Life & literature


Clear street, snowy trees

I often think of Emily Dickinson and her poem “There’s certain slant of light” on late February afternoons when my to-do list is long and the daylight is short.

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Well trampled

It’s easy to be upbeat and energized on sunny mornings when a fresh coat of snow brightens the ground, covering the scourge of of February gray. But after dinner time–after lunch feels like an eternity ago, the afternoon chores are done, and it’s just me and my bottomless paper-piles–my spirit lags and falters.

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

Snowy steps

People speak of seasonal affective disorder as if it were a monolithic thing, with one’s moods being perpetually in the dumps from December through March. But instead, winter is an oceanic surge with troughs and swells. In the morning, when the sun is low in the sky but glaring bright, all seems possible, but when darkness descends in early afternoon, so do one’s energy and enthusiasm wane and ebb.

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

Sidestreet

Emily Dickinson knew all this; I imagine her as a raw nerve cloaked in drab, her emotional barometer ever attuned to the psychic energy of the cosmos. Faith came easily on sunny summer days when all Dickinson needed was a clover, bee, and reverie. But on winter afternoons, her mood dipped toward doom.

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

I’ve lived long enough in New England to know that winter always ends–the days eventually lengthen, and both warmth and greenery return. But it’s easy to forget that truth on a late February afternoon when the world outside is cold and dark and one’s to-do list is long.

Babson redtail

The best time of day for writing is the early morning, before the rest of the world is awake–but the next best time is long after dark, when the earth herself is leaning toward sleep. On a cold winter’s night, you can almost hear the darkness, the hush of your neighbors tucked into their houses entirely different from the sound of midday, when cars zoom and dog-walkers pass.

Don't tell me I'm the only one who takes pictures like this to find my car.

The worst time to write is afternoon, when the world is restless and your body weary. A writer should ideally be awake when others are sleeping, or watchful while others are oblivious. In the afternoon, the eyes of the world are casting about, hungry, and my own eyes feel heavy. Better to wait until one’s soul is completely depleted, spent with the exertion of the day, because then you come to the page empty-handed and defenseless, your first-thoughts bleeding onto the page without impediment. In the early morning and late evening–before dawn or after dark, when others are asleep in the beds or mesmerized by their own distant, private pursuits–you come to the page raw and without pretense, your guile stripped away by the sheer exertion of being.

Babson College

This open-eyed, undefended perspective–this stance of standing like a bare nerve, ever-sensitive and reactive, watchful and incapable of fleeing–is how I picture May Oliver, writing, her poetry offering a clear mirror into truths that anyone with open eyes could see, but which are so rarely recognized. Oliver had a gift of observation, which means she had a firm grasp of the obvious–a phrase that sounds like an insult but is the highest praise. Most of us fool ourselves by clamoring after the remarkable and spectacular, thereby missing the all-abiding wonder that is our miraculous hand right in front of our ever-wonderous nose.

These are the words that poured out tonight when I sat down belatedly to write my daily journal pages. In the morning, I attended a faculty retreat at Babson College, where someone recalled a colleague who often used the phrase “a firm grasp of the obvious” to pooh-pooh the presumably pedestrian observations of his co-workers: an indirect insult. After I’d heard of poet Mary Oliver’s passing today, however, the phrase took a different meaning in my mind.

Thoreau diorama

Today is Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday. I wonder who of us currently alive will be remembered and still influential two centuries from now. We normally think you have to be wealthy, powerful, or both to have such an impact, but Thoreau was none of these. Instead, Thoreau is one of my personal heroes because he remained true to his own ideals and lived life on his own terms.

Thoreau stamps

I have to chuckle whenever I read critiques of Thoreau–or, more accurately, critiques of people’s image of Thoreau–since such critiques entirely miss what Thoreau himself was about. Thoreau wasn’t trying to live up to someone’s arbitrary ideal of what a pure, holy, or idealistic person is supposed to be like; instead, Thoreau’s outlook was the exact opposite of “supposed to be.”

Thoreau wasn’t trying to be perfect, and he wasn’t trying to be a role model–he never intended for anyone else to copy the lifestyle he tailored for himself. Thoreau, quite honestly, never gave a proverbial rat’s ass for what his neighbors thought, so he certainly wouldn’t be bothered with whatever contradictions or hypocrisies modern readers find in his life and work. Thoreau was simply trying to live a life that matched as closely as possible his own passions and proclivities, not the expectations of others. Centuries before the phrase was coined, Thoreau had exactly zero fucks to give.

