20 October 2014

Winter

I gaze out of the oversized patio window door. The trees in the rear of the house lining the properties edge are bare, and behind them, perhaps one hundred yards distance, the brilliant color of the leaves has faded and display lingering shades of brown. My burning bush has lost its brilliant red leaves. The late afternoon cloudless sky is a very pale blue, almost white in shade, the high grass has fallen and the low grass has ceased to grow and begun to yellow. The Jewish Holy Days are completed, and Fall turns not slowly into winter.
            The first year I lived in the mid-West an enormous snowstorm blanketed the area on Halloween and remained on the ground until late April. That approximate length of months is about the extent of winter here. There was a time when I felt that I could tolerate the cold: during the winter months only temperatures below -20 degrees kept me from the roads and I wore overcoats and remained hatless. Today I have taken from storage my winter coat purchased from LL Bean that kept me somewhat warm last winter and that always adds ten pounds to my weight when I put it on, these days at earlier moments and (relatively) higher temperatures. I have at least two hats, several scarves and insulated gloves. Nevertheless, I do not think I will blow much snow this winter. 
            This late afternoon I do yet not smell snow in the air; indeed, the temperature is rather warm, but the air itself feels temporary, and seems to suggest, “Wear a sweater anyway!” Or it is me recognizing the time? Mostly, I remain indoors, and make only occasional forays out of the house. It is said that Thoreau would walk about for four hours per day, but in fact, the day contains twenty-four hours. He must have remained indoors for much of that time, then, writing and reading. “This only is reading, and in a high sense but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read, and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.” Hence, he must have spent a good deal of time sitting and reading. “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time,” he states, somewhat proudly I think. And yet, a whole chapter in Walden explores Society: I love society as much as the next! Winter invites society in.





18 October 2014

I Love You, Mrs. Dalloway

I’ve returned to University, again. Well, in reality I have never quite left it: after my own college education (1965-69), I began a master’s program and then a doctoral program, finishing finally in 1990. During that time I also taught high school English, the subject I was studying at the University. I adored reading and studying literature. It was always myself I sought in the books, and in that search I often came across great beauty. Indeed, I taught myself (I learned) to know the beautiful.
And so when my beautiful daughters went off to University and studied literature, I chose to read the books along with them. I have mentioned this occasionally here and more recently in the final chapter, “Of Cabins, Pequods, and Classrooms,” of my new book, The Classroom: Encounter and Engagement. And over these past six and seven years I have experienced great delight in returning to many of the texts I had studied myself during these past forty-five years: how my readings have changed! How I have changed is marked often in my markings in the readings. I have had the opportunity to discuss books and ideas with my daughters but also with the twenty year old as I now commented within the texts to the comments entered upon the texts those many years ago by he who first had read those books at University. 
And so I have been rereading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. And there is one passage (of many, actually) that struck me as particularly beautiful and poignant. (I wonder now: to what extent poignancy is integral to beauty!) Richard Dalloway has purchased roses for his wife, Clarissa, well, to tell her “in so many words’ that the loved her.” And he was happy.
Theirs is a complex, adult relationship (I know, I know, I should define those words but I won’t here, this is not a literary analysis of Mrs. Dalloway), and Clarissa loved her roses. More than the events of the day (was it the Armenians or the Albanians who were massacred?), Clarissa loved her roses. “What she liked was the simple life.” And it is for the sake of the simple life that Clarissa throws her parties. “They are an offering . . . an offering for the sake of offering, perhaps. Anyhow, it was her gift.” Clarissa is a simple woman: “Nothing else had she of the slightest importance; could not think, write, even play the piano. She muddled Armenians and Turks; loved success; hated discomfort; must be liked; talked oceans of nonsense; and to this day ask her what the Equator was, and she did not know.” Dear Clarissa, so simple and complex.

And then Clarissa reflects on the beauty of the simplicity: “All the same, that one day should follow another; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park, meet Hugh Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roes; it was enough. After that how unbelievable death was!¾that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all; how every instant . . .” Yes, privileged, rich, physically comfortable is Clarissa Dalloway, but how happy in the beauty she enjoys in the diurnal. And how that feeling of happiness dissolves the reality of death and makes it well, unbelievable. It is not that Clarissa is oblivious, nor even that she is not touched by sorrow and doubt. But at this moment, with her roses, and just hours before her party, she loved it all . . . every instant!

