When your reading list looks like this, there’s only one thing to do.
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.”
While contemplating ways to turn my sabbatical into a full time gig, another thought has been slow to develop, awaiting, it seems, for the right combination of stop bath and fixer to come together for the image to render. The image, of course, is always there. In what form, to what degree of expression and saturation — that is anyone’s guess. I am referring to the line made famous during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, attributed to “ragin’ Cajun” James Carville, has all the simplicity of a Rubik’s Cube waiting to be restored to color-coded order: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
The intended audience for this linguistic artifact of Carville’s arsenal of distinct wordplay was the crop of Clinton campaign workers, but quickly spread and became a catalytic force in the election that shifted voters’ attention toward the early 90s recession and away from the then-current administration’s efforts in the Persian Gulf. A cynic might only see the self-serving nature of this tactic, and certainly such an assessment is not without merit, but it may be equally valid to suggest that this redirection impacted perception as well as interpretation; experience is never unmediated, memories are always colored with the filters of perception.
In my recent travels, therefore, it is telling that the moments of greatest significance have been people, a realization that brings into stark relief that what I miss is tempered by what awaits:
strolling with and without purpose,
a conversation, or many all at once, making short work
of twenty blocks or a few turns around the reservoir,
pausing to mark the path the cherry blossoms make their own
each spring, leaving traces of cotton candy pink on the ground, year round.
the latest adventures of dancing girl and the urban cartographer,
that put petulant antics of impossible characters in perspective.
hesitation, then slow blooming exhilaration on faces, young and younger,
in leaps and laughter.
oh, the laughter… infectious, soothing, a salve for the senses
that blister too swiftly without apt balm,
the space of rumination and silliness*, a most wonderful distraction**
found(ed) in the comfort of friends.
New York and Philadelphia are both gritty cities, that’s true, but the grit, too, has purpose, story, context; and occasionally, the grittiness recedes long enough for the rest of the image to come through. Readjustment from sabbatical back into the awaiting semester — this return from leave, which a follower of a follower on twitter described as “landing” — fills me alternatively with dread and anticipation. The invitation to see the familiar anew, however, has the potential to serve as a parachute to soften the landing. Knowing when to pull the handle to deploy the chute in time can be tricky when you’re flying through the air. New toys and old friends can help.
Part of the seeing, again, collection:
…so many previously overlooked or unrecognized corners teeming with stories if someone is willing to ask; conversations yet to be had; words to be written and read; ingredients awaiting a turn in the skilllet or chopping block; battles to be fought for the purposes of larger goals; goals to reconsider.
Yes, perhaps returning won’t be so bad after all…
*and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll click on silliness above… may cause giggling, so put your headphones on.
* wherein distractions are, of course, the very stuff of life. click and read the longer post by a kindred ruminator, another interweb stumble-upon.
an utterance — overheard, put on the record, taken to heart, life changing
stopping at the rest room on the 3rd floor instead of the 4th or 2nd — the face of kindness, joyful, heart-gladdening* spirit
being assigned to a dissertation committee — from fallow fields are born fertile foundations of friendship and nothing-fictive-about-it kinship
a chance stroll past an open office door — the warm embrace of a kindred spirit
clicking on instead of deleting a generic email invitation — a butterfly flaps its wings, nothing is ever the same
a whisper, a classroom transgression — a conversation, partnership, seeds that continue to flower long after they were sown.
or, as former first lady eleanor roosevelt is rumored to have noted:
“Many people will walk in and out of your life, but only true friends will leave footprints in your heart.”