Cultivating Passion with a Thread

By Lisa McTigue

Tourists flank Fontana della Barcaccia, a commemorative fountain at the base of the Spanish Steps, Scalinata, in Rome Italy. Over four centuries ago, the Tiber River flooded the city depositing a river barque nearly half a mile away in the Piazza di Spagna. The Fontana della Barcaccia was built in the location where the boat remained after the flood withdrew.

The Barcaccia may be a resting place for tourists on a hot summer day, however, nearly two hundred years ago it played a pivotal role for one man from England. A young poet, nearing his death, roomed in an apartment above the Spanish Steps where sounds of the “Fountain of the Old Boat” made their way into his consciousness.

Growing up in England, the future poet’s life was plagued with continual money woes that were exacerbated by each death of his elders. By fifteen, John Keats withdrew from school and apprenticed in surgery. Three years later, he had become consumed with writing poetry.

Many in England, particularly Keats’ guardian Richard Abbey, regarded poetry as a hobby for the wealthy and the noble who possessed the education and leisure to dabble in wordsmithing. His early works were rebuffed as a “pretender” and “ignorant and unsettled.”

Without delusions of the struggles he faced, Keats left medicine in determination to follow his dreams. He ferociously read Shakespeare and Spenser, and any other book that he could borrow. His love of books inspired his most famous poem, On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer.

John Keats’ first volume of poetry, Poems, was published in 1817. After Richard Abbey read the poems, he remarked, “Well, John, I have read your book, and it reminds me of a Quaker’s Horse which was hard to catch, and good for nothing when it was caught - So, your book is hard to understand and good for nothing when it is understood.” Abbey claimed years later that he meant his opinion in jest, but Keats took it to heart. The book sales did nothing to help bolster Keats’ ego.

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The remainder of the year, Keats travelled through England, focusing for the first time solely on his writing. He felt he grew as a writer penning three books before returning to London. The final book, Endymion, written while in Oxford, as a complete work is frustrating and inconsistent. However, taken apart, the passages are witness to Keats growth and finding his own voice.

The book birthed the Romantic movement, as Keats explored ideas about nature and our relationship with it; about melancholy and desire. Experiencing beauty in all its forms helps us teach ourselves how to live. It begins:

A THING of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

Endymion, published in 1818, like Keats’ other works received critical reviews.

Battling constant illness, he wrote a friend, “If I should die, I have left no immortal work behind me - nothing to make my friend proud of my memory - but I have lov’d the principle of the beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember’d.”

Keats’ friends and publisher pushed him to go to Rome, where it was believed that his health would recover. In the summer of 1820, his last works were published and received positive reviews, even from those that had been so critical in the past.

He arrived in Rome in November. The sounds of the Fontana della Barcaccia water below his apartment and his yearning for a love left in England reminded him of the play, Philaster or Love Lies Bleeding, written between the Timber flood and the commission of the fountain. A line in the play reads: “As you are, living; all your better Deeds / Shall be water writ, but this is in Marble.”

Keats requested that upon his death his tombstone shall not bear his name, but rather an inscription. He died a few months after arriving in Rome on February 23, 1821 at 25 years old. His gravestone in Italy reads:

Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.

Writ in Marble

Keats worried his entire life that he would be writ in water. Writ is Old English for a written manner, when you write in water the words are lost as soon as they are written. Therefore, to be writ in water means to be forgotten.

Despite the negative reviews, and knowing that giving up his passion for a steady career path in medicine would have afforded him a better life...a life with his beloved, Fanny Brawne. Keats met Fanny the same year Endymion was published. Fanny’s mother, Mrs. Brawne, liked Keats, but would not allow her daughter to marry a poor writer.

The two were unofficially engaged. Fanny encouraged him to continue writing. He had to figure out how to take the tools he developed as a writer to turn his passion into a sustaining career. A friend had told him he should pursue playwriting for profit. Like his literary idol, Shakespeare, he would become a playwright. He also made plans with his publisher for another book.

A month later, he showed the first signs of the tuberculosis that would take his life.

Cultivating Passion

As Keats suggests in Endymion, we must teach ourselves and allow ourselves the ability to experience beauty to learn how to live.

