On Living One’s Own Life


These are remarks written in May 2012 as a response to remarks by Kelly Dean Jolley recorded on his blog Quantum Est In Rebus Inane.

I happened upon them today, and they seemed strangely fresh, as if newly minted — though a voice from the past.  At their conclusion, I include Kelly’s response, a few days later.

I feel like I’m entering a wonderfully complex discussion, and fear I may be just muddying the waters, but let me just dive in. It’s surely correct that the self knowledge we seek is not informational, not a “knowledge that x”. We know Socrates knows himself because he’s steady in his living, and seems to ‘know what he’s doing’ in complex situations that could baffle an ordinary mortal. So knowing himself seems close to knowing how to be himself, or knowing what ‘living-as-Socrates’ must amount to. Now that knowledge is not observational (HE doesn’t conduct observations) and probably isn’t intentional: he doesn’t say to himself “I must try out living as Socrates today.” It may be retrospective: we can imagine him reflecting after a good bit of life is behind him on whether he’s happy with his comportment–has he been living a strange life, or his own life.  That’s a funny question to ask, perhaps, yet people can get alienated from themselves, and regret that they’re “living-as-my-father-wants” rather than “living my own life.”

Prospectively, I think self knowledge is a “knowing how” that requires intimate acknowledgment of one’s desires, feelings, commitments and their weights, and so forth, and that sort of knowing how — knowing how to dig through all that — always questioning, always weighing, always proceeding in fear and trembling that one might be kidding oneself — is hard to share or expose or make public and will sound like a confession full of fits and starts and ill-formed thoughts. But along with that ‘reflective” and “confessional” side seems to be a willingness to pledge or promise, to stay true to something often only dimly apprehended. So Socrates remained true to things (say the assurance that the oracle was trustworthy, or that Diotima had something worthy to say) even while it’s hard to say what undergirds that pledge to honor a truth intrinsic to who one must be. “Living-as-Socrates”, knowing how to do that, is something Socrates has to work out for himself — we can’t guide him.

And if we LEARN from Socrates, how does that happen? Perhaps, as Kelly suggests, if I learn from a poem it may show up in my writing my own poem. If I learn, absorb, internalize “knowing how live out the unfolding self I am” by holding Socratic living in mind, that can’t mean Socrates has authority to tell me how to live. If I learn from him, it will not be that I learn how to “live-as-Socrates” (except in the most general way: for example, ‘think about what words you use in probing yourself’). Learning from him will be much more a learning how to “live-as-me” — “learning” what I can pledge myself to, to give my life that sort of solidity and continuity that in the longer run I can look back (and my friends can look back) and say: “for all his (propositional, informational, doctrinal) ignorance he knew himself, he led his own life. And “learning what I can pledge myself to” is perhaps mostly just pledging-in-the-relative-dark: not ‘finding out” but “doing.”

And here are Kelly’s reflections on the above:

I find what Ed has written very helpful, as I said.  One reason for that is because he clearly recognizes the difficulty of self-knowledge—that is, the conceptual difficulty about it (not the difficulty of acquiring it, although it is difficult to acquire).  Self-knowledge is not simply a species of information, information about myself.  Sure, there is lots of information about me, and lots of it I know (and some of it is hard to know, I need, e.g., doctors or x-rays to tell me about it), but none of that is what Socrates or Kierkegaard or Emerson calls on me to care about.  –In fact, Kierkegaard and Emerson signal this by ringing changes on the Delphic Commandment—“Choose yourself!” (Kierkegaard) and “Obey yourself!” (Emerson), distancing themselves deliberately from ‘know’ (without disavowing it).

As I see it, the difficulty (the conceptual difficulty) of self-knowledge reveals itself best when it is seen in the context of Perfectionism.  Now, although I am not quite a Moral Perfectionist of the Cavellian (Emersonian) sort, I am a Perfectionist.  (I suppose I could be called a Christian Perfectionist—of a Gregory-of-Nyssa sort.  Explaining that is a task for another day.)  And my Perfectionism can help itself to the “unattained but attainable self” structure that Cavell’s has.  Crucial to that structure is a form of self-involvement (in a non-pejorative sense) that can be described as knowing, as choosing and as obeying.  It can be described as discovery and as creativity.

