Sparing the rod

Since I don’t have any children of my own, I’m reluctant to criticize the way others bring up their kids. Yesterday I was struck, however, by the contrast between the relatively permissive style of Eva’s parents and constantly scolding style of Morgan’s. For what it’s worth, I should note that I am not unsympathetic to the old-fashioned idea that children should be expected to conform to the realities of the adult world to some extent. I am uncomfortable with the approach taken by many more liberal parents my age who are reluctant to punish their offspring at all, and who try hard never to raise their voices. But I realize that, in feeling that way, I’m ignoring not only abundant evidence from ethnography but even the ideals of the political tradition with which I most identify, both strongly suggesting that, if children can be “spoiled,” it is not by permissiveness per se.

One of the most valuable contributions of the 150 year-old tradition of anarchism in the West has been to draw attention to the fundamental importance of child-rearing practices. How else to engineer social acceptance of dominance hierarchies, coercion, inequality, punitive “justice,” etc., except through the thorough indoctrination of children? To this day, church, school and family, joined by the ever-more-powerful mass media, share the burden of inculcating obedience to authority. Studies show, for instance, that around 80% of the time spent in public schools is consumed by activities unrelated to actual learning – unless one takes the cynical view that learning to follow arbitrary orders and to internalize a strong sense of inferiority are necessary to the development of citizenship.

The anarchist critique didn’t come out of a void. My geographer-brother Mark (Eva’s dad) is fond of pointing out that two of the founding figures of modern anarchism, Peter Kropotkin and Elisée Reclus, were geographers who drew numerous lessons from the study of non-Western cultures. More generally, strong circumstantial evidence suggests that 17th- and 18th-century European constitutionalist theory was at least inspired, if not actively shaped, by the example of the Iroquois and other Eastern Woodland Indian confederations.

Be that as it may, there’s little doubt that over the last five hundred years, travelers’ and missionaries’ accounts of American Indians have provided the strongest counter-example to the rigid social patterns of northern Europeans. However romanticized or distorted these accounts, I can’t help thinking that the knowledge that “another world is possible” played an essential role in the growth of the Western liberal and radical traditions. In 18th-century Pennsylvania and New Jersey, two peripatetic missionaries from the radical Pietist sect the Moravians, John Heckewelder and David Zeisberger, were open-minded enough to observe and describe the customs of Indians in great detail. Historical anthropologist and psychologist Anthony F. C. Wallace drew heavily on their accounts in the introductory chapter of his book King of the Delawares: Teedyuscung, 1700-1763 (Syracuse University Press, 1990 [1949]):

“The normal personality in the undamaged, aboriginal Delaware [i.e., Lenape] society seems, like that of most Indians of the northeastern woodlands, to have been remarkable for equanimity in the face of physical misfortune and for superficial equability in face-to-face social relationships. This throttling of overt signs of dissatisfaction and hostility stood in striking contrast to the bumptious, rough-and-ready aggressiveness of the invading whites.

“The formation of this type of equable personality can be traced to the treatment and education of the child. Eighteenth-century observers agree that punishment of any kind was avoided. The children, said Zeisberger, ‘follow their own inclinations, do what they like and no one prevents them, except it be that they do harm to others; but even in that case they are not punished, being only reproved with gentle words. Parents had rather make good the damage than punish the children, for the reason that they think the children might remember it against them and avenge themselves when they have attained maturity.’ Heckewelder agreed that the instruction of the young was never ‘done in an authoritative or forbidding tone, but, on the contrary, in the gentlest and most persuasive manner; nor is the parent’s authority ever supported by harsh or compulsive means; no whips, no punishments, no threats are ever used to enforce commands or compel obedience.’

“The attitudes thus described do not suggest an intense feeling of emotional interdependence among the members of the family, so much as a discreet care not to antagonize one another. Under such conditions, it seems that the individual would not be likely to develop the sort of punishing conscience demanded by European society. Social cooperation would be achieved by an individual’s calculating avoidance of antagonizing his opponents, rather than by any powerful inner sanctions of conscience.

“This attitude of wary politeness was generalized by the Delawares into a Weltanschauung that included the world of animals as well as of men. Toward the brute creation the Delawares preserved a respectful mien; animals valued for their flesh or skins, like the bear, were not treated with casual brutality but were killed with ceremony and in some cases addressed by the hunter as noble enemies . . .

“Among a people who did not have much experience of punishment in childhood, there was little opportunity for the development of a Jehovah-like god who dispenses favors to the good and chastises the wicked. There was, certainly, a Great Spirit who was the creator and maintainer of the natural system of the world. But the individual Delawares reckoned not with him but with a personal guardian, who was usually an animal spirit, like the Bear, who watched over and helped the Indian in the manifold crises of life. This Guardian Spirit revealed himself to the Indian youth in a dream or vision; and to him the Indian sang a sacred song describing the vision. The various ceremonies of the annual calendar consisted largely of the recitations of these visions.”

In a later book on the Iroquois, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (Random House, 1969), Wallace elaborates upon many of these themes in his portrait of a closely related (though linguistically distinct) people:

“The cultivation of the ideal of autonomous responsibility – and the suppression of its antimony, dependency – began early in life. Iroquois children were carefully trained to think for themselves but to act for others. Parents were protective, permissive, and sparing of punishment; they encouraged children to play at imitating adult behavior but did not criticize or condemn fumbling early efforts; they maintained a cool detachment, both physically and verbally, avoiding the intense confrontations of love and anger between parent and child to which Europeans were accustomed. Children did not so much live in a child’s world as grow up freely in the interstices of an adult culture. The gain was an early self-reliance and enjoyment of responsibility; the cost, perhaps, was a life long difficulty in handling feelings of dependency . . .

