"What is wanting [in Twain’s description of his brother Henry’s death in Life on the Mississippi], apparently, is the tragic imagination that, through communal form or ceremony, permits great loss to be recognized, suffered, and borne, and that makes possible some sort of consolation and renewal. What is wanting is the return to the beloved community, or to the possibility of one. That would return us to a renewed and corrected awareness of our partiality and mortality, but also to healing and to joy in a renewed awareness of our love and hope for one another. Without that return we may know innocence and horror and grief, but not tragedy and joy, not consolation or forgiveness or redemption. There is grief and horror in Mark Twain’s life and work, but not the tragic imagination or the imagined tragedy that finally delivers from grief and horror… . In old age,…[Twain] was finally incapable of that magnanimity that is the most difficult and the most necessary: forgiveness of human nature and human circumstance. Given human nature and human circumstance, our only relief is in this forgiveness, which then restores us to community and its ancient cycle of loss and grief, hope and joy."

— Wendell Berry, “Writer and Region,” What Are People For? (via settledthingsstrange)

"For with us pity for others is the price we are anxious to pay for the privilege of our self-pity."

Robert Penn Warren. World Enough and Time: A Romantic Novel. Random House, New York. 1950. Pg 7.

One thought on this: pity is not compassion, but it seems similar.

"In Martinique, I had visited rustic and neglected rum-distilleries where the equipment and the methods used had not changed since the eighteenth century. In Puerto Rico, on the other hand, in the factories of the company which enjoys a virtual monopoly over the whole of the sugar production, I was faced by a display of white enamel tanks and chromium piping. Yet the various kinds of Martinique rum, as I tasted them in front of ancient wooden vats thickly encrusted with waste matter, were mellow and scented, whereas those of Puerto Rico are coarse and harsh. We may suppose, then, that the subtlety of the Martinique rums is dependent on impurities the continuance of which is encouraged by the archaic method of production. To me, this contrast illustrates the paradox of civilization: its charms are due essentially to the various residues it carries along with it, although this does not absolve us of the obligation to purify the stream. By being doubly in the right, we are admitting our mistake. We are right to be rational and to try to increase our production and so keep manufacturing costs down. But we are also right to cherish those very imperfections we are endeavouring to eliminate. Social life consists in destroying that which gives it its savour."

— Claude Lev-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques. The underlying philosophy of liberalism, and the consumer culture it generates, condensed into nine sentences. (via ayjay)

Teaching, and Now, Retirement*

On May 31, I resigned my faculty position teaching English at a small high school. The school solely served at-risk students who had been removed from the home for various reasons; most of them had gotten in trouble with the law, but all of them came from extremely dysfunctional families. As, probably, do a great deal of students in America. I have deeply loved my students, but I can only describe that love as a running of one’s hand backwards against the grain of wood. That doesn’t sound pleasant because most of the time it wasn’t (much of love isn’t pleasant, yes?), but I have been shaped by it. I will always feel that grain, and even when my hand is at rest, I’m sure there will be the phantom brush across my knuckles. I taught for six years, and I don’t believe I’ll enter education again; not because of the education system, but because I’m on the cusp of middle age and I’m beginning to realize with some anxiety that if I don’t free up some time to accomplish the things I set out to do when I was 20, then there will be no more time.

Fittingly, I was reading Marilynne Robinson’s “Home” this morning:
“None of this had mattered much through all the years of her studies and teaching, but now, in the middle of the night, it was part of the loneliness she felt, as if the sense that everything could have been otherwise were a palpable darkness. Darkness visible. That was Milton.

Those grown children had, almost all of them, bent their heads over whatever work she gave them, even though their bodies were awkward and restless with the onset of adulthood, fate creeping through their veins and glands and follicles like a subtle poison, making them images of their parents and strangers to themselves. There was humor in it of a kind that might raise questions about the humorist.

Why do we have to read poetry? Why ‘Il Penseroso’? Read it and you’ll know why. If you still don’t know, read it again. And again. Some them took the things she said to heart, as she had done once when they were said to her. She was helping them assume their humanity. People have always made poetry, she told them. Trust that it will matter to you. The pompous clatter of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ moved some of them to tears, and then she had talked to them about bad poetry. Who gets to say what’s good and what’s bad? I do, she said. For the moment. You don’t have to agree, but listen. Some of them did listen. This seemed to her to be perfectly miraculous. No wonder she dreamed at night that she had lost any claim to their attention. What claim did she have? Could it be that certain of them lifted their faces to her so credulously because what she told them was true, that they were human beings, keepers of lore, makers of it? That it was really they who made demands of her?”

That credulity; that trust.

Family History

When I was 16, my father and I were walking in from checking crops. Our home place was a half-section — a rectangle 1/2 mile wide by 1 mile long — so a walk to the middle could be accomplished inside the space of a conversation. On our way back to the house, my father spotted a rusty glint of metal recently turned by the plow.

"Look at that," he said with some amazement as he retrieved it from the earth.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s a switchblade. I smuggled it from Mexico when I was 16.” He knocked the dirt from it and turned it in the sun. The wooden handle had mostly rotted. The blade bore the pocks of oxidation. “Me and Jeff S. hid the knife in the air filter of our truck. The border guards checked everything, even our Skoal cans, but they didn’t check the air filter.”

It dawned on me that I, too, was 16, and that had I been my father, I would be traveling to old Mexico (an 18-hour drive) with a buddy. “Your mom and dad let you drive to Mexico when you were 16?” I asked.
“Things were different then.”

He went on to tell me that he and Jeff S. had gone through Galveston on the same trip. Jeff was driving and ogling some bikini girls on the beach when a child ran out in front of them. Jeff didn’t see the boy, and he flopped up on the hood. It had been 20 years, so Dad didn’t remember all that happened. The boy went to the hospital. Jeff got a ticket. And that was the end of it. They decided to go on to Mexico.

Jeff and Dad had been very close. Dad even served as best man in Jeff’s wedding. I was born about the same time as Jeff’s oldest son. As the obligations of adulthood grew, then Dad and Jeff grew apart.

When I was in college, both of Jeff’s sons got involved with some meth dealers. A few things went bad, and both of the boys were involved in a murder. They dismembered the body and buried it beneath six-feet of concrete in an abandoned grain silo. The son who is my age will never get out of prison. The younger got a much lighter sentence as an accessory.

I feel like my life has been an narrow escape of that fate. I wonder if my father feels the same way.