Consider Kierkegaard’s “One must become a Christian.”  I take this as a grammatical remark.  But this means that no particular place a person finds himself on his Pilgrim’s Progress is going to be the final stop.  Even if the Pilgrim is, in one sense, a Christian, it will also be true that there is another sense in which he is not a Christian.  That is, for anyone who recognizes the grammatical remark, and lives in the light of that recognition, the term ‘Christian’ subdivides into two senses, one that applies to him now, and which seems to him now at best unsatisfying (conventional, rote, sclerotized, immanent), and another that does not (yet) apply to him now, but which seems to him to call him forward (and is unconventional, spontaneous, supple, transcendent).[1]  That person reaches out, as it were, toward the second sense by standing on the very edge of the first. The transcendent Christian self that the person is reaching out to is his own, himself, but is that transcendent self as yet is not fully determinate.  Who he will be when he becomes his transcendent Christian self is not (yet) fixed, not fully fixed.  And yet he will be himself.  He will be transmuted … into himself.  When he becomes his transcendent Christian self, he will come to know himself, but he will also choose himself, and he will obey himself.  He will discover himself and create himself.  Which of these descriptions we use will be a matter of how we center ourselves on the structure of his immanent Christian self and his transcendent Christian self.  If we center ourselves on the entire structure, then knowing is a natural enough description, since he comes to know a self he has not previously known, or to know about himself something he had not previously known.  If we center ourselves on his immanent self, then choosing is a natural enough description, since he determines or fixes, at least partially, that transcendent self.  Or, if we center ourselves on his transcendent self, then obeying is a natural enough description, since he has called himself  (immanent) to himself (transcendent).  So far as I can tell, none of these centerings is compulsory, all are available, and so each of the descriptions they generate is available—and natural enough. But even so, each of the descriptions is still in need delicate handling, since each is liable to be misunderstood.

Ed’s fascinating talk of ‘knowing-how’ relates to what I have in mind.  Ed understandably wants to retain the word knowledge (as I do too).  But since the knowledge we are after is not simply a species of information, a good thought is to treat the knowledge as know-how (where what is known is clearly enough not information).  Then we can think of our Christian as knowing how to become a Christian, and as utilizing his know-how by so doing.

Ed complicates his know-how story by bringing in ideas of loyalty, pledging and promising.  And here what he says sounds particularly Perfectionist.  When he mentions that the pledging he has in mind is “pledging-in-the-relative-dark”, I understand that as quite close to my idea that the transcendent self is not understood, not fully understood.

(I should add that although most of what I said on this topic in the previous post (and comments) painted self-knowledge as “confessional” or “reflective” (to use Ed’s terms) I too believe there is a commissive side to all of this, and that is part of the reason I have chosen to foreground my Perfectionist framework as I have.  Ed’s post helped me to see how better to balance what I wanted to say.)

Knowing, choosing and obeying are each natural enough descriptions, but each is liable to misunderstanding.  That all of the descriptions are natural enough reveals that each has its liability, since each normally ‘negates’ the other.  To seize one and to reject the others is not a good idea; the phenomenon to be saved is responsive to each, and not just serially but somehow all at once.  Socrates calls us to examine ourselves, so as to live worthily.  Kierkegaard calls us to choose ourselves, so that we are responsible for ourselves.  Emerson calls us out in front of ourselves, so that we can become our best.

[1] Each transcendent self condemns the immanent self and inspires its own eventual condemnation, since as it becomes immanent a new transcendent self becomes visible.


Now I know this is an unconventional way to proceed, but the more I read these thoughts from the past, just re-blogged, the deeper I’m moved into their context. Thus I dialed back to the original post by Kelly, “Writing Without Authority: Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard,” April 22, 2012.

Words from the past can be both fresh, new born, and ageless, like music we can hear over the years, always new and engaging.

Kierkegaard understands himself to be, wants to be understood as, writing without authority.  I’ve lately been mulling over whether it means anything, and if means anything whether it means anything sufficiently interesting, to say that Wittgenstein understands himself to be, wants to be understood as, writing PI without authority.

The answer of course hinges on what it is to write without authority.  For Kierkegaard we might say that writing without authority is, first and foremost, to abjure the role of preacher.  But that is not all that it is for him:  he clearly means not only to reject one form of relationship to his reader, but a panoply of forms–any form that would make it the case that the reader’s attention finds it easier, more natural, to perch on Kierkegaard than on the reader himself, any form that deflects self-attention.  So Kierkegaard is always and forever side-stepping, ducking out, disappearing.  He wants his reader to read as if the reader is reading what the reader has written.  Reading as self-confrontation.

