Thoreau and social distancing

In Walden (1854), Chapter 6, “Visitors,” Henry David Thoreau provides a persuasive rationale for social distancing. Here’s what he says:

One inconvenience I sometimes experienced in so small a house, the difficulty of getting to a sufficient distance from my guest when we began to utter the big thoughts in big words.

You want room for your thoughts to get into sailing trim and run a course or two before they make their port. The bullet of your thought must have overcome its lateral and ricochet motion and fallen into its last and steady course before it reaches the ear of the hearer, else it may plow out again through the side of his head. Also, our sentences wanted room to unfold and form their columns in the interval.

Individuals, like nations, must have suitable broad and natural boundaries, even a considerable neutral ground, between them. I have found it a singular luxury to talk across the pond to a companion on the opposite side. In my house we were so near that we could not begin to hear—we could not speak low enough to be heard; as when you throw two stones into calm water so near that they break each other’s undulations.

If we are merely loquacious and loud talkers, then we can afford to stand very near together, cheek by jowl, and feel each other’s breath; but if we speak reservedly and thoughtfully, we want to be farther apart, that all animal heat and moisture may have a chance to evaporate. If we would enjoy the most intimate society with that in each of us which is without, or above, being spoken to, we must not only be silent, but commonly so far apart bodily that we cannot possibly hear each other’s voice in any case.

Referred to this standard, speech is for the convenience of those who are hard of hearing; but there are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout. As the conversation began to assume a loftier and grander tone, we gradually shoved our chairs farther apart till they touched the wall in opposite corners, and then commonly there was not room enough.

Stay well and keep your distance.

Row your boat gently down the stream

By this time, you’re familiar with the instructions for washing your hands: 20 seconds of scrubbing, during which time you hum, sing, or shout, twice-over, a favorite contemporary lyric or “Happy Birthday to You” or–my preference:

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream.

It’s a simple message but it has a certain grandeur, like the familiar lines from The Tempest:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

For me, lately, life has a dream-like quality. So much has happened in the last few days. Profound changes in our lifestyle seem to be happening on a daily, even hourly, basis. I’ve always kept a weekly calendar. I wonder if I should plan from day to day, rather than week to week. What might next week bring? What seems most important is now, this moment.

Of course, that’s a lesson in itself, as it’s the way we should lead our lives under any circumstances. I’m sure there are a lot of lessons to be learned from this crisis, but I’d rather not learn them in this way.

Here’s another quote I’ve been mulling over. It seems appropriate to our current global experience. It’s attributed to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), a French Jesuit priest and philosopher who was also a paleontologist and geologist:

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience.
We are spiritual beings having a human experience.

What could be more human than a pandemic, as it touches almost every one of us? And what could be more spiritual, as it forces us to reconsider our very existence?

One of the things that hasn’t changed and hopefully won’t change is our ability to communicate with each other through social media and our various devices. I’m reaching out to you now, through one of those important communication options, because you’re in my thoughts, whether you’re a friend, a family member, a fellow writer, or a reader–unknown to me–who has been following my posts and publications. I hope you’re safe and well.

Happy Holidays!

My best and fondest holiday greetings to you. I hope this holiday season brings you peace, the loving company of family and friends, and a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment for the year just drawing to a close.

I’m grateful for your support, and for the privilege of having my book, A Windless Place, published this year. Thanks for being there for me, and for cheering me on.

Let’s transition to a new year and a new decade with enthusiasm and hope. The world is full of good and well intentioned people. Our planet is on life support but we can still bring it back to health. All life is precious, especially yours. Take care of yourself, and take care of each other.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

“The Leftover King” and food talk

I love Thanksgiving. That lovely “gathering” around the table with family and friends you might not see that often during the year. Catching up with all the news. Lassoing noisy kids. That feeling of congeniality, satisfaction, and a sort of reverence for the occasion.

Best of all, there’s the food: the sacrificial turkey, of course, but then there’s the stuffing, the gravy, the potatoes, the fresh red cranberries, the green beans, and other assorted delicacies. After dinner, there’s the pie, the coffee, the overwhelming satiety. To think that families used to eat like that on a regular basis. How did they get anything done?

And then there’s the leftovers … Yum!

Speaking of which: “The Leftover King,” one of my children’s stories, was a finalist and has been published in the Adelaide Books Children’s Literature and Illustration Award Anthology 2019, available at Amazon.

It’s about a king who loved leftovers — inspired by someone very near and dear to me …

Happy Thanksgiving!

Finding our “windless place”

In my new novel, A Windless Place, Maggie haltingly tries to formulate the words for what she wants to do with her life–words that, for her, are still “incoherent thought.”

“I want to go inside myself and be myself and express myself–somehow.”

Gina, with her usual confidence, sums it up for her, telling her she wants to find her own “windless place.”

When Maggie, breathlessly attentive, asks her what she means, Gina replies:

“Just something I heard once. In a classroom maybe, or one of those deep dark discussions we indulge in at a certain time in our lives, when we’re young, and eager.”

Maggie, very young and very eager, asks again, “But what does it mean?”

“It has to do with a candle burning in a windless place,” Gina tells her. “It was just an image that stayed with me. Something to do with repose, certainty–a sort of calm at the center …”

I don’t know about you, but lately I’m having trouble finding my “calm at the center.”