“The mother’s feeling for her children was intense; indeed, to one early observer it appeared that ‘Parental Tenderness’ was carried to a ‘dangerous Indulgence.’ Another early writer remarked, ‘The mothers love their children with an extreme passion, and although they do not reveal this in caresses, it is nonetheless real.’ Mothers were quick to express resentment of any restraint or injury or insult offered to the child by an outsider. During the first few years the child stayed almost constantly with the mother, in the house, in the fields, or on the trail, playing and performing small tasks under her direction. The mother’s chief concern during this time was to provide for the child and to protect it, to ‘harden’ it by baths in cold water, but not to punish. Weaning was normally not attempted until the age of three or four, and such control as the child obtained over its excretory functions was achieved voluntarily, not as a result of consistent punishment for mistakes. Early sexual curiosity and experimentation were regarded as a natural childish way of behaving, out of which it would, in time, grow. Grandparents might complain that small children got into everything, but the small child was free to romp, to pry into things, to demand what it wanted, and to assault its parents, without more hazard than the exasperated mother’s occasionally blowing water in its face or dunking it in a convenient river.”

Child-rearing practices vary enormously from one society to the next. Even among societies we may consider peaceful (including the early Moravians and, if not the Iroquois or Delaware, certainly the Algonquian-speaking Montagnais-Naskapi of Labrador) it is impossible to generalize, for example, about the relative valuation of individual autonomy vs. social dependence. But I think one can say about a great many village societies around the world what Anthony Wallace writes about the Iroquois, that “Behavior [is] governed not by published laws enforced by police, courts, and jails, but by oral tradition supported by a sense of duty, a fear of gossip, and a dread of retaliatory witchcraft.” Maintaining a peaceful, just and harmonious society without any social constraints whatsoever will probably always remain an unrealizable ideal.

And I know if I had a kid, sooner or later she would get her butt whacked.

Doll beings

Today I’m visiting my cousins in Gloucester township, New Jersey – part of Lenapehoking, the traditional homeland of the Lenape Indians. We’re gathering for a joint birthday celebration for Eva and her second cousin Morgan, who is four. As I sipped my morning coffee, Morgan entertained me with impromptu narratives about her play castles and her Barbie dolls – a fascination that her mother Heidi, an erstwhile tomboy, can’t quite comprehend. Heidi worries that Morgan might be learning unhealthy gender stereotypes from Barbie, but has decided she can’t forbid her from playing with the dolls altogether, since they were gifts and since her playmates are also into Barbie.

“In earlier times the Lenape Indians enjoyed their social dances. But not wishing to be distracted by their children, they placed them with a baby sitter. On one such occasion the assembled children decided to hold a dance of their own. For this purpose a boy carved a stick in the shape of a doll and carried it throughout the twelve dances. This childish event went unnoticed until the boy became inexplicably ill. A meteinu (or medicine man of great power) was consulted. He perceived that the boy had some possession and demanded special attention. After questioning, the boy acknowledged making the miniature doll that he and the others had included in their dances. The meteinu realized that this was no ordinary doll but a spirit of considerable power. . . . The meteinu advised the boy’s parents to make a better doll with which to appease the offended spirit and to continue the dances until the boy got well. He further advised them to hold an Ohtas Kentkan (Doll Dance) every year, through which the family and the whole tribe would prosper and remain in good health.

“Thereafter, such dolls were carved from a piece of wood about twelve inches long. They were given human hair and were dressed in miniature sets of Lenape clothing. It was believed that such Doll Beings possessed life and could understand what was said to them. They had the power to protect their owner’s health, and they enjoyed offerings and dances and resented ill-treatment. . . . It was believed that failure to perform [ritual] obligations would make the doll’s spirit angry and would surely cause evil to befall the owners and their relatives.”

– Herbert C. Kraft, The Lenape: Archaeology, History and Ethnography (New Jersey Historical Society, 1986).


The art museum’s smallest room
is filled with miniature landscapes.
We stop in front of each,
& my 8-year-old niece waits for me
to hoist her up by the armpits
for a five-second look.


I learn a new word from the exhibit’s title: purlieu. “A frequently visited place, an outlying district,” says Merriam-Webster’s New Collegiate. In the plural, “Confines, bounds” as well as “Neighborhood, environs.” From the French, “to go through,” it came into use in the Middle Ages, when it had a fairly specific denotation: “ME purlewe land severed from an English royal forest by perambulation.”


Later, she watches from
the back seat of the car as
a ten-dollar bill change hands. Giggles.
“They hold the money
as if it were fragile!
she whispers in my ear.


Eva and I go for a ramble in the new snow, me with the big plastic saucer under my arm. She discovers tracking: “If you follow an animal’s tracks, you can tell where it went!” But the squirrels elude pursuit on the ground for longer than the distance between two trees. Then it’s time to re-examine our own tracks. Walking forward, craning around to see what we would see if we were tracking ourselves. We’re detectives now, she decides.

She follows tracks to where they disappear in a hole or under a log, wants to begin excavating on the spot. I remember this fascