Tuesday, October 29, 2013

These are the good old days

The concluding insight of Carly Simon's "Anticipation," that these are the good old days, resonates with those moments when in the midst of tension I pause, step back and consider my situation in its larger context and realize how good things are, how good I have it driving along on a warm autumn day through mountains covered with fall yellows and reds to a job teaching in college, a permanent job that pays a good wage and allows me to do something I see as valuable.

But I wonder at how valid it is for me to do this self-soothing. Usually I am uptight despite the idyllic context because I have not gotten things done as a result of my lack of discipline and my self-indulgence. That is at least how I feel, but am I right? Perhaps I am feeling sorry for myself and wallowing in self-pity, and by recentering further away from the present moment, I am able shake off a distorted view of it and then return to the present moment more aware of the true value of that moment. Or maybe I am just more deluded about my right to enjoy it.

The Buddhist approach says that I should stay in the moment and realize that everything outside of that moment is present only because I am thinking of it. Memories and anxieties impinge on the present only insofar as they are present in my consciousness and subconsciousness since they have no other physical form in which to be there. Much as I try to see the wisdom of that approach, I still see it as denial. At least my recentering requires me to find a context in which I can accept what of my past and future appears on the stage to demand attention, rewriting its part from delivering a soliloquy, foreground, center-stage to becoming part of a conversation with other players per chance in preparation for an exit pursued by a bear.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Selling Out

When I rotate my desk chair 180 degrees away from my computer, out the window I can see the for sale sign, a brown, and gold piece of sheet metal hanging from a gold 4 by 4 inverted L frame. It is a public display of our private plans. In the two weeks since it has been up, one person came to look at the house. That person is coming back tomorrow. I am not sure how I feel about all this. I talked about the garage sale in Letting Go, and our need to get rid of useless things. This house is not useless, but we must get rid of it because it is no longer of any use to us. Well, the interesting part is that it is still of use to us until May, but we are willing to live with the uncertainty of where exactly we will live rather than the uncertainty of how long we will have this house go unsold.

Yesterday we gave away one of the wooden storage boxes that Christian and I build for us to store things in the barn. I realized after the boards were laid on the trailer, I felt a sense of relief, a microscopic lightening of the load, as when a few days earlier we loaded the dining room set into a pickup truck, and it was gone. Each thing we get rid of lightens the load: the dining room set is gone; the bedroom set has been purchased and it will go. Today, two sets of people looked at the house, and one set is coming back tomorrow morning. We are trying not to get too excited about it, but it is clear that even as the prospect of our selling the house becomes clear, will still see its loss as a net positive gain. We'll see what we see in the future in the future.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Initiation of Solitude

I am watching the TV series called "Arrow," based on the Green Arrow character, about whom I know very little, except that he is an archer and a modernized version of Robin Hood. In this version he is the son of a billionaire and a ne'er-do-well in the classic sense of the word. He is shipwrecked on an island after his father's yacht sinks and his father dies. He spends five years on this island, not alone it seems, but cut off from his previous life. I expect we will gradually find more and more about the transformation process (a clever idea so that it is not all used up in a big origin episode), but the important thing is that at the end of this period of isolation, he is transformed into a superhero who fights against corrupt corporate powerbrokers.

It made me realize, in so many stories, the importance of a time away from the familiar and the comfortable to allow for a transformation. Even on a small scale, significant personal change is through periods of time apart. To master anything, we need time alone: time to study, to practice, to learn to know of or to do something—speak a language, run a half-marathon, play an instrument, shoot an arrow, write, quilt. Transformations require us to detach so that we can change ourselves. When we return we bring with us what we have extracted from the time alone, the time away, and those we love can share in it. If we never withdrew, we could not bring that gift. It takes an odd blend of selfishness and humility to do such a thing, unless, of course, it is thrust upon you by a shipwreck.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Growing Old

Our dog is growing old. She just turned seven and is developing joint problems in her elbow and knee. The vet says this is common at her age. So soon. Everything seems to be happening so quickly. The memory of her as a puppy is still so clear to me. We had to make sure she got exercise so she would not run around on the ceiling. Now we must make sure she exercises so her tendons and muscles don't weaken. We see ourselves in miniature in our dogs. They are so much like children their whole lives (especially certain breeds) that they get elderly seems perverse. Of course they can become helpless like the old in second childhood. But since the process of life plays out so fast in them, with a bit of effort we can distance ourselves from them because our state seems so stable. This is perhaps the way the sugar maple on our front lawn looks at me with its slow thought.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

