2020 Journal

A record of occasional thoughts and questions

20 September 2020

After reading Ted Kooser's new collection of poems, Red Stilts, which he had sent to me, I kept thinking about this writer, now in his eighties, strolling his Nebraska town with eyes and ears attentive to every stirring of life. So I wrote this little story to send him as a gift in return for his book:


Of course, he is not only a poet. He is also a husband, father, son, citizen, and a whole cast of other characters, all inhabiting the same skin, like a crowd of joeys jostling inside the pouch of a mother kangaroo. The character rivaling the poet for the lead role this morning is the handyman, for he is on his way to the hardware store in search of a spring to replace one that broke the day before on the latch to the garden gate. Ordinarily, he would be at his desk this time in the morning, pen in one hand, chin resting in the other, his mind pulling images out of the air and tethering them to the page with words.

But his wife was awakened time and again in the night by the banging of the garden gate, which fidgeted in high winds blowing across the plains. Hard of hearing, the poet slept through the ruckus, learning of it from his wife over breakfast. “Do you think you might fix it?” she asked, her eyes hollow from loss of sleep. Of course he could fix it. If not a farmer himself, hadn’t he grown up in farm country, gone to school with 4-H champions, studied the tools heaped in the backs of pickup trucks parked on Main Street? He promised his wife he would quiet the gate before dark.  

So the man approaching the hardware store this morning is as much husband as handyman, determined to mend a bit of the world for his beloved. He will seek out the elderly clerk, a man of roughly his own age, hold out the broken part in his palm, and say, “I’ve come in search of a spring.” Forming that sentence, with its two iambs followed by an anapest, the poet envisions water welling up to fill a stony pool in a pasture. From all directions, tracks worn into the ground by thirsty cows converge on the water, as workers from the chicken plant converge on Wayne’s tavern at quitting time. Or as creases gather at the corner of an eye accustomed to squinting in the harsh prairie sunlight. Or as fabric purses at the mouth of a draw-string bag.

The poet is chasing other metaphors when he hears the raspy voice of the elderly clerk asking, “What can I do for you?” Recalling his errand, the handyman shoulders aside the poet and holds out his hand to display the broken spring. “Need one of those, eh?” says the clerk, before the poet can utter the sentence he has prepared. They walk to the back of the store past shelves crowded with tools, parts, cans of paint, lawn and garden gear, and gizmos whose uses the poet can only guess. The clerk stops before a bank of small wooden drawers stained dark from oily and sweaty hands, slides one drawer out, stirs the contents with a blunt finger, then pulls out a spring. “Bingo,” he says.

Bingo, the poet thinks, heading home. Church basements. The players expectant as each number is called out, hoping as gamblers do with every turn of the wheel, every roll of the dice. Hope springs eternal. The spring of the year. A spring in my walk. Spring a surprise. Nothing springs to mind. Everything springs to mind. Leapers, dancers, arches, mouse traps, curly hair...

“Wherever are you going?”  The sound of his wife’s voice calling to him awakens the husband, who discovers that he and the handyman, father, son, citizen, and the whole cast of characters have wandered past the house and halfway up the block. Bundled inside their shared skin, and giving the appearance of a single person instead of a crowd, they turn around, reach the garden gate and, by dint of much finagling, repair the latch well before dark. The poet’s wife goes to bed early, hoping to catch up on sleep, but the poet sits at his desk past midnight, every now and again writing a line that wells up in his mind like water from a pasture spring.

8 April 2020

If you are an avid reader, when a new book by one of your favorite authors comes out, you may hold off diving into it until you can give it your full attention. At least I often wait to open a much-anticipated book, like a present left in its wrapper. For me, one of those favorites is Robert Macfarlane, a superbly gifted and perceptive British author, now in his forties, a fellow at Cambridge University, a husband and father. When the American edition of his latest book, Underland: A Deep Time Journey, was published in June 2019, I bought a hard cover copy right away, and placed it on the must-be-read shelf. It arrived at a hectic time for me, so there the book waited, a promised pleasure, awaiting a moment when the pace of my life would slow enough to allow for a leisurely, savoring reading. That moment arrived in the cruel April of 2020, when the COVID-19 scourge forced me--and millions of others--to shelter at home. At last, I opened this much-anticipated book, and read a few rich, revelatory pages each day. What a great pleasure it provided, amid the havoc and suffering wrought by the coronavirus--a reminder, through its artistry and insight, of what we are capable of at our best. Here is my brief review.