But how is that to work?  Is the experience of such reading supposed to be like the experience of finding something you’ve written previously but forgotten, so that now its content seems news, as does the fact that you are its author?  That seems too distanced a relationship to what is written.  Is the experience supposed to be like the experience of re-writing something that you have written, editing, poking, patting and scraping?  That seems a not-distanced-enough relationship to what is written.  (Partly because there is, in an important sense, nothing written yet.  You are still writing.  Everything remains in the flux of composition.)  So what is the experience supposed to be like?

Wittgenstein writes: “Nearly all my writings are private conversations with myself. Things that I say to myself tete-a-tete.

And Kierkegaard prefaces For Self-Examination with this: “My dear reader!  Read, if possible, aloud!  If you do this, allow me to thank you.  If you not only do it yourself, if you induce others to do it also, allow me to thank them severally, and you again and again!  By reading aloud you will most powerfully receive the impression that you have only yourself to consider, not me, who am without authority, or others, the consideration of whom would be a distraction.”

I reckon that what Kierkegaard wants from his reader is for the reader to experience the reading as private conversation with himself, as saying things to himself tete-a-tete.  Doing so fastens the reader’s attention on himself, makes any examination the reading requires self-examination.  We read Kierkegaard aright when we read in forgetfulness of him–and only read in remembrance of ourselves.  I believe that this is something Wittgenstein aspires to as well.  That is, I take his remark about conversations with himself as not purely descriptive but as also prescriptive, say as a registration of a realized writerly intention, realized in PI.

In this way, Wittgenstein aims to write without authority.  And I think Wittgenstein signposts this aim:  PI’s [Philosophical Investigation’s] self-effacing (as I read it) epigraph leaves it to the reader what sort of advance, if any, and if any, how much, PI represents.  His desire not to spare others the trouble of thinking and his hope that he would stimulate thinking seem not to target thinking about him (Wittgenstein) but rather thinking by the reader and for the reader and about the reader–specifically, about the reader in relationship to philosophical problems.  (As Kierkegaard targets thinking by, for and about the reader–specifically, about the reader in relationship to existential problems.)

Here is what I find myself moved to say:  PI exists as being-for-another.

Wittgenstein writes it as a gift to his readers.  It is a work of testimony, of confession, and Wittgenstein wrote it for those who are troubled as he is troubled.  It is a gage of his friendship, even his love, for them, for his readers.  But for it fully to exist as such, the reader must fully acknowledge it, fully acknowledge it as such.  To fully acknowledge it is to answer its call to self-awakeness.  Wittgenstein wrote a book to be acknowledged, not, if I may put it this way, a book to be known.  (I judge this one of the deep similarities between Wittgenstein and Emerson and Thoreau.  What they write puts the reader in the space of acknowledgement, and their reader answers the call of the writing, or not.  Sometimes gifts are refused.  And sometimes what looks like acceptance is still a form of refusal.)

Wittgenstein toyed seriously with the idea of prefacing his work with Bach’s epigraph to the Little Organ Book:

To the glory of the most high God, and that my neighbour may be benefited thereby.

He hesitated because he thought that in the darkness of our time such a remark would be misunderstood.  And so it probably would.  But why is that?  What has gone wrong in a time when giving and receiving have soured, a time in which we have become so stuffy even while so indigent, a time so graceless as ours?  Job endured the Lord taking back what He had given.  We will never have to endure that.  But only because we have made ourselves unreceptive, and so have never been given anything.  Job got everything back, double; we go on and on with nothing.

 If you’ve read this far, you’re a serious and resilient reader!

Quantum Est In Rebus Inane

I feel like I’m entering a wonderfully complex discussion, and fear I may be just muddying the waters, but let me just dive in. It’s surely correct that the self knowledge we seek is not informational, not a “knowledge that x”. We know Socrates knows himself because he’s steady in his living, and seems to ‘know what he’s doing’ in complex situations that could baffle an ordinary mortal. So knowing himself seems close to knowing how to be himself, or knowing what ‘living-as-Socrates’ must amount to. Now that knowledge is not observational (HE doesn’t conduct observations) and probably isn’t intentional: he doesn’t say to himself “I must try out living as Socrates today.” It may be retrospective: we can imagine him reflecting after a good bit of life is behind him on whether he’s happy with his comportment–has he been living a strange life, or his own life.  That’s a…

View original post 413 more words


Tripping from Mother to Maker

Quantum Est In Rebus Inane


I think there come times in a life when regrets and fears have to be faced, acknowledged, owned. And, once owned, sifted, weighed. What regrets and fears are follies or the result of follies–and so rightly censured? What regrets and fears are miseries–and so rightly pitied, even in oneself?