07 October 2014

Bull Frogs

There is a wonderful passage in Walden in the chapter “Sounds.” It is late in the evening and Thoreau hears the sounds that come to him as he sits in his cabin¾though I suspect he sits for the most part out of doors in his single chair reserved for solitude. Devoting at least half of the chapter to the thoughts inspired by the sound of the railroad¾of it he says, “it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it”¾he comes eventually to the natural sounds about his abode in the woods. It is a lovely and beautifully noisy chapter.
And one sound that Thoreau hears is “trump of bull-frogs.” And he likens these creatures and their sounds to “the study spirits of ancient wine-bibbers and wassailers, still unrepentant, trying to sing a catch in their Stygian lake . . .  who would fain keep up the hilarious rules of their old festal tables, though their voices have waxed hoarse and solemnly grave, mocking at mirth, and the wine has lost its flavor, and become only liquor to distend their paunches, and sweet intoxication never comes to drown the memory of the past, but mere saturation and waterloggedness and distention.” On the one hand, I suspect Thoreau refers here to the senior magistrates of the town whose function has become mere ceremony and that serves little purpose, but whose position tenures them to meaningless and empty existences. Their liquor is not sweet enough to cause the past to disappear even for a short time, and they drink embittered in the memory of their unfulfilled lives. “The most aldermanic, with his chin upon a heart-leaf, which serves for a napkin to his drooling chaps, under this northern shore quaffs a deep draught of the once scorned water, and passed round the cup with the ejaculation tr-r-r-oonk, tr-r-r-oonk, tr-r-r-oonk! and straitway comes over the water from some distance cove the same password repeated, where the next in seniority and girth has gulped down to his mark . . .”  Thoreau’s is a rather amusing portrayal of a bunch of overweight bureaucrats that reminds me not a little of James Joyce’s portrayal in the story “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” of minor town bureaucrats gathered on election day discussing politics, awaiting  their pay-offs and sharing the ample supply of liquor.
But to me the description offers some insight into Thoreau’s capacity for humor, a trait not often associated with the Concord hermit. His portrait of the drunken fest bespeaks a certain amusement in the conduct of the participants. Thoreau in this passage appears far from humorless. And of course, to describe so carefully and amusedly the drunken scene might suggest that at some time Thoreau might himself  have engaged in an excess of spirits in the company of society and belched forth his own belched tr-r-r-oonk.  

I am discovering a more nuanced Thoreau in this reading of Walden.

28 September 2014

Anxiety and its Contents

She asked if I had anxiety?
I responded. “Of course I have anxiety. I grow anxious about the children’s well-being, and I am concerned about my work and about my health. I worry about the state of my children and the state of the world. I worry about climate change and I worry about my mother suffering from dementia. I worry about racism and the rise again of anti-Semitism in the world. And I worry about the children. I worry that the Republicans will in the elections gain control over the Congress, and I worry that my children will suffer as a result. Do I have anxiety? Of course I do!
Who doesn’t suffer from anxiety in this world. Of all the sane men I have met and considered, Henry David Thoreau has always seemed to me as one of the sanest. His Walden has served me for a long time as a guide for the perplexed by one who had found his way out of the confusion. He writes in the Conclusion: “I learned this, at least, 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,” and I have always identified that ‘he’ with Thoreau.  But I think now that this identification is misleading. There is a difference between Walden’s narrator and the mythological man it has spawned in the imagination. Though Thoreau’s time at Walden was a glorious experiment, it did not produce a man free of the world or from an anxiety that derives from living in it. I offer only three instances:
            In “Higher Laws” Thoreau writes: “If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he seems not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies.” Thoreau’s choice to describe his individuality as producing not what appears to be insanity but which is insanity suggests to me his acknowledgement of this state in himself. A man may indeed, not keep pace with his companions, but it might be a result of “even insanity” that would lead him thus. There is not a little hint of anxiety in Thoreau’s description.
            He writes also in “Higher Laws” that the world is enough to intoxicate the minds of men and women and that water suffices as the only necessary liquor. Unlike me, Thoreau eschews spoiling his morning with “a cup of warm coffee.” He rejoices that in the absence of coarse labors he does not require the consumption of coarse foods. But then he acknowledges, “But to tell the truth, I find myself at present somewhat less particular in these respects. I carry less religion to the table, ask no blessing; not because I am wiser than I was, but, I am obliged to confess, because, however much it is to be regretted, with years I have grown more coarse and indifferent.” I hear disquiet and even disappointment in these words. There is not acceptance in his tone but discontent that must surely have led to moments of failure and a resultant anxiety.
            Finally, in “Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors,” Thoreau describes Breed’s hut, which seems to have been set on fire by some mischievous boys one Election night. “I lived on the edge of the village then,” he says, and so he was not at Walden, “and had just lost myself over Davenant’s Gondibert, that winter that I labored with a lethargy . . .” What else but a form of anxious paralysis could Thoreau be experiencing? He attributes the state to hereditya family complaintor to his “attempt to read Chalmers’ collection of English poetry with skipping,” But I am certain that what he here admits to is the condition that has led to the ubiquity in our modern day society of psychotropic drugs to treat depression.
Do I have anxiety? Who doesn’t who lives in this world? But Thoreau teaches me that despite this human conditionwhich he certainly sharedwe are not condemned by it. In imagery I have elsewhere explored, Thoreau declares that he means to journey not in cabin passage, but rather “to go before the mast and on the deck of the world . . .”  It was just such a motive that led Ishmael to board the Pequod to cure him of his own hypos. It was just such an attitude that kept Bulkington at sea to keep from crashing upon the Lee Shore.

To be alive is to invite anxiety, and learning to live with iteven creativelyis living.