A Possible Owl

possible owlFor as long as I have lived across the street from Fort Tryon Park (now going on two years), I have hoped to spot an owl there. There must be owls, but they are probably difficult to find. They probably nest out of sight, way off in the hidden trees.

But yesterday, as I started walking up the hill, I saw a bird that looked tantalizingly  owl-like from a distance. I took the picture to the left. It seems too round and large to be another sort of bird (such as a falcon); also, it was almost twilight, a possible time for an owl to be out.

The best part was looking and looking and trying to figure out the form. I thought that if I got to the other side, where I could see the bird from the front, I would know more. But that never happened; once I got there, the bird had flown away. So I have no choice but to “accept the mystery” (to quote from A Serious Man) and keep watching for more owls. Now I will watch more sharply, knowing that I might have seen an owl before and might see one again.

I was left afterward thinking about how much of our lives we spend discerning forms. Is that person in the distance who I think it is, or not? (I am rather bad at face recognition, so I sometimes end up staring at strangers.) Is the peach at the supermarket ripe enough to be eaten today? One can squeeze and smell  it–but one must also know the particular kind of peach.

Or consider language. Is the Hebrew word for “silver” or “money” pronounced “kesef” or “kasef”? You can’t tell from the spelling, unless there are vowel markings; the pronunciation will depend on the word’s syntactic location. If it occurs at the end of the verse or at the etnachta (semicolon-like division), it will be “kasef,” the pausal form; otherwise it will be “kesef.” So, to know the sounds, one must look past the word itself.

Then music: When listening to a piece with which I am familiar  (but which I do not know by heart), I find myself anticipating and questioning the structures: Is the second theme coming after this diminuendo? Does the oboe’s solo extend beyond the underlying phrase? It isn’t that I pose these questions in words—usually they’re without words—but I’m making sense of the structure all the same.

Animals do this kind of thing too. There was a loud, many-birded chirping outside just now, and Minnaloushe raised her head, apparently noticing something interesting in the sound. Other street sounds don’t call her attention at all. But then, for whatever reason, she decided to return to her nap. If instead she had heard a can being opened, she would have rushed to the kitchen.

So a great deal of the mind’s work consists of figuring out what things are, which involves distinguishing them from other and similar things. This is more than a matter of sorting into categories; it requires perceiving things right up to their edges, right up to the point where they stop being that thing and turn into something else.

That is what some poetry does; it goes up to the edges of things. That is what I hear in Marianne Moore’s “The Fish” (unquotable except in full because  of the way each stanza, with just one exception, falls into the next).

A perception, or a change in perception, affects the perceptions that follow; it changes not only what one sees, but what one looks or listens for. Yesterday’s bird has altered my walks in the park.

Public Privacy

heart-on-a-platterWe have been worn thin by publicity, especially in the internet era. Private life, as it was once known and protected, has ceased to exist, except for those who protect it defiantly. On the one hand, this “openness” brings people out of isolation; they can now speak of their experiences in ways they could not before. I remember when it was considered shameful to bring up family problems or divorce; children often felt that they could not tell anyone what was happening at home. (That still might be the case—but there’s more of a sense that it’s good to speak up.) Also, people went through personal tragedy without knowing that others had been through similar things. Today it is easier in some ways to find support, and this is good.

But the spillage of personal life carries dangers. It has become the new norm to put your heart on webcam, as it were—so if you wish to be more reserved, you are on your own. Also, the boundaries are unclear and can vary widely from situation to situation. A normal disclosure in one context could easily be “too much information” in another; with no ill intention, people can intrude on each other with their words, or can appear rude and standoffish for holding back. This confusion of boundaries can hurt friendships, working relationships, and family bonds.

This “public privacy” cripples discourse as well. (Hannah Arendt, writing more than half a century ago, describes this as the submersion of the private and public spheres in the social sphere.) Newspaper op-eds, radio shows, and other media and formats are now filled with intensely personal stories, which you are not supposed to challenge. If you try to do so—and few dare—you risk being written off as heartless. It’s personal, after all.

