Category: Letters

Roald Dahl’s Heartbreaking Letter About Losing his Daughter in 1962

Roald_Dahl

Roald Dahl, the beloved author of my personal favorites Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and The BFG, lost his eldest daughter, Olivia, to measles in the early 60s. It wasn’t until 1988, however, that he penned a remarkable letter that doubles as a plea to parents, urging them to have their children vaccinated.

The letter is as relevant today as when it originally appeared, in a pamphlet published by the Sandwell Health Authority, in 1988.

Olivia, my eldest daughter, caught measles when she was seven years old. As the illness took its usual course I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it. Then one morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of coloured pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn’t do anything.

“Are you feeling all right?” I asked her.

“I feel all sleepy,” she said.

In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead.

The measles had turned into a terrible thing called measles encephalitis and there was nothing the doctors could do to save her. That was twenty-four years ago in 1962, but even now, if a child with measles happens to develop the same deadly reaction from measles as Olivia did, there would still be nothing the doctors could do to help her.

On the other hand, there is today something that parents can do to make sure that this sort of tragedy does not happen to a child of theirs. They can insist that their child is immunised against measles. I was unable to do that for Olivia in 1962 because in those days a reliable measles vaccine had not been discovered. Today a good and safe vaccine is available to every family and all you have to do is to ask your doctor to administer it.

It is not yet generally accepted that measles can be a dangerous illness. Believe me, it is. In my opinion parents who now refuse to have their children immunised are putting the lives of those children at risk. In America, where measles immunisation is compulsory, measles like smallpox, has been virtually wiped out.

Here in Britain, because so many parents refuse, either out of obstinacy or ignorance or fear, to allow their children to be immunised, we still have a hundred thousand cases of measles every year. Out of those, more than 10,000 will suffer side effects of one kind or another. At least 10,000 will develop ear or chest infections. About 20 will die.

LET THAT SINK IN.

Every year around 20 children will die in Britain from measles.

So what about the risks that your children will run from being immunised?

They are almost non-existent. Listen to this. In a district of around 300,000 people, there will be only one child every 250 years who will develop serious side effects from measles immunisation! That is about a million to one chance. I should think there would be more chance of your child choking to death on a chocolate bar than of becoming seriously ill from a measles immunisation.

So what on earth are you worrying about? It really is almost a crime to allow your child to go unimmunised.

The ideal time to have it done is at 13 months, but it is never too late. All school-children who have not yet had a measles immunisation should beg their parents to arrange for them to have one as soon as possible.

Incidentally, I dedicated two of my books to Olivia, the first was ‘James and the Giant Peach‘. That was when she was still alive. The second was ‘The BFG‘, dedicated to her memory after she had died from measles. You will see her name at the beginning of each of these books. And I know how happy she would be if only she could know that her death had helped to save a good deal of illness and death among other children.

Albert Einstein on Education and the Secret to Learning

Albert_Einstein
In 1915 Einstein, who was then 36, was living in wartime Berlin with his cousin Elsa, who would eventually become his second wife. His two sons, Hans Albert Einstein and Eduard “Tete” Einstein were with his estranged wife Mileva in neutral Zurich.

After eight long years of effort his theory of general relativity, which would propel him to international celebrity, was finally summed up in just two pages. Flush with his recent accomplishment, he sent his 11-year-old Hans Albert the following letter, which is found in Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children.

My dear Albert,

Yesterday I received your dear letter and was very happy with it. I was already afraid you wouldn’t write to me at all any more. You told me when I was in Zurich, that it is awkward for you when I come to Zurich. Therefore I think it is better if we get together in a different place, where nobody will interfere with our comfort. I will in any case urge that each year we spend a whole month together, so that you see that you have a father who is fond of you and who loves you. You can also learn many good and beautiful things from me, something another cannot as easily offer you. What I have achieved through such a lot of strenuous work shall not only be there for strangers but especially for my own boys. These days I have completed one of the most beautiful works of my life, when you are bigger, I will tell you about it.

I am very pleased that you find joy with the piano. This and carpentry are in my opinion for your age the best pursuits, better even than school. Because those are things which fit a young person such as you very well. Mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign those. That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes. I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal. Also play ringtoss with Tete. That teaches you agility. Also go to my friend Zangger sometimes. He is a dear man.

Be with Tete kissed by your

Papa.

Regards to Mama.

Follow your curiosity and read letters from Hunter S. Thompson, Eudora Welty, van Gogh, Charles Bukowski, and Richard Feynman.

