Jerome Loving opens his book Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself with the following remark: “During Walt Whitman’s lifetime, his poetry was generally reviled, condemned by reviewers as obscure in content, deficient in diction, irregular in rhythm, and absent of rhyme.” Humans, driven by natural insecurity and an obsession for self-stability, try to hang on to their basic practices, whatever they are. As we age, we tend to long for whatever our earlier days of comfort were. And for the most part this conservatism is based on imaginary and romanticized pasts; the difficulties, the worries, and the horrors of those pasts are bracketed, repressed, or forgotten. As with the present MAGA folk, we dream of returning to a past that never was quite as projected. The “white America” of the 1950s was rife with social nonsense and genuine horrors for many in our culture. It was not a moment of “greatness” however one may wish to define it.
This regressive conservatism infests most cultures and lives with what Santayana called “normal madness.” American Christianity, for example, ridicules the myths of ancient Greek religions and those of contemporary Islamic doctrine, but posits belief in “virgin birth,” “Noah’s ark,” and host of miracles that, as David Hume pointed out, defy every natural law without a shred of actual evidence. . . normal madness, a madness we accept without question. This madness is driven by repetition of memorized or memorialized habits, not by reflective reasoning. We make a constant push to keep things as they are or were, or as we imagine they had been. We couple this cultural force with a corollary fear of anything smacking of novelty, creativity, and genuine freedom. We fear and resist pretty much every otherness that confronts us. We reveal a pervasive, dangerous, and fruitless cultural habit of rejecting the new and idolizing the old. And all the while, the obvious stares us in the face; things change. The cosmos that is our home is dynamic, not static. Humanity needs to change its habits of habit change; we need to accept the fact of change and instead of simply dismissing it, take aim at ameliorating our cultures through the change. For its own benefit and ultimate survival, humanity needs to become reflective concerning its present and its future; and this, in part, must begin with a clear and honest assessment of our past. Note that Bach, the Beatles, and Punk were all denied the status of “music”. . . and despite this have come to be “classic.”
Scientists hypothesize that our Earth will run out of breathable oxygen in one billion years, long before the Sun burns out in five billion years. Of more pressing concern, we already know that we are living in a time of species extinction not witnessed since the demise of the dinosaurs. The cosmos, the Earth, and WE, human cultures, are constantly in transition. We are a miniscule biological blip on the timeline of earth’s history and even more so in the history of the universe. We are arrogant well beyond our means. Our ignorance far outweighs our knowledge. And yet we champion income and material acquisition over learning–arrogance and blindness do not serve us well. The question should never be, “how do we recreate our past or our imagined past” but “how can we adapt the changes of new generations in ways that make our lives and the possibility of species survival better?” The normal madness of human conservatism with which we currently live is a weapon that, if developed, is most likely to end the human race.
Consider the “nation state.” It is a human creation and one that is for the most part outmoded by global communication, global economic interaction, and the actualities of global disease. Why does Russia think it needs a piece of the Ukraine? Why do we allow arbitrary boundaries that have no natural existence to make otherwise humane individuals into hateful proponents of genocide? These questions have no good answers. Perspective is required; we must stand back from ourselves and our cultures. Gods will no longer help us except as illusory entities providing psychological solace in the face of our self-destruction. In both time and space, we humans remain immeasurably small. Our penchant for allowing sociopaths to dictate how we live needs to be revealed for the sham that it is. Where kindness and compassion would improve our chances of surviving, we allow insecure egos to pursue their greed for power and to effectively manipulate us by way of our various normal madnesses. In the terms of Thoreau and Whitman, we need to awaken. These are things most of us know at a personal level; almost without question we will help the most reviled neighbors in the midst of a disaster or crisis. But we fail to see the larger importance of this willingness to help others–of kindness, caring, and sacrificing.
Life is in the transitions, in the changes we bring about and live through. Nothing, literally, remains the same. We can, in fact, not go home. This does not mean we need to give up all traditions and memories; but it does mean we need to be reflective about our traditions and our memories. One may retain religious beliefs without turning them into weapons to harm others. We need to find ways to better ourselves and those around us; this will never happen if we think we already have all the answers. Human spirit comes alive in the midst of important transitions; we mark our histories by way of these moments of transition. But we need to be on the lookout for the disasters embedded in these moments. The building of the United States involved both human slavery and genocide; these are simply facts and to ignore them is to allow the worst elements of our world to continue unfettered. So-called “originalism,” taken seriously, is an open danger to ameliorating our culture. In its origin, the United States did not allow women or any non-white folks to vote; it allowed slavery; it advocated violent acquisition of land. The ideals of justice and equality were just that, ideals. As we move forward, we need to look for changes and transitions that breathe life into these ideals, that expand these ideals to include all humans, not just the ones that our normal madnesses condone.
It is indeed good to be alive. Living means change. How things change is in part under our control and this is where we need to place our energies. If I spend my energy bitching about someone else’s sexual orientation, I will lose that much energy that I might have spent on making something better. The economy of our energies is ultimately quite simple. If I spend my energies trying to grab a piece of the Ukraine, I will lose the ability to help others in need. Opportunity cost is real. I don’t pretend we have the wisdom to make good decisions in all of our transitions, but it is a reasonable guess that aiming to make things better for all is more likely to bring about good results in the long run than aiming to kill others, dominate others, and make others’ lives filled with fear. Again, we know this with our personal experiences; we know fear and we know personal damage. Inflicting on others the things that have stunted our own lives makes no sense. We need to reawaken to what we already know; making thoughtless cults of anti-awakening is just an attempt to hang onto something that never was. And ultimately it is pissing in the wind. We should want better; and we can do better. Life is in the transitions and it is up to us, all of us, to ameliorate in the midst of these transitions. We do not live in a logical matrix; we do not have any absolute knowledge; we do not have an absolute resting point. We are paddling along a cosmic stream; we cannot see around the bends in the river ahead; the best we can do is to learn how to paddle well amidst the instabilities and the surprises. We can only do this if we change our habits, our attitudes, and our willingness to acknowledge where we actually are. . . we are in transition.
Sittin’ here with Bacardi Gold and coffee, the sun crisp and cold on the lightly budding maple branches at eye level out my back porch window. Welcome to 8 am Saturday before a day of music. I hate big choices; much prefer to turn from them whenever I can. But choices are always made—the day a family friend tossed me in the back seat of our old Plymouth station wagon and told me my father had left; the day Paul Loucks came to see me in my shack in NH and after sharing a case of Pabst decided to spend the year logging to save money for school; the day I was half-way through a second bottle of Chianti and my little plastic radio spoke to me in the Hotel Broadalbin telling me my draft number was 295; the day I walked the autumn fields of NH and chose not to go to Alaska. I adjusted, Paul was killed by a maple tree, I never saw Viet Nam or Alaska. Fate is a twisted road—but we always have a bit to do with it. Libertarians always overplay the hand of choice and Stoics just underplay it by a bit. I hate the decisions because so many roads in life look good and because most of life’s corners I have turned have been blind. And sometimes, when things are running along smoothly, opportunity or disaster just jump right in front of me—the smile of a possible young lover or the death of a beautiful friend. Jesus—really—that happens now!? Getting old for most of us is cutting down on the choices—letting things swing along easily in a groove—less and less interference on the tracks. We get settled, comfortable, stuck in our ways. But therein lies the danger of it all—death without decision.
I hate decisions because they make me live. They are a brilliant fuel, sending that easy groove into shafts of flame burning up the shreds of the present. This little story here catalyzed by morning rum and yet another decision. The details hardly matter. But my resistance to deciding is waning because another feature of old age is learning that the risks of having to decide are life-giving. The blood that has been running through me unnoticed for ten years is now burning at the surface. No long sleepy mornings—everything is on edge. And then there is the clarity. My life stands before me undressed and waiting. Oh, the things I should have said—the little jealousies I should never have allowed to creep into my eyes and give away my old man fears. And the possibilities—possibilities for an old curmudgeonly bastard; another chance, another choice, another way to think about how it all turns out and what it is I will leave the world. Deciding brings every corner of the photograph into play—the ripped edges, the out of focus feelings, and the dark images. When I hold it in my hand I try to reshape the image—what can I be or become? Emerson’s choice between God and weed by the wall may seem a bit extreme, but he sharpens the day with that wild image.