Moreover, to share your private life is to shed your guilt—or so goes the belief. In his essay “How Publicity Makes People Real” (in Moral Imagination), David Bromwich discusses how this “broadcast intimacy”—through which people seek some kind of public expiation—prompts people to disclose things to the masses that they would not tell their own families. The success of this process, he writes, “depends on the puzzling fact that the irrevocable passage from depth to surface can be experienced as a relief.”

I was stunned by a recent New York Times piece by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, “You May Want to Marry My Husband.” The author writes from the deathbed, it seems; she says, “I need to say this (and say it right) while I have a) your attention, and b) a pulse.” She explains that she was diagnosed in 2015 with ovarian cancer and had to give up her plans and projects. She proceeds to describe her wonderful husband, Jason, and to express hope that the right reader will find him and start a new life with him once she (Rosenthal) is gone.

The problem lies not with publishing a farewell to her husband, or writing about cancer and impending death. All of this can be done with grace (and even privacy). Rather, this excruciating context makes it difficult for anyone to question her gesture of offering her husband up. That gesture, as I see it, should not be protected from criticism; any thoughtful and civil response should have a place.

I find her gesture troubling, not only in itself but in combination with a detail in the piece. She mentions that in her most recent memoir (written before her diagnosis), she invited her readers to suggest matching tattoos (that they would actually get). She thought this would be a great way for reader and author to bond. She ended up taking a suggestion from a 62-year-old librarian; the two went to get tattoos together.

I responded with the following comment:

You write: “In my most recent memoir (written entirely before my diagnosis), I invited readers to send in suggestions for matching tattoos, the idea being that author and reader would be bonded by ink.”

That, to me, goes against the bond between reader and text, a bond that can strengthen, weaken, release, or otherwise change over time. The reader does not have to be on display; he or she can think, dispute, laugh and cry in private. The author, likewise, needs no permanent token of the reader’s devotion; to write and publish something is to trust that readers will arrive.

I find privacy missing from this piece overall–not because you write about a personal experience (which many writers do, even those who tend toward privacy), but because you seem to try here, as before, to bond with a reader in the flesh.

Not all bonds have to be in the flesh; not all have to be known, seen, etched, or advertised.

That said, I recognize the pain and grief that you are facing.

At this point there are 1,124 comments. The overwhelming majority speak of being in tears over the piece, finding it the most beautiful thing they have every read, etc. There are only a few outliers—and some of them got snappy comments in response. Some people even said that only a heartless person would read the piece without crying.

My point here is not that Rosenthal did something wrong. There is more than one view of the matter. Many took her piece as an act of love and courage; there’s much here that the readers cannot see or know. Nor is the problem (as I see it) with her piece in particular. The problem is more general: Such excruciating revelations call for only one kind of response. You are supposed to join in the chorus of sympathy or be a brute.

Because pieces like this are so common, because it has become the norm to put not only oneself but one’s loved ones “out there,” public discussion has lost some of its verve, diversity, and questioning. (Of course many other factors have affected discussion as well.)

Personal stories are essential; they have beauty, they can help both the teller and the hearer, and they can transcend the particular situation. But there are stories and stories; a story should not be protected and praised because it’s personal, and people should not be afraid of questioning and criticizing a story’s content, premises, or style.

There is reason to be wary of genres and platforms that encourage unanimous mass responses. Literature at its best, no matter what its content or form, helps us speak and think on our own.

On Stopping Hate

rally-2Yesterday I attended the Stand Against Hate rally in Philadelphia to protest the desecration of Mount Carmel Cemetery and the recent wave of hate and violence against many individuals and groups. I do not often go to rallies, but this was too important to me. I took the train—brought work along and got a lot done—walked two miles in sun and breeze to Independence Mall, and joined with the hundreds who had come from near and far. I am glad I did and glad that there were so many people there. It was a great and affirming event.

As I listened to the speeches and songs (sung by wonderful choruses—including the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy Student Choir and the Mainline Unity Choir), I asked myself whether it was possible to get rid of hate, and if not, what could be done to curb it. Hate, it seems, is part of our makeup; in some ways it functions to define us.

