooge seems to yield to the justice of this supposition, in spite of himself. But he says with a struggle…) You think not?
Belle I would gladly think otherwise if I could. Heaven knows. When I have learned a truth like this, I know how strong and irresistible it must be. But if you were free today, tomorrow, yesterday, can even I believe that you would choose a dowerless girl — you who, in your very confidence with her, weigh everything by gain: or, choosing her, if for a moment you were false enough to your one guiding principle to do so, do I not know that your repentance and regret would surely follow. I do; and I release you. With a full heart, for the love of him you once were. You may — the memory of what is past half makes me hope you will — have pain in this. A very, very brief time, and you will dismiss the recollection of it, gladly, as an unprofitable dream, from which it happened well that you awoke. May you be happy in the life you have chosen.
(She leaves him, and they parted.)

Here’s a clip from the 1951 film with Alastair Sim, which incidentally has the finest version of the Ballad of Barbara Allen I’ve ever heard:

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The Bluest Eye

Toni Morrison (born 1931)

The following excerpt is from Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, published in 1970:

Letting herself breathe easy now, Pecola covered her head with the quilt. The sick feeling, which she had tried to prevent by holding in her stomach, came quickly in spite of her precaution. There surged in her the desire to heave, but as always, she knew she would not.

“Please God,” she whispered into the palm of her hand. “Please make me disappear.” She squeezed her eyes shut. Little parts of her body faded away. Now slowly, now with a rush. Slowly again. Her fingers went, one by one; then her arms disappeared all the way to the elbow. Her feet now. Yes, that was good. The legs all at once. It was the hardest above the thighs. She had to be real still and pull. Her stomach would not go. But finally it, too, went away. Then her chest, her neck. The face was hard, too. Almost done, almost. Only her tight, tight eyes were left. They were always left.

Try as she might, she could never get her eyes to disappear. So what was the point? They were everything. Everything was there, in them. All of those pictures, all of those faces. She had long ago given up the idea of running away to see new pictures, new faces, as Sammy had so often done. He never took her, and he never thought about his going ahead of time, so it was never planned. It wouldn’t have worked anyway. As long as she looked the way she did, as long as she was ugly, she would have to stay with these people. Somehow she belonged to them. Long hours she sat looking in the mirror, trying to discover the secret of the ugliness, the ugliness that made her ignored or despised at school, by teachers and classmates alike. She was the only member of her class who sat alone at a double desk. The first letter of her last name forced her to sit in the front of the room always. But what about Marie Appolonaire? Marie was in front of her, but she shared a desk with Luke Angelino. Her teachers had always treated her this way. They tried never to glance at her, and called on her only when everyone was required to respond. She also knew that when one of the girls at school wanted to be particularly insulting to a boy, or wanted to get an immediate response from him, she could say. “Booby love Pecola Breedlove! Bobby love Pecola Breedlove!” and never fail to get peals of laughter from those in earshot, and mock anger from the accused.

It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights — if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different. Her teeth were good, and at least her nose was not big and flat like some of those who were thought so cute. If she looked different, beautiful, maybe Cholly would be different and Mrs. Breedlove too. Maybe they’d say, “Why, look at pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn’t do bad things in front of those pretty eyes.”

Pretty eyes. Pretty blue eyes. Big blue pretty eyes.
Run, Jip, run. Jip runs, Alice runs. Alice has blue eyes.
Jerry has blue eyes. Jerry runs. Alice runs. They run
with their blue eyes. Four blue eyes. Four pretty
blue eyes. Blue-sky eyes. Blue-like Mrs. Forrest’s
blue blouse eyes. Morning-glory-blue-eyes.

Each night, without fail, she prayed for blue eyes. Fervently, for a year she had prayed. Although somewhat discouraged, she was not without hope. To have something as wonderful as that happen would take a long, long time.

Thrown, in this way, into the binding conviction that only a miracle could relieve her, she would never know her beauty. She would see only what there was to see: the eyes of other people.

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