2020 Journal

A record of occasional thoughts and questions

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.