I hate a certain kind of syrupy prose, so it would be easy for me to hate a writer of syrupy prose. If pressed, I would claim that it was the writing I hated, not the person, but it’s all too easy for one to slip into the other. It’s not bad to hate certain syrupy prose; those antipathies spur better writing. If I see syrup in my own prose, I take out a spoon and scoop it out. Begone! But derision itself is harder to scoop; it slides past the object into a larger field.

So instead of stopping hatred, which will probably be with us forever, I would try to stop the slippage. People often speak in terms of hating the deed but not the perpetrator, or hating the sin but not the sinner. There’s much more to it, though; it also involves recognizing how little we know about another. But what does this take? It seems to have to do with halting oneself, seeing one’s own limits. It also requires some laws and safeguards.

It also has to do with recognizing what we have in common: first of all dignity, but also history, family, friends, yearnings, emotions, thoughts, questions, needs, duties, and more. It is no trifle to hold the door for someone or help someone carry a baby carriage down the stairs; this not only shows courtesy but allows both the giver and receiver of assistance to see something in the other.

How, then, do we build these parallel understandings: that we know little about others, and that we have much in common?

The first way is through spontaneous acts of kindness and courtesy–helping an elderly person across the street, welcoming someone to sit next to us (in response to the question “Is this seat taken?” and hundreds of other daily possibilities.

Another is through structured acts: volunteering, participating in events, visiting other countries and parts of the U.S., and reading opinions and perspectives that differ from our own.

Another is through building and enforcing laws that protect people’s rights, electing responsible and honorable leaders, and fostering civic education.

Another is through schools: teaching subject matter in all its glory, posing challenging questions, bringing students into dialogue and discussion, and creating an atmosphere where intellect and art are respected and cherished.

Another is through literature, history, and art, which have a way of surprising the soul and accompanying us through our lives.

Another is through mathematics and science, which have a common language across cultures and help us understand the relations between the abstract and concrete.

Another is through dialogue: learning from others, discussing easy and difficult questions, telling and hearing stories.

Another is through gathering and speaking against acts of hate: affirming that they are unacceptable and something else is possible.

Maybe all of this involves an internal gesture. It’s hard to describe, but it has to do, I think, with keeping oneself in check, recognizing that one is not the master of the universe or the arbiter of human nature. This sounds like an intellectual understanding, but it’s partly visceral too. It’s the dropping of hands, the halting of steps, the catching of impulse in an instant.

In his challenging and exhilarating book Human Dignity, George Kateb takes up the difficulty of dignity and proceeds to defend it. Human dignity, according to Kateb, has two aspects. It is founded, first, on “humanity’s partial discontinuity with nature”—that is, the special gifts and responsibilities of humans—and second, on the equal status of all humans. These two principles may be in conflict with each other—human dignity may have inherent contradictions—but it is better, he argues, to deal with the conflicts than to break dignity into pieces or dismiss it altogether.

Those ideas guide me when I stand against hate. It is not that I imagine that we will ever eradicate hatred from ourselves or others. Rather, I affirm something greater and more difficult: my responsibility to help build the world, and my profound equality with everyone. Along with that, I remember that what I see and know is just a speck of what exists.


Photo credit: Thanks to the kind person who took this picture.

Note: I made a few additions and edits to this piece after posting it.

Cura te ipsum

self-portrait-with-the-idol-jpglargeWe hear the sayings “Physician, heal thyself” (from Luke 4:23) or “Physician, Physician, Heal thine own limp!” from Genesis Rabbah 23:4. Self-help is not an industry; it’s part of life. No matter what our age (beyond, say, age 3), profession, or situation, we not only solve many of our own problems, but figure out some of the solutions. In doing so, we may draw on all sorts of advice or wisdom from the near or distant past, but we decide how to apply it.

The self-help industry, then, is misnamed. It isn’t about self-help at all; at its worst, it is about selling you a product that supposedly will help you. To sell it, the creator or marketer tries to convince you that it’s better than anything else out there and that it addresses the problem in a novel way. This involves ignoring or dismissing (or simply not knowing) past wisdom.

