“My darlings,…” : 12 hand-written letters from the desk of Nelson Mandela

I sincerely believe that sweet, heartfelt hand-written letters are the sign of a good soul. No chance to type and retype, to rearrange paragraphs, to embellish with lengthy hyperlinked asides.

This collection of Nelson Mandela’s hand-written letters is a permanent reminder of his gentle, earnest, good human spirit — not as a survivor or a politician, but simply as a person, when he could assume that no-one but the sole intended reader — his wife, his daughter, himself — would ever see it.

Vale.

Transcript:

23.6.69

My darlings,

Once again our beloved mummy has been arrested and now she and daddy are away in jail. My heart bleeds as I think of her sitting in some police cell far away from home, perhaps alone and without anybody to talk to, and with nothing to read. Twenty-four hours of the day longing for her little ones. It may be many months or even years before you see her again. For long you may live, like orphans, without your own home and parents, without the natural love, affection and protection mummy used to give you. Now you will get no birthday or Christmas parties, no presents or new dresses, no shoes or toys. Gone are the days when, after having a warm bath in the evening, you would sit at table with mummy and enjoy a her good and simple food. Gone are the comfortable beds, the warm blankets and clean linen she used to provide. She will not be there to arrange for friends to tak you to bioscopes, concerts and plays, or to tell you nice stories in the evening, help you read different books and to answer the many questions you would like to ask. She will be unable to give you the help and guidance you need as you grow older and as new problems arise. Perhaps never again will mummy and daddy join you in House no. 8115 Orlando West, the one place in the whole world that is so dear to our hearts.

This is not the first time mummy goes to jail. In October 1958, only four months after our wedding, she was arrested with 2,000 other women when they protested against passes in Johannesburg and spent two weeks in jail. Last year she served four days, but now she has gone back again and I cannot tell you how long she will be away this time. All that I wish you always to bear in mind is that we have a brave and determined mummy who loves her people with all her heart. She gave up pleasure and comfort in return for a life full of hardship and misery, because of the deep love she has for her people and country. When you become adults and think carefully of the unpleasant experiences mummy has gone through, and the stubborness with which she has held to her beliefs, you will begin to realise the importance of her contribution in the battle for truth and justice and the extent to which she has sacrificed her own personal interests and happiness…

Transcript:

Flock of ducks walks clumsily into the lounge and loiter about apparently unaware of my presence. Males with loud colours, but keeping their dignity and not behaving like playboys. Moments later they become aware of my presence. If they got a shock they endured it with grace. Nevertheless, I detect some invisible feeling of unease on their part. It seems as if their consciences are worrying them, and although I feared that very soon their droppings will decorate the expensive carpet, I derive some satisfaction when I notice that their consciences are worrying them. Suddenly they squawk repeatedly and then file out. I was relieved. They behave far better than my grandchildren. They always leave the house upside down.

[This and 10 others on ABC News online.]

To curiosity! May it never die.

As quoted in his New York Times obituary, Neil Armstrong once said “I am, and always will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer… And I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession”. To Armstrong, “the attractions of being an astronaut were actually, not so much the Moon, but flying in a completely new medium”.


A young Neil Armstrong.

There’s a passage in Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World that explains the difference between children, grown-ups and philosophers. To paraphrase, we are born with the infinite capacity for wonder — to be amazed by everything we see; to see everything as a miracle. As infants we are thrilled by everything; the smallest thing surprises us. As we grow older, we become jaded. We learn to accept some things as normal (we just accept that planes fly, for example; that’s just what they do) or we deem it ‘uncool’ to think that something might be marvellous. Most grown-ups could easily become jaded having seen Mount Everest up close, or after travelling through five major cities in as many weeks. “Been there, seen that. I know all there is to know and nothing can impress me now.”

Philosophers (and others who have nurtured their inquisitive nature) spend their lives trying to buff away the frosted glass of adulthood; to view the world through a child’s eyes, always asking questions, awed by nature’s most banal accomplishments.


Earthrise from the surface of the moon, from that great Apollo 11 landing of 1969.

Neil Armstrong was a quintessential human — a fine example of someone whose childlike enthusiasm never dulled with the passing of time, even after he walked on the Moon and had seen, at least in terms of long-distance travel, all there is to see. As his family said of him,

“He remained an advocate of aviation and exploration throughout his life and never lost his boyhood wonder of these pursuits”.

I believe space travel isn’t about claiming new territories for humankind, or finding footholds for off-world colonies in a dystopic future. It’s about recognising — and championing — the undeniably curious nature that makes us human. Yes, space exploration is about Curiosity.