We are, as a country and, in a larger sense, as a global community, in the midst of multiple crises–the most critical of which is climate change. Right now, the state where I make my home is recovering from multiple recent wildfires. This year we’ve had extreme weather conditions all over the country, all over the world.

At the same time, as a nation we are torn apart politically–unable to communicate across a virtual Grand Canyon of differing views.

What will it take to bring us to some level of calm, of fraternity, so that we can begin to address climate change, and the bitterness and hate that infuse our politics?

We must love one another or die.”

In W. H. Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939,” the date of Germany’s invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II, Auden says, emphatically, “We must love one another or die.”

The poem has its own spirit of bitterness and despair, but it is, in the end, hopeful. On the eve of the second great war of the 20th century, Auden says:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages …

Can we love one another enough to offset the differences we have created among ourselves? Can we find that windless place, surrounded by a peaceful, broad-based community, in a world we preserve and respectfully inhabit? I am, by turns, hopeful, resigned, moderately optimistic, skeptical. Most of the time, it seems, I’m in a queasy state of anxiety.

One year from now our vote will, among other vital issues, help to determine the preservation of our planet. Our decision will reverberate down the years, touching all of us as well as our children, their children, and every living creature.

Reflection

It takes me a while to get past the holidays. I don’t make New Year resolutions on the first of the year because I’ve found the results to be short-lived and discouraging.

Right about now, at the tail end of January, I’m ready to reflect on the past year, to give some thought to how I might make this coming year more fruitful.

My resolutions, as usual, fall into broad categories: family, creativity, health, finances.

Most of us want to outlive our few years on this earth. That’s one of the reasons we love, protect, and treasure our families. They are our legacy. They will outlive all the books on all the shelves in the world. It’s one of the reasons that family is so important in all of my writing. “Family,” of course, has become a malleable word. It includes blood relatives, extended or adopted family, friends and, often, work associates. This year, I want to do better for, to give more time and attention to, my family.

I thank God, and the powers that be, for allowing me to pursue my lifetime objective of writing fiction. Two of my novels have been published. A third is scheduled to be published later this year. A fourth is waiting in the wings. Over the years, I often considered, and accepted, the possibility that I might continue writing all of my life with only nominal publication. Although I never considered giving up, I was often discouraged. For a writer there is, in the end, nothing as affirming as a book. It is heavy and solid. It takes up space. It lingers in the universe, if only on a few shelves. In all likelihood, it will outlive its author. I want to continue writing—and publishing—fiction for as long as I am able.

Once we are past the fleeting years of youth, we are obliged to pay attention to our health, or pay the consequences. I pay attention to my health—except when I don’t. I am always aware of falling short of my goals, falling back on bad habits, neglecting the steps for going forward. And yet—what can I accomplish without my health? As with most of us who make New Year resolutions, most of my focus is on improving or maintaining my health, while getting past my lack of success during the course of the previous year.

What can I say about finances? The bills keep coming in. The money keeps going out. Money has become more ephemeral than real. We don’t see much of it these days. Money has become a more-or-less reliable promise, payable with a piece of paper or plastic, a wireless transaction, or a swipe of our smart phone. It’s the promise that’s important, and that’s what I think about. How much can I, in good faith, promise to pay out, when I compare it with what is coming in? For me, it is a subject of serious and ongoing reflection. I want to bring those in-at-the-door-out-through-the-window financial transactions into sync with each other.

We are not just creatures of habit, or creatures of impulse. As members of the human race, we can change and become. Our impulses, our habits, are strong, but our ability to change can override those habits and impulses. I think that’s why, every year, we resolve to make ourselves better, to—in effect—make ourselves over. We, as humans, can do that. Just as our cells regenerate, we are capable of change and transformation. I continue to be hopeful.

Why we reread in times of stress and anxiety

I’ve been doing a fair amount of rereading lately, and I’m wondering why I’m in “reread mode.”

I’ve reread The Forsyte Chronicles by John Galsworthy; The Hours by Michael Cunningham; The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler; and I’m now (add any number of “re’s” here) rereading—you guessed it—Jane Austen herself. Persuasion was my pick.

Okay, in a certain sense, it’s pure laziness. I know exactly the trip I’m in for. It’s also easy access, since I tend to reread what is as close as my bookshelves, with library supplementation.

But there’s something else involved, or maybe several things.

First of all, rereading is—I admit it—a form of escapism. I’m disturbed by ongoing headlines of violence or attempted violence—what the news services call “domestic terrorism”—against innocent people. I am numbed by class hatred, and by disregard for the sacredness of life—all life. I’m appalled that we are losing the security of our collective environments—those places where we gather to worship, to shop, to share a meal, to be entertained, to participate in a rally or a marathon.

Secondly, I find that rereading is reassuring. Good stories well told reassure us about our lives, our potential, our hopes, our goals, the rightness and goodness of our worlds, of the people in our worlds.

Finally, there is the solace of literature. When we think of literature in this respect, we most often think of poetry. A few lines of poetry, a stanza or two, are often effective antidotes for a momentous or tragic occasion. We have had many of the latter in recent days and months. I have great respect for poetry, but I will often choose to revisit one of the fictional voices that I love and admire when looking for solace.

Now that I’ve broken my reasons down, I think they are, in the end, all one. I reread in the same way, and for the same reasons, that I communicate with and visit good friends. Friends help me to deal with my life on an ongoing, day-to-day basis. Books are like the voices of old friends whispering in my ear, soothing me, reassuring me, helping me to understand and to cope with—just about anything.