Notice how every choice begins at home in the heart but gently swings wide and considers the other folks and the unknown players down the road. And then as it moves to its limits, it comes crashing back to the heart. And then I say, yes, go for it, old bastard. Or I dwindle inside fearing the risk. Staying the same is now not just happening; it is open for discussion. And I see my life being torn from local friends, and I see the sunlight shine on some possibility that makes me smile, and I figure in my ledger all those bastardly little bureaucratic things that rise up in the midst of change. I can’t bitch about the decision—at least I have one. Most folks my age are done with decisions except for supplemental insurance and which old folks home to curl up in. I’m alive, as Jackson Browne says. The rum and coffee are sitting low in my cup, and the sun is insistent. I need to decide whether to get up and do laundry or get another round before the afternoon show. Spend the day with a lover? Run for cover? This road or another? I could say it doesn’t matter—but it does. A feel of energies, a shift in the eyes, a change in body temperature—there is always much at stake. “And livin, livin day by day; it helps to have some gambling ways.”
Pages turnin, pages torn out and burnin’
Pages no one else will read,
Age that the days can’t measure
Age calls, memories treasure
Of pages that live and bleed.
I’m alive, no plans to arrive
Just turnin corner after corner
With the heat of this day
I can put it all away
And play some tune from another old corner
And turn that page, just once more, just once more, just once…..
Line about gambling ways from George Gritzbach. Photos courtesy of Monster!
It is true that I am still teaching by way of the computer, but this is for my many years of classroom students!
I was seventeen, I lost my good friend Paul Loucks to a logging accident in the
southern Adirondacks. I buried the event somewhere inside and thirty-one years
later wrote a song about Paul. Nearly four years ago now, one of my former
students, Eric Anderson, took his life. Eric was big Teddy bear of a man whose
unexpected grace and guile on the basketball court surprised many an opponent.
Despite his imposing appearance, Eric was a gentle and sensitive one. He was an
amazing teacher—it has taken me until now to begin to come to grips with his
loss. This letter is the upshot of my reflections on Eric and on all of you who
have been my “students” over these many years.
always called you my students, but I never once thought of you that way. You
were always possible friends in a world that was always unfolding. I always
looked out at your faces and saw my own hopes and fears staring back at me. Who
am I? What will I become? Must I always fit in?
I have learned as much from you all
as I ever did from my mentors and teachers—and I had good ones! I have always
known that I will learn a text best by making myself teach it. And in
classrooms from Ohio to Texas I learned that my best, most spontaneous, and
most sincere teachers were there every day in those classrooms. You taught me
the pointlessness of pretension and the meaninglessness of
professionalism. Somehow, as with rooms
full of old friends, we worked on the issues of the day—your issues and mine,
and those we shared. So many times you surprised me with ways of seeing the
world I had neither considered nor encountered.
Now I am closing in on my last days
of teaching—and I am still learning every day. Strangely, I hardly feel much
different from those first days teaching a class full of “wanna be” doctors in
the hills of Pennsylvania. I learned
that many of them were wanna be doctors only because their parents wanted them
to be. Their existential questions were aching for a place to speak out, and
they found it in our classroom or in office chats. Learning who we are is a
human phenomenon—and perhaps the most significant of our lives.
There have been so many fun and
important moments—so many twists, turns, and tossings. Smiles crease my face at
the thought of all the things we’ve been through. I want to name each of you; I
want to tease you and chide you—for working too hard, or not hard enough. I
want just one more time to be surprised by each of you—and I want to know where
you are and what happened—the dark and the beautiful. I want to hear about the
roads you have travelled. You have no idea how your absences from my life have
left patches of loneliness. When you each walked out of my life, some of you
forever, my heart was heavy, even as I smiled, wished you well, hugged you or
shook your hand. Sending you off to life was always so difficult—the loss of
your presence was intense. That is, perhaps, why I have chased a few of you
around the world since those classroom days.
For me, teaching has always been
more confessional than professional. I learned a lot of shit—details, facts,
arguments, histories—to serve as appetizers. But my main course was always in
our conversations—our conspiracies about life’s ways—our open wounds, our
fears, our incredible dreams and hopes to be chased with our energies and never
captured in full—always more dreams and hopes. I confess to you now that I fell
in love with every one of you. My heart was invested in your well being and I
often lay awake at night hoping you might find some peace and comfort—hoping
you might find a road that felt like home. A life of cherishing so many lovers
has its risks and dangers—but also the deepest rewards. Seeing so many of you
find those roads has been one ongoing celebration. Would be lawyers becoming
professional comedians and would be actors becoming lawyers. However distant we
may have become, I would have you all know that my love has not abated.
You also know how much I hated
academic bureaucracies and professions—so much private ambition, so much
pretension. It always seemed like those folks were trying to break up my love
affair with teaching and my cherishing of each of you. They assigned me bullshit that took me away
from my time with you. I resented that—I still resent it. And the
“professionals” trying to tell me how much their research improved their
teaching. Bullshit. So far as I could see, they merely recited their little
professional “positions.” In my world, my writing was the beneficiary of my
conversations with you. You essentially wrote my essays and books in
conjunction with my conversations with an array of dead authors from Plato to
Margaret Fuller to Henry Bugbee.
Classrooms—that’s where we usually met.
But in so many cases our learning together occurred beyond those rooms. How
much political orientation did I learn on basketball courts? So much beauty I
learned on aimless walks and talks in coffee shops. And so much in watching you
perform. So much music I felt in bars and coffee houses. So much endurance I
learned on long runs and cycling trips. Car rides, and chance encounters in
A hollowness haunts me now. This
last semester of “being a teacher.” It is my turn to walk out the door for the
last time. But as I put the chalk back in the tray and shut down the lights for
the last time, looking back into the darkened room, I want you all to know that
I will not quit. I have other roads ahead—and each of them is written in
learning and teaching. So, send me a poem on the wind, note from Antarctica,
your children’s drawings—or their books and successes. My love for you all has
not abated—thanks for sharing your time and being with me, however briefly….
It has been a few weeks now since I’ve visited my philosophy of Moose site–not that I don’t have things to say. Simply haven’t had time to say them as I would like. “Time”–another thing to write about! We’re never sure “what” it is ontologically, yet we spend it, waste it, find it, lose it, take it, and give it. We are on time, past time, behind time, and we don’t know where the time goes. But all of that is for another time. I had a wonderful morning a few days back and it sparked the following thoughts.
Some mornings are better than others. This is one way I know—experientially—that philosophical relativism is ultimately hopeless. It was born of arrogance and ignorance. “Man” is not “the measure of all things.” We live in the wilderness of the universe and our measure is as often taken as it is given. Good mornings are not just about the weather. They depend on how the day and I meet each other.
Sometimes it’s a cup of coffee in a
big chair with sun through the window lighting up pine floorboards. A book to
read, a poem to write, or just musement as I stare out the window. Or, it’s a
charming chipmunk scurrying about on errands which I never fully comprehend; or
perhaps a small band of hummingbirds making decisions about who gets to sip the
sugar water next. In particular memories, I recall doing the NY Times crossword
with my grandmother on a Sunday morning in a pine-laden living room surrounded
by shelves of books and the sun peeking through forest green curtains. I am
aware of my good fortune in this cosmos.
Sometimes it’s a walk outdoors. When I was young, I would sneak out into cold dew and tiptoe my way to the one fat tree in the middle of the swamp about a tenth of a mile from the back porch of our house. I would sit in the crotch of the tree and watch the red-wing blackbirds in the cattails and imagine myself to go back in time to romantic ways of being. I would venture into the state of nature as Rousseau envisioned it. And, when I was working on a dairy farm, I would shuffle in my work clothes down the road under a salmon blue and pink sunrise to bring sixty head of cows from pasture to barn. The lead cows would always await me at the gate and calmly lead the herd down to the barn. There was something deeply peaceful in those mornings, and the cows themselves expressed that same depth of calm. Wonders abound on good mornings.
On winter mornings, I would walk to
the same swamp in flannel and wool, and slide around on pockets of ice in my
over-sized boots. And I would break off what were left of the cattail stems and
throw them like small javelins into the snow. The morning and I would be on a
As I got older, the walks would change. One day I would be wrapped in wool socks, leather boots, a wool shirt, and a raggedy jean vest with a handful of salted, dried beef liver in my pocket; and I would head across the road to the old logging roads that led up to the “mountains” that rose behind the lake on which I lived. Each mountain had a name: “Teaberry,” “Bullard, “Rattlesnake”—even though rattlesnakes had been scarce here for a century. Fall days were these. Scouting deer trails and talking with squirrels. I had one six-foot high stump that I used climb on and sit like an overgrown leprechaun and watch the beavers work. They would startle at first, then eventually ignore me and go on about their business. Mornings were wonderful for beaver work.
