For many years, I made my students write essays, and now, at 79, I am more and more thinking about the possibility of living like an essay. The French verb ‘essayer’ means ‘try or attempt’, and perhaps it can be loosely translated as ‘take a chance, experiment, see what happens next.’ Michel de Montaigne, known as the western world’s first essayist, took a chance with his writing. His sentences and paragraphs were experiments in sincere, unrestrained thinking. He let his words loose on the page to see what would happen next, and thereby gave future writers (including my students) a new and powerful way to write with both honesty and zest. I wonder if a person could live that way – I mean live like an essay, like a moment-by-moment experiment to see what would happen next? Could a 79-year-old guy set aside his plans and projects and strategies and wariness and worries, and just let the experiment called ‘life’ take place? Could he let the river of each day flow freely, like the words of a good essay, each fearless sentence leading easily to the next, each unmatched moment making ready for the next? 🙂
We are still celebrating the spirit of Christmas, and will be for all of next week, quietly savoring the serenity and reassurance the season can always bring – and this year’s celebration has been a special one.
In this year of masking and distancing because of the pandemic, I noticed, many weeks ago, that Delycia was as serious as ever about celebrating the season with resolve and thoroughness. Early in December, she brought out our traditional Christmas puzzle, set it on the dining room table, and spread out the colorful pieces, announcing, in her spirited way, the start of the Christmas season. It took us maybe 10 days to fit all the pieces together, and I think both of us enjoyed seeing the beautiful winter scene fall into place once again.
She also brought out, at the start of December, two enchanting advent calendars, which she had purchased from a local bookstore, and the next morning she got us started on the daily ceremony of opening a window in the calendars after breakfast. We stayed with the ceremony all month, and it was a sincere pleasure to see the beautiful scenes and pictures open up and come to life each morning.
She also insisted, in her gentle but determined way, that we follow our long-standing tradition of reading aloud Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
And so, early in the month, we began reading the marvelous story in the sunroom after opening the advent calendar windows, and we stayed with it each morning until we finished the story a few days before Christmas.
But, she said we should also watch, not just one film version of the story, but two different versions, which we did, little by little each day, finishing the second one on Christmas Day.
And, she also encouraged us to follow our tradition of watching the film called “The Snowman”, a beautiful and deeply moving story for Christmas lovers of all ages.
Off by herself now and then, she read, once again, one of her all-time favorite Christmas stories, TheBest Christmas Pageant Ever – a story she often read to her son when he was a young lad.
In addition to all this, she organized the purchase and decoration of our Christmas tree (with just a little help from me), set up lovely lights and candles around our windows, prepared a pot of paper whites to bloom perfectly in our sunroom all month, and planned and prepared an absolutely flawless Christmas feast.
About all I can say to complete this description of our 2020 Christmas is … I am one damn lucky guy!
This morning we took a rousing three-mile walk from the Mystic Library down the hills and then along the wintry river, and then back up some long but sweet-tempered hills to the library and the car. I worked on my patience during the walk, just letting each moment be perfect (which, in fact, it always is), and holding in mind the amazing expansiveness of my life and all of life. It was especially easy to feel open and free along the spread-out, spacious river (below).
Normally, we probably don’t think of medical procedures as being inspiring. Indeed, for me, they have most often been somewhat distressing, even the lesser ones, but today, I went through a procedure that, strangely enough, seemed to widen my inner spirit and open up my thinking to see more of the vastness of this experience called ‘life’. Most of this surely was a result of the care and consideration I received from the doctor and his assistant. From the start, I was treated as though I was someone very special, and perhaps that’s part of the reason why I walked out of the hospital feeling sort of free and unfastened, as if the procedure had pulled open some doors inside me. Of course, it definitely helped that the doctor’s diagnosis, after the procedure, was very positive, but there was something else, too. I think I was feeling, on the way to the hospital and during the procedure, not like a separate, isolated, unprotected person, but – strange as it sounds -more like an easy-going, boundless breeze in an infinite, wide-open wind. What can hurt a breeze that has no boundaries? Perhaps I should say that the procedure was ‘a breeze’ for me – an opportunity to feel the freedom that all of us truly have.
Perhaps this painting suggests something of the way I felt …
And here are letters I wrote to the doctor who performed the procedure, and his assistant:
Yesterday, we took another frozen, carefree walk along the snow-plowed roads, watching always for icy spots, sometimes gently guiding each other. We had our masks on quite often, mostly just for warmth, and it was hard to say much through the masks, so we had a mostly silent walk, but stopping now and then to share thoughts.