I have been driving westward, away from the morning, my interstate journey mirroring my existential one, as I move ‘westward’, away from my birth. Closer to maker than mother, as Lloyd Cole once memorably put it. I wanted time, but even more, I wanted space in which to come to grips with myself, to not just know but to believe myself 51. The lush claustrophobia of Alabama has yielded to the barren agoraphobia of the high desert, of Montana and New Mexico. There is space here to turn around yourself, maybe enough to see your back parts as you pass…

View original post 46 more words

Notes to Teachers-to-be in the Humanities: The Central Place of Poetic Perception


I want to use poetry in a very wide sense

These photos are poetic as well as factual


What do they speak or bespeak?

The book that contains these depression era WPA pictures is called: Let us now praise famous men


What do we feel here?

What is the quality of life?

What virtues or vices speak?


Do we feel pity, admiration?

Are these lives base or noble?

Do they bespeak the dignity of labor or the shame of political/social neglect?


I recommend an inquiring generosity that flows into praise.


It’s unlikely that we’d get negative with these pictures, but we could:

             Is the photographer a snoop, a voyeur?

            Are these folk being set up for condescending exploitation?

            Are they just stupid trying to make a go of it in the dust bowl?

                        Are we stupid to look?

            What’s new?! — “The poor are always with us.”


My worry is that when we teach we can fall prey to the “gotcha” mentality, or an  

                “Only the facts, Mame” mentality


You may like or dislike this novel, Moby Dick, but it’s “really”

         Just white privilege

        Just a mirror of imperialism

        Product of apocalyptic hysteria

         Utterly sexist


We’re afraid of the opposite “Wow!” mentality for fear that after the “wow”, what do you say?


But there’s plenty to say.

We don’t read novels or look at art just for pleasure.

Why not praise Moby Dick for

            Racial inclusiveness

           Admiration for “cannibal” cultures

           Homo eroticism

           Critique of violence and hatred

            Critique of Quaker hypocrisy

          Embrace of the wonder of motherhood and birthing

         The over-all hope of rebirth and salvation through story-telling?


There’s a danger of emphasizing mainly facts, explanations, and ‘quiz-knowledge’

            Take the High school emphasis in reading Emily Dickinson:

                    “Look for rhyme scheme, alliteration, metaphor, simile”

                   “Look for the meaning of a poem as a whole”

                  “Do biographical research”


This suppresses the ring, the lilt, life, of

 “Wild nights, wild nights”;    “A funeral in my brain”

“I’m nobody, who are you?”;    “Hope is a bird with feathers”


I’d push literature and philosophy and religion closer to

           dance, theater, music, visual arts, and movies

           where “live-bodily performance” is essential.


 Parts of history, philosophy, sociology, and physics are obviously not

 this.  But then, if you aim philosophy at social justice,

     or aim history at exposing evil,

     or refuse to do research into better weapons,

     or aim psychology at caring for souls,

then you come close to “live-bodily-performance” in your efforts. You try to evoke what it’s like to sit in poverty before a camera, or to balance in a boat pulled by a whale.


More examples of “gotcha” academic moments — real quotes:

            “I aim to expose the cracks in the granite of genius”

            “We don’t want to hear about King’s ‘I’ve got a dream’ – but about

                    his ‘clay feet, his plagiarism and affairs’


The humanities is where we can find individuals and communities sorting out

                        Violence, pity, condescension,

                       Piety, hatred, tenderness, love of all sorts,

                       Death, suffering, tragedy, exaltation,

                      Joy, bitterness, age, sex, innocence, blame

                      Silliness, wit, burial, resurrection,

The display and reenactment of all these (and more)

— all this will be conducted “free-lance,” apart from false academic disciplinary rigor or esoteric expertise (Warning: Don’t tell the funding czars!  Careful at job interviews. Reveal this AFTER you have tenure.)


The humanities exist for richness, fullness of life,

            not for a better job or for security

           or for “pleasure” [shame on Stanley Fish — and many others — for saying this]

          or for sociability (shame on Rorty for saying poetry is good  for making an impression at parties).


Our vocation, quite simply, is to be

       Curators of the soul,

             it’s memories, animations, actions, passions, histories, and hopes —

(and only secondarily, to be aware of the blindness and  narrowness and evil that stand in our way)


These notes were background at an invited talk given to graduate students and faculty at Columbia University Teacher’s College, March 2016.