On other days, there would be
several feet of snow on the ground, and after stoking the fire in my little
woodstove and sipping a cup of instant coffee while dressing warmishly, I would
grab my skis outside the door and venture for a lap or two of the frozen lake
or take a few fun runs down nearby hills. These were exhilarating mornings, and
yet the best of those mornings was returning to the steamy warmth of my little shack,
toasting my homemade bread in my cast iron skillet, and settling into my big
chair beside the stove while listening to my favorite Celtic musics on vinyl.
These were days of poetry and wonder.
And there were later days of fall and spring when my dogs would wake me at 5:30 am and I would stumble to coffee and left-over cookies from the night before. I would shiver my way into jeans and sneakers, leash up the dogs, and head out the door and down the dirt drive—even on rainy mornings—and we would walk, jog, and run out into the woods looking for persimmons with which to make more cookies, or early birds, or occasional deer nestled in deep grasses. And, for better or worse, my dogs loved the baking of persimmon cookies.
I almost forgot the mornings of
endurance, but they too were often good mornings. With young friends, I would
play music in the cellar until 3 or 4 in the morning. To send them all home
sober-ish, I would make a large breakfast of bacon, toast, and omelets—and occasionally
some apple pie. We would jabber jollily of music and life. At 6 am my endurance
sport guru and friend, Rich, would arrive with coffee in hand and we would head
out for a twenty-mile shuffle. Rich was a natural comedian and he made the miles
fade away—I almost felt like an autumn leaf floating to the ground as we
traversed our town. Arriving home in late morning, I almost always felt light
and weirdly energized.
But why all these reflections on and memories of mornings? Because some mornings are better than others and that is something important to experience, to know, and to remember. I can only hope my reflections will lead others to reminiscences of their good days. I needn’t list the bad days of disappointment, beatings, and darknesses of all sorts—they remain with me as clear as they came. Experience remains, I think, our best teacher. Faust sought something like my good mornings when the world enables little moments of perfection. Faust’s error, as I see it, was attempting to hold his moment of perfection still and steady. But life, as my old friend John McDermott used to say, is in the transitions; in the words of William James, it is “ever not quite.” I think we need, instead, to cherish our moments of perfection—our good mornings—as they come, and to let them slip away to wherever little perfections live until the next one appears.
These good mornings were all different in content, but they were all the same in feeling—they were the same insofar as the mornings and I fit each other in a natural and unforced way, the way that pine needles will sometimes make a perfect carpet in the sun. The best I can say is that I was completely, cosmically at home in this wilderness we call the universe. There were no tensions, distractions, or delusions—nothing to wake me up at 4 am with worry and frustration. Just me, awake to the world around me—awake to what the morning itself had to say to me. These are moments in a long life that I have cherished and still cherish. They are as comfortable as my old jean vest, as warm as the fire from my woodstove, and as homey as the smell of my bread in the oven. But I do not ask the mornings to stay, and I do not wonder why every morning, every day, cannot be as beautiful as these good mornings. I simply judge the morning as it judges me—the way I judge and sense the character of other human animals. In paraphrase of Thoreau, every day is a good day if we but know what to do with it. But the fact is, we human animals do not always know what to do with it. And the key word is “with”—we do not own the days; we live with them. Our energies do not always fit the morning’s energies. And, while I do think we can find ways to stay more awake and alert in the world, I do not think we can make perfections linger. Let us, then, not make Faust’s mistake. Let us learn to enjoy the good mornings as they come and to thank them as they pass away. Let us cherish our little perfections—after all, it is they who bring us the most important meanings of our lives.
I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company. –Emerson, “Self Reliance”
What is it that makes it so hard sometimes to determine whither we will walk? I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.
When I go out of the house for a walk, uncertain as yet whither I will bend my steps, and submit myself to my instinct to decide for me, I find, strange and whimsical as it may seem, that I finally and inevitably settle southwest, toward some particular wood or meadow or deserted pasture or hill in that direction.
The science of Humboldt is one thing, poetry is another thing.
I am not opposed to being reasonable, to tracking and following the facts, and to making sense of things to the best of my ability. But I distrust both the human animal’s ability to be reasonable and human reason’s ability to figure things out. We would like more answers than we are able and likely to find, and that tempts us to provide reasons that are fabricated. Consider deliberative democracy. It is reasonable to deliberate. But many of our deliberations turn out to be defenses of well worn prejudices after all. There are no mechanical answers to our issues; at some level we simply have to take a chance. Whim.
I have always been fascinated by Emerson’s occasional use of “whim.” He never seemed the type. But then I look at his life and see whim everywhere. It is the unusual thread that stitched the twisted road on which he lived. For Thoreau, whim is more up front–he challenges us to, on occasion, be whimsical. And when I step back from my own road, I find there is whim everywhere. I thought I was “making” decisions—it turns out that in many cases they were making me. When I look back and try to make sense of my decisions, I feel as if I am what they call in the plumbing trade “backfilling.” I am just making something up to provide myself an answer where there is none. Making sense of whim is, after all, a silly exercise. Let whim swing wide and free—and when our grip gets feeble we will fly off to eternity.
I don’t think we try to fall in love; if we did, we wouldn’t call it “falling.” When we try to manufacture the reasons why we fall in love we invariably fall short. There is always something more, something left out; there is a reason we talk of stars and moons and winds and alignments . . . no impure reason will tell that story in any reasonably satisfying way. Santayana chalked it up to animality. Maybe so—but it’s there in the eyes, in the smile, in the touch—the lightest, breezy touch on the arm—I can always see it but can never speak it. That was something else Emerson had right—the languages we make, as beautiful as they are, always try to catch whim by surprise but they never do. Never—or in James’s words, “ever not quite.” The answer is always just over the horizon, just around the corner, through a glass darkly…….maybe somewhere over the rainbow. So much of my life is around some corner—I try again and again for a peek or a chance to grab it by the arm and turn it to face me. And every time I fail—and now, having been worn smooth by the years, I accept whim—it’s a ride—let me see where I end up—here? really? unbelievable!
What I initially missed in Emerson is that whim doesn’t mean craziness—whim can leave you safe at home for fifty years at a time—comfortable, happy, with one enduring love. It’s in the cards or it isn’t. Staying or going is so many times just whim—the “ahh-what the hell” moment when you say I’m staying or I’m going. I may give an explanation later but it will be more window dressing for the fabric of social life. The sign above Emerson’s door read “Whim.” I think he was right. He says he hopes it may be more than whim at last–there, I disagree. Whim has become enough for me.
Whim is not chaos. That’s why Thoreau talks of magnetism and instinct in relation to whim. Whim may not be reasoned, but it is never without direction. It is not just bad and arbitrary decision-making. Whim is its own power and is built on a feeling of rightness. We have various phrases for this–“I couldn’t help it,” “some power was pushing/pulling me,” ” I can’t tell you why but it just felt right,” and so on. An element of trust resides at the bottom of whim and this is what Thoreau alludes to. We must learn to trust the magnetism. It’s not something we make or create in any overt way–it happens to us–“something comes over us”–submerged memories, latent hopes, unarticulated imaginings. . . . We find it so hard to be whimsical—to allow whim its genuine place in our lives. We must have a reason—we must have someone to blame—we must have heroes; we cannot accept whim as an answer. So much in my life I can make no sense of—should I give reasons for breaking social conventions? Let me say what I mean—or something like what I am trying to mean. I am better now at accepting whim—at being whimsical. My reasoning cannot see around the corner—I will just take this ride and I will not complain or regret. Perhaps I sound like a Stoic—but they had Reason governing everything and they just had to accept the facts. Following whim is different—there is no final explanation, there is no mechanism or system that makes sense of all of this. I am relaxed in my whimsy not because I know a God or Nature will control all, but because I know I will never know it all—no one will know it all. My life is a life, not a chess game. I will live with the glimpses behind the curtain but I will no longer chase my tail—except perhaps in whimsical fashion! That little phrase from the 90’s, “whatever!” Or the more recent linguistic abomination, “It is what it is.” I hate these phrases but I have come to believe that they are right. Explanation and understanding are over-rated. Like the dreams of social contract or deliberative democracy—nonsense. We are human animals. Our reason has its role to play but when it tries to contain this emanating world, it has lost its way.
I have played music for many years, but I have never been able to play a cover song to make it sound just like the original. I seldom even know what key the original was played in. Once in a while a different way of playing a song will come to me and it will work. There is no deliberation–I simply feel my way around the song until something feels right–or “works.” Perhaps I am placing too much weight on whim, but this is what it feels like to me. I turn a corner on a whim. I choose a phrasing on a whim. I’m sure eventually the psychologists and neuroscientists will arrive at some explanation of whim, but I doubt it will ever seem complete to me. I think our physical and mental energies can do their own work sometimes without the interference of our calculations and explanations. I believe that sometimes we are better off to follow our whims, to let them take us where they will. We may just awaken there and find we have landed in the right place for now.