Vincent van Gogh Writes a Letter on the Three Stages of Love

Vincent van Gogh on Love

In a letter to his brother Theo, dated Thursday, 3 November 1881, found in Ever Yours: The Essential Letters, Vincent van Gogh describes an unreciprocated love and in so doing alludes to three stages of love.

My dear Theo,

There’s something on my mind that I want to tell you. Perhaps you already know something about it, and what I’m telling you isn’t news.

I wanted to tell you that this summer I’ve come to love Kee Vos so much that I could find no other words for it than ‘it’s just as if Kee Vos were the closest person to me and I the closest person to Kee Vos’. And — I said these words to her. But when I told her this, she replied that her past and her future were all one to her and so she could never return my feelings.

Then I was in an awful dilemma about what to do, to resign myself to that no, nay, never, or — not yet to regard the matter as over and done with, and to take courage and not give up yet.

I chose the latter. And until now I haven’t regretted that decision, even though I’m still confronted with that no, nay, never.

Since then, of course, I’ve suffered a great many ‘petty miseries of human life’, which, if they were written down in a book, could perhaps serve to amuse some people, though they can hardly be considered pleasant if one experiences them oneself. Nonetheless, up to now I’ve been glad that I left the resignation or ‘how-not-to-do-it’ method to those who prefer it and, as for myself, plucked up a little courage. You understand that in cases like this it’s surprisingly difficult to know what one can, may and must do. But ‘wandering we find our way’, and not by sitting still.

One of the reasons I haven’t written to you about it before now is that the position in which I found myself was so vague and undecided that I couldn’t explain it to you.

[…]

I said that now the situation is becoming somewhat clearer. First, Kee says no, nay, never, and furthermore I believe that I’ll have tremendous difficulty with the elders who already regard the matter as over and done with and will try and force me to give up. For the time being, though, I believe they’ll proceed with caution, keeping me dangling and fobbing me off until Uncle and Aunt Stricker’s big celebration (in December) is over. Because they want to avoid scandal. After that, though, I fear that steps will be taken to get rid of me.

Forgive the rather harsh terms I’m using to make my position clear to you. I admit that the colours are a little harsh and the lines drawn a bit too hard, but it will nevertheless give you a clearer picture of the situation than if I were to beat about the bush. So don’t suspect me of lack of respect for those Elder persons.

[…]

Yet by now you understand that I mean to leave no stone unturned in my endeavours to bring me closer to her, and I declare that

I shall love her so long
That in the end she’ll love me too.

The more she disappears, the more she appears.

Theo, aren’t you in love too, at times? I wish you were, for believe me, the ‘petty miseries’ of it are also of some value. Sometimes one is desolate, there are moments when one is in hell, as it were, but — it also brings with it other and better things. There are three stages, first not loving and not being loved, second loving and not being loved (the case in question), third loving and being loved.

I’d say that the second stage is better than the first, but the third! That’s it.

Now, old boy, go and fall in love and tell me about it sometime. Keep quiet about the case in question and sympathize with me.

He followed that up in another letter to Theo from May 1, 1882.

Last year I wrote you a great many letters telling you what I thought about love. I’m not doing so now, because I’m busy putting those same things into practice. The person for whom I felt what I wrote to you is not on my path, is beyond my reach, despite all my longing for her. Would I have done better to go on thinking of her and to overlook what came my way? I cannot decide whether I’m acting consistently or inconsistently. Suppose I were to start today on a drawing of a digger, for example — but the man says, I have to leave and won’t or can’t pose again — I don’t have the right to blame him for leaving me there with a barely sketched drawing, the more so because I started to draw him without asking permission. Must I then give up drawing a digger? I think not, especially not if tomorrow I encounter one who says, I want to come not only today but also tomorrow and the day after, and I understand what you need, go ahead, I’m patient and have the good will to do it. To be sure, I didn’t stick exactly to my first impression, but would I have done better to reason: no, I definitely need that first digger, even if he says, I can’t and won’t? And once I’ve started on No. 2, then I may certainly not work without reference to the nature standing before me, thinking the while of No. 1. That’s how things stand.

Vincent van Gogh on the Two Types of Idlers

Self-Portrait by Vincent van Gogh (1889)
Self-Portrait by Vincent van Gogh (1889)

The anthology Ever Yours: The Essential Letters, contains 265 of Vincent van Gogh’s letters, which is nearly a third of all the surviving letters he penned.

In a long and winding letter to his brother Theo dated Thursday, 24 June 1880, van Gogh shines light on his independent mind.

Now one of the reasons why I’m now without a position, why I’ve been without a position for years, it’s quite simply because I have different ideas from these gentlemen who give positions to individuals who think like them.