Underland In previous books such as Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places, and The Old Ways, British author Robert Macfarlane has written vivid, engrossing accounts of his journeys on the surface of Earth, from valley floors to snowcapped peaks. In Underland, he delves below ground, into caves, mines, burial mounds, catacombs, the entrails of cities, the moulins of glaciers, a nuclear waste storage site, and other subterranean realms. He is an intrepid explorer, and a gifted narrator--excellent company for anyone who enjoys superb prose and vicarious adventure. He is also a subtle thinker, as he reflects on the ways in which humans have left their marks on Earth, and Earth in turn has shaped our imagination and cultures.

View all my reviews

2 March 2020

A reader wrote to ask me for the source of a quotation of mine she had found online, floating around in the social media universe. When I read the quote, I couldn't recall where it had appeared. Finally I tracked it down to the splendid website, Grist.org, whose staff had written to me and to a number of other writers and environmentalists in the aftermath of the 2004 election. Grist wanted to know my reaction to the news that George W. Bush and the Republican Party would be given four more years to thwart efforts at curbing global heating and to undo environmental protections. Here's what I wrote in response:

We need to resist attacks on air, soil, water, and wild lands. But we also need to change our culture, not just our leaders and technology. We need to speak out and act for more conserving, more sustainable, more peaceful, and more just practices in our homes, our workplaces, our schools, and our public assemblies. We must refuse to shut up, refuse to give up, in the face of corporate consumerism and a mass culture peddling the narcotics of entertainment. We need to articulate and demonstrate a more decent and joyous way of life.

It was posted on Grist.org on Nov 4, 2004. I still embrace everything I wrote here, with an even greater sense of urgency.

25 February 2020

When Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio was first published in 1919, it carried a subtitle that has been omitted from many of the subsequent editions: "a group of tales of Ohio small town life." Perhaps commercially-minded publishers feared that a reference to life in midwestern towns would turn away readers, most of whom dwell in cities or suburbs. The Winesburg portrayed by Anderson is a backward and repressive place, stifling mind and spirit, warping its citizens; the only characters with prospects for a larger, richer existence are those who leave, including the young journalist, George Willard, who departs at the end of the book to seek his fortunes in the big city.

As someone who grew up in rural Ohio, seven miles from the nearest town, I realized there was some truth in Anderson's critique, but I also realized that he overlooked much that was nourishing in such places. Certainly, life on the back roads can be narrow and soul-killing; but so can life in urban America. In 1919, Anderson could not have imagined a time when interstate highways, passenger airlines, state universities, radio, television, cell phones, and the internet would connect small towns and back roads to the rest of the world. One can be ignorant and provincial anywhere, in the metropolis as well as in the country, and one can equally well achieve deep learning, broad culture, and expansive relationships anywhere. On rereading Winesburg, Ohio at this divisive moment in our nation's history, I still see the book's literary merits--the plain prose style and story forms that inspired Hemingway and others who followed--but I reject Anderson's facile distinction between vibrant city life and stagnant rural life.

12 February 2020

Recently, a friend told me about an eight-year-old boy who asked him whether Scott Russell Sanders is related to that guy who’s running for president, Bernie Sanders. When my friend replied, “No, I don’t think so,” the boy asked, “Okay, then, is he related to that chicken guy, Colonel Sanders?”

The boy’s questions brought back a memory. Barry Sanders was a star running back for the Detroit Lions in the 1990s, a truly amazing athlete and, by reputation, a generous and compassionate man. His dark skin marked him unmistakably as African American. At a book signing during Barry Sanders’s heyday, a boy looked at my light-skinned, ruddy face and asked me if the two of us were related. After beginning to say no, I paused, and then told the boy, “Maybe we are.” Barry Sanders and I might well be related, given the rich, interbred history of our nation; given the long-term history of our species, he and I are certainly related, as are you and I, dear reader, since we all came out of Africa. In any case, it pleased me that the boy thought a shared surname was more significant than any difference in complexion.

