Timeout: 1968

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I’ve been thinking a lot about 1968. For one thing, I’m on the campus where I landed that year. Remembering what it felt like: all our dreams, all our resolves. Life was different back then. Rules on top of rules: no going barefoot, 10:15 curfews, sororities and fraternities, in loco parentis.

All that was a long time ago. Hard to believe I could be such a long way from 18.

There were drugs then, sure. My kids, when we had the drug talk said, “Your generation was so naïve about drugs.” and they were right. We never thought about adulteration, at least the people I knew. Or even about addiction. We wanted not oblivion, but the universe. We hoped we’d come to understand infinity. That’s what I hoped, anyway. I don’t know about the others, but I began to take myself apart and see where strength lay and vulnerability and love.

But we also lost so much that year. Martin. Robert. My heart still aches over the possibilities that were gunned down that spring.

This world could have been so different.

And on this campus too. We lost Hiro who might have pushed us further into the light. And me, I lost the place I loved more than anything, the only place where I felt I could be myself. When the call came I walked out into the darkness. I fetched up against a tree before I made it to the highway and learned something new about how to go on.

I know some people, like my parents, thought the country teetered on the edge of destruction in 1968, as our boomer-energy pushed for more than anyone wanted to grant us. I can sympathise now, but back then it seemed so obvious. Peace. Love your neighbor as yourself. Help those around you. Tread gently on our mother earth. Have a care for the future.

It was a rare time, fine as a beeswing.

People say we sold out, but the reality is that we still believe these things. We have kept faith with the vision.

We are still here. And we know how to speak out.

Light, by Eva Figes

Light

Like Waking, this second novel is slim and beautifully written. In it, we follow Claude Monet and members of his household through a single day, moving seamlessly from one to another. Each has their own concerns, their own fears and griefs.

There’s his wife Alice, haunted by the death a year ago of her daughter Suzanne. Suzanne’s two young children live there as well, cared for by their aunt Marthe. The children are accorded equal space and value in this account with the adults. There are servants: a nervous new cook, an older man who rows Claude out to paint, others. There are Claude’s other children, by his first wife Camille and Alice: Marthe, Germaine, Jean-Pierre, and Michel; and friends of his who drop by in the afternoon.

An even more important character is the garden itself, the one in Giverny that Claude has created—or had created—with an eye to light and shade and how they would change throughout the day.

His eyes took in, for perhaps the thousandth time, the contours of the space he had shaped. Yes, he thought, he had got it about right, the curve of the pond running inward towards the bridge with its reflected arc, two curved spans meeting, the dark mass of bamboo for emphasis, giving it just enough density, pinning it down so that it would not float into the sky along with the fragile column of trees beyond.

I know that the water lily paintings have been too much with us, like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I’ve sometimes felt that such things need to be put away for a while so they can recover their freshness. But for me, I confess, the water lilies have never lost their allure.

I remember first seeing the water lilies in, I think, 1969 when they were on display in their own room in the New York Museum of Modern Art, if I remember correctly. My friends and I sat entranced for ages, encircled by these massive paintings. I wasn’t sure what to think about them, despite my courses in art history, only knowing that there was something deeply mysterious about them, something disconcerting and comforting at the same time.

Years later, I began reading compulsively about World War I. I found references to it turning up unexpectedly. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien served in that war, including the 1916 Battle of the Somme. That experience of the flooded trenches where the unburied dead sometimes surfaced in the mud, surely led to his image of the Dead Marshes in the Lord of the Rings, where Frodo gazes into the water and sees the dead looking back at him.

Monet began painting the water lilies and the weeping willows in 1914 as a response to the war, whose guns sometimes sounded no more than 50 kilometers away. They are also a tribute to the fallen French soldiers. Gazing into the water, seeing at once its surface and its depths, as well as the reflections of willow fronds and sky, the paintings disorient me even as they absorb me. I sometimes see ghosts beyond the lilies and reflections, ghosts of the dead, yes, but more often of the peaceful summer afternoons before everything changed.

Thanks to these paintings I am more aware of the shades and shadows that inhabit the things of my world, their whispered history, no more than a sigh lifting a tender vine. Thanks to Figes I am more aware of their patterns of light and darkness, their colors.

How would the space around you appear if you had Monet’s eye for light?

Life Work, by Donald Hall

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This slim book is part memoir, part meditation on the role of work in our lives from Donald Hall, who died this week. He and his wife Jane Kenyon moved from Michigan to his grandparents’ farm in 1975, giving up stable teaching jobs for the uncertain income of freelance writers.

Like Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging” where he describes his father digging in the garden outside the window where Heaney sits writing, Hall compares his beloved work laboring with words to the more physical work of his grandparents. One thing he finds in common is that they do different tasks all day, unlike those who labor at repetitive jobs.

Hall gives us engrossing accounts of this grandfather’s work in the fields and barn and his grandmother’s work in garden and kitchen. He himself moves from one poem to another, one prose piece to another. He runs errands and handles the myriad tasks associated with the business of being a writer.

Writers are often asked about their routine. When do you write? Where and for how long? Do you write longhand or on the computer? Hall gives us answers to these questions, for both good days and bad days.

More importantly he addresses the bigger questions. What are you going to do? What do you dream of doing? What would be an authentic life for you? As Mary Oliver says in “The Summer Day”:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

What his work and his grandparents’ work have in common is that they induce a particular state of mind. Asked by novelist Gurcharan Dar what contentment is, Hall answers, “Contentment is work so engrossing that you do not know that you are working.” It is Dar who comes up with a term for this state: absorbedness.

Leisure or a life dedicated to enjoyment is ultimately not fulfilling. As John Fowles noted in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the curse of the Victorian upper class was boredom. With no work to do, both men and women often entertained themselves to death—or near-death—through gambling, drugs, overeating, imagined illnesses, and so on.

Absorbedness is an answer to the question Fowles raises: When are we most free, when we are “working well within a harness” as Frost says or when we take responsibility for living an authentic life per Kierkegaard?

When asked by Hall about the secret of life, Henry Moore answered, “‘The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is—it must be something you cannot possibly do!'”

Hall’s meditations on work are sprinkled among accounts of his childhood on his grandparents’ farm, his travels with Jane, the birth of grandchildren, the recurrence of his cancer, and his preparations for his possible death during surgery for that cancer.

I’m reminded of the Canadian film Last Night which follows several people on what will be their last night since everyone knows the world will end at midnight. The choices different characters make are funny and sad. Do you simply sit in despair waiting for midnight? Do you riot, or drink, or fulfill a longheld ambition to have sex with your high school French teacher?

I asked my son what he would choose for his last night. He described what was then a typical Sunday for us: sitting around the fire together reading and taking turns working the crossword puzzle. Similarly, Hall describes his best day as one filled with work and loving moments with Jane.

What would your best day look like?