Later, in the same letter, he defines two types of idlers.

I’m writing you somewhat at random whatever comes into my pen; I would be very happy if you could somehow see in me something other than some sort of idler.

Because there are idlers and idlers, who form a contrast.

There’s the one who’s an idler through laziness and weakness of character, through the baseness of his nature; you may, if you think fit, take me for such a one. Then there’s the other idler, the idler truly despite himself, who is gnawed inwardly by a great desire for action, who does nothing because he finds it impossible to do anything since he’s imprisoned in something, so to speak, because he doesn’t have what he would need to be productive, because the inevitability of circumstances is reducing him to this point. Such a person doesn’t always know himself what he could do, but he feels by instinct, I’m good for something, even so! I feel I have a raison d’être! I know that I could be a quite different man! For what then could I be of use, for what could I serve! There’s something within me, so what is it! That’s an entirely different idler; you may, if you think fit, take me for such a one.

In the springtime a bird in a cage knows very well that there’s something he’d be good for; he feels very clearly that there’s something to be done but he can’t do it; what it is he can’t clearly remember, and he has vague ideas and says to himself, ‘the others are building their nests and making their little ones and raising the brood’, and he bangs his head against the bars of his cage. And then the cage stays there and the bird is mad with suffering . ‘Look, there’s an idler’, says another passing bird — that fellow’s a sort of man of leisure. And yet the prisoner lives and doesn’t die; nothing of what’s going on within shows outside, he’s in good health, he’s rather cheerful in the sunshine. But then comes the season of migration.

Ever Yours: The Essential Letters sheds light on the turbulent and beautiful life of history’s greatest luminaries.

Vincent van Gogh on How To Live

Van_Gogh_-_Terrasse_des_Cafés_an_der_Place_du_Forum_in_Arles_am_Abend1

Van Gogh didn’t become popular until shortly after his death. To this day it’s unclear whether his letters drove the initial interest in his art.

The anthology Ever Yours: The Essential Letters, contains 265 of Vincent van Gogh’s letters, which is nearly a third of all the surviving letters he penned.

On the third of April, 1878, in a noteworthy letter to his brother Theo, van Gogh sheds light on his intentions about how to live.

I’ve been thinking about what we discussed, and I couldn’t help thinking of the words ‘we are today what we were yesterday’. This isn’t to say that one must stand still and ought not try to develop oneself, on the contrary, there are compelling reasons to do and think so.

But in order to remain faithful to those words one may not retreat and, once one has started to see things with a clear and trusting eye, one ought not to abandon or deviate from that.

[…]

As far as being an homme intérieur et spirituel is concerned, couldn’t one develop that in oneself through knowledge of history in general and of certain people of all eras in particular, from biblical times to the Revolution and from The Odyssey to the books of Dickens and Michelet? And couldn’t one learn something from the work of the likes of Rembrandt or from Weeds by Breton, or The four times of the day by Millet, or Saying grace by Degroux, or Brion, or The conscript by Degroux (or else by Conscience), or his Apothecary, or The large oaks by Dupré, or even the mills and sand flats by Michel?

It’s by persevering in those ideas and things that one at last becomes thoroughly leavened with a good leaven, that of sorrowful yet always rejoicing, and which will become apparent when the time of fruitfulness is come in our lives, the fruitfulness of good works.

The ray from on high doesn’t always shine on us, and is sometimes behind the clouds, and without that light a person cannot live and is worth nothing and can do nothing good, and anyone who maintains that one can live without faith in that higher light and doesn’t worry about attaining it will end up being disappointed.

Vincent believed that one must pay the price to achieve the kind of success that was deserved — “that a victory achieved after lifelong work and effort is better than one achieved more quickly.”

He who lives uprightly and experiences true difficulty and disappointment and is nonetheless undefeated by it is worth more than someone who prospers and knows nothing but relative good fortune.

[…]

Do let us go on quietly, examining all things and holding fast to that which is good, and trying always to learn more that is useful, and gaining more experience.

Woe-spiritedness is quite a good thing to have, if only one writes it as two words, woe is in all people, everyone has reason enough for it, but one must also have spirit, the more the better, and it is good to be someone who never despairs.

Living means we will inevitably experience sorrow and disappointment.

If we but try to live uprightly, then we shall be all right, even though we shall inevitably experience true sorrow and genuine disappointments, and also probably make real mistakes and do wrong things, but it’s certainly true that it is better to be fervent in spirit, even if one accordingly makes more mistakes, than narrow-minded and overly cautious. It is good to love as much as one can, for therein lies true strength, and he who loves much does much and is capable of much, and that which is done with love is well done.