25 January 2020

Eastern cultures have developed the science of consciousness to a high degree; Western cultures have developed the science of the natural world, including the human body, to a high degree. Each culture needs what the other has to offer. In the West, having produced abundant material comforts, we should be freed to turn our attention inward, refining consciousness, deepening our awareness. But we are so enthralled by our cleverness, so invested in our technology, so obsessed with money and power, that we continue to ignore our spiritual development. Instead of being liberated from material necessity by our inventions, we have been enslaved by them. We lead hectic, unhealthy, scattered lives. We eat too much, travel too much, buy too much, take in too many trivial sensations. By slowing down, restraining our appetites, and focusing our attention, we can gain a sense of wholeness, and learn to savor every moment. Such restraint will bring spiritual as well as ecological benefits, and it will make possible a more just distribution of the world’s goods.

21 January 2020

I am not a poet, as the lines below will demonstrate, but once in awhile an idea and a rhythm come together in my mind and produce something that at least looks like a poem:

It would be a curious god
or a pernicious one
to make us creatures of flesh,
and then instruct us
to despise what we are.
But so the many saints
have despised their bodies,
scourging themselves with ropes,
hair shirts, chains, and creeds,
and so the televangelists
denounce the acts by which
we mortals couple to ease
one another’s loneliness
and to make more creatures of flesh.

17 January 2020

In the second century C.E., while leading Roman soldiers in battle against rebels and invaders, Emperor Marcus Aurelius recorded his thoughts about how to lead a good life in a cruel, chaotic world. His reflections have come down to us in a book whose most common title in English is Meditations. It is worth reading any time, but especially now, when human actions are degrading the conditions for life on Earth, when plutocrats and predatory corporations have captured our political system, when our courts coddle the rich and punish the poor, when our nation squanders its wealth on weaponry and conducts endless wars, when social media spread conspiracy theories and lies, and when consumerism and round-the-clock entertainment distract us from these abuses. Inspired by Stoic philosophy, Marcus articulated ways of maintaining one’s sanity, and living by one’s principles, in the midst of violence and corruption. What he calls virtuous action closely resembles what Buddhists call right action: one should always act in light of one’s deepest values, without needing to believe that one’s actions, or any actions, will cure the world’s ills.

Among English editions of the book, I favor the Meditations translated and introduced by Maxwell Staniforth (Penguin 1964). I also like the more recent translation by C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks, who call their version The Emperor’s Handbook (Scribner, 2002).

16 January 2020

Some remarks by Wendell Berry to a gathering of students and faculty members at Indiana University:

15 January 2020

All life-supporting systems on Earth are deteriorating, and they are doing so largely because of human actions. That is the single most important fact about our moment in history, not who wins or loses an election, a football game, an automobile race, or a war. Our descendants will not look back and thank us for building more highways, more stadiums, more shopping malls, more subdivisions. They will not thank us for running up the stock market and the national debt. They will blame us for bequeathing to them a hotter, harsher, depleted globe.

Humans have never before faced challenges that are global in scale. These challenges require us to reimagine our place in nature as well as our responsibility toward other species and toward future generations. Fortunately, just at the moment when we need to think globally and long-term, we have developed technology that allows us to monitor, model, and communicate about the whole planet, and to envision the consequences of our actions far into the future. We have created devices that give us access to information, images, news, ideas, music, and other cultural goods from around the planet.

But even in this electronic age, the book still matters. It is a durable, ingenious invention, made from renewable materials, requiring no batteries, no precious metals, no mining or pollution; handled with reasonable care, it can be passed from reader to reader, generation to generation. The book matters also as the most versatile and capacious medium humans have ever devised for telling stories, making arguments, examining history, and storing knowledge. The challenges we face are enormous, complex, and urgent. We will not be able to meet those challenges without the breadth and depth of vision that books provide.

Libraries remain the chief home for books, and they offer entry to all the other records of human thought and imagination. Free public libraries are among America’s prime inventions, along with the Bill of Rights, public schools, national parks, and jazz. A library holds the accumulated discoveries and creations of countless people, and makes these gifts available to anyone who chooses to read or listen or look. In a library, we are reminded of what humans are capable of at our best. It is as though, through all these centuries, in our many languages, we have been writing one vast book—the book of what it means to be human, what it feels like to be alive, what lessons we’ve learned from studying this marvelous world.

