Monday, March 23, 2020

The Time of Fire

One long-missing piece has reappeared, and fallen into place: the great books piece. I let myself be pulled away from reading the classics, while I wandered among Buddhist texts and dabbled in radical hermeneutics. But I'm back, and I suspect I'm back to stay. Reading great books has been, along with Buddhism, what has led me towards sanity and happiness. I thought of putting "great books" in scare quotes, but I decided not to. Great is as good a descriptor as any. There are books that I can return to, over and over, that meet me each time with something new and unexpected. Most of them are considered classics, by somebody or other. The label of classic amplifies the power of the book, of course: I attend more carefully because it's a classic, and I harvest more from it because I'm attending carefully. But that's a minor effect. Mainly, the classics are just far, far better books. End of story. I'm not interested in arguing the point: someone can argue that Middleton (for example) is just as good a playwright as Shakespeare, and produce endless perfectly respectable arguments to that effect: but it's not so, and you and I both know it. 

So I am back to a program of reading. In the last couple weeks it's been The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, Macbeth, and Cervantes' Novelas Ejemplares. I read where the reading seems rich, and leave off when I like (I won't take either the Nights or the Novelas at a single gulp: I'm no longer interested in mortifying my readerly flesh.) So -- that's good. And that's a piece of the "what do I do with my life now?" question answered. 

Another piece of that question has been answered, or at least reframed. I have become very interested, after the experience of this last vacation, in the idea of living within my temporal means -- to be clearer, in how the way I live now is, in various not-terribly-obvious ways, putting my future in hock. Every deferred decision, every object without a defined place in the household, every ambition in suspended animation, is a borrowing against my future resources. Sometime I will have to deal with X, and when I get time free I find -- as during this vacation -- that's it's not free at all: it's already allocated. If I go on this way I will never have a vacation. And I need a vacation.

A third piece. Alain de Botton, though sometimes silly and exasperating, is right about this: that to keep what's important before us we need rituals, daily, weekly, and seasonal rituals. If we are not part of a community that provides those, then we need to invent them. I need daily aspiration prayers, weekly observances, and seasonal holidays to mark the important things. Men require more often to be reminded than informed, said Montaigne.

It becomes clearer and clearer that I must curtail my consumption of social media, or maybe cut it off altogether. Its effect on me is obvious, and bad. It is more or less the opposite of ritual: it predictably inspires me to fear, and to focus on things I have no effect on.


Women, don't cower in the house.
Come with us. You've just seen death
and devastating calamity, but
you've seen nothing that is not Zeus.

My courage returned to me today. I don't know why. After writing the above I spent a week in a quietly panicked state, unable to settle to anything, frightened by everything from going to the grocery store to the prospect of learning to use Skype: and now, suddenly, the sky clears, and the stars come out. I remembered Yeats: 

The good are always the merry
Save by an evil chance;
And the merry love the fiddle
And the merry love to dance.

It doesn't do to spend too long away from my touchstone writers.

And, as I said, I think I must make a calendar, of hammered gold and gold enameling. Make my own weeks and months and seasons, my own feast days and sacrifices. March is a good month to begin. It has always been my month of beginnings. The end of March, with Venus setting soon after the sun: it is the time of fire.


Lucy said...

Yes yes and yes.

I am still allowed to walk, with an attestation in my pocket ticking the box which states I do so for the 'besoins des animaux de compagnie', by the newly refilled canal, where the cherry trees are coming into flower, and as one knows, fifty springs are little room...

Love and well wishes to you.

Dale said...


and to you, dear Lucy.

Sabine said...

So much that resonates. When I was first diagnosed with this chronic disease and suddenly had to face a life cut short of so much of the physical activity I had taken for granted, there was that one day when I looked at the bookshelves downstairs and thought, let's start at the bottom left corner and work your way across and up. And it felt like a treat, the beginning of an adventure, rereading. And it has been so far.

Enjoy, be well, stay healthy.

Dale said...

Yes, I've just been soaking it up. Richard II, now.

Jarrett said...

Richard II was the first Shakespeare play I memorized long stretches of, and for the worst reasons.

Dale said...

:-) Well, that cries out for elaboration!

Anonymous said...

Hey Dale, I'm sorry you're feeling lots of fear, and wish you ease and comfort.
Coming here, my guess was that you'd be more of the "I'm fine, making do with what I have, and feeling distant from civilization" school of response, and I see that's not the main thread here.
I can relate to the needing less social media (although that's not my form). I am needing to listen to less news, and even sometimes I need less discussion of viruses and statistics. It's not like I have any lack of music and books and videos and things to do. But it feels easy and habitual to listen to daily news, which mostly gets my mind involved in stuff that is troubling and scary.

I'd be happy to help ---if there is help to be had and that you want--- with learning to use Skype, or poking about with it. And also zoom, which is very very popular for meetings and events of all types. I'm not an expert, but I've used both for years, and have been offering my time to local people, in some of my communities, to help get connected with zoom.
If you'd like help, send me a phone number at
Oops, oh wait, phones aren't a comfortable place for you...... Well, feel free to send questions or requests by email??
I'm not offering my phone number because, um, it's a bit complex --my phone has been broken for weeks, so I'm using Skype, and can call to normal phones.

I wasn't planning to include this URL -- but now it occurs to me that it includes LOTS of insight meditation / mindfulness / dharma talks / etc, -- and ?who knows? Maybe something on there would be some comfort? Always it's fine if it's not, I don't mean to impose in any way, but here you'll find hundreds of such things
Some of those things use zoom, like for the live events.
There are also lots of live music events, online dance parties, yoga classes, guided meditation recordings, Unitarian Universalist worship services and so on, at the URL there.

Regardless, sending you best wishes for ease and wellbeing.
Moria Merriweather