These splendid icicles on small cliffs beside the Mystic River caused us to stop and smile and be amazed.
And today, we took another frigid walk, this time for almost 3 miles along the snow-covered trails at the Coogan Denison Preserve. For me, it was a tiring but beautiful walk – a chance to feel the fun of hiking in a snowy woodland, something I’ve rarely done. For both of us, it was a few happy miles of a wintry wonderland.
One of my favorite art museums is the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. I’ve only been there twice, but each time, I felt like my life was sort of blown apart, but in a soft and friendly way. For me, it was a totally shocking place, but the shock came with a feeling of gentleness and liberation. When I was at this museum, I felt somehow renewed, rehabilitated, and even reeducated as I went from room to room. There was newness in each room, on every wall, on every pedestal, in every installation – and there was courage, too, the courage of the artists to let feelings fly and obstacles disappear and just make what your heart wants to make.
The paintings above, by Mark Baum, are small examples of the freshness and freedom I felt in the rooms of the Whitney Museum. They have the honest liveliness of pictures a child might make. It’s like the artist decided that having fun was more important than making masterpieces – that letting your love of shapes and colors go free was better than trying to be the best artist in town. I could feel that Mark Baum had fun creating these endearing pieces, and I felt nothing but unbinding cheerfulness as I walked through the rooms of the Whitney Museum.
Yesterday, we enjoyed another kind of lovely shock – a cheerful snowfall, the first of the season. It started with winds and a few flakes on Wednesday evening, and then roared through the night and all of yesterday. We felt fortunate to be warm and safe inside, peaceful spectators of a soft, sensational performance.
I stayed inside the entire day, wrapped in warmth, but stalwart Delycia ventured out to do some serious snow-raking, using a very long rake to drag hunks of snow off the roof.
During the storm, the birds enjoyed feasting on seed in the feeder outside the sunroom, as in the painting by Melani Pyke, below …
When I look in the mirror, I don’t see sunshine and wind, and yet, in a sense, that is what’s there. The atoms that swirl in sunshine and wind are the same ones that shape my bones and blood. The atoms in my bloodstream were made as many billions of years ago as those in the sun I saw rising outside our house this morning, and the timeless winds are no older than the calcium I carry inside me. Sunshine and wind and I are inseparable pieces of the single, immeasurable universe. We three – and everything else – mix and mingle as surely as the breezes across our yards, as surely as the seamless rays of sunshine. The separate person I seem to see in the mirror is no more separate than one swirl of the wind is separate from another, or one shaft of sunlight is separate from another. We shine and swirl together, sunshine and wind and I and everything.
Today we walked in our beloved Peace Sanctuary on some trails we’ve only used a few times, and it was fun to follow fresh paths through this old and stately forest. I wasn’t exactly sure where each path led, but I knew a little patience would work, so I ‘let go’ and let the woods show me the way. (Delycia was more sure of where each path was leading, which helped me stay patient and purposeful.)
On the walk, we passed some trees that have obviously been incredibly patient over decades of years (see below). The sprouts of these trees somehow slowly and persistently pushed out from enormous boulders, and, over many years, resolutely rose up the side of the rocks, somehow finding nourishment while surrounded by small stone mountains. They obviously didn’t rush – because they couldn’t. The only way was to work inch by inch, day by day, year by year, and now, here they are, solid and strong – and still going. Perhaps, in the coming years, I can be as patient as these dogged, determined trees.
The computer keys
rose and fell
and a few words
appeared on the screen,
to become a poem.
were being made
by forests on hillsides,
and families were waking
and working patiently
to push open
the doors of their lives.
He sat still
and let his lungs
quietly lift and fall
as the earth
worked its easy
and systematic way
and a poem
uncomplainingly composed itself
on the screen.
We took a beautiful walk yesterday morning just as the sun was slowly starting to shine among the distant trees and hills across the Mystic River. I usually feel at least a little tired soon after we start striding along at our usual brisk pace, but yesterday I was inspired by the rising sun. It was a frosty morning, but I felt the warmth of exhilaration inside me as I marched swiftly along beside Delycia. The views of the early light were magnificent. It is hard for me to recall getting a more splendid glimpse of a sunrise.