Perhaps it is fair to point out that nature has its own whims with which we often find ourselves engaged. A rainbow that blooms before us. A road that winds beyond where we can see and lures us. A storm that changes our life events and leaves us in unexpected places. Of course there are physical reasons such situations occur–but those will never explain the meanings we find in the whimsy of the situations. Our own whims are likewise guided by energies of nature–we too are nature. A helicoptering maple seed lives on whim–we may too, not all the time or in every way, but sometimes at crucial times and in interesting ways. And that is enough for me to think that whim deserves it own consideration alongside our ability to reason and to calculate. These are features of our being that should live in concert and not in some bi-valent opposition.
Whim is not a license to be stupid. It is not a matter of closing our eyes and hoping for the best. Whim is a magnetism–an energy–in the cosmos that may help us to be rightly oriented. It is something we must remain attuned to in our lives. And when it is effective, it may seem to take us in a direction wholly contrary to what our best reasoning tells us. That is why whim is important–it is a sort of ongoing resistance to the rationalizing and the systematizing that often wants to dominate our lives. It is a feeling we should be alert to. I think Emerson is right in saying that we cannot spend the day in explanation. It’s not that some explanation is not good for us–it is. But trying to explain the ongoing thickness of our experiences will always come up short and may eventually run us aground on false reasons and fantasized causes. We must at least keep our eyes open for the sign above us on the lintel–WHIM.
I began this week thinking I wanted to write about how Donald Trump has appropriated Rush Limbaugh’s rhetorical ways as a way to try to control the thought of the American public. Limbaugh’s ways are not new–versions can be found in Cicero and Quintillian. But they meet a much wider audience with radio and twitter. Pretty simple really. The aim is to create an apparent conversation that is actually a multi-voiced monologue. Begin by selecting those with whom you will “converse”–Limbaugh simply has his “screener” do this work and Trump does it buy not having press conferences and speaking only with his friends at Fox. Next, you simply repeat what you want folks to belief (true or not) repeatedly in a variety of related ways. This ensures that your followers (your “base”) eventually just restate what you say in some form–this is precisely why Limbaugh calls his followers “ditto-heads.” You would think this name might bother those who pretend to be self-reliant and conservatively libertarian, but there is no evidence that it does. Trump and Limbaugh make for an interesting study in the “practics” of rhetoric and logic. In any case, I decided that’s not what I want to talk about this week. Not only has our culture gotten used to and become numb to constant lying and misdirection, but this is ultimately a short run issue. Trump and Limbaugh, like me, will die soon enough and the news folks will be worried about some new terror in our world. And, it is a beautiful day and I prefer not to ruin it with dark thoughts of the present.
Instead, I want to say a few words about something that has fascinated me for many years–the relationship among creativity, spontaneity, and receptivity, with a decided focus on the last. I find watching other folks create or engaging in one’s own creative activity are some of the most wonderful experiences in life. And, yes, I am well aware of the historical and ongoing “critiques” among education theorists of too much emphasis on creativity. I do not buy the criticisms; I don’t think we can have too much artistic creativity in our world. On the contrary, as with the ditto-head culture, I think we do not think enough about how we might be artistically creative.
Inspired by a good friend, I have been led to read the various works of Anthony Bourdain. Readable and pithy, Bourdain is also remarkably reflective. Though for purposes of provocation he often writes extremely, he also lands on experiential truths of significance. He remarks, for example, that “Eating well . . .is about submission. It’s about giving up all the vestiges of control, about entrusting your fate entirely to someone else. It’s about turning off the mean, manipulative, calculating, and shrewd person within you and slipping heedlessly into a new experience as if it were a warm bath (p. 194NB).” Let’s begin here, enabling a chef’s creativity to reach us involves, at the least, a step outside our usual egoistic modes of being. This squares closely with Waldo Emerson’s concern that “The pest of society is egotists. There are dull and bright, sacred and profane, coarse and fine egotists. ‘Tis a disease that, like influenza falls on all constitutions . . . . It is a tendency in all minds” (Culture). So long as we are focused on ourselves and our own well being, we will not be in a position to perceive some of the beauties of the world. Moreover, if we are interested in creating, a focus on our egos, our recognition, and so on, will, most of the time, simply get in the way. A kind of submission to the moment, to the work, to the creator seems a good place to begin. However, merely submitting is, I think, not quite enough. We need to be actively receptive and attentive in our submission, In short, we are not simply being “done to” as recipients of art or a creative act, we must be actively engaged in the reception. As Emerson put it: “Always our thinking is a pious reception.” But thinking in this sense–or actively engaging in aesthetic experiences–is not easy. “What,” Emerson asked, “is the hardest task in the world? To think” (p. 183).
Emerson believes in the democracy of aesthetic experience and I agree. We all have some capacity for enjoying and appreciating art. For Emerson, this attitude of receptivity is one of which we are all capable even if we haven’t the talent to be fully constructive or productive with our ideas. We may have to let poets speak for us, but they can only do so insofar as we recognize in their work the ideas for which we have cared. “But if the constructive powers are rare, and it is given to few men to be poets,” wrote Emerson, “yet every man is a receiver of this descending holy ghost, and may well study the laws of its influx.” I would take a step further than Emerson and maintain that we all also have some capacity for creativity in art, and to ignore this in ourselves is to doom us to being non-creative by dogmatic assertion. Creating a receptive attitude, and thus the very possibility of creative engagement, is, however, difficult work. But the point is that it is something that we can work at–it is within our powers to be better than we are at both appreciating and creating. We need to remain awake, alert, and focused. At the same time, we cannot be dominating, controlling, and leading. We must learn patience. We must prepare ourselves, as Emerson suggests: “No man can learn what he has not preparation for learning, however near to his eyes is the object” (p. 88).
I offer here no recipe for learning the art of receptivity, but I can provide a few traditional suggestions–suggestions that I, and many others, have found useful in life. As both Bourdain and Emerson point out, we must begin by overcoming or simply releasing our egotism and our dogmatism. But since we live in a culture that is premised on both of these -isms, this is never an easy task. We live by our habits and it is important to shift ourselves in the direction of a habit of openness–to new musics, new painting, new dance, new foods, and so forth. This does not entail that we jettison the things we love by tradition; it only means that we are willing to add to our aesthetic vocabulary. If I love and play the blues, it’s also possible I could learn to hear the beauties in both Beethoven and Tupac. Whatever my dogmas of what is “good” or “not good,” I must relinquish them until my experiences speak for themselves. If I assume there is no good food in England, I will certainly never find any even if it stares me in the face. So, it is incumbent on me to prepare myself by creating a habit or attitude of openness and receptivity that I can take with me wherever I go. But, again, this attitude is not one of “serfish” submission–it is an active way of being engaged with the world.
One of the oldest ways of beginning to create such an attitude was by taking oneself out of the habits of society–by enjoying moments of solitude. This was in part what Thoreau was up to in going to Walden Pond. He never intended to live there–his aim was to step outside the norms and the habits of Concord and to see them and himself from a new angle of vision. We needn’t become hermits–though I often find that a tempting option; we need to engage in temporary solitude in order to encounter ourselves and turn down the noise around us that would have us believe x, y, or z, is the next best thing (or worst thing) in the universe. We must, for some time, enter a world where we can be contemplative and meditative so that we can at least clear the decks of our dogmas and egotistical assertiveness. We must learnt to listen again–to see, to touch, to taste—to perceive actively and not merely as passive observers.
Another road to receptivity might begin in our encounters with nature. If we learn to experience the nature around us in its simplicity and detail, we might help create for ourselves an ability to both appreciate and to create our own human arts. Contrary to the writings of Richard Rorty, I believe nature is always speaking to us–the only question is whether we will listen. In the obvious moments, weather tells us it is on its way and certain flowers will mark the time of year. But if we are attentive, we will learn much more in the perception of natural phenomena. We might learn the social patterns of hummingbirds as they dance around a feeder or a flower. We might learn the dining habits of black bears and groundhogs simply by gazing at their spore. And since human animals are also natural phenomena, I assume one’s nature watching can occur in cities as well as in rural settings. The point is simply to learn by habit to perceive the signs of nature as they take place around us.
