18 November 2015

The Dying of the Light

I don’t know if I made the applesauce tonight because my children are coming home for Thanksgiving and I could gift it to them, or because my mother is dying and I learned to make applesauce from her—using the food mill I saw her use to smoosh down the cooked apples. I do not in my memory see her in the kitchen, but I certainly know the mill and the recipe. Apples cooked until very soft, turned through the mill, and ½ teaspoon of cinnamon added to the sauce.
     The thing about my mother’s impending death is that when she goes I become the eldest left in the family. I think it is not the responsibility but the position that startles me. No one knows the hour of his death, and any one’s demise can precede my own, but when I look forward there is no one between me and death: when death stops I will be the first thing it sees.
     Morbid thoughts, cold and rainy night. Outside the leaves have all fallen from the trees—it is, after all, mid-November, but at least there is yet no snow. At 5:00pm the sky is dark, and at 6:00am when I awaken it will still be dark.
     I remember someone telling me recently (was it you, David?) that a professor of his thought Dylan Thomas’ line “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” bad poetry and terrible philosophy. Mom will go gently, and that will be for her very right and proper.

26 October 2015

Me and Arlo at Sixty-Eight

Saw Arlo in concert last night as part of his Alice’s Restaurant Massacree 50th Anniversary Tour. For years we celebrated Arlo (and Pete’s) Thanksgiving concerts at Carnegie Hall, and then circumstances made it too difficult to continue our attendance. Nevertheless, I have followed Arlo whenever he was in close proximity and over the years have seen him in Eau Claire Wisconsin, Minneapolis and now St. Paul, Minnesota. The event is always a homecoming. For one, I don’t know anywhere else in the country where I can feel assured that no one sitting by me votes Republican. And the play list covers my life: there isn’t a name he utters that doesn’t situate me somewhere at sometime: they are all part of my community; they have all been my family for years.
     I didn’t need to hear “Alice’s Restaurant” again. I have listened to it every year for fifty years—on at least Thanksgiving Day. I quote some its lines over the course of any year. And there were songs included that I have heard Arlo sing for many years: “St. James Infirmary,” “City of New Orleans,” “Coming into Los Angeles”, even “Chilling of the Evening.” In fact, there wasn’t one song last night I haven’t heard him perform before, nor one narrated story I haven’t heard in previous years. But I would never think to say “Stop, I’ve heard that one,” or, "Darn, I've heard him do that one before," because I am not there merely for the stories or even for only the songs.These components are part of the event but not the event itself. I’m there for the community Arlo’s presence inspires, and the songs and stories are part of that community and presence. I can sing along with all of the songs because they have been part of my life as long as has Arlo and friends been present in it. And when he talks about his friends . . . they have been part of my community as well. Arlo brings into the concert some of the best people and parts of my life, and he has offered me a community into which I have brought my own children. Each of them is seeing Arlo on this tour though each will do so in different cities. But like all those past Thanksgivings at Carnegie Hall, we will be together again.
     When Arlo sings forever “This Land is Your Land” I believe him and maybe everyone else at the gathering does as well.