Walden Pond selfie. #thoreau #walden

I don’t admire Thoreau because his lifestyle is one I can (or want to) perfectly emulate: in the opening pages of Walden, Thoreau himself notes that the purpose of his work isn’t to get others to try on the individually tailored coat of his lifestyle but to get them to consider critically their own. You don’t have to renounce worldly possessions and live beside a pond to live a Thoreauvian life, but you do have to consider your life choices with a wide-open and intentional eye. Why have I chosen to live my life this way rather than that, and how might my life be different–for better or worse–if I made other choices?

Thoreau seems more timely than ever

I don’t admire Thoreau simply or even primarily because he spent two years living and writing in a cabin beside a pond on the outskirts of Concord, Massachusetts. Instead, I admire Thoreau because he lived a life in accordance with his own principles. Not believing in corporeal punishment, Thoreau quit a teaching job that required him to spank lackadaisical students. Not believing in a war fought to further slavery, Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax. Loving nothing more than having the freedom to walk and wander for hours every day, Thoreau eschewed a steady job and worked instead as an occasional surveyor, pencil-maker, bean-hoer, and lecturer. These were not pursuits that would ever make Thoreau rich, but they gave him the time and freedom to be outside, and that was something he valued more than cash.

Henry David Thoreau likes my new desk. #henrydavidthoreau  #brenbataclan #moleskine #notebook #waterman #fountainpen #writingtools

When Thoreau died, he wasn’t a great or famous man: his influence then was chiefly parochial. But Thoreau didn’t let worries over his influence or legacy keep him from living life as he wanted. That, to me, is Thoreau’s true and lasting gift to subsequent generations of readers. Don’t for a minute feel that you have to walk in Thoreau’s footsteps, but do not hesitate for even a second from walking in your own.

The beautiful uncut hair of graves

One of the benefits of being a long-time student of American literature is the way poems and other texts worm their way into consciousness. Today J and I went walking at Newton Cemetery, and I kept thinking of Section 6 of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”

READ

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any more than he.

Two weeping Madonnas

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Tinsel heart

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Hell money

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe of the vegetation.

Budding lilac

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white, Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

Flowering dogwood

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Weedy

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.

486,867th Dead of AIDS

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

Cauliflorous redbud

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

Canada goose

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.

Male and female mallard

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and children?

Canada goose

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.

Male and female mallard

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Tulips

Thoreau with replica house

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about Henry David Thoreau. This isn’t unusual: Thoreau is one of my favorite authors, and I spent a good deal of my doctoral dissertation analyzing his writing. I have a whimsical portrait of Thoreau over my desk because he represents many of the things I personally hold dear: he was a writer and a naturalist, a walker and a rebel. In a world insistent upon choosing sides, Thoreau was both an artist and a scientist, both poetic and political, both active and contemplative. When I try to imagine a well-rounded, grounded, and self-reliant person, Thoreau is who immediately comes to mind.

Spartan

I’ve been thinking more than usual these days about Henry David Thoreau because of “Civil Disobedience,” an essay published in 1849 that inspired both Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, and “Slavery in Massachusetts,” a lesser-known essay that Thoreau first delivered as a lecture in Framingham on July 4, 1854, after escaped slave Anthony Burns was captured in Boston and sent back south. In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau describes the night he spent in jail after refusing to pay his poll tax as a protest against the Mexican War and its expansion of slavery, and in “Slavery in Massachusetts,” he condemns Northern cooperation with the Fugitive Slave Act. In both essays, Thoreau turns his eye with all its acuity on the social ills of his day, as if politics were no less interesting than natural history. This politically engaged way of looking at the world seems particularly helpful in 2017, exactly two centuries after Thoreau was born.

Stove and two chairs

Although the popular image of Thoreau is that of a quiet misanthrope twiddling his thumbs alongside a peaceful pond, Thoreau was outspoken during the most politically tumultuous time in American history. When Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience” and “Slavery in Massachusetts,” the political debate over slavery was ratcheting the nation toward civil war, and Thoreau was deeply engaged in that debate. Thoreau didn’t just sit back and ignore the political issues of his day; although he cherished his solitude, Thoreau wasn’t an escapist. Instead, Thoreau figured out how to balance engagement and renewal, speaking out on political issues as he was able, but also finding time to unplug.

Desk with guestbook

Ever since the election, I’ve been spending a lot of time following news coverage and political commentary on Trump, Trumpism, and the burgeoning resistance to both. There has been a surge on the left of people trying to learn and understand everything from the demographics of the white working class to constitutional law and immigration policy. While folks on the right raced to buy guns when Obama was elected, folks on the left are now racing to read books. Unlike Trump supporters who shield themselves from “fake news” by plugging their ears to any coverage that doesn’t come straight from the President himself, people on the other side of the political divide have been reading widely and deeply, seeking multiple perspectives in an attempt to stay informed.

