Jhumpa Lahiri tells a personal story of a journey into a new language, as a reader and then as a writer. Lahiri wrote this essay of exploration into Italian, in Italian. Another writer translated it to English. The texts of the two languages appear on facing pages. It’s the story of a brave, determined artistic and human quest, told with expected quiet grace.
“How is it possible to feel exiled from a language that isn’t mine? That I don’t know? Maybe because I’m a writer who doesn’t belong completely to any language.” p. 21
“I read slowly, painstakingly. With difficulty. Every page seems to have a light covering of mist. The obstacles stimulate me. Every new construction seems a marvel. Every unknown word a jewel…I read as I did when I was a girl. Thus, as an adult, as a writer, I rediscover the pleasure of reading.” p. 37
“The unknown words remind me that there’s a lot I don’t know in this world…I believe that what can change our life is always outside of us.” p. 43
“When I read in Italian, I feel like a guest, a traveler. Nevertheless, what I’m doing seems a legitimate, acceptable task. When I write in Italian I feel like an intruder, an impostor. The work seems counterfeit, unnatural. I realize that I’ve crossed over a boundary, that I feel lost, in flight. I’m a complete foreigner.” p. 83
“I think that the power of art is the power to wake us up, strike us to our depths, change us. What are we searching for when we read a novel, see a film, listen to a piece of music? We are searching, through a work of art, for something that alters us, that we weren’t aware of before.” p. 171
“I write to feel alone. Ever since I was a child it has been a way of withdrawing, of finding myself. I need silence and solitude.” p. 185
The Last Shift is the final collection of poems by Philip Levine. His friend Edward Hirsch edited and published the book after Levine’s death. In the introduction, Hirsch writes that Levine believed in poetry and was fierce in his loyalty to the past. For those of us who are drawn to the spirits that hang out in the neighborhood bars, at the local church, and with the overnight shift workers to whom dusk and dawn mean something different than they mean to most people, our ears were tuned to Levine’s voice. Levine was a poet of the rain and of trains, reminding us of an old American manufacturing world, and of an old dream world. In Boston tonight the temperature is unseasonably warm for the last week of February.
Rain in Winter
Outside the window drops caught
on the branches of the quince, the sky
distant and quiet, a few patches of light
breaking through. The day is fresh, barely
begun yet feeling used. Soon the phone
will ring for someone, and no one
will pick it up, and the ringing will go on
until the icebox answers with a groan.
The lost dog who sleeps on a bed of rags
behind the garage won’t appear
to beg for anything. Nothing will explain
where the birds have gone, why a wind rages
through the ash trees, why the world
goes on accepting more and more rain.
In the name of the daybreak
and the eyelids of morning
and the wayfaring moon
and the night when it departs,
I swear I will not dishonor
my soul with hatred,
but offer myself humbly
as a guardian of nature,
as a healer of misery,
as a messenger of wonder,
as an architect of peace.
In the name of the sun and its mirrors
and the day that embraces it
and the cloud veils drawn over it
and the uttermost night
and the male and the female
and the plants bursting with seed
and the crowning seasons
of the firefly and the apple,
I will honor all life
–wherever and in whatever form
it may dwell–on Earth my home,
and in the mansion of the stars.
This morning I shoveled snow on a walkway, surrounded by trees. I saw a hawk sail through the snow into the branches of giant white pines and larches, heavy with snow, and chickadees gathered at my feeder. This is a good book for snow days in Massachusetts. Scientists continue to show that creatures around us are adaptable, intelligent, sentient partners on earth, not disposable ornaments.
This is a fine book, full of lively results of research into the grace and evolved wonder of birds. Reading it relieves the nonstop pounding of boorish idiocy from the White House and the halls of human government.
I read somewhere that meteor showers
are almost always named after
the constellations from which
they originate. It’s funny, I think,
how even the universe is telling us
that we can never get too far
from the place that created us.
How there is always a streak of our past
trailing closely behind us
like a smattering of obstinate memories.
Even when we enter a new atmosphere,
become subsumed in flames, turn to dust,
lose ourselves in the wind, and scatter
the surface of all that rests beneath us,
we bring a part of where we are from
to every place we go.