Excursions with Thoreau: A Review


In a highly referential, wandering, yet lucid style, Edward F. Mooney puts Thoreau’s writing in conversation with both ancient and modern thought, from scriptural and philosophical sources alike, in an attempt to reconcile  Thoreau  with  the  discipline of philosophy. The perceived need for reconciliation follows from the author’s contention that disciplinary philosophy, as institutionalized and canonized, has overemphasized systematic, disciplined argumentation to such a degree that other equally effective yet less systematic modes of thought have been unduly disregarded and even dismissed entirely.

The questions that most concern Mooney are, what is Henry David Thoreau to philosophy-and what is philosophy to Henry David Thoreau? Comparisons of Thoreau to other dominant thinkers in the Western canon-Kant and Nietzsche, most consistently show this Concord  sage to  be in their ranks, but  in a slightly different vein, namely that of the “literary philosophers” such as Montaigne, Marcus Aurelius, Kierkegaard, and Rousseau. There is occasional reference to Eastern thought, such as the Vedas and yogic practices, but the Western tradition serves as the primary point of comparison. By interlacing Thoreau’s work with the works of philosophy’s figureheads, Mooney contends that there is “a place in philosophy for wonder and shadows” (157). Thoreau’s writings demonstrate the power’ of “the  unargued  and  perhaps the unarguable” and, therefore, “the capacity of philosophy, well beyond argument alone, to reorient our perspectives and so let us see” (157), revealing the wonder and shadows of nature.

With his focus on the reader’s perspective, Mooney points to the affective power of Thoreau’s writing: “Thoreau spins words­ phrases-sentences that nudge us from one reality to the next. His sentences do not depict change but create it. Sentences or phrases are actions aimed at our receptivities. Responsive to them as they arrive, pebble by pebble, sound by sound, image by image, we get an intimate grasp, by monitoring our changes, of how and why Thoreau becomes among the greatest of American writers-and· among the world’s great religious adepts, political polemicists and subtle philosophers” (82). Thoreau’s thought, subtle as it may be, is most effective for being most affective. The key witness to the efficacy of Thoreau’s work is Mooney himself, who describes the affective heart of his critical practice: “My job in writing about writing is to let membranes be aroused in startle or allure as the address of the place and its things emerge-as their startle or allure arise from the words Thoreau provides” (13). As a result, Mooney is a curator of both Thoreau and the philosophical tradition, following a mandate to instigate, rather than instill, his reader’s understanding.

In each of the book’s fifteen “excursions,” the point of entry into Thoreau’s thought is his struggle to reconcile the wondrousness of nature with its unavoidable wildness and cruelty. Not surprisingly, the subjects most frequently examined are those of tragedy and death. Mooney returns again and again to three major losses that Thoreau faced in his life: the untimely deaths of his brother John, of Emerson’s young son Waldo, and of his acquaintance and literary contemporary Margaret Fuller. At issue in particular are Thoreau’s often cold, unfeeling, and even seemingly inhuman responses to such untimely loss. See, for example, a letter to Lucy Brown in the spring of 1842 in which Thoreau makes the surprising statement that his brother’s death was “less sad than strange”: “It’s a strange marvel that life yields to death, that music returns a world for a moment lost, and that the world, yes, is a wonder” (quoted on 120). Mooney draws on Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, in this case, to help explain Thoreau’s ability to parlay sadness into wonder as part of a broader program of understanding nature and conceiving art as a means of fostering endurance.

Mooney sees Nietzsche’s Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy at the heart of Thoreau’s ability to both marvel and mourn: “Wildness [the Dionysian] is a vital counterforce to orderly Apollonian impulses. Thoreau and Nietzsche disavow detached theoretical on-looking, a stance that sunders persons from immersion in the lively disorders of the senses and of mobile embodied life” (137-8). The work and product of writing, then, facilitates an “immersion in the lively disorders of the senses,” a practice consistent with Kierkegaard’s contention that “All poetry is life’s glorification (i.e. transfiguration) through its clarification” (141). With the help of these two voices, Mooney concludes that ”Thoreau’s  art deflects or sublimates, not as a denial of trouble or affliction, but  as activity that transfigures  it in the service of life” (141).