13 January 2020

On a recent road trip, I listened to an audio performance of Mark Twain’s scrappy, irreverent, often hilarious Roughing It, an account of his travels in the Wild West during the 1860s. Not having read the book since my college days, I had forgotten how much of its humor derives from ridicule, especially directed toward Indians, former slaves, and Mormons. It is always painful to encounter in the pages of a writer whom one admires contemptuous references to women, Native Americans, Blacks, Jews, immigrants, gays, or any other class or category of people. Though such writers may be merely echoing sentiments common to their age and social situation, as Mark Twain certainly was, we want them to be superior to their age. We want them to be as enlightened in their views as they are talented in their writing. But are we who grimace at such unconscious prejudice free of it ourselves? For those of us who are writers, toward whom do we show our own ignorance or hostility? If, generations from now, future readers find their way to our books, what crude biases, invisible to us, will be painfully obvious to them?

12 January 2020

Writers collect colorful or quirky bits of language, building up a midden of words in their minds the way pack rats gather heaps of shiny objects.

On a rainy morning some years ago, I visited Edward Hoagland, a master of the essay, at his home on Wheeler Mountain in northern Vermont. Ted lived there during the summer, in a robin’s-egg-blue cabin without electricity or phone. He did his writing on two manual typewriters, one for work aimed at publication, the other for his journal. When he greeted me at the door, he offered me a towel to dry my head, lest I catch a chill. I laughed and told him the last person who worried about my catching a chill was my mother, who used to warn me about exposing the “treacherous triangle” at the base of my neck in cold weather. Ted promptly sat at the typewriter reserved for his journal and recorded the phrase, hunting and pecking on the keys, then added my name to say who had given him the curious expression.

Crotchety and brilliant both on and off the page, Ted Hoagland is one of the writers who demonstrated for me the potential power of the essay.

11 January 2020

Wherever I drive in the Midwest, I pass churches, hundreds and hundreds of churches. I pass them in towns, on country roads. Even at crossroads with no commercial enterprises, there are always churches. Imagine if every congregation were devoted to serving the needy in their community, rather than angling for a ticket to heaven. Imagine if all those who claim to be followers of Jesus welcomed refugees, housed the homeless, clothed the naked, comforted the afflicted, embraced the outcasts. Imagine if they shared their abundance with those who have less. Wouldn't we be closer to creating on Earth the heaven we imagine?

I have been thinking about heaven lately, not as a destination but as an idea, as a focus of human hope. In no particular order, here are a few of those thoughts:

6 January 2020

This morning I drove to the Habit for Humanity Re-Store to donate some building materials I no longer needed. The old man who helped me unload loosed a hacking cough when he greeted me.

“That’s a nasty cough,” I told him.

“I know it,” he said. “I’ve been laid up with pneumonia nine days. This is my first day back to work. My lungs got froze up in Korea, and seems like ever since then I just about always get pneumonia in winter. But I’ve made it to eighty, thank the Lord.”

“I wouldn’t have guessed eighty,” I said.

“Well, I feel every day of it, and then some.”

I told him I have a good friend who served in Korea, and who still feels that place in his knees.

As he made out my receipt for the donation, the veteran added: “I was a prisoner of war for twenty-two months. But that’s neither here nor there. My lungs got froze the first winter I was over there, before I got taken prisoner. We didn’t have any warm clothes, just our summer gear, and we all froze. That’s how it was back then.”
The friend I was referring to is the historical novelist James Alexander Thom, who served in Korea as a marine. Troops were sent over there in the dead of winter, Jim tells me, without blankets or warm clothes. I think about those shivering men, on both sides of the battle lines, as our nation lurches toward another war, this one with Iran.

1 January 2020

A sunny afternoon enticed me outdoors for a walk in Bryan Park, just up the street from our new house. Sky utterly clear, paler blue than in summer. On one of the baseball fields, , a father was launching an orange plastic rocket into the air with a sling, presumably demonstrating a Christmas present for his son. Meanwhile, the son, perhaps six or seven years old, wearing rubber boots colored robin’s-egg blue, was sliding around on a skim of ice near the pitcher's mound, occasionally stopping to gaze down at some wonder beneath this feet, completely ignoring his father and the rocket.