29 December 2012


About her novel Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit (which should be waiting at my doorstep when I return home), Jeanette Winterson says: “I wrote a story I could live with. The other was too painful. I could not survive it.” Hers is an interesting statement that suggests that literature regardless of genre is fiction. The story that the author tells protects the her from the story that cannot be told. That other story, I think, the one that Winterson says that she could not survive, could never be told because there are certain things that if spoken would make bare the most private and intimate aspects of the speaker: there would be no way to survive the exposure. The story that is told gives proof of the author’s survival, for that other story, the one that could not be told, would have led to the author’s death. Every work of literature, then, is only the story that can be lived with and not the story that is true, and every work of literature then, speaks of survival even when the subject is death. And I suspect that the same must be true of all artistic creation.
Perhaps Winterson’s assertion might be true for the reader as for the writer: we read the story with which we can live; the other would be too painful and we would not survive it. The meanings I make ensure my survival: the others would destroy me.  

22 December 2012

Cigarettes and Time

I awoke this morning to a strange sense of identity. One of my first brazen (for me) acts of adolescent rebellion occurred when I left home for college and immediately took up smoking tobacco. (Later I added other substances, disproving I suppose the myth that starting with marijuana is the path to decadence.) Both my parents had smoked as I grew up, though at some point my mother gave up the habit. My father continued to smoke until the habit cost him his life. Of course, my smoking parents had advised me not to begin¾do what I say, not what I do¾but of course, their caution only encouraged me to take up the habit. Throughout my time at college I continued to smoke, but at some indeterminate time after graduation I realized that this was no way to live or die, and so I gave up cigarettes and took up the pipe. I purchased a great variety of pipes¾even owned a Sherlockian meerschaum¾but I was not a good pipe smoker, couldn’t really keep it lit for any considerable amount of time, and found the whole process a bit too troublesome and unsatisfying to be maintained. I gave up pipe smoking and gave away the pipes.  

But I awoke this morning with the sense that I had in the not too distant past again and surreptitiously taken up smoking tobacco, and I had the sense that rather than purchase cigarettes I took to begging others for one or three. The memory is so vivid that it seems that the events existed, and yet I know that I have not touched a cigarette almost forty years.

What dream provoked this memory? I enter my sabbatical semester now that grades for the Fall are posted. I suspect that there might be a connection between asking for cigarettes and asking for time. 

19 December 2012

Wednesday Morning 3:00 am

I awoke this morning at 3:00am. My dreams were not disturbing or uninteresting, and so I cannot attribute the early rising to them. Since I own a smartphone, I have no need for a clock in the bedroom: returning from the bathroom at 3:00am I looked for the time on the phone, and along with the time I noted three text messages had been sent and had arrived and awaited my response. It was too early to do so, and I attempted to return to sleep. But on my mind were the messages and suddenly like at the start of a race my mind took off and sleep ran away with my thoughts.
I have developed in this modern world a sense of urgency that seems akin to Thoreau’s life of quiet desperation. I seem too often distracted from a quiet that would be nurturing by someone’s call or an event’s demands. I have lost not only my sense of aloneness but my sense of solitude. And I understand that I have not so much as lost these things as I have given them up for presence. From fear of loneliness (that is distinct from aloneness) and isolation (that results in a painful silence), I have plugged myself in multiple means to the world as if into the multiple outlets of the surge protectors that multiplies about the house. I seem too often to be headed ‘out there’ rather than to remain in some peace ‘in here.’ Perhaps during this sabbatical I might learn to be alone. In “Solitude” Thoreau writes: “With thinking we may be beside ourselves in a sane sense. By a conscious effort of the mind we can stand aloof from the actions and their consequences; and all things good and bad, go by us like a torrent.” It is such an activity I desire and a solitude I seek.
But I would note that it is no accident that the very next chapter is entitled “Visitors” and begins, “I think that I love society as much as most, and am ready enough to fasten myself like a bloodsucker for the time to any full-blooded man that comes in my way. I am naturally no hermit, but might possibly sit out the sturdiest frequenter of the bar-room, if my business called me thither.” Unbroken solitude becomes oppression, and if his business calls him thither, Thoreau could sit at the bar until the final call if it were conversation he drank and not liquor, and if it were business and not desperation that called him there. Thoreau knew this, and suggests to me that there was life out there in society to be enjoyed as was his wont, but that should not serve as a distraction from his life. First there had to be business out there, and then happily there he would venture.
And so perhaps the messages at 3:00am to which I attend might be understood not as the business of the immediate moment, but the thoughts of a friend who would be happily my business when I have need of blood.

14 December 2012


I wonder when someone will actually stand up to the National Rifle Association and say “Enough!” Twenty children between the ages of five and years old shot dead by willful and malicious gunfire. I say Enough with the flags at half-mast. I say Enough with the cries of condolence. I say Enough with the tears that are wiped so easily away. I will accept only a vigorous, unrelenting and unforgiving campaign to eliminate guns in the United States and destroy the power of the pernicious gun lobby.  ENOUGH!

08 December 2012

Turning Toward the Morning

It did not snow heavily yesterday but it was enough precipitation to cover the ground in white, the sky this morning is a cold, steel gray, and there are predictions of the first winter snow storm. Overnight, it has become winter. As I looked out the window in my spirit I heard Gordon Bok singing “Turning Toward the Morning.”
When the darkness falls around you
And the Northwind come to blow,
And you hear him call your name out
As he walks the brittle snow:
That old wind don't mean you trouble,
He don't care or even know,
He's just walking down the darkness
Toward the morning.
     This is a song that speaks realistically about winter’s advent and the effect its coming has on the human spirit: I take a deep breath and gather in my things from out there and carry them in here. I stock the cupboard and make certain that those things that bring me comfort are stored close by. I bring out the snow shovels, though at this time of my life I shop for snow blowers. And I long for the coming of Spring though it be months away.
Bok says,  "One of the things that provoked this song was a letter last November from a friend who had had a very difficult year and was looking for the courage to keep on plowing into it.  Those times, you lift your eyes unto the hills, as they say, but the hills of Northern New England in November can be about as much comfort as a cold crowbar.  You have to look ahead a bit, then, and realize that all the hills and trees and flowers will still be there come Spring, usually more permanent than your troubles.  And if your courage occasionally fails, that's okay, too: nobody expects you to be as strong (or as old) as the land." Winter requires acknowledgement and resignation, strength and acceptance. Winter is not an easy season here in the Mid-West: the frigid air, the hard ground, and on days like today, the pervasive gray hue, can depress the spirit. Even the sky appears changed during these winter months: the clearness of the evening and the canopy of stars appeared colder next to the stark nakedness of the trees, their branches like skinny, craggy stiff fingers pointing upward. I suppose that is why our first response to winter is to light the candles and bring the green inside.
It's a pity we don't know
What the little flowers know.
They can't face the cold November
They can't take the wind and snow:
They put their glories all behind them,
Bow their heads and let it go,
But you know they'll be there shining
In the morning
     And so I woke this morning from a fitful night of dreams inspired, no doubt, by the excess of ice cream I consumed for the fat content in which to wrap my bones for winter, I rationalize. It is cold, and gray and snowy, and the storm approaches. I will today buy some hot cocoa mix, wrap myself in the quilt made lovingly for me and settle myself before the fire in the comfy chair with all of my reading and writing material, and turn toward the next morning.