In a similar manner, this book works through Thoreau’s responses to tragedy at a variety of scales, both personal and national, from the deaths mentioned above  to  the  martyrdom of John Brown and the looming fracture of the United States. From this reckoning emerges a picture of Thoreau as naturalist: a sensitive, observant, careful  documentarian  who  writes  what he finds, whatever and however cruel that may be. “As I  hear him, Thoreau thinks that Nature-the Universe as a whole-is oblivious to matters of justice. […] Nature innocently–that is, non-maliciously–dispenses death, devouring her young and old with the erratic abandon of innocent children swatting at flies. This is not an occasion for melancholy, or outrage, but a scene Thoreau would have us take in-no doubt with some  hyperbole-with good cheer.” Mooney’s Thoreau “will not deliver those ‘obvious’ conclusions that simplify and falsify experience. He prefers to leave us with a Nature that is anomalous, wild, and wondrous” (86).

By its own account, Excursions with Thoreau is improvisatory, meditative, exploratory, and somewhat unsystematic, echoing Thoreau’s style and, therefore, trying to draw on its version of power. The effort of reading such a work can be as trying as. it is revealing. These excursions take patience and care, tantamount to that their author has taken in drawing them together. The reader can expect to wander and wonder alongside this book’s author, reaping all the known, and some of the unknown, rewards of Henry Thoreau, philosopher.

**  **  **

The author, Grant Rosson, is a Ph.D. candidate in English at UCLA. His dissertation tracks literary and geographic discourses in nineteenth- century America. This review appeared in The Thoreau Bulletin, Spring 2017


Ars Poetica?       

Czeslaw Milosz
I have always aspired to a more spacious form
that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose
and would let us understand each other without exposing
the author or reader to sublime agonies.
In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us,
so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out
and stood in the light, lashing his tail.
That’s why poetry is rightly said to be dictated by a daimonion,
though it’s an exaggeration to maintain that he must be an angel.
It’s hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from,
when so often they’re put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty.
What reasonable man would like to be a city of demons,
who behave as if they were at home, speak in many tongues,
and who, not satisfied with stealing his lips or hand,
work at changing his destiny for their convenience?
It’s true that what is morbid is highly valued today,
and so you may think that I am only joking
or that I’ve devised just one more means
of praising Art with the help of irony.
And yet the world is different from what it seems to be
and we are other than how we see ourselves in our ravings.
People therefore preserve silent integrity,
thus earning the respect of their relatives and neighbors.
There was a time when only wise books were read,
helping us to bear our pain and misery.
This, after all, is not quite the same
as leafing through a thousand works fresh from psychiatric clinics.
The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.
What I’m saying here is not, I agree, poetry,
as poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
under unbearable duress and only with the hope
that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.
Berkeley, 1968
 from The Collected Poems: 1931-1987.  (The Ecco Press, 1988)

Walking Meditations

Thoreau did not invent the leitmotif of walking meditation — the idea was not uncommon in romantic literature.  But he renews it with quiet vigor. It’s a fruitful frame for thinking, as I’ve discovered yet again.

Roberto Unger, the author of The Religion of the Future, asks us not to “squander our supreme good lifewith its surfeit, spontaneity and surprise.” The threat and reality of a bad life is one of deprivation, deadening routine, and numbness. So how do we awaken our capacity for “surfeit, spontaneity, and surprise?”

For several years – it’s going on decades — I’ve passed out Kathleen Norris’ book, A Cloister Walk, to my students. They’re meant to walk with her narrative, to discover what it might mean for them.  It’s something like a diary or journal of a middle-aged woman who has been teaching poetry to high school kids in New York City. She finds her world falling apart and seeks a lengthy retreat to collect herself. What better place than a Benedictine Cloister in Minnesota?

Most of us would be numbed by the thought of a stifling monastic routine: early rising, too much prayer, doing the dishes for dozens, not having a single old friend in sight, no movies, TV, restaurants, concerts. Not even drives in the countryside or to the ocean.

It sounds like numbness and deprivation. Where’s the overflow, the surfeit, the spontaneity, the surprise?

She gets to walk in the cloister, and a meditative walk is surely good for the soul; its flow encourages spontaneity and surprise. Partly the spontaneity comes from freedom to read at will through poetry and psalms, through the lives of the saints, and to have time to remember family and the stark beauty of the Great Plains. And she has daily walks that suspend ordinary time and let her enter a spontaneous stream of fullness and surprise.

She has imagination in gear.

She’s rich in imagination, not in the sense of making things up, or slipping into fantasy but in an opposite sense. Imagination lets her dive into reality, bring things alive. It raises the dead. Benedictine ways of living and praying, singing and walking, come alive. And the soft smell of late summer gardens and a comforting sky come alive.