Thoreau's snowshoes

This attempt to stay informed, however, can get tiring: sometimes I envy the quiet complacency of the right, who can sit back and trust that America will magically become Great now that Trump is in charge. Had Hillary Clinton won the election, I would have presumably done the same, patting myself on the back for doing my civic duty at the ballot box and considering my job as a citizen to be over. Since the election, however, I find myself moonlighting as an activist, keeping a constant eye on breaking news, receiving daily text messages and emails urging me to contact elected officials on the issue du jour, and otherwise staying vigilant, ready to cancel plans and rush off to protest the latest executive order, unsettling tweet, or constitutional crisis.

Thoreau's bed and desk

In the aftermath of 9/11, people quickly learned that you can’t remain on high alert forever, but that doesn’t mean you should let yourself be lulled to sleep. Beth recently wrote about self-care during the resistance: if you plan to be an effective activist in the long run, you have to prioritize and pick your battles. This is, again, where I find Thoreau to be particularly inspiring. Thoreau spoke out against slavery, the Mexican War, and other political outrages of his day, but he also managed to take daily walks, write in his journal, keep a careful chronicle of wild flora and fauna, and tend his garden. Thoreau, in other worlds, figured out a way to simultaneously exist and resist.

Weathered

What Thoreau didn’t do, of course, was stay inside glued to either CNN or his Facebook feed: instead, he was outside and active. A lot of modern-day critics of Thoreau argue (rightfully) that his activism was largely symbolic: the single night in jail Thoreau describes in “Civil Disobedience” didn’t single-handedly bring down slavery. But just because an act of protest is symbolic doesn’t mean it is isn’t powerful, as many of the accoutrements of power are themselves symbolic.

Peace

Donald Trump didn’t magically become a different man when he raised his hand and took the oath of office, but that symbolic action marked a monumental transition of power. Some of the most alarming news items these days stem not from official policy Trump and his administration has enacted, but the tone-setting influence of angry rants and recklessly worded tweets. Words are nothing more than symbols, but that doesn’t mean words don’t matter.

Adirondack Writers' Guild

By writing about his night in jail, Thoreau preserved it for the ages, reminding generation after generation that “under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” The concept of civil disobedience–Thoreau’s insistence that the government is a machine, and private citizens can strip government of its power by intentionally becoming a “counter-friction to stop the machine”–is not new or earth-shattering: had Thoreau not written “Civil Disobedience,” both King and Gandhi would have found inspiration elsewhere.

Henry David Thoreau's grave

But the fact remains that Thoreau did write this essay: he planted a seed. The tree of peaceful protest would have found some other method of germination had Thoreau never tended it, but he was a faithful servant in freedom’s garden. A solitary and sometimes cantankerous man, Thoreau probably never envisioned the communal movements that both King and Gandhi led: what started as one man spending one night in jail has inspired massive collective movements that have changed the world. Even the largest earthquake starts with a tiny tremor.

February

History is neither a marathon or sprint; instead, history is a relay race. Thoreau did nothing more than pick up the baton of justice and pass it on, and we should expect nothing less of ourselves. It’s important to show up–to engage in faithful, regular deeds, even if those deeds are small–as a way of claiming our priorities. It is not necessary to do everything, but do not fail to do something. As you are able, act. If you cannot act, speak up; if you cannot speak up, listen. If you can neither act, speak up, nor listen, by all means pray. Remain faithful in small things, and trust your acts will be echoed by others, achieving a cumulative effect. We’re in this for the long haul, and there is a need for all sorts of acts and activism.

Don't eat the fish

This past weekend several friends and I walked along the Housatonic River in downtown Great Barrington, Massachusetts: a short, shady stroll that is popular with local dog walkers and baby strollers. In sunny spots we saw butterfly weed and wild bergamot blooming, and in shady spots we could watch the slow-moving waters flow below us.

Butterfly weed

Gazing at the placid flow of the Housatonic River, it’s easy to forget its waters are polluted, not pristine. The Housatonic carries PCBs and other industrial chemicals from the long-closed General Electric plant in nearby Pittsfield. Signs along the river warn fishermen not to eat their catch, and environmental activists refer to the river as the “Housatoxic.”

W.E.B. Du Bois advocate for rivers

I knew that the author, thinker, and civil rights icon W.E.B. Du Bois was born along the Housatonic River in Great Barrington, and I knew there is a garden and historical sign marking a site near his childhood home. What surprised me when we found that marker, however, is that it focused on Du Bois’ environmental advocacy as much as his civil rights work.