Let me backtrack: I see two kinds of books that aim to help you find your way through life. One kind is a book of knowledge or wisdom; it draws on what has been known and said and does not promise you any big or swift answers. It leaves you to arrive at your own conclusions. The other kind excludes previous wisdom for the sake of appearing new or original. Here the point is not to give you perspective but rather to put forth a particular idea, program, product, or plan.

This explains, in part, why some self-help literature, and the journalism surrounding it, pays little or no attention to philosophy, literature, or even classic psychology. Oblivion blows a blizzard over what has been said before. In her New York Magazine article “Forgiveness Is Not a Binary State,” Cari Romm writes,

Forgiveness, clearly, is a highly personal choice, speeding healing for some and precluding healing for others. But what does it even mean to forgive, anyway?

It’s something we haven’t been asking ourselves for very long — it wasn’t until 1989 that psychologists even started to really study forgiveness — but psychologist Harriet Lerner believes we’ve been too hasty to rush into an answer. In her new book Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, Lerner argues that we’re flying blind: Academic research and conventional wisdom alike emphasize the positive effects of forgiveness without having reached any clear consensus as to what the act of forgiving really looks like.

Wait a second–who says we haven’t been asking ourselves about the nature of forgiveness for very long? Just look up “forgiveness” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and you will see a long and detailed entry, with reference to works through the centuries. But there’s much more, even in the psychological literature. Jung wrote extensively on confession (and the accompanying forgiveness); other scholars around the turn of the twentieth century began examining the psychology of religion, which included concepts of forgiveness. (See, for instance, Edwin J. Starbuck, “Contributions to  the Psychology of Religion,”The American Journal of Psychology, vol. 9, No. 1 [Oct., 1897], pp. 70-124.) It is true that psychologists have been studying forgiveness more intensively than before, but the topic is by no means new.

I have not yet read Harriet Lerner’s book Why Won’t You Apologize? in full, but it seems to dispense too readily with forgiveness. On p. 54, she writes: “Some cultural groups place a high premium on apologies and forgiveness. Others do not.” In other words, she seems to suggest that its value is relative. In an interview with Forbes, she says, “We do need to find ways to protect ourselves from the burden of carrying anger and resentment that isn’t serving us, and to grab some peace of mind. We can achieve this with or without forgiveness.” This ignores one of the main virtues of forgiveness: it helps reestablish some form of relationship, even a silent one, between the two people (and even between them and others). Sure, we can “grab some peace of mind” elsewhere. But isn’t there more at stake?

Her book (which I will read) is not the point here, though. I take issue more directly with Romm’s article and with the widespread practice, especially in so-called self-help literature, of exaggerating the newness of an idea. When it comes to books of wisdom, I trust and respect those that acknowledge what has come before, even if they proceed to question, criticize, or overturn it.

Romm’s larger argument in the article (and Lerner’s, which she cites) is that people mistakenly see forgiveness as binary: Either you forgive someone entirely, or you’re caught up in bitterness. But this simply isn’t true; there have been subtle discussions of forgiveness over the centuries.

Forgiveness involves coming to see another person, an injury, and one’s own anger in a much larger perspective–and, from there, restoring some kind of relationship, even an unspoken one. (I think of Raymond Carver’s story “A Small, Good Thing.”) Such forgiveness is not always possible or desirable, but there are reasons why people long for it and seek it out. This is no pathological inclination, unless human connection is now deemed a disease. In that case, empty the libraries and close down the theatres. Declare language defunct.

Image credit: Paul Gaughin, Self-Portrait with the Idol (1893), courtesy of WikiArt.

Note: I made some minor edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

Forms of Not Listening

youre_not_listeningIn my previous post, I discussed the intense activity of listening–but what are the dangers and losses of not listening? Before addressing this question, one must identify the various kinds of “not listening.”

There’s “not listening” where you willfully plug your ears. There’s also the kind to which I am prone: where your mind wanders, and you lose track of what the person is saying. Often a person’s word will trigger a thought, which in turn triggers another thought; before I know it, I have gone far away in my mind. Usually I catch myself quickly, but sometimes not.

There is also the kind where the words go “in one ear and  out the other”–that is, where you make no attempt to assemble or remember them.