She had gone numb in the impersonal bustle of New York City. Her world went missing. The city and her personal life there were stripped of the renewals and replaced by cycles of anxiety, anger, banality. The monastery feeds her imagination, her spirit, and lets the world – a world overflowing with surprise — be raised from the dead.

The Benedictine life and liturgy, its beliefs, customs, dress, prayers, walks, and hymns, bring her alive. She doesn’t convert to Catholicism or seek life-membership. At the start, she’s barely a believer in anything. But she seeks spiritual cleansing and renewal. She needs to strip down. (Her lasting impression of her native protestantism is having to dress up Sundays and paint on a smile.)

To my ear, she has a vaguely spiritual or religious craving awaiting to be shaped. Her time reading poetry, religious and otherwise, and the lives of the saints and the psalms, provide grist for an imagination on the way to a religious way of life. She walks a life of mysteries: the mystery of love, of spring daffodils, of kids at play.

Imagination both gives her access to their elusiveness and access to possible schemes of interpretation.

What do daffodils, love, and playful kids tell me about the world’s fullness, spontaneity, and surprise? What do St Francis, Benedict, or Jeremiah tell me about fullness, spontaneity, and surprise? What do prayer, chants and psalms — what do Dickinson and swaying boughs — tell me of excess and wonder?

Where have all the flowers gone? Where has the voice of God gone? She brings them back from the dead, in part through prayer, in part through quiet imagination, in part through walking meditation, in part through singing.

**   **

When I began teaching in California in the late sixties a friend sent me a book titled The Inward Morning: Philosophical Reflections in Journal Form.  Twenty years later I brought the book back from the dead, getting it reissued. The author, a Harvard Professor, had moved to Montana to save his soul.  He defined philosophy as “A Walking Meditation of the Place.” He was not a Benedictine but he was a meditative walker bringing fullness, spontaneity, and surprise to his soul – and his fullness, spontaneity, and surprise was contagious.

I devoured the book having very little sense of where I was going, or where the author was going — or coming from. It was a walk into wilderness. Here’s how he enticed me to follow.

He had been reflecting on music’s power to awaken him to reality, and his struggle to make sense of that awakening. And then he shifts. He reflects on his time in the Canadian Rockies before being called to War in the Pacific. Here is his walking meditation:

I remember that this walking in the presence of things came to a definitive stage.  It was in the fall of ‘41, October and November, while late autumn prevailed throughout the northern Canadian Rockies, restoring everything in that vast region to a native wildness. Some part of each day or night, for forty days, flurries of snow were flying.

I weighed everything by the measure of the silent presence of things, clarified in the racing clouds, clarified by the cry of hawks, solidified in the presence of rocks, spelled syllable by syllable by waters of manifold voice, and consolidated in the act of taking steps, each step a meditation steeped in reality. 

The aspens and larches took on a yellow so vivid, so pure and trembling in the air, as to fairly cry out that they were as they were, limitlessly.

And it was there in attending to this wildness, with unremitting alertness and attentiveness, yes, even as I slept, that I knew myself to have been instructed for life, though I was at a loss to say what instruction I had received.

Job was accosted by the wild of the whirlwind’s creation. Then he put his hand upon his mouth and said, “I knew not what I was saying; I’m quieted, I melt away.” His is a silence of fullness, not of deprivation.

Bugbee too is immersed in wild creation. Like Job, after the whirlwind, he knows that life is full, bountiful, spontaneous, an overflowing surprise. But none of that gives specific instruction about what specifically to do in life. No ten commandments follow from such religious, wilderness experience.

The message is – be alert to such moments; don’t rule them out; embrace their wonder. When it arrives, welcome fullness, spontaneity, and surprise.

The agents of wonder are the bountiful things of creation – clouds, hawks, rocks, waters, snow. There is the Biblical motif in this passage.  “Forty days into the Rockies” mimics Jesus’ forty days of wilderness fast. The retreat of each, like Norris’ retreat to the cloister, is a prelude to new life. The 40 day retreat to the Rockies” mimics Jesus’ forty days of wilderness fast. Like Norris’ retreat to the cloister, each is a prelude to new life.

We can seek out wilderness and cloister walks. And sometimes wildness is thrust upon us, unhappily, and is anything but a choice. Yet it can carry latent religious goods, nonetheless.

Creation can be terrible, horrific, life depleting: think of typhoons or forest fires. And yet to a willing spirit it can carry religious opportunity.

