Walking composition

Jan Morris and the art of kindness

“Be kind.” — Jan Morris, A Writer’s World: Travels and Reportage 1950-2000

A long time ago now, at least within the span of my own life, I was deeply immersed in the travel and travel writing world. Among my favorites to read, the giants of travel writing literature at the time, were Colin Thubron, Pico Iyer, and of course the incomparable Jan Morris, who I was very sad to hear died on November 20.

Of the writers I was introduced to at the time, Morris was probably the last, at least among those who are well-known in that genre. Her book A Writer’s World, a collection of essays that spans five decades, sat on my shelves for a long time before I finally cracked the binding.

Inside, I found myself delighted by life’s many variations through the eyes of a skilled writer who never seemed to shake a love for the world no matter what she witnessed. It opens when Jan was still James Morris, emerging from a tent with ice in a beard, on the way to acclaim as the only journalist member of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Everest; and ends with an essay that was a defining read of my life. After interactions with people all over the world who see humanity and reality in black-and-white, us-or-them, and striving to make meaning of it, Jan arrives at the only things that matters: be kind.

This was, it seems, an exhortation she lived by. Simon Winchester’s tribute to her in The American Scholar is filled with memories of her generosity to him as an aspiring writer. In that same magazine, senior editor Bruce Falconer writes of her as living by kindness, always kindness, quoting one of her columns for the magazine:

“I simply believe that everything one does in life can be measured against a scale of kindness. None of us can ever achieve full marks on the scale, and kindness itself must sometimes be weighed in the balance—is it ever kind to be cruel?—yet it seems to me that if there is any ultimate judge out there beyond the Milky Way, we can hardly be faulted if we have done our kindly best.”

After months of intentional government neglect, worry and fear, the loss of loved ones and the loss of connection, the unraveling of communities and relationships, our ability to be kind to ourselves, must less to one another, has been seriously strained. Let’s not forget that there are people with enormous power who have taken our taxes and our votes but refused to govern, and that whatever struggles we or our neighbors are facing are not—mostly—the fault of the people closest to us. Let’s do our kindly best by one another.


Some stuff to read or listen to:

  • On the Sapiens podcast, an interview with one of the scientists who found a link between a higher percentage of Neanderthal DNA and worse Covid outcomes. I had no idea how widely Neanderthal DNA varies across the world.

  • A compelling piece on how detrimental Biden’s pick for the head of the USDA, Tom Vilsack, will be for the Democratic Party’s hopes of garnering more support among rural voters. People I know who work or have worked in the Forest Service are happy with the choice, but I’ll be curious to see if Vilsack shifts USDA policy to start supporting smaller farms—and actual food—as well as dealing with food insecurity.

  • Civil Eats published an op-ed that is more optimistic about Vilsack and the chances he has to make this country’s farms more sustainable (and, again, helping to restructure the system so that it rewards people for growing actual food!), but the very fact that they had to lay out a roadmap for improvement in an op-ed makes me nervous about its chances. On the other hand, it’s a comprehensive vision that takes into account the fact that food access and land ownership play a huge role in many issues of injustice.

  • If you have any interest in the (Imaginary) West and its issues, I highly recommend listening to all eight episodes of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Timber Wars podcast. I have long thought that areas like the one I live in can trace their anti-environmental, anti-government, and anti-progressive attitudes to the timber wars of the late 1980s-early 1990s. Timber Wars does a great job of untangling the issues.

  • FUN AND MORE FUN! Our local theater up here in northwest Montana recently launched their new production, “Your Musical is CANCELLED! The Musical,” available to rent from Vimeo. These are among the funniest and most talented people I know and they are the invisible connectors that hold this community together. They are absolute stardust. Rent it, watch it, laugh, cry, and then send it to all your favorite friends. (There’s a 6-minute sneak peak at the bottom of the page you can watch first if you’re unsure.)