Wild bergamot

Even during Du Bois’ lifetime, the Housatonic River was sullied by industrial runoff. When Du Bois returned to Great Barrington in 1930 to address a gathering of his high school alumni, he beseeched the citizens of Great Barrington to clean the river that courses through their backyard:

The town, the whole valley, has turned its back upon the river. They have sought to get away from it. They have neglected it. They have used it as a sewer, a drain, a place for throwing their waste and their offal. Mills, homes, and farms have poured their dirt and refuse into it; outhouses and dung heaps have lined its banks. Almost as if by miracle some beauty still remains in places where the river for a moment free of its enemies and tormentors, dark and exhausted under its tall trees, has sunk back to vestiges of its former charm, in great, slow, breathless curves and still murmurs. But for the most part the Housatonic has been transformed into an ugly disgraceful thing

Butterfly weed

It’s obvious that even after Du Bois left Great Barrington to become a writer, scholar, and outspoken proponent for racial justice, he never forgot the river in his hometown. Du Bois’ fondness for the Housatonic reminded me of the Langston Hughes poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which traces the way heritage is tied to geography, not just genealogy:

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

Wild bergamot

Hughes wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” when he was only eighteen, and in it he describes his African-American heritage as running through both his bloodstream and the rivers of his ancestral homelands. In the ecological version of muscle-memory, Hughes’ soul recalls the landscapes where his people come from. Who you are as a person, he suggests, is irrevocably connected with the places you and your people come from.

Welcome to the Berkshires

Du Bois was so moved by Hughes’ poem, he published it in the July 1921 edition of The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP. Today, we know environmental degradation often occurs in places populated by the poor and people of color: it’s not the rich white citizens of Flint, Michigan who are drinking lead-tainted water. “Environmental racism” refers to the way the privileged and powerful often dump their toxic byproducts downstream in someone else’s backyard, and it’s a phenomenon Du Bois decried, even if he didn’t call it out by name.

Wild bergamot

Du Bois suggested the way we treat our rivers reflects our values as a society, reminding his audience that “we are judged by what we neglect.” Do we see rivers and the folks who live alongside them as rubbish heaps or sewers, places where we dump and disregard the effluvia we don’t want polluting our own neighborhoods?

If we choose to neglect a river, we can also choose to care for it, and this is what Du Bois ultimately advocated, urging the citizens of Great Barrington to “rescue the Housatonic and clean it as we have never in all the years thought before of cleaning it, and seek to restore its ancient beauty.” A community who cares for its rivers will care for the people and other living creatures that live alongside them, environmental justice rolling down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Edith Wharton's house

I’ve never been much of an Edith Wharton fan.  I read and disliked Ethan Frome as an undergrad, and I generally dislike the overwrought stuffiness of Gilded Age authors such as Henry James, who was friends with Wharton.  But this past weekend I visited the Mount, Edith Wharton’s lush country home in Lenox, Massachusetts, and seeing this place where Wharton lived and wrote helped soften my attitude toward her.

Drawing room

Like her prose, Wharton’s house is too formal and fancy for my taste.  Curatorial placards around the house insist that Wharton’s style was less ornate and more modern than the Victorian style of her contemporaries, but even Wharton’s more stripped-down decor is too busy for my taste.  But after wandering through Wharton’s house and surrounding gardens, I found myself sympathizing for her. Wharton believed so strongly that interior design should reflect a person’s taste and temperament, she co-wrote a book on the subject.  Although Wharton’s writing and home decor styles aren’t my cup of tea, I can understand her desire to use her house and gardens as a form of self-expression.

Dog treats

Both Wharton and her husband, Teddy, loved little dogs, and the Mount contains ample evidence of this one thing the couple had in common.  There are dog treats on the dining room table, an ornate dog bed in the drawing room, and pictures throughout the house of Edith and Teddy with small dogs perched on their laps.  Sadly, this shared affection for dogs wasn’t enough to keep Edith and Teddy Wharton together:  the couple divorced and sold their home only nine years after moving to Lenox, leaving behind the house, grounds, and a beautifully sited pet cemetery overlooking the gardens.

Edith Wharton's bed

Although I didn’t know much about Wharton’s life before touring the Mount, I’d heard stories about how she wrote.  The library at the Mount contains an elegant desk where Wharton sometimes posed for portraits, but she is better known for writing in bed, tossing pages of longhand prose onto the floor where her secretary would retrieve and reorder them.  Although it’s difficult to sympathize with someone so privileged she didn’t have to type much less number her own pages, I felt sad standing in Wharton’s bedroom.  As light streamed through windows overlooking Wharton’s beloved gardens, I could imagine how lonely she must have felt as she lay alone writing while her marriage crumbled.

Edith Wharton's desk

After her divorce, Wharton moved to Paris, leaving behind the house and gardens she’d designed and the pampered pets she’d buried there.  Virginia Woolf famously insisted that in order to write, a woman needs a reliable income and a room of her own, and Wharton, who was born into wealth, had both, at least for a time.  Ultimately, though, Wharton was forced by circumstance to leave the house she had both designed and loved, her room of her own being nothing less than the entire world.

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