[…]

If one were to say but few words, though ones with meaning, one would do better than to say many that were only empty sounds, and just as easy to utter as they were of little use.

Love is the best and most noble thing in the human heart, especially when it has been tried and tested in life like gold in the fire, happy is he and strong in himself who has loved much and, even if he has wavered and doubted, has kept that divine fire and has returned to that which was in the beginning and shall never die. If only one continues to love faithfully that which is verily worthy of love, and does not squander his love on truly trivial and insignificant and faint-hearted things, then one will gradually become more enlightened and stronger.

The sooner one seeks to become competent in a certain position and in a certain profession, and adopts a fairly independent way of thinking and acting, and the more one observes fixed rules, the stronger one’s character becomes, and yet that doesn’t mean that one has to become narrow-minded.

It is wise to do that, for life is but short and time passes quickly. If one is competent in one thing and understands one thing well, one gains at the same time insight into and knowledge of many other things into the bargain.

It’s sometimes good to go about much in the world and to be among people, and at times one is actually obliged and called upon to do so, or it can be one way of ‘throwing oneself into one’s work unreservedly and with all one’s might’, but he who actually goes quietly about his work, alone, preferring to have but very few friends, goes the most safely among people and in the world. One should never trust it when one is without difficulties or some worry or obstacle, and one shouldn’t make things too easy for oneself. Even in the most cultured circles and the best surroundings and circumstances, one should retain something of the original nature of a Robinson Crusoe or a savage, for otherwise one hath not root in himself, and never let the fire in his soul go out but keep it going, there will always be a time when it will come in useful.

We must launch out into the great sea of life.

Launching out into the deep is what we too must do if we want to catch anything, and if it sometimes happens that we have to work the whole night and catch nothing, then it is good not to give up after all but to let down the nets again at dawn.

So let us simply go on quietly, each his own way, always following the light ‘sursum corda’, and as such who know that we are what others are and that others are what we are, and that it is good to have love one to another namely of the best kind, that believeth all things and hopeth all things, endureth all things and never faileth.

And not troubling ourselves too much if we have shortcomings, for he who has none has a shortcoming nonetheless, namely that he has none, and he who thinks he is perfectly wise would do well to start over from the beginning and become a fool.

We are today what we were yesterday, namely ‘honnêtes hommes’, but ones who must be tried with the fire of life to be innerly strengthened and confirmed in that which they are by nature through the grace of God.

Ever Yours: The Essential Letters is a collection of some of Vincent van Gogh’s best letters which shed light on a remarkable talent and his artistic notions.

Albert Einstein to Marie Curie: Haters Gonna Hate

Einstien to Curie

“One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.”
— Marie Curie

***

“Few persons contributed more to the general welfare of mankind and to the advancement of science than the modest, self-effacing woman whom the world knew as Mme. Curie.”

That’s from the obituary of Nobel winning Marie Curie — the only person so far to win a Nobel in two difference Sciences.

Things, however, were not always easy for her.

In 1911, Curie was facing relentless attacks on her personal life saying that she “tarnished the good name” of her late husband Pierre Curie. She was denied a seat in the French Academy of Sciences in January 1911 for reasons that probably included gender and religion.

Albert Einstein took to the pen and paper and offered her some sage advice that is still relevant today. Not only did Einstein have a big brain, but he had a big heart.

The letter is part of nearly 5,000 of his personal papers that can be found online in The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein.

Highly esteemed Mrs. Curie,

Do not laugh at me for writing you without having anything sensible to say. But I am so enraged by the base manner in which the public is presently daring to concern itself with you that I absolutely must give vent to this feeling. However, I am convinced that you consistently despise this rabble, whether it obsequiously lavishes respect on you or whether it attempts to satiate its lust for sensationalism!

I am impelled to tell you how much I have come to admire your intellect, your drive, and your honesty, and that I consider myself lucky to have made your personal acquaintance in Brussels. Anyone who does not number among these reptiles is certainly happy, now as before, that we have such personages among us as you, and Langevin too, real people with whom one feels privileged to be in contact. If the rabble continues to occupy itself with you, then simply don’t read that hogwash, but rather leave it to the reptile for whom it has been fabricated.

With most amicable regards to you, Langevin, and Perrin, yours very truly,
A. Einstein

The advice reminds me of something Maya Angelou said, “The problem I have with haters is that they see my glory, but they don’t know my story.”

If you’re interested in learning more check out Madame Curie: A Biography.