All of this points to something it is valuable for all of us to have more of in any case–patience. We must learn to wait for things. I am a fan of spontaneous life–the creating of a jam band out of a few unrelated traveling musicians. The ongoing creativity of a well oiled jazz or rock group–even as they play their traditional tunes, they are improvising in ways that may not even be audible to the casual and impatient observer. But spontaneity is not something to be forced or demanded–that is the point. Spontaneity requires waiting for the right moment to enter the stream. Reading great poetry often requires the patience to learn a genre or the life story of a poet. As we age, we should have the patience and openness to hear more and see more–to understand that our past passions may be outstripped by some new creativity. To travel with an attitude of receptivity is to be well armed to experience the beauties of the world–all of it, not just our little corner. As Bourdain and the American philosopher William James point out, this comes with some risk. Not always a huge risk–but some risk; at the least, we risk learning something new and having to jettison a treasured old belief.
As I think of receptivity, I have blended aesthetic perception and appreciation with artistic creativity. And that is because, I see them as experientially and inextricably entangled. I have not met great creators who are not also excellent perceivers. That is, they bring an attitude of receptivity with them. And on the other side, the best observers I have encountered seem to be able to see through to the creative process, even if it is not their own. So, for now, I leave them entangled. Perhaps on another day, I might spend more time sorting out more closely how that entanglement works. For now, I end with a little story of my own attempts to live with a receptive attitude.
I almost always travel with a harmonica or two–one time I landed in Frankfurt and the harps set off a metal detector. The agent opened my bag and found the harmonicas, and then asked me to play them, presumably to ensure they weren’t something other than what they looked. So we had a nice little concert right there in the hallway of the airport. Another time in Oregon I found a nook under the bottom of a hotel stairwell and played–the sound just rang up and down the stairwell flight after flight. Would be great to record that sound! On a number of occasions I’ve just been lucky enough to fall into a night’s gig by accident. I was at a philosophy conference in Oxford staying at a little bed and breakfast with nothing to do. So, I went to the Pub at the corner and ordered a beer and just hung out by myself as I usually do–I find it easy to feel at home in bars where no one knows me. On my way into my second brew, a tall, skinny guy with long stringy hair, a sharp nose, and deep-set eyes walked in carrying and old Vox amp. He returned a few minutes later with his cream-white Strat and set up shop in the corner of the Pub. He was the solo blues act for the night. He settled down and launched into a Robert Johnson medley to open the night. I had two harps with me, but it’s tricky. There are many not so good harp players in the world, and there are really good players who don’t know when to back off, who play right over the vocals. This makes performers worry about some random harmonica player asking to sit in. So easing in is the only way to go and even that is not easy. When the skinny guy took his break, we talked about the music, his guitar style, where he heard the songs he was playing–all the usual. He asked if I played and so on, until he asked me to sit in on one tune–experimentally as it were. So I sat in on the first song of the second set–my recollection is that it was “Dust My Broom” which he played somewhere between the Johnson version and that of Elmore James. Anyway, it was cookin’ and we hit a groove pretty quickly. He then introduced me as “Doug from Pennsylvania” and that became my name for the rest of week in the Pub. We played til closing time and had a blast, good energy always begets good energy in music–hard to explain but each little bit of creative flourish, trade off on notes, follow the leader brings the music to a momentary new level. Didn’t have to buy another drink that night–just a great happenstance gig.
A few years later I was traveling round the U.S. with my son Marshall who was racing his C-1 (singles canoe) in whitewater events from Washington to North Carolina. One of the races was in a little stream in Golden Colorado–I think it may have been the finals of the Junior Olympics which he won that year. In any case, after he went to sleep in our tent at the campground, I shuffled up the street to a bar called the Buffalo Rose. There were two thirty-something guys playing Americana and blues. An interesting night. While I was sitting at a little table for one in the back corner I heard a crashing roar which was unmistakably from a Harley being started. The next thing I knew a guy with tats up and down both arms wheels his metallic blue Harley into the middle of the bar, parks it, shuts it off, and heads to the bar. Everyone there seemed to take this as business as usual. The guys just kept playing. When they took a break, they sat at the table next to me and we started talking about music. One beer led to another and they invited me up to sing a song–I think I sang Neil Young’s “Long May You Run.” Then, we played some blues tunes with guitars and harp–I remember cranking up a version of “Statesboro Blues.” The owner–turned out to be the guy with the blue Harley–loved the music, bought us drinks and got the house going crazy. Just another lucky night of music in Americana–walked back across the river to the tent and slept peacefully til sun-up.
Philosophy is mostly, for me, about how we live. Living simply is not a simple task; it’s actually damn hard work to let things go, to ignore the norms, and to cut back on the acquisition of things. I have chosen my own lifestyle, but I don’t pretend to know that it’s better than other lifestyles, even though I am routinely cynical of those who chase money and fame. I suspect those folks find their meanings in those activities. But I do think life is about finding meanings. It’s no doubt one reason we have religions—they are able to give us generic meaning without too much thought or hard work. And whatever their actual results in the world, they usually tell a good story of faith and love. But religions have never worked well for me—too many questions, too much nonsense, too many clothes that made me feel uncomfortable. So, I turned instead to find meanings in the little things around me—folk paintings, music, the woods, good homemade meals, pets, and, most of all, friends. No big gods for me; no cosmic creation stories or big bangs—just sharing warmth and beauty wherever I can. The three little pieces that follow are about places I have found myself and what I have thought about what things mean to me—if these pieces speak at all to others, I would expect it to be only by analogy. Some folks have a special coffee shop, a home pub, or a small café they ritually haunt. Each of us has one journey, however many turns that journey may make—if we don’t find our meanings on the roads we take, I can only think we will find ourselves unhappy. Perhaps the religion thing can override such unhappiness for some. But I suspect many of us are tied to the simple meanings of favorite clothing, favorite meals, and favorite little rituals we perform from cycling on Sunday mornings to dancing alone in our kitchens to having soup on a cold fall day.
People usually make fun of philosophy that purports to be about “the meaning of life.” This perhaps is what allowed Monty Python to make such wonderful fun of the question—but in their dark humor lies the truth that we all ask this question whether openly or not. I do not think there is one “meaning of life.” But I do think we find and make meanings in our lives—and that’s the point. The most important question that faces us is the one we never wish to ask in all seriousness because, no doubt, we know we will not find a single satisfying answer—except perhaps in blindly adopting some religious doctrine. Not everyone will find meaning and happiness living alone in a small cabin, or bitching in an airport at 5:30 in the morning, or living with the trees of northern forests. But those particulars are not the point—rather, it’s a question of where we find ourselves to feel “at home.” My hunch is that when we do feel at home, we will also be able to find the meanings of life that sustain us. The little pieces that follow are simple reflections on some of my own moments of feeling at home—or not. As with Thoreau’s Walden, they are not intended as any kind of roadmap for anyone else’s life, but as a mild provocation to reflect on one’s own “at homeness” and meanings of life.
When I first moved to southern Illinois some years ago, I ended up living in a poor, rural area nicknamed “Felony Acres.” On my street and the next two beside mine, there were at least seven older single individuals living alone in very small houses or trailers. From the outside, it likely appeared that we all lived squalid lives. But that was not the case. I came to know these folks reasonably well—they were interesting. What I found most interesting is that they had no televisions and only the meanest of digital set-ups. They read books and they wrote poetry—one was a full blown mystic. Two were Viet Nam vets and one a Viet Nam widow. They had cats and dogs as their primary friends. One made soap and homemade bug repellent. They were poor—mostly on small Social Security and veteran’s pensions; but they lived reflectively and they gave love when they couldn’t give anything else. They were an inspiration to the little piece that follows.
we sit in little houses in little rooms
wood and colorful window dressings
all the knick knacks we’ve decided were worth keeping
little shelves either for their beauty or the memories they hold.
of us who live alone.
alone is lonely;
most of the time it’s just comfortable.
dinner at whatever time in whatever clothes we please,
radio and stereo filling the little world with competing sounds—
getting attention from one ear unless something special sounds
both ears go in one direction.
pull a chair back from the kitchen table that is littered with things
a guitar from the floor
sing as feelingly as one feels—
ya tell me over and over and over again,
don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.”
are men and women growing old.
we tried living with others;
we just think we failed at love;
we chose this with eyes open;
we just got left behind—
maybe all of these are true.
little place is a snail’s shell, a cocoon;
cliff dwelling where the rain can’t reach.
has a cat or a dog or both
they walk the little rooms with us
sleep when we are in our usual groove
go crazy when we are out of it.
of hot water—coffee after coffee;
to settle the worlds,
long hot baths with wine.
Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river.”
easy to dream here and to turn off the spigot of worldly flotsam.
does anyone else read or write
some little place like this?
seems such a rare event in the world these days—
don’t mean calculating or analyzing or producing or persuading.
gentle attention to the things that cross one’s mind.
whatever messes occur, such a deep and sweet joy in just cleaning—
smell of one’s own sun-fresh towel,
dishes done and the waft of hot bread,
little indoor garden finally set to rights.
it all out on a sunny spring morning—
the outside in through screens.
all these things.
being alone there is just a sweetness in attending to such little things
realizing they make you happy in a way.
and then the rushes of madness when your soul is about to explode—
out at the universe until the cat or dog is completely freaked.
drunk on the floor happily
talking to the mirror as you pass—
in one place just to take in the cosmos.
basketball with a ball of tinfoil
an empty can of dog meat or and old soup pan.
all the little specials—
favorite coffee cup;
beautiful blue-green fired wine goblet;
softest and most ripped flannel shirt;
crazy hair, clean and unkempt;
coziest slip-on slippers.
solitaire til dawn, with a deck of 51;
cigarettes and watchin’ Captain Kangaroo;
don’t tell me, I got nothin’ to do.”
always think about the beats in these little places—
worn, beat, beatified.
down and waiting for winter to push against the walls,
keeping it at bay—barely—with some form of fire.
could be more human?
we are on a Sunday morning when all is quiet;
others go off to churches,
will enjoy my second cup of coffee;
others go shopping, I will bake a loaf of bread;
others freeze before their televisions, I will read of ancient stories
write a song.
is nice warm wood in this place;
know where all the imperfections are;
know no one will care to bother me;
will slice the bread hot on the board
drench it in as much butter as I want.
not comparing lives.
just know that for some of us,
little kitchen with its knick knacks and popcorn popper
well-worn hotpads, and the smell of incense and orange
its own business and brings its own joys.
else would an old man go?
no words, for this crazy world—
seek salvation, baby on my own dime.”
Some years ago I went to visit friends in Boston. On the way home, I took a tired Uber ride to Logan airport at 4-something in the morning to catch a flight back to Dallas. I’ve always found airports a marvelous place for feeling not at home and for people watching. There is something surreal about early morning airports and that morning I just wrote it down as I sat in one of those long rows of attached plastic chairs with some television droning on and the constant interruptions of public safety warnings, lost items, and boarding and departure updates. A genuine cacophony. I felt, as the title says, unhinged from myself and the world.
It’s not a “good old days” thing, though I did have some of those. The
world, so far as I can tell, moves in one direction—from past to future. Royce
was right when he said that each act we commit cuts off an infinity of possible
other acts. But he failed to focus on the fact that every act also opens a new
infinity of possibilities. I don’t know where things are going but I can see
something of where we are. In my youth, folks often stayed home or came home;
not so much anymore. Sitting this morning in Logan airport, I see folks
literally flying everywhere; flying, running, worrying, hurrying. The
background music in stark contrast trying to calm everyone, but no one even
seems to hear. Checking phones, looking at signs in stunned confusion, trying
to ask frantic people in blue suits behind counters about their
confusions. Flying from, to, somewhere,
nowhere, anywhere? I know there are possibilities here, but one of the costs is
that the settled warmth of homes—of knowing what to expect in the next few days
and few years; of knowing what your own little life is worth in a home
community—is gone missing.
I too sit here in this airport—televisions, PA announcements, beeping carts, talking, crying, impatience, tiredness, tiredness, tiredness. To what end—some end surely if one had but the time to think about it. Maybe when I get there I’ll have time—maybe. Or maybe I’ll just be running again to catch up until the next time I race to an airport. From those old days I liked the time to settle my heart rate just by feeling it without a wristband to tell what the count was. How did we become so unhinged from ourselves that we need wristbands to tell how hard our hearts are beating? How can we even tell we’re in love anymore? How do we find depth of sleep? I remember when the warmth of home was just felt—when I walked into the house with the fire going and could put a pot of water on the stove and actually wait for it to heat—to sit and warm my hands luxuriously by the stove while the water heated. Nothing on my mind—think of that phrase: “things on my mind.” Like bricks weighing me down, distracting me from what else I might feel. I miss that warmth and that patience. It’s so hard to see and hear now, and it’s not just my age.
Like I said, not mere nostalgia. These are things I actually did and felt, and now that I have become unhinged, those moments are rarer and rarer. I went to see my old friend Betty Snow in New Hampshire the other day—her husband Gene had died last year. When I walked in I said, “there’s probably no vodka in a water bottle in the freezer anymore.” She looked right at me, and said “Yes, there is; I don’t drink the stuff.” Gene was still home in that water bottle in the freezer beside the woodstove in that cluttered and welcoming home in New Hampshire woods. When I lived in that little town, Betty and Gene would always have hot dogs and homemade beans on a Saturday night–no invitations needed, just show up with a beer or two and a smile, and eat. I can still expect the best homemade beans on any Saturday so long as Betty is still going. I’m well aware that nothing is permanent, but within our transitory experiences there are moments of stability that bring me home. I don’t know if younger folks will even know what I mean by all this.
There are possibilities looking out over this unhinged existence—things to appreciate, enjoy, and transform our lives with; I can’t see them all from my little corner of experience, but I know they are there if someone finds the simple wisdom to find them. But perhaps it would be useful in this world to find again—anew—some of those feelings that we’ve left behind; what a woodstove can deliver that a gas flame cannot. I realize that too comes with a cost—the cutting of the wood, the cleaning of the chimney and the ash. But perhaps the extra work is occasionally worth the home feeling—and oddly, perhaps, the homeness may be the condition of seeing those new possibilities. Being unhinged tints our vision—or at least it tints mine–there is a glare here in this airport, a constant glare. And if this woman at the counter doesn’t start being nice to people, I will be tempted to go kick her in the shin and tell her to wake up to the good fortune of her life here in this crazy cosmos—instead of being paid to stand in this warm airport, she might be hovelled on the streets of Boston at 4 am on this chilly morning. And not unhinged here in this glaring, blaring concrete cave. But then I think again—if she were hovelled out there, she would at least learn to feel again. I wish this world well in finding its possibilities amidst these frantic acts in which we engage; for me, it will be such a warm pleasure to see my dogs and cats this afternoon in another place and time.
For some incomprehensible reason, I decided to move to Texas for a few years. No regrets, I made great young music friends and learned how to jog slowly in 100 degrees plus. But I never felt at home there. And, yes, I know there are wonderful beauties around the state–they were just never my beauties. I leave them to the genuine Texans. The piece that follows was written when I noticed that–at least where I lived–I was missing the pervasive presence of trees. I am happy at present to be ensconced in a little place surrounded by hemlocks and gigantic old oaks.
Too Far from Trees
I have always noticed that I tend to get on better with non-human animals than with the human version. Of course, I have human friends who are very like my animal friends. But, on the whole, I have a tendency to create distances between myself and many of the humans I have liked or loved. This isn’t something I always actively try to do—I just seem to be particularly good at it. I get bonded and then find myself creating space. Often this happens because I’m afraid the other will be constrained or hurt by my presence—always makes me sad on such occasions. Sometimes I just lose track from being too busy doing meaningless things. But that’s not what I want to talk about here—here I want to say something about my distance from trees—especially white pines, hemlocks, and the majestic maples that blaze against the conifers every October.
I grew up with these trees. From earliest days, I heard the wind sighing through them; I have seen their branches catch and display the whitest of winter snows. I have sheltered under them. One white pine, still standing, was where I learned to contemplate and, of all things, to play harmonica. I suspect the little sandy hovel under the roots of that tree will outlast me and will be there for some new young person. I have walked through these pines for miles on September days when I decided not to go to work. Such peace and comfort in my aloneness as has been hard for me to find in any other way over these many years. These trees have showed me how to be tall and strong but gentle in my ways—how to suffer the world around me and to hold some part of me still and steady in the midst of turmoil. They have taught me to be happy across time—to bend with the wind, to carry others on my shoulders, to be quiet when all the rest of the world is loud.
I have become much too far from these trees and find myself longing to return as the days wind down. As I have steadily tread southward in recent decades, I have not only lost my deep friendship with trees, but I have found the absence of trees to grow more and more apparent. Texas is a tree-challenged place with the exception of a few areas (such as the Big Thicket!). I miss trees the way a New Yorker will miss water when in a barren place. At first, I hardly noticed it, but the farther I have grown from my trees, the more apparent it is to me how much they mean when I do see them again. Most folks will grant me my animal friendships but become a little perplexed with my deep attachment to trees—it’s perhaps a disease I share with John Muir and some few others. In losing their mentorship, I have found myself adrift in the world. I wake to find myself engaged in things that at the most basic level I think are silly, obnoxious, or just plain stupid. And those around me take these things seriously; these practices, after all, are the driving forces of their American existences. I get confused and unravel, and try to find a way to justify my existence engaged with such things. I find myself in need of the wisdom of trees.