But the kind I will focus on today is perhaps more insidious than the others: where you decide, in advance, that you know what the person is going to say, what the piece is going to sound like, etc. When you listen, you hear what you have already set out to hear; you exclude what does not fit. This includes listening to silence; you cut it to your own prefabricated interpretation and ignore the range of possibilities.

Anyone is capable of this kind of error; what’s more, we often commit it unawares. It is all too easy to fit a person’s words (or lack of words) into our existing models. This is the essence of prejudice; we sum others up and shut out what doesn’t fit our summations. Or, if we are listening to a piece of music, we shut out its uniqueness, or the particularities of the performance; it becomes “just another” Romantic work or what have you.

The danger lies not only in the reduction of others, but in the accompanying hubris. The person who listens badly in this particular way assumes that he or she is right and does not need to hear anything more.

Now, some of this is inevitable; we have to filter the sounds and speech that come at us. We can’t take it all in; sometimes we have to make quick sense of it and proceed from there. Also, to listen to something well, one must shut out other things; the very act of selection requires not listening to everything. Still, one can recognize the incompleteness of the gesture, the existence of something more.

Listening to silence, or near-silence, challenges everything in us; we rush to make sense of “nothing.” We are terrified of the expanse of “nothing”–the possibility that it could mean thousands of things. I think of–and question–the ending of Lawrence Durrell’s Justine (the first novel in The Alexandria Quartet):

Soon it will be evening and the clear night sky will be dusted thickly with summer stars. I shall be here, as always, smoking by the water. I have decided to leave Clea’s last letter unanswered. I no longer wish to coerce anyone, to make promises, to think of life in terms of compacts, resolutions, covenants. It will be up to Clea to interpret my silence according to her own needs and desires, to come to me if she has need or not, as the case may be. Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?

This passage has puzzled me for years. Yes, everything depends on our interpretation of the silence around us–but is it correct to interpret it according to our own “needs and desires”? Is it right to expect others to do so? The narrator hints at something beyond these words: that a reply would be false at this time, and that time itself has a role to play. But that differs from interpreting the silence according to one’s needs and desires. The narrator’s own expression has flaws (which propel us into the second book of the Quartet).

To listen to silence is to know that one does not know what it is. To box up silence is to presume oneself above it, folding the flaps and tying the strings. Pride consists in packaging the infinite.

Image credit: “you’re not listening”  by Jesslee Cuizon.

Note: I made minor edits to this piece after posting it.

An Update-Ish Sort of Post

I try not to make this blog too update-y, but once in a while an update or two is in order. Here are a few bundled together in one post.

The other day I bit the bullet and set up a Facebook author page. One disagreeable thing about Facebook is that it’s set up for people to judge you by how many “likes” you have. Oh, sure, now they’ve added various emoticons, so that you can personalize your “liking.” But the effect is the same. It’s one big jostle for popularity. But I wanted a place for updates, separate from the blog. So there you have it, likes or no likes. (The three likes I did receive are worth thousands as far as I am concerned.)

Next, I have announced this already (and deleted the former announcement): my TEDx talk “Take Away the Takeaway” is up on YouTube. I have been getting great responses by email. Ironically, one of the first commenters on YouTube wrote (within an hour or so of the posting), “Not many views for a 6 million subscriber channel…” Someone pointed out that it had just been posted, and he replied, “obviously, but still after 3+ hours only 100 views.” Is this supposed to pass for discourse? What irks me is not what he said–which was just silly–but the structure that sets people up to think and speak that way.

As a teacher, I continually emphasized the difference between popularity and quality. I encouraged students to consider views on their own merits, to withhold snap judgments about a text, and to hear each other out. But much of our culture pushes in the opposite direction.

in-the-heightsWait–this was supposed to be an update-ish post. My other two updates have to do with my former school. On February 4 and 5, a huge cast at Columbia Secondary School will be performing In the Heights. Year after year, the performances have been beautiful and rousing; this one promises to stand on its own. Here’s the show synopsis from the Rodgers and Hammerstein website:

IN THE HEIGHTS tells the universal story of a vibrant community in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood – a place where the coffee from the corner bodega is light and sweet, the windows are always open and the breeze carries the rhythm of three generations of music. It’s a community on the brink of change, full of hopes, dreams and pressures, where the biggest struggles can be deciding which traditions you take with you, and which ones you leave behind. IN THE HEIGHTS is the winner of the 2008 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score, Best Choreography and Best Orchestrations.