Keats did more than follow his passion. He prepared himself for a life as a writer. While, he was not formally educated after fifteen, he read any book that he could borrow. Society as a whole, rejected him primarily because they thought he was foolish and should take a job like other people in his social class. He believed in his abilities even if it meant he would not achieve his goals. He found ways to better himself and his writing. Remember, he published multiple works in only three years and by the time he was twenty-four.

Cal Newport, Ph.D., would call this cultivating a passion. Cal is an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University. He’s trying to decode the patterns of success, why people lead successful, meaningful, and enjoyable lives.

He explores passions in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. Cal believes the cliche “follow your passion,” is bad advice, misleading, and potentially dangerous.

Cultivating a passion, on the other hand, can lead to a fulfilling life. By creating a world for your passion to evolve, you create a way for your passions to grow into substance. It takes effort and a plan to take a desire to a working passion.

Keats cultivated his passion for writing. Leaving medicine was not him following his passion. It was allowing himself the time to develop his toolbox and to experience life. Reading everything he could and traveling around England gave him the ability to critique and develop his own writing voice. It’s that voice that led to his notoriety. He wasn’t born with it. He worked for it.

In 2010, a photographer set out in New York City to cultivate his passion, photography. His initial goal was to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers to catalogue the people of New York. Brandon Stanton, says that somewhere along the way he started talking to the people and interviewing them.

Brandon shared his art project on Facebook. About three years after he began, Humans of New York, gained social media momentum. The stories of the people connected with many others outside of the city.

Creating Legacy

Brandon’s art project became a global phenomenon and spawned two best-selling books. To follow Brandon’s work you can sense that he does not do Humans of New York for a paycheck. He cultivated HONY, as his fans call it, for years before he was paid. Brandon is interested in documenting and inspiring the lives of others...all lives.

On one of his outings, he met a young man named Vidal. Brandon asked him, “Who’s influenced you the most in your life?” Vidal’s response, “My principal, Ms. Lopez.” This piqued Brandon’s curiosity and he had to meet Ms. Lopez because how many young people are the most influenced by their school principal?

After meeting Ms. Lopez, Brandon decided it was time to put his social media following to task. Ms. Lopez is the principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a middle school located in New York City’s highest crime ridden neighborhood. Every year she tries to take the sixth graders on a trip to visit Harvard University. To show these kids that it is a real place and that it is an achievable dream. But, to take the kids every year comes with a huge price tag.

Brandon started a $100,000 crowdfunding campaign to ensure the students, or Scholars as Ms. Lopez refers to them, can visit Harvard every year. The campaign raised over $1.4 million from 51,466 people in 20 days. In addition to taking the scholars to Harvard, the school now has a funded summer program to help the kids stay off the street, and a college scholarship program, The Vidal Scholarship Fund, named for the kid that started it all.

Brandon continues to use his notoriety to help others, aside from the stories that move and inspire people all over the world. Brandon continues to use his platform to raise money and awareness. He started a petition to help Syrian refugees and raised over $3.8 million to fund pediatric cancer research, including a cure for a brain tumor called DIPG. This tumor affects about 200 children per year, so it is not high on the funding list. DIPG does, however, kill 100 percent of the children that have it.

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Dr. Souwedaine at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center began work on the cure for DIPG in 1990. He told HONY, “I thought: ‘I’ll figure it out in two years.’” A cure has been difficult because the tumor infiltrates the brain stem...untouchable by a knife and no room for error. He received approval for his first clinical trial in May 2012, twenty-two years after he began.

Dr. Souwedaine has given extra life to twenty patients. He told HONY, “My childhood was building things. And, I didn’t just build them...I focused on every detail. It felt so good when that work was finished and appreciated.” It was the same drive and passion that took him into neurosurgery.

One Life. One Thread.

Pondering our life’s legacy and how we will be remembered is a centuries old quandary. Will you be remembered? Or, will you be writ in the water of history?

Not everyone is destined to be a poet. Not every passion leads to a profession. Not everyone will do something so grand that they will be cast in marble.

Everyone can impact one life. We are all threads linked through time.

A flood in the sixteenth century, commemorated by a fountain in the seventeenth century, inspired an unknown poet to leave an inscription on his tombstone that is still argued about today in the twenty-first century.

A man sets about New York to document its inhabitants. A kid in Brooklyn receives a college scholarship. A doctor spending the past twenty-two years, nearly the length of Keats’ life, towards one goal, has access to research funding.

What is your story, your thread, your legacy?



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