I am too far from trees and I realize that now—I hope not too late. Even as I am hollowed out in my human relations from not knowing how to handle them, the presence of the pines and hemlocks brings me back to a kind of clarity. I am awakened to what I once knew so well—that these silly and pernicious engagements in my life can be happily left behind. I don’t need to spend days on utterly wasteful tasks—I can walk with those trees and listen to the wind in their tops, singing soft words to me that perhaps only I can hear. These are trees I would like to share with my closest ones—human or animal. But I never know who might hear them with me in the way my crazy little calico cat once did. But if I walk with them again, at least I can let those who choose on occasion to be close by have the chance to hear the trees sing in their quiet gentle yet immense way. I will no longer stay so far from trees.
Thanks again to Monster for the wonderful photographs!
My students sometimes tell me how much they learned from me, but the crazy thing is how much I’ve learned from them. I’ve often started my philosophy classes by having my students calculate how many days of life they have left as a “statistically normal American.” Unless they are a returning student, the number is usually around 20,000. I learned this trick from Rich Lally (who no doubt also learned it from someone), a former graduate student in kinesiology, who also taught me endurance sport. I learned a second trick from another student, Mike Ventimiglia, who took it a step further by asking his students what they remember or know about their great grandparents. The answer is, most often, “not very much, if anything.” The point: we all die and most of us are destined to be forgotten.
Every generation suffers from an arrogance of the present. We think our things, our ways, our beliefs, and our lives are best. We make fun of the medicinal use of leeches, of people who walk everywhere, of typewriters, and the rest. We tend to call every world view other than ours superstitious. In an 1853 journal entry, Thoreau wrote: “we have only to be reminded of the kind of respect paid to the sabbath as holy day here in New England, and the fears which haunt those who break it, to see that our neighbors are the creatures of an equally gross superstition with the ancients. I am convinced that there is no very important difference between a New Englander’s religion and a Roman’s.” This insight seems obvious to me–as it did to him. But most of the world in the twenty-first century still touts their own world views as “truth” and the rest as “superstition.” And most everyone in the present seems to think the folks of the past were just less civilized than they are. Why do we not realize that in 200 years, our ways will look antiquated, primitive, and silly? Just look at the first mobile phones — huge boxes with two-foot long antenna — not really “mobile” in any practical sense. And why will our descendants, who become dismissive of our ways, realize that they too will be dismissed. Arrogance of the present.
Nothing is more anathema to learning than arrogance. Learning, in all its guises, requires our humility; we must acknowledge our fallibility and our finitude. The problem is that such acknowledgement is seen as a social weakness–we are supposed to be all-knowing to be important in a society; we must never make mistakes. Worthwhile confidence is somehow transformed to mindless arrogance–and this is nowhere more apparent than in Trump’s America. It seems we would rather dominate another person or another country than to actually learn important truths about the world we find ourselves in. This is nonsense, of course, because over the long run, only the learners survive–if we do not learn and adapt, the world will pass us by. The rest of us always freeload on the learners–of those learners we do remember just consider the following: Galileo, Leonardo, Lao tzu, Marie Curie, Louis Pasteur, Fan Kuan, Shakespeare, and so on. Yet in the short run, life is always a power game — who has the hottest new idea, whose program is the shiniest, who has the arrogance to tell the world their domineering “truth.” The aim is to advertise our way to power rather than to submit to and work with the facts and beauties of actual life. Despite some contemporary claims to the contrary, nature speaks to us; it kicks back at us, it humbles us, it surprises us. Our world is full of self-promoting shams — everywhere. They’re selling us truckloads of bullshit. Every weight-loss program in the world boils down to fewer calories, better sleep, and better exercise (or taking up chain smoking). And yet, each arrogant brand of weight-loss is “the best,” “the one,” “the only.” Arrogant bullshit.
To admit our fallibility does not deny the working truths that abound in our world — like the truth of fewer calories and more exercise. We are still, for now, bound by many of the principles learned from Newton and Einstein. The mistake, as it was for Hegel (at least as he was read in the 19th century), is to believe that we have somehow reached the end of the knowledge road. In the face of what we do know about the size and age of what we call the “universe,” it is simply absurd to think we have reached the end of the knowledge road. Five billion years ago there was no Earth–or life as we might know it. Our galaxy has approximately 100 billion stars. It is perhaps 14 billion years to the beginning of the big bang. How is that we have become so arrogant in such a context–only our self-imposed blindness could make us seem so important to ourselves in the overall scheme of things. As Thoreau often reminded, it is important to remain awake. Our knowledge is powerful and rich. But our ignorance trumps it to the n-th degree. We will always “not know” considerably more than we “do know.” We must become and remain learners if we have any hope of surviving as a species. Though, given what we do know about the evolution on Earth, perhaps it is not our species nature to survive. We are, perhaps, even as a species, finite.
We also do not like to admit or address our finitude. We prefer to say “passing” to “dying.” Yet, we are animals; we are born; and we die. Where the initial matter and energies from our being come from, I do not know; and where they go when we die, I do not know. It appears that matter and energy, if not infinite, are at least conserved and transformed along a very distant and indefinite future. There is reason to consider some transmigration of energies, if not of what we have come to call souls. And, in this sense, it is perhaps reasonable to contemplate after-this-life possibilities. But we should not be fooled into thinking that this particular animal life we enjoy is infinite – experientially we live in finitude.
We also know that many species have come to an end. As I noted, human species-life may also be finite. This is something we humans will come to learn as both our knowledge and our cosmic presence unfold. Acknowledging fallibility and finitude is not, however, to admit weakness. It is here that strength is required and that strength is found. If we are fallible, we must learn to keep learning — in all aspects of our lives. New musics, new foods, new dances, new arts, and new sciences — we must learn to explore, experiment, and to make our judgements all along the way. This is the present essence of our human animal life. If we are finite, we must accept our actual limitations and learn to find beauty and joy within them. Eternal love is perhaps an illusion, but loving those around us, finding beauty in the world we encounter, even in the darkest corners, these are the experiences we are capable of. We should enable and allow ourselves to flourish in these features of our finitude.
I have little doubt that most of us will be forgotten. That, for me, is not an invitation to desperation or depression–it’s not a bad thing. It is an invitation to bring finite joys and beauties to our daily lives. My memory is shot through with beautiful moments. Sitting at sundown in John Riley’s kitchen and singing old country harmonies; spring skiing on a small mountain in Speculator, NY in shorts and a t-shirt; spring on my little lake in New Hampshire before the “summer people” returned, when the otter would swim the lake and the rainbow trout would find cold water within casting distance from my dock; playing “Uncle John’s Band” at 1 am in a dollar-a-beer dive in Carbondale, Illinois. And so many more. That is a life in finitude. But it is a life that casts energies into an unknown future — “ripples in still water, when there is no pebble tossed nor wind to blow.” We are the makers of the ripples — the future may not know us in our finitude, but it will ongoingly feel the ripples we have set in motion–our action, our feelings, our ideas, all have consequences. Let us embrace our fallibility and our finitude, embrace our working truths, but remain explorers and experimenters — let’s reject the promoters of fear and hate and send forth ripples of energies brimming with beauty and joy. If that makes me a romantic, then I embrace it. At least I know the cynics and the purveyors of hate and evil will die too — ours is a one-way street. “Destined to be forgotten” is who we are–and it’s not a bad thing; it’s a reminder to live the lives we have and to pursue, so far as we can, the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Much of my private
writing over the years bears the mark of a curmudgeon: negative, a bit bombastic,
frustrated. True enough. But there is a gentler side of me—one, I suppose, not
made public enough that is aging hippie in love with beauty. I have always been
in love with beauty, even before my hippie days. One of the most beautiful
memories of my childhood is that of sitting in an old maple tree at 6 am in the
midst of the swampy field behind my house. From my perch I watched the redwing
blackbirds fly from the cattails as the sun came up fuzzy orange on the horizon
and burned the thin mist from the tops of the cattails. But I seldom write or
speak from this side of my being—only perhaps when alone with the closest of
friends. Perhaps I should say, I seldom “publish” from this side of my being. I
have written poems about these beauties since my early teens—but have always
kept them private.
