An editorial note: The title for this post was originally going to be “…but every end is a beginning,” which WordPress informed me was already the name of a previous post made almost exactly one year ago, near the beginning of my sabbatical. Thus, the revised title, also from Emerson’s essay “Circles,” follows shortly thereafter the original; the titular coincidence merely reinforces the prescience his words hold.
Jottings made on a subway ride from uptown to midtown.
The hot car. A clear sign that my senses are dulled. Sparsely populated, people fanning themselves, riders sitting still and trying to not move unless necessary — I would have noticed in an earlier time. But I’m not too bothered. My body temperature starts to cool soon enough. And I am in a fairly good mood after a day spent in the company of friends and colleagues with whom laughter is the first language. In between was a meeting with new colleagues that left me feeling as if I could imagine returning, not just to New York and not merely “to campus” but to the actual institution, to the minutia that signifies the elements of the institutional apparatus that I most loathe: arbitrary and seemingly intractable procedures and policies that people — some people — adhere to seemingly without thinking, without bothering to ask why and assessing their relevance in service of some warped sense of justice or equity or efficacy.
Transfer at 96th Street to the express 2 train. Cool car — as it should be, my internal monologue asserts, chiding me for thinking anything else would be acceptable. Still, I am thankful the underground heat is not saturated with the humidity of the days preceding. My thoughts quickly return to the events of the day, to conversation that meandered from art exhibitions about dust to video art and essays, from home improvement projects to projects of self-improvement, that included the sharing of texts of… well let’s just say texts of all sorts… Suffice it to say, my earlier post about a place and its people rang true again and again today.
I think, too, of this time of transition “back” — about the moments of anxiety that arise each time I realize August is looking me in the face, those moments that I was desperately trying to wish into abeyance. The anxiety is the manifestation of a fear that has been building since that day in late June, while walking back to my hotel from an effecting visit to the Anne Frank Museum, when the image of a way of living untethered to a university first surfaced. That is to say I could imagine a life in which the elements that too often are relegated to the margins, in order to accommodate the aforementioned minutia that swells and multiples with little provocation, are brought into the center — fear, of course, is conjured out of anticipation that the minutiae will overpower all else.
So I set my subconscious loose to formulate a plan to form a writerly commune somewhere in the south of France… or in the north of France… or perhaps in that little town in the middle of France… Well, you get the picture — while the plan simmers and coalesces, the mission at hand will be the practice of mindfulness — not back or forward, but here, now. Tolstoy’s story, “Three Questions,” introduces the idea in this way:
It once occurred to a certain king, that if he always knew the right time to begin everything; if he knew who were the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid, and, above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do, he would never fail in anything he might undertake.
And this thought having occurred to him, he had it proclaimed throughout his kingdom that he would give a great reward to any one who would teach him what was the right time for every action, and who were the most necessary people, and how he might know what was the most important thing to do.
In short, Tolstoy, via the king and his quest through the land over which he rules, wonders:
- What is the right time for every action?
- Who are the most necessary people? (Another interpretation: Who are the most important people?)
- What is the most important thing to do?
The answers, we might venture, are, respectively: Now, you, this.
And for the panda lovers, here is a frame from John Muth’s picture book take on Tolstoy’s philosophical offering:
… and few more words from near the end of “Circles”
“The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment.”