30 August 2013


I had set as my summer project to read Leo Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace, though I think that he might dispute the designation ‘novel’ to his book. After eight reading weeks, I have completed the project. And closing the final pages of the volume led me to wonder what it is like to finish a book. Now what? I thought. I know what it means to start a novel: to enter a world in medias res, where life has been ongoing and unbeknownst to me; to meet people who for the most part ignore my existence but who obviously depend on it; to be thrust into a world no matter how familiar it might seem but that is for the most part strange. I have thought often that we do not suggest in our pedagogies how difficult it is to ‘start’ a book. It used to be common wisdom that one might sample the first few pages of a book so as to see if the reader would be at all interested in entering the world of the book, but I think that this is a misleading suggestion. The first few pages are entering estrangement directly. I think about Dorothy coming out of her farmhouse holding her little dog: “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Well, where exactly is she? How should Dorothy begin to make sense of her surroundings and its population? Who exactly are all those people? Follow what road? Where? I think I’ll go back inside!!
            And so, having spent two full months with War and Peace, I wonder how to depart from the worlds and characters with whom I have become somewhat intimate, and in whose world I have lived? One may return to the book after it has been begun, and I suppose one can choose to reread a novel at some future time, though the fifteen hundred pages of War and Peace certainly would require some energy. But what shall I do with the book in the moments and days after having completed the last sentence of the last paragraph of the final chapter? What do I do with all of the characters? I think this problem suggests why I leave the book hanging about on my desk: on the one hand I do not know what to do with it having finished it, and on the other hand, I am not ready to leave the book behind. Alas, these finished books clutter my desks awaiting some resolution.

16 August 2013

August 2013

Mid-August. The mornings are crisp, the days are warm and the nights cool. All is well with the weather world. Which is to say that all seems well with me. “Seems, Madam? I know not seems.” It is my birthday again this week, and next week both of my daughters leave home and I return to the University and an office I must yet unpack. Farewell, Angelina.
The work of Bob Dylan remains always on my mind, and these days particularly his references to change. For example, in “Changing of the Guards,” he sings: “But Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination/Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards.” And I am remembering those lines along side those in the prayer “Forever Young:” “May you have a strong foundation when the winds of changes shift.” And then I’m remembering the early declaration “Your old road is rapidly fading/ So get out of the new ones if you can’t lend a hand,/For the times they are a’changing.” Dylan has often spoken of change as inevitable: “I wish, I wish I wish in vain, that we could sit simply in that room once again . . . But our chances really were a million to one.”  And that to experience change requires physical and moral courage: “How does it feel to be on your own . . . Like a rolling stone?” There is always fear and regret intrinsic to the adjustment: Byron’s prisoner of Chillon had learned to love his chains and when freed was loathe to leave his prison. And strength and faith and friendship, I suppose, will get me through.
In this earthly domain, full of disappointment and pain
You'll never see me frown
I owe my heart to you, and that's sayin' it true
And I'll be with you when the deal goes down
Life will change willy-nilly whether I will it or not. And perhaps the delight I experience on arising on this crisp morning and to wonder what I can make of the day I’ve been given is the meaning of life. “Strike another match, go start anew/
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.”How we approach uncertainty determines how we might live our lives.
We don’t know what freedom is but we can measure and assess the products of that freedom. Tolstoy writes in War and Peace: “But just as the subject of any science is the manifestation of this unknown essence of life, while the essence itself can only be the subject of metaphysics, so the manifestation of the force of men’s freedom in space, time, and dependence on cause, is the subject of history; freedom itself is the subject of metaphysics.” Freedom is unknowable and finally unattainable. “Let’s go,” says Estragon, but they do not move. Isaiah Berlin writes “Principles are not less sacred because their duration cannot be guaranteed. Indeed, the very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood or the absolute values of our primitive past.” And that is why I suppose hearts must have courage for the changing of the guards because the guards will inevitably change and we must have constructed a strong foundation to withstand the winds.
Hey, it’s my birthday, too!

10 August 2013

White Kitten

For over a year I have been feeding the black cat with some pleasure but mostly with a keen sense of obligation. And now the black cat remains daily in the environs of the cabin: he never leaves for seemingly any reason. I am not clear where he sleeps at night, but I suspect it is on the property and underneath some shelter.
You see, as I think I have somewhere here written, for almost thirty years or so I have kept cats, sometimes living with as many as three of the felines: fed them, cleaned up their excrements, pushed them off my chair I wanted to rest in, and yet allowed them to sit on my lap as a suitable substitute. But there was never a moment when I could sit quietly without one of the cats soon appearing to beg some share of my space.
As they passed away, or were smashed on the road by speeding passing vehicles, I vowed not to replace them. Eventually they all were gone and I was alone. And then the black cat appeared, hungry, sitting pleadingly outside of my cabin door. I fed him and he was grateful. We were not friendsthankfully so—but we continued to exist in some relationship of need, though never would I permit him to enter the cabin. But I purchased the cans of food and maintained the cat.
And then yesterday morning I walked to the cabin in the early morning hour and sitting next to the black cat was a little white kitten. My black cat had adopted a child and brought his charge to the source of all sustenance. Ah, yes, the little cat was scruffy, disheveled, motherless, and hungry, and I fed it, but I suddenly had visions of my black cat roaming the neighborhood looking for homeless strays and bringing them home. I suddenly had visions of a long row of dishes outside my cabin door, and I suddenly had visions of my cabins shelves filled with cat food and me busy keeping the bowls filled. I imagined that somewhere in town a sign existed (I had first written ‘a sigh existed’) that advertised my cabin as a welcoming soup kitchen and invited all of the stray cats to make their way there. 
What had begun as a singular and hopefully isolated feeding with a single cat turned into a regular commitment. And now I find myself obliged to two needy individuals, and at one of them for the time being has opened my doors to the need of another. And I wonder: when does the ethical commitment I had once accepted in a limited basis stop exponentially growing? Or it is that once the gates open there is no closing of them.
For now, I return home to one grown black cat and one fragile white kitten both of whom expect my attention and care. And I will peer tentatively out of the windows fearful of discovering additional visitors to the open shelter.