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.

Days of Joy



I thank Columbia Secondary School for a joyous weekend of the musical In the Heights. My friends Deb and Eric came down from Peabody, Massachusetts (north of Boston) to see it with me. We went on Friday and Saturday nights; I was planning to go again today, but since all three shows were sold out in advance, I decided to release my tickets so that someone else could see it. The students put soul, wit, work, and talent into the show–and brought out the heartbeats of the Washington Heights neighborhood itself. I felt at times as though the musical were opening up the music of my everyday life and the lives of the people around me.

The above letter went into the program (as a little ad); when I wrote it, I didn’t know whether my friends would be able to come down, but sure enough, they did. Besides attending the shows, we walked in Fort Tryon Park, rode the train downtown to Katz’s Delicatessen, feasted, talked, and laughed.

After last night’s show, on our way back to the subway station, we saw some men working on a new storefront on St. Nicholas Avenue. The sparks mixed with the memories of the musical.


One of the chapters in my new book is about joy: how people often associate it with outward cheer, but how it often accompanies difficulty. I thought about how this applied even to such an enjoyable weekend. In the Heights has difficulty and sadness: death, loss, failures, disappointments, stress. But the rapturous music and the characters’ spirited goodwill all lift the story into beauty. I realized just now that the musical doesn’t have a single villain. Yet at the same time it’s anything but pat and rosy; it shows people in subtle conflicts, internal and external, short and long.

Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years?” has been in my mind for years, day after day, but it seems especially appropriate now.

… satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
nnnnn This is mortality,
nnnnn this is eternity.

What Is Joy, and What Is Joy in Learning?

This morning I read a piece by Annie Murphy Paul titled “Fostering Joy, at School and at Work.” She begins by describing the efforts of Menlo Innovations to create a joyous workplace (a great success, according to the CEO). Unsatisfied with the unscientific nature of this report, Paul then turns to research by the Finnish educators Taina Rantala and Kaarina Määttä on the subject of joy in schools. They conclude that (a) “teacher-centric” instruction does not foster joy (in their words, “the joy of learning does not include listening to prolonged speeches”), whereas student-centered instruction does; (b) students are more joyous when allowed to work at their own pace and make certain choices about how they learn; (c) play is a source of joy; and (d) so are collaboration and sharing. Before taking apart these findings (which hold some truth but are highly problematic), let us consider what joy is.

Joy is not the same as cheer, happiness, or even enjoyment. It does not always manifest itself in smiles and laughter. It is a happiness that goes beyond regular happiness; it has to do with a quality of perception—of seeing and being seen, of hearing and being heard. When you suddenly see the solution to a geometry problem, you are also seen, in a way, because your mind has come forward in a way that was not possible before. When you listen to a piece of music that moves you, it is as though the music heard you as well. Joy has a kind of limitlessness (as in “Zarathustra’s Roundelay” in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra) and stricture (as in Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years?”). One thing is clear about joy: when it comes, it marks our lives. It is not to be dismissed.

So, let us look at the first of the research conclusions cited by Paul: that “teacher-centric” learning does not foster joy. My personal experience contradicts this flat out: some of my greatest joy in school (K-12, college, and grad school) happened when I was listening to a teacher or professor who had insights into the subject. The listening was not passive; to the contrary, it woke up my mind. Likewise, as a teacher, I have known those moments when students are listening raptly—not necessarily because of something I have done, but because the subject itself is so interesting.

Of course, students need a chance to engage in dialogue as well. I am not advocating for one-way discussion. Nor do I consider a lecture necessarily “teacher-centric”; it may be the most “student-centered” thing the students have encountered all day, in that it gives them something interesting to think about. Or maybe it is subject-centered. Whatever it is, there is no need to rush to put it down. Take a closer look at it first. Consider the great freedom of listening–and the great gift of something to listen to.

Working at one’s own pace—yes, there may be joy in finding one’s own velocity and rhythm. But in the higher grades, this normally takes the form of homework. In the classroom, one is discussing the material; such discussion can meet several levels at once. In a discussion of a literary work, for instance, some students may be puzzling through it for the first time, whereas others may be rereading it and noticing new things. The class comes together in discussion—but outside of class the students may indeed work at their own speed and in their own manner (while also completing assignments on time).

(I can already hear someone objecting that the researchers focused on early elementary school. Yes—and that is how they should present their findings. They should make clear that their research does not comment on “joy” in general—in school or anywhere else. Onward.)