The Pacific War interrupted Bugbee’s work for a PhD at Berkeley. He suddenly became captain of a small mine sweeper and then was dive-bombed by a kamikaze. As his crew fires skyward, desperately, the plane keeps coming, and comes close enough for Henry to see the pilot’s eyes from the ship’s bridge. It’s deadly mission is thwarted.

The ship lowers in the deep trough of the waves. The plane slams into the side of the sea just yards away. Bugbee recounts this episode and adds that he knew in his bones that he could have been the pilot and the pilot could have been him. Their common humanity, even in battle, lay deeper than their nations or the war that called them enemies.

In a sense this is to lose one’s distinctive difference. Stripped away is the weight of wearing this uniform rather than that, of firing at this plane rather than aiming to sink that ship. In imagining this transposition of social and national and military position, my true glory is, for the moment, to slip into a supernatural landscape where such differences among persons disappears.

If Bugbee becomes a radiant beacon – as he does for me in this moment of transcendence – in that moment he loses everything that particularizes him. He loses his language, his uniform, his being a PhD candidate, his being captain of a ship. He undergoes a  moment of resurrection from the war as the war dies away and humans meet without differentiation, as pure souls, as it were.

This is his imagination bringing a new world alive. He is, in a sense, everything good and pure — and in ordinary terms, nothing, without pretense and without differentiation.  Perhaps Jesus on the cross is everything and nothing.

Sometimes the psalms pass on this sense of losing oneself, of being ecstatic in joy and contentment, melting into landscape: “I lay me down before still waters, my cup runneth over.” This is a quiet, non-walking meditation, a sort of lying down reverie, or, as Thoreau would say, “dreaming awake.”

And sometimes, in stark contrast, the psalms exalt the movement of warriors, not least a warrior God who leads armies against the wicked. But we also have, say in Psalm 68, a God who protects widows, not as a warrior but as a compassionate defender. And also lies behind or brings about the fullness and surprise of nature:

O God, when thou went forth before thy people, when you marched through the wilderness; The earth shook, the heavens dropped in the presence of God: even Mount Sinai itself was moved, shook, in his mighty presence.

The quiet of a walking meditation might wall us off from the terror of a warrior God, and the surprise of earthquakes. On the other hand the quiet of walking might conceal tumult within.

Meditating on battles might not be apt in time of war – there’s dangerous work to be done, demanding one’s full attention. You can’t meditate while walking under fire. But Bugbee remembers battles as if from the middle of them – or at least has insights then that could later sprout into meditations in a contemplative – if still terrifying — vein.

He imagines exchanging places with the Kamikaze pilot, as if to say “this is a war with no enemies, with no victors.” The warrior Lord is out to vanquish the enemy but it’s also a Biblical theme that there are no enemies, that we are brothers and sisters. It’s like the Captain of a US mine sweeper, in the midst of deadly sea battle, being brother to a Japanese Kamikaze pilot.

There were men for the moment alone on patrol in the forests in WWII suddenly encountering a single enemy, also on patrol. Each pauses, and seems to offer a pledge to a common humanity over a pledge to kill.

Each turns away, granting life to the other, turns his back on the other, as if privy to some extraordinary revelation just then descended. This might be merely prudent, a self-interested — and by good fortune, shared — calculation. Then again they might have miraculously become, at that moment, non-warriors, vessels of a sacred humanity.

Walking meditations seldom give us single answers: Are there enemies or only brother and sisters? Is God a Warrior for warrior peoples and something else more gentle for gentle people? Does a God of Love love those who hate and are hateful?

Perhaps it is asking too much of humans to love the very being of those who are hateful killers, especially if they have tortured us or our kin.  Perhaps it is asking too much to lower our rifles and turn away.

I think of the world as opening to minor and major ecstasies – minor and major salvations. I think of this as just a fact of life and also an awesome truth that can come to us in walking meditation.

A surplus of truths seems to accost us here, raising many more questions than answers.  Surely, more questions than answers.

Yet we can woo the faith that our walking meditations lead us away from deprivation and numbness and into gardens of fullness and surprise.

A Poet of Simple Wonder


Mary Oliver is Thoreau reincarnated, a poet of the everyday and of the wonder and mystery suffusing the everyday, and a person daily immersed in creation with an unmistakable passion — a passion for life and a passion for words that intensify and dance with life:

I think of each life as a flower, as common as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

—  the second half of her poem When Death Comes

She writes in A Poetry Handbook,

Poetry is a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.

I’d only quibble that words at their best are not marks on a page or humdrum vehicles of news. They are, when delivered with discretion and verve, in fact “. . . fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”