I’m not sure why. In part, perhaps, because “boys” are supposed to be rough and not attuned to beauty and poetry—something we all know is false but persists as a myth of our culture, a very damaging myth (that’s a thought for another time). In part, perhaps, because the only news that sells consistently well is the “bad” news—curmudgeonly news. But I think mainly because I am often so deeply embedded in beauty experiences that I have neither the energy nor the nerve to write about them. Writing descriptively, as I do here, inevitably misses the depth and the heart of these experiences. They are better left alone, untouched, unmarred—moments to let be. Their full being, in the language of philosophers, is ineffable (it is hard for me not to hear “ineffable” as “unfuck-upable” and, seen from my mystical way of being, there is some truth in that conflation). Despite all that, it doesn’t follow that nothing intelligible or useful can be said for these moments.
In an attempt to bring my hippieness to prominence, I
offer here two brief excursions into my experiencing of beauty. After all, despite my curmudgeon-ness, I
spend much of my time dancing with beauty—even if, as a young Chinese friend
says, dancing alone. There is a reason why I spend so many nights in my back
yard with fire and stars to accompany me. And why, when I run to the lake, I
stand to watch the birds, the turtles, and the lilies in their quiet aquatic
dance. My experiences with beauty are why I am comfortable with the actuality
of death—I have been given more gifts of beauty than any one person deserves in
a lifetime. I have been beauty-fortunate in painting, in poetry, in love, in
nature, and in music.
Singing to Beauty
Throughout my days of
playing music there has been a common phenomenon that I understand but do not
engage in—the refusal to play some overly popular song. In every music scene
there is always an “in” crowd—the hippest musicians in town. They knowingly
introduce songs to their audiences that then become ridiculously popular—they
are good and popular songs. Audiences then begin to clamor for these songs to
be played over and over until the musicians are simply sick of them. The
musicians, believing that they have created a monster, begin to mock the
audiences that call for the songs and then refuse to play them. Thus, to make
it into the hippest group, you must refuse to play and also be willing to make fun
of the songs in question.
Every generation has a few. Most recently “that” song has
been “Wagon Wheel.” But the history of these songs is easy to track—at least in
my experience. The “unplayables” include John Denver’s version of “Country
Roads,” Van Morrison’s “Brown-eyed Girl,” Buffett’s “Margaritaville,”
“Peaceful, Easy Feeling” by the Eagles, and of course Skynrd’s “Freebird.” Many more of these litter the trail of pop
I understand the initial resistance, but I cannot take the
road of the hipsters. First, these songs are usually good songs, which is why
we play them in the first place. Second, in playing each of these songs I have
felt my own beauty in the playing—that moment inside a song when you are no
longer an outsider but are there in all immediacy with the lyric and the
melody. Few things in life are more beautiful than such moments. My third
reason is the moment of beauty I want to illuminate here.
Each person who asks me for one of these songs has found
some experiential beauty in and with that song. They might not be musicians or
poets or artists. They might not feel with the depth of an artist. But they are
persons who have been affected by the
song—affect, feeling, sensuousness—human animals experience these. So, when I
sing the request of one of these songs, I sing to the beauty of the requester
and to others in the audience whom I can see have been affected by the song. I
am offering to them an experience or memory of beauty—and that is the moment of
beauty for me. I have become the contingent vehicle for someone else’s moment
of beauty—their beauty seeps into me as I sing; it is quite literally an awe-some
and amazing experience. Occasionally I do not even wait for the request—I can
simply sense by the tenor of the set I have been playing and the nature of the
audience’s response that some one song will bring us together—and more often
than not it works. What a luxury of beauty! A few years back Eliza Gilkyson
wrote a song called “The Beauty Way” that captures the essence of those moments
of performing beauty. She begins with the lure of the music:
“A wide-eyed kid with a little transistor
Listenin’ to Wolfman Jack
I picked up a guitar and heard the sirens whisper
And I never looked back, little darlin’, no I never
And in the end she
leaves us with the hold that—despite all the little trials of performing—these
moments of music beauty have on us:
“Some nights I wish I could unplug this cord
And my soul or my money I would save
But every time I try to quit this beauty way
My bones start turnin’ in my grave, little darlin’, bones
start turnin’ in my grave…”
So, for me, bring on
“Wagon Wheel” and “Margaritaville.” I know I may have the opportunity to live
in and through the beauty of another human, however difficult their life has
My experiences in
nature have been many. When I was 18, fresh college drop-out, I used to walk a
mile into the New Hampshire woods and sit still on a high stump beside a beaver
pond. After 40 minutes or so, the beaver(s) would assume me harmless and go
about their business; what a treasure of beauties in watching them live and
“work”—I call it “work” but to me it most often seemed they were playing,
enjoying their day as I was mine. But my moments of beauty have not always been
“sunshine on my shoulders.” Sometimes I
have felt harsh beauty.
I was reminded of this one night when I came home in the dark after a late night of music. I stepped out of my van into a searing wind driving cold rain almost sideways at me. A moment of natural transition—the actual moment when winter arrived after an extended autumn. At first my body shuddered and closed in on itself, seeking its own warmth. But as I stood becoming thoroughly drenched in icy rain, a scream of utter joy erupted and exploded into the night, eaten up by the sounds of wind and rain. My scream blew off behind me into some unknown infinity. But I opened my arms and leaned into the rain and felt such an intense harsh beauty it nearly overwhelmed me—like Socrates I was struck stone still in the night—in the awesomeness of the moment.
Fortunately, I lived then on a reasonably abandoned dirt
road and no one called the police or a psychiatrist. I’m not sure why we hide
such moments from each other, but I know we do. These moments of harsh beauty
have been with me throughout my life and I used to think I was simply strange.
But one day when I was 16 and working on a dairy farm, I saw a young heifer
just lose her mind and jump joyfully over the electric fence designed to keep
her locked in. Cows are astoundingly graceful if you can catch them in the
mood—this heifer landed in a young cornfield, clearly happy and proud of herself.
At that moment I realized for sure that we are all animals—and animals seek experiences of joy and beauty. Since
that day, I have left myself open to moments of harsh beauty without apology. I
am, after all, no more of a hippie animal on a sunny September afternoon in a
pine forest than I am in a late November ice storm up to my knees in a shifting
swamp—I am open to beauty. It remains the fuel of my existence.
(For more on harsh beauty, see Robert Frost’s “My November Guest”)
This is not a book. Not in some esoteric sense as for Jacques Derrida; it simply isn’t a book. Books have patience…and care. They are worked out as a whole before being bound and published. What I am doing here comes with limited patience. It does have depth of care and concern, but it does not have the longitudinal care of a book. Deep not broad. And at this point in my life, this is a good way to write. It is freer and laden with the emotions of the moment. Much like the poetry I wrote in youth, it will be embarrassing at moments, but it will be me and not as much the personas I have created over the years as a “professional philosopher and academic”: the persona of “Dr. Anderson” and the signatory of “Douglas R. Anderson.” Much like cutting my hair and wearing chinos and a tie and jacket, those personas were distractions — a semblance, a show. I feel much better and much more myself as “Moose.” A kid who grew up in small towns, who loved to climb trees and sit in swamps, who lived to play every sport that came my way – to play and try to win in only fair ways. A kid who later worked on a dairy farm, in saw mills, and in tanneries. One who became an apprentice plumber and a hippie. One who hunted and fished and grew things in the ground. One who learned to play blues harmonica on the edge of a New Hampshire lake on crispy spring mornings under the roots of a tremendous white pine. A kid who went to prep school on “scholarship” to play football and hockey (and baseball) and learned Latin, literature, and history (and some math). Learning – always learning – I never thought of reading and writing as work. I enjoyed it. I read and listened to music and to baseball games late at night when I was supposed to be sleeping.
That Moose. Of course, we are always presenting ourselves in selective and chosen ways, so whatever I write will be partly mythical and no doubt I will still hide things from readers (and myself). But the myths of Moose will be mine and not forced on me by social norms and structures. The philosophy of Moose will be honest at least in that much.
And whatever I write will be addressed to you and to me. You, my reader(s), may be one or many. I have played music for one drinker and one bartender at a bar in Pennsylvania. And I have played to several thousand at a winery in Illinois — but I sang from my heart in both cases. I cannot — literally cannot — worry about whether anyone is listening. To do so would be to lose my balance…and I do not wish to lose my balance. At this time in life, I simply wish to be “Moose writing” — or singing or shuffling on paths in oak forests. I simply wish to write of memory and possibility, pasts and futures, Moose-wise, as it were. That will require somewhere a story of “becoming Moose.” Of finding out that I loved what the Greeks called “philosophy.” Of learning how to use my body for the most wonderful physical activities, and how to write songs and play and sing them. But the Moose stories will have to unfold along the way…as I feel their presence and insistence. Only then. For now, welcome to the philosophy of Moose.