As for play, it too can be well or ill conceived. There is play that leads to amusement, and play that leads to joy. (Amusement is not a bad thing, but it is not joy.) Also, play does not always bear the obvious marks of a game, although it can. There is play in considering an untried possibility or taking an argument to its logical conclusion. There is play in questioning someone’s assumptions or taking apart an overused phrase. My students’ philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE, is full of play of different kinds—and it’s also intellectually serious. An academic essay can be filled with play in that the author turns the subject this way and that. If you are immersed in a subject, you end up playing with it. Thus, when there is no play in a classroom, something is wrong, and joy is probably absent—but this doesn’t mean that students should be playing “algebra badminton” (whatever that is—I just made that up) every day.

As for the researchers’ last point—about collaboration and sharing—yes, those can be rewarding. But did the researchers consider how much joy can also come from working alone, or, even better, from a combination of solitude and collaboration? As long as I can remember, I have loved to sing with others, but I don’t think that would have had meaning if I didn’t also sing alone, in private. It is there that one comes to know the song. If you have ever gone out into the woods to sing—or even sang quietly while walking to the subway—then you know what it is like. It seems sometimes that the song must be solitary in order to exist at all. I am only touching on this subject, which I have discussed at length elsewhere; in any case, sharing and collaboration are only a part of joy.

Joy is not always happy. The other day I experienced joy when reading “Winky” by George Saunders. The ending was so unsettling and perfect, so beautiful in its botching of a plan, that I cried “yes,” in not so many words. Maybe joy is a kind of wordless “yes.”


Note: I made a few minor edits after the initial posting; on February 6, 2017, I made a few more.

The Importance of Saying Nothing

A piece about saying “nothing” seems like a contradiction, since the words preclude the “nothing” in themselves. But there is a “nothing” worth considering in words. It is the “nothing” of taking things into the mind without pushing anything out immediately: of spending an evening reading, thinking,  listening to music, working on a problem, or talking with a good friend. For those who write and blog frequently, it can be difficult to seize such “nothing.”  

Writers sense pressure to put something forward, over and over. They think they’re supposed to have something to say, day after day, even if it isn’t substantial. Supposedly, through scraping their feet on the surface of things, they will make a mark over time. Unfortunately, that sort of scraping will not be remembered in fifty years.  To have something to say, you must build it; to build it, you need to be quiet for long intervals. We are nervous about taking that time.  

The problem is not particular to the Internet era. The writer’s “voice” always risks crumbling into noise. Part of this is due to our culture of “empowerment,” which tells people to believe in themselves and to show this by putting themselves forward. Aspring writers are told to write, write, write—and publish, publish, publish. Practice is good, of course, but silence is also practice. We do not hear enough about the importance of slow research and reading, of holding the pen (or pattering fingers) still, or waiting before publishing a piece.  

What happens to the writer who takes the time to read and think? The view widens; objects come into clearer focus and arrangement. Patterns, rhythms form in the mind; phrases come back to memory. The writer sees how much has been said before—and instead of being intimidated, he or she perks up. The challenge now is not to churn things out but to join this interchange. I want to speak with Epictetus about his purple thread, with Ralph Waldo Emerson about the “glass tripod,” and with William Butler Yeats about “the winds that blow through the starry ways.” Of course, this will not take the form of interviews; I am not concerned with their explanations or motives, nor could I ask about them even if I wished. Rather, such conversation will show itself in a stronger sense of language, of rhythms and thoughts that have come before me.  

A bit of quiet allows a person not only to take things in but to form sound ideas and opinions. Sometimes we don’t know what we think about an event, policy, or tendency; while there is no harm in putting forth a hypothesis, a tentative view, it is sometimes even more satisfying to wait and see. One can treat oneself to reserve as though to a jewel.   

A carefully formed opinion can be both strong and tranquil. In 1931, Henry McBride wrote in the New York Sun: “Dr. Valentiner … has the typical reserve of the student. He does not enjoy the active battle of opinion that invariably rages when a decision is announced that can be weighed in great sums of money. He gives his opinion firmly and rests upon that.” (Marianne Moore quotes this in her poem “The Student.”) This restfulness is liberty, a house.  

Granted, writers are not made for vows of silence. They are garrulous at heart—or some are (most generalizations about writers are wrong). If they are fortunate, they have something to say and know how to say it well. But under their writing, some pressure of knowledge and discernment must build. It must swell up until the right phrases take shape and other possibilities fall away. That’s worth a bit of quiet, a gentle tumbling out of date and out of fame.