A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams
We call basketball players and boxers who never leave their practice and training environments “gym rats”. Terry Tempest Williams is a “national park rat”. In this big book she explores some of the biological, geological, chemical, interpersonal, social, historical, political and spiritual dimensions of the jewels of the American experiment: our national parks. It’s a big, satisfying book, with a soul. There is plenty of observation of birds and animals, of plants and minerals; Williams’ eyes are trained for those natural details. There are also stories that the dry-as-dust naturalist/scientists would never see: the human stories of the employees who tend the parks, of the visitors who experience the parks, of the politicians who write laws effecting the parks, of the spirits of the Native American residents who have been evicted from the parks. In a lyric voice that tells of seeing, touching and listening to the world-preserved and to the myth of the-world-left-alone, Williams tells her own stories in relation to the national parks.
She believes that parks are more important than ever in the current national administrative climate. The hour of the land has come. The parks might save us from ourselves.
Huston Smith died at the end of the last week of December, 2016. The man had a large and generous heart. His life’s work involved opening his own spirit to the religious experience of people around the world, without abandoning, renouncing or growing out of the Christian center of himself. An expansive, spiritual human being, he taught young college-student seekers (some of whom had been hurt by religious experience) with rigor and sympathy.
Smith taught for many years in the philosophy department at MIT. He wrote about the relation between science and religion:
Science makes major contributions to minor needs, Justice Holmes was fond of saying, adding that religion, however small its successes, is at least at work on the things that matter most.
He began his life happily, as the child of Methodist missionaries in China. His life seemed to continue in a general arc of happiness until the end. In his scholarship and teaching he searched for the soft, living center within the worlds great religions.
Huston Smith thought that the religious traditions of the world could make people kinder, more aware of–and in wonder of–the world around them, more engaged and responsible citizens in community.
-Without attention, the human sense of wonder and the holy will stir occasionally, but to become a steady flame it must be tended.
-[Religions] widen understanding, give meaning, provide solace, promote loving-kindness, and connect human being to human being.
-I would not say that ethical behavior is not possible for the atheist or agnostic. It is. A couple of pretty good examples are Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre. However, I will have to say that if we take the human lot as a whole, these two men must be seen as exceptions.
-I don’t want to justify religion in terms of its benefits to us. I believe that, on balance, it does a lot of bad things, too — a tremendous amount. But I don’t think that the final justification of religion is the good it does for people. I think the final justification is that it’s true, and truth takes priority over consequences. Religion helps us deal with what is most important to the human spirit: values, meaning, purpose, and quality.
-Historically, religion has given people another world to live in, a world more adaptive to the human spirit. As a student of world religions, I see religion as the winnower of the wisdom of the human race. Of course, not everything about these religions is wise. Their social patterns, for example — master-slave, caste, and gender relations — have been adopted from the mores of their time. But in their view of the nature of reality, there is nothing in either modernity or postmodernity that rivals them.
A poem by Langston Hughes 1902-1967, Harlem, as Barak Obama leaves office.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
This is a poem by Jorie Graham, from a volume which won the Pulitzer Prize about ten years ago. It is the kind of poem that helps us dig into life and turn it into something extraordinary, like a good dream, making us change how we feel, even showing us the nature of faith: this isn’t a bad place;/ why not pretend/ we wished for it? Jorie Graham teaches at Harvard.
Late in the season the world digs in, the fat blossoms
hold still for just a moment longer.
Nothing looks satisfied,
but there is no real reason to move on much further:
this isn’t a bad place;
why not pretend
we wished for it?
The bushes have learned to live with their haunches.
The hydrangea is resigned
to its pale and inconclusive utterances.
Towards the end of the season
it is not bad
to have the body. To have experienced joy
as the mere lifting of hunger
is not to have known it
less. The tobacco leaves
don’t mind being removed
to the long racks—all uses are astounding
to the used.
There are moments in our lives which, threaded, give us heaven—
noon, for instance, or all the single victories
of gravity, or the kudzu vine,
most delicate of manias,
which has pressed its luck
this far this season.
It shines a gloating green.
Its edges darken with impatience, a kind of wind.
Nothing again will ever be this easy, lives
being snatched up like dropped stitches, the dry stalks of daylilies
marking a stillness we can’t keep.
Auden dedicated the long poem, from which these lines are taken, to his mother. It was published in 1944.
Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes —
Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week —
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted — quite unsuccessfully —
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off.