Finally, the fourth issue of CONTRARIWISE is now in production and will appear this spring! The editors have done a superb job of taking over all the responsibilities, shaping the fourth issue, and seeing the journal into the future. I have been uninvolved, except to answer a question once in a great while,  but have been eagerly awaiting the new volume.

Speaking of Columbia Secondary School, I will be returning in early March (and possibly a second time) to lead a philosophy roundtable. More on that as the date approaches. For now, that’s it for the updates.

The Wobbly Words of Morning

morning-snow-1This morning I went walking in Fort Tryon Park and saw a long ribbon of snow. It seems to have fallen off the top of the bench but stayed intact, even sagging.

I thought, as I walked, about how, when you wake up from dreams, the words don’t fall into place immediately. They wobble for a little while. I wondered whether that might be part of the role of dreams: to detach us, even momentarily, from the utilitarian function of words. If, for a few minutes each morning, we lack ready-made phrases, maybe we can think about things in a different way. I was thinking about a book I had just finished rereading. Eleven years had passed between the first reading and now. As I walked up the hill (before this photo–this was on the way down), it occurred to me that I did not have to say anything about the book. I could keep my thoughts to myself until I wanted to say something. In the meantime, the world would do just fine without my review.

Day after day, we are urged to cast our instant reactions in words and numbers. To withhold an opinion is to risk offending the automated deities. morning-snow-2But look beyond all that clatter and chatter, and there is the possibility of silence. I don’t mean that silence is always better. Each of us makes distinct choices about when and when not to speak. The point is that one can choose.

So I walked past these benches and this near-infinite tree, whose branches stretch into smaller branches, which stretch into brushes of twigs. I heard my boots crunching in the snow. Up here, I was all alone. But there were ski tracks, dog tracks, footprints from earlier, maybe from yesterday. In my mind, these turned into sounds of gliding, crunching, and frisking.

The sun came up, the snow fell in ribbons, and phrases shone on the ground. I returned home and revised my twelfth chapter.

Can Happiness Be Rated?

pandaFirst, I’ll upend a possible misunderstanding: My point here is not that “so many things in life cannot be measured.” I agree with that statement but not with the abdication surrounding it. It is exquisitely difficult to measure certain things, such as happiness, but I see reason to peer into the difficulty. Through trying and failing to measure happiness, we can learn more about what it is.

Lately I have seen quite a few studies that include a happiness rating: the study I discussed here, a study that Drake Baer discussed just the other day, and a study that Andrew Gelman mentioned briefly. In all three, the respondents were asked to rate their happiness; in none of them was happiness defined.

Some people may equate happiness with pleasure, others with contentment, others with meaning. Some, when asked about their happiness level, will think of the moment; others, of the week; still others, of the longer term. The complexities continue; most of us are happier in some ways than in others, so how do we weigh the different parts? The weights could change even over the course of a day, depending on what comes into focus. Happiness changes in retrospect, too.

In addition, two people with similar “happiness levels” (that is, who would describe their pleasure, contentment, and meaningful pursuits similarly) might choose different happiness ratings. A person with an exuberant personality might choose a higher rating than someone more subdued, or vice versa.

Given the extraordinary complexity of measuring happiness, I distrust any study that measures it crudely and does not try to define it. I doubt that it can be defined or measured exactly; but a little more precision would be both helpful and interesting.

Incidentally, the search for precision can bridge the humanities and the sciences; while they will always have different methodologies (and even different questions), they have a common quest for the right words.

In This Grand Primordial Mess


Messy people (including me) may be on the up-and-up. Behold, to the left, a desk, my desk. This is about as unmessy as it gets. At least once a week, the piles at least triple. They flow onto each other. They threaten to converge and topple. So I bring them down a little and start again. That has been my life since adulthood. In childhood and adolescence, it was much worse; my mess didn’t even organize itself into piles. But I enjoyed it in some way and did not want to become neat. Others tried to get me to organize myself; although I did, a little, over time, I also kept a good deal of messiness, since it allowed me to focus on other things.