It’s the desire to know more about the things we see from a distance, and to better understand what makes our own planet so special. The inquisitive spark deep inside the human spirit that drives our impulse to read, explore, experiment, create, travel, study, work, meet new people, go to the zoo, cross the North Pole, and watch David Attenborough documentaries.


Layers at the base of Mount Sharp, captured by the Mars Curiosity rover.

The day that space exploration became an optional frivolity — and gradually faded from the global (funding) agenda — was a sad day for human curiosity, creativity and innovation. After all, space exploration isn’t just about flying rockets and walking on the Moon. As documented by NASA:

  • The technology behind liquid-cooled spacesuits used for moonwalks is now used to treat those suffering multiple sclerosis and spinal injuries.
  • A lightweight breathing apparatus now used by firefighters was the result of a NASA project.
  • Robotic arms developed for operating on machinery in space formed the basis of robotic arms now used to operate on humans in delicate surgical situations. (In 1994, doctors used one of these robotic arms to remove a woman’s gallbladder. Gallbladders are much smaller than space stations.)
  • The Statue of Liberty and Golden Gate Bridge are both coated in a protective material that NASA invented to protect launch pads from hot, humid, salty air.
  • Multispectral imaging used to map the surface of Mars was later used to decipher previously hidden text in Roman manuscripts damaged by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD.
  • Space Pen, Space Food Sticks and Astronaut Ice Cream. Because humans are also inextricably delighted by frippery.

But without government funding — or some way to ensure scientific research in private space exploration endeavours — the refrain of “I’m going to be an astronaut when I grow up” seems to have vanished like a waning crescent Moon. (When was the last time YOU heard those words pass the lips of a bright-eyed child, filled with wonder at the mysteries of the universe?)

So. Vale the space program, hail curiosity (and Curiosity), and let us hope that Neil Armstrong isn’t the last of a dying breed.

.

PS. The next time you get overly excited at the world around us — by a beautiful bird flying overhead, or a particularly huge moonrise in a glowing amber twilight, or a ladybug landing on your sleeve, or the beauty of falling snow — and someone tells you to stop being such a child… just ignore them. It’s never uncool to be curious about — and delighted by — the universe.

The Oxford comma: dead at the hands of serial killers

I give a #%*^ about the Oxford comma.  I’m known for giving a #%*^ about the Oxford comma. But sadly, this sudden palaver over its threatened extinction (at the hands of its eponymous university, no less) is just a bureaucratic nail in an already-long-buried coffin. As a proofreader in Australia, I must (at least during working hours) adhere to the ‘current trends’ in Australian writing style, and that means NO SERIAL COMMAS EVER (except if absolutely needed for the sake of clarity, which isn’t any fun at all).

So as far as I’m (professionally) concerned, the Oxford comma has already been eradicated, or is at least seriously endangered, teetering on the brink of extinction. It lingers only as a ghost, destroyed by a gradual succession of serial killers*: style guides in ruthless pursuit of minimalist punctuation.

R, I, P.

Over at Salon.com, Mary Elizabeth Williams has already said almost everything else I would say on the topic. Most importantly, she a) clarifies the extent to which Oxford University is eliminating its eponymous comma (that is, no more than most institutions already have); and b) embedded the obvious Vampire Weekend video clip.

Now, two things about this video clip: Firstly, its total number of hits must have jumped phenomenally in the past 24 hours. Secondly, IT WAS DIRECTED BY THE WONDERFUL RICHARD AYOADE (of The IT Crowd, of course). And if that isn’t a joyful note on which to end a sombre post, I don’t know what is.

*Yes, I went there.

We are in a bit of a jam re: preserving languages

“It’s hard to use a word like preserve with a language… It’s not like putting jelly in a jar. A language is used. Language is consciousness. Everybody wants to speak English, but those lullabies that allow you to go to sleep at night and dream — that’s what we’re talking about.”

Robert Holman, who teaches at Columbia and New York Universities and is working with Professor Kaufman on the Endangered Language Alliance.

From Listening to (and Saving) the World’s Languages, nytimes.com.


Languages are lovely. As is jelly.

…But only if we’re actually talking about jam. Antipodean jelly (American jello) is not so nice. Skins and bones and all that. Although, the word jelly is still very nice…

General admits bullets don’t solve everything

“Some problems in the world
are not bullet-izable”

– Brig.Gen. H. R. McMaster,
We Have Met The Enemy and He Is Powerpoint, nytimes.com

Does the General realise that his anti-PowerPoint quip is also a marvellously ironic anti-war slogan?

PS. No, “bullet-izable” is NOT a word.

PPS. The PowerPoint slide in question is actually rather pretty (if you ignore the content).


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