20 October 2015

On Walden

I am rather appalled at the somewhat absurd reading of Thoreau’s Walden by Kathryn Schulz in her recent New Yorker piece entitled “Pond Scum.” Though she says “The real Thoreau was, in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed, narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world,” she seems at the least to have ignored and pitifully misunderstood (to my mind with spiteful intent) at least the second paragraph of the book. Thoreau writes: “In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained . . . we commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.” In an era when the memoir has become absurdly ubiquitous and to a large extent ghost written, it is more than odd that Ms. Schulz should focus on this aspect of Thoreau’s book. Indeed, Thoreau admits that “I should not obtrude my affairs so much on the notice of my readers if very particular inquiries had not been made by my townsmen concerning my mode of life . . .” He was provoked into the narrative. And as for Ms. Schulz’s insinuation that Thoreau authoritatively insisted that his life style be the model for others, she has only to read in “Economy,” "I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for, before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself, I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father's or his mother's or his neighbor's instead." Thoreau throughout Walden advocates that each person learn her own life and certainly not copy his.
            In actuality, Thoreau went to Walden amongst other personal motives to write A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers a memorial to his brother, John, who had died of tetanus, and with whom he had undertaken just such a voyage. As in Walden which was finally organized artistically and organically by the natural progression of a single year, so did Thoreau organize A Week according to the ordered progress of the days. Thoreau did not move to the shores of Walden Pond (definitely not a scummy pond: Ms. Schulz should study the contrast between Walden Pond and the other ponds Thoreau in detail describes) but rather to study the needs and demands of his own life. He did not go to the woods specifically to write Walden.  Nevertheless, Thoreau always kept an active journal—Emerson upon meeting the recently Harvard graduate asked Thoreau, “Do you keep a journal?” and for the rest of his life Thoreau maintained a detailed and fascinating record of his life and experience¾but I am not certain to what extent Ms. Schulz has read into the Journal to any extent. Nevertheless, a casual glance would show that this great work was the Ur source for the composition of Walden. Schulz does complain that finally it took Thoreau ten years to write the book, but Thoreau says in “Reading” that a book should be read as slowly and carefully as it was written: alas, Ms. Schulz must have missed that chapter.
            And Thoreau went to the woods not for show but as an experiment. “My purpose in going to Walden Pond was not tot live cheaply nor to live dearly there, but to transact some private business with fewest obstacles; to be hindered from accomplishing which for want of a little common sense, a little enterprise and business talent, appeared not so sad as foolish.” I am surprised that Ms. Schulz missed this early description of Thoreau’s intent in “Economy,” a chapter that Ms. Schulz bemoans to be 80 pages long! (Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, weighing in at almost 800 pages, perhaps more to Ms. Schulz’s liking has chapter lengths of 2-4 pages, but I do not think it advisable to measure a novel by the length of the chapters.) Thoreau’s time at Walden was not meant to be a model for exemplary or even solitary living: it was meant as an experiment in his own life! In the conclusion he says “I learned this by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” Thoreau went to Walden to see what it was he had to obtain to live, “living is so dear.” Concord was not a town poverty stricken, and the Thoreaus were not wealthy: Thoreau had to decide whether he was going to live to make money (with which he could purchase the things of this world: food shelter and clothing) or whether he was going to live a life according to his dreams. Thoreau went to Walden, she tells us, “to learn what are the gross necessaries of life,” but that is not Thoreau’s language. Thoreau went to Walden to learn what was necessary for his life and what wasn’t required so that he didn’t waste his time getting what wasn’t necessary. “The cost of an item,” he writes, “is how much life it takes to get it.” And Thoreau left Walden for the same reason as he had gone there in the first place: “because I had other lives to live.”
            Ms. Schulz complains that Thoreau didn’t live a solitary life at all. She notes that he traveled to town regularly—it was but a 20-minute walk—but Thoreau acknowledges that when he lived ‘in the woods’ he lived but a mile from his nearest neighbor. And as for his sociability which Ms. Schulz denigrates, she apparently ignores Thoreau’s own statement, “I think that I love society as much as most, and am ready enough to fasten myself like a bloodsucker for the time to any full-blooded man that comes in my way. I am naturally no hermit, but might possibly sit out the sturdiest frequenter of the bar-room, if my business called me thither.” How did Ms. Schulz miss this unless she had motive to be so blind. We know that Thoreau served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. And we do more than suspect that his mother and other women of Concord met in his cabin to discuss issues of abolition and their work in the underground movement.  Ms. Schulz records no record of these visitations. Thoreau’s friend, Frank Sanborn, was more than an acquaintance of John Brown, and there are pages and pages in Thoreau’s journal concerning Brown’s work and martyrdom (Thoreau’s words describing Brown!).
            Ah, there is so much error in Ms. Schulz’s article that I don’t know really where to begin or end. So I will conclude here: she accuses him of an asceticism and self-control that borders on the fanatical. She is completely mistaken. He does not advocate for self-denial at all; indeed, at times he speaks to the opposite tendency if necessary. In the Conclusion he writes, “Be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clarke and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes,¾with shiploads of preserved meats to support you, if they be necessary; and pile the empty cans sky-high for a sign. Were preserved meats invented to preserve meat merely (italics added)? I have always taken this to mean that in my own quest of self-knowledge (Socrates’ ‘know thyself’ seems to have begun that introspective philosophical tradition), even a flat screen 80-inch television might be appropriate. And Thoreau admits that it is I who must choose what is necessary and what is not rather than to  have that choice made for me by others. Ms. Schulz misses this as well: “It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar. Yet do this even till you can do better, and you may perhaps find some “Symme’s Hole” by which to get at the inside at last (italics added). What Thoreau advocated always as an end was a self-awareness that would lead to independence and an honest life. He would say “However mean your life is, meet and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names.. . .”
            I could continue for a good while recording the errors and misreadings of Ms. Schulz of Walden. Thoreau read the newspapers at least once a week, and I go now to mine. There is more day to dawn: the sun is but a morning star.