So I was delighted to see Jesse Singal’s article on mess. Apparently there are more mess-defenders in the world than I thought. I learned about a new book, Messy:  The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, by Tim Harford. Unfortunately, though, the title gave me IS (Instant Skepticism). It sounds like another “Great Secret to Creativity” book. I hope it’s not that. There’s lots to be said for a degree of messiness, but I don’t for a messy second believe that becoming messy will make you more creative or successful. (It may be that the title only flops askew over the book’s actual contents; I will wait to see.)

When and how can messiness be good? Well, first of all, it’s just the way some of us are. My students have described me as organized, but that’s probably because I have learned over time how to handle my mess. Even so, I don’t organize myself more than I have to. It takes too much time, and I have my mind on other things. I work better if I don’t have to worry all the time about putting things in their  proper places. As long as I know where to find them, and as long as I keep them in good condition, I’m fine.

I need some messiness; I need the freedom to pile book on top of book while I am looking into an idea and writing out an argument. Also, I like the look and feel of mess (up to a point); it reminds me of things I and others have been doing, and it keeps an array of materials at hand. This cannot and should not be pre-engineered; it’s just the way I work.

It may well be true that all creativity involves some messiness. This does not mean that you arrive at creativity by generating mess. Mess comes in different forms; there are people who maintain an impeccably neat exterior but allow themselves a pile of loose ends in the mind. There are those whose mess occurs in blogging, or in speaking, or in musical tastes. It’s unlikely that any “messy regime” will help anyone produce a work of brilliance.

On the other hand, it is nice to see some people questioning the despotism of neatness. Talk about hegemony. Some of us (including me) have had points taken off, throughout our lives, because we didn’t write as neatly as others, organize our notebooks clearly, take legible notes in class, or put everything away immediately after using it. For the sake of justice alone, I am happy to join in praise of limited mess.

Speaking of mess: I was delighted to come upon some videos of a 1978 concert by the Roches. I first heard them in 1982 (thanks to a friend who insisted I come hear them). I had forgotten just how beautifully messy (yet in time and in tune and inspired) they were. Here they are performing the wonderful “We.”

Oh, the title of this blog: Once upon a time, in 1989, someone’s beautiful mess, and the occasion of a tornado, inspired a sonnet from me. Here it is.

Tornado, July 10, 1989

The winds began to imitate your prance,
a rolling soda can became the lyre,
the sirens sang the lyrics, mixing fire
with something like your name. The dance grew dense,
a cat shot an accusatory glance,
and time was canceled. Wood, debris, and wire
were pulled like windowshades to curb desire,
since pagan hail had trampled down the fence.

Thinking survival hardly worth the cost,
I risked electrocution or success,
clambering over what was once a street,
with hopes that in this grand primordial mess
finding you in your element, I’d greet
what never had been had, and still was lost.

School Visit

rehearsalYesterday afternoon I stopped by Columbia Secondary School, where I taught and advised from 2011 until last June. I stayed for a few hours, talked with many people, and dropped by a vocal rehearsal of In the Heights (pictured here). I had a chance to hear about philosophy classes, the musical, students’ college applications, and much more. I miss the school but do not regret leaving to write my book; so far it has been one of my best years. There was something moving, though, about seeing my former students in their senior year (and some in their sophomore and seventh-grade years), arrayed with new choices, ideas, and dilemmas.

I spoke with colleagues about their philosophy classes and heard about the little changes they have made to the courses. That’s the great thing about leaving a school or other place: not only does life go on without  you, but it takes new and interesting forms. It would have done so anyway, but my absence catapults things a bit, I think. The changes are subtle and make complete sense; as I listened to my colleagues, I thought, “But of course! Why didn’t I think of that?” But that’s the point: I didn’t, and they did.

There is a paradox of home: in some cases, when you leave it, you become more part of it, as though the absence were a kind of dwelling.