the centre cannot hold

While going through some of the detritus in one of my detritus boxes from the basement, I came across a map we had made when we first thought about moving to Massachusetts. Using a pencil and a ruler I had drawn lines on a Google map that contained the three places our children live: Littleton, Salem, and Amesbury. I had drawn a triangle, which had turned out to be a perfect right triangle, then had drawn lines from the apexes of two sides to the center of the opposing side. The lines crossed in Andover. I remember looking at Andover and being impressed by how expensive the houses were. When we talked over that map, the possibility of moving was brand new and we were being quite speculative about it. Ultimately, when we began to get serious, we began to steer away from a central location and to think about locating closer to a point. What got us started on Amesbury, what actually got us to start looking at houses, was one on California Street in Amesbury. When we saw it, the house was overgrown, looking strange and mysterious. The house was intriguing and we did look at it twice, but ultimately we decided we did not want a house that required that much work. But the big thing is that it got us started.

That we even got that far was partly because the place where we were living in rural Pennsylvania was changing due to the gas industry, so if we were leaving it, it was also leaving us. The pace of change has slowed down, but there is no question that over the next decade Tioga County will get twisted out of shape. To stay would be to decide to live in a different place, though what kind of different place is unclear, but unlikely to be of our liking, certainly not the rural place we moved to where nature dominated people. It began to make sense to make a deliberate move rather than just slide downhill. So looking at houses in the North Shore of Massachusetts began to seem reasonable.

But moving is not just about geography, not when one component of the move is my retiring. I plan to write and to study mobiles and to get involved in the community and the lives of our children and grandchildren. But still, the shift in identity is a worrisome thing and leaving the university where I teach seemed like a bold decision. However, like the place where we live, the university seems to be leaving me. In response to budget cuts, the administration is cutting positions using a logic symptomatic of a vision of the university that is cramped and commercial. They are not trying to protect the aspect of the university that has led me to keep pouring energy into it—the chance to open up the life of the mind for students who don't even know it exists; if the place continues to exist it will have been so changed that it will no longer be what it was.

So my bridges are burning themselves behind me.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Post Hoc

During the day as I think about things, I sometimes think about writing them down or exploring in writing what I am thinking about. When I actually sit down to do that, a barrier between what I thought earlier and words on the page forms itself like a fog out of the gap between my ideas and my words. This is a cliché, of course. I become aware that the ideas in my head are abstractions with emotions of the moment adhering to them so they seemed to have some substance at the time. But to write about them, I must translate the ideas into substantial statement constructed of images and events and metaphors and direct experiences with their root systems intact. This is so formidable an undertaking that I give up before I start.

To ferret out the underpinning of that laziness, two questions would be worthwhile:

  1. Do I believe that it is possible to make those connections, that by trying to, I could create something true and moving?

  2. What will it accomplish if I do make the connections?

The answer to the first one is a resounding, "Yes." I believe in the magic of words since I have experienced the way that, as I handle them, they talk back to me. All those people who lived before me and shaped the language I inherited from my culture in expanding circles around my family, the collective experience of millions is captured in the delicate attraction and repulsion in the spaces between words that create the linguistic network, which reflects the neural network that both shapes and contains it. So the language itself sheds light on what I try to put into it. That may be part of the thrill I sometimes feel when I find the right words, which at once embody and clarify my thoughts, moving the meaning that crucial one more click so something is unlocked. All that takes effort, but I have no doubt that with effort it can be done, and though starting the process can require great energy, the process itself is regenerative and exhausting both.

The second question is more complex and it is there that I am vulnerable. I have often gone back to John Fowles' The Tree to be reassured that the act of creating art is the important thing; the art itself is a kind of souvenir of that act (perhaps in the way vacations should be about the experience not the photographs). And while I still cling to that in the face of my rejection slips, I still wonder if such a rationale is enough to sustain the effort. Perhaps—despite Johnson's "No one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money"—perhaps the best motivation for writing is to discover something, use language to explore the world.

But still, it would be good to share it, to have others read what I have written and have them tell me they found it, they found it what? I suppose anything, that they learned something from it. I was wondering today whether I want to inspire people to action, and decided maybe I did not want to. Burke says, I believe, that an idea is an incipient act. I want to write things that give people ideas, complex enough so that they do not convert directly to action, but will engender action, will influence it, will be input into a process. When I wrote for Mountain Home, however, though I was pleased when people commented on what I wrote, the writing did not feel that much different from all the other writing I was doing that went off into a dark hole.

So that second question needs some qualification. Perhaps what it needs is a list of what I might accomplish, and then an evaluation of how likely I am to accomplish it: I may build a good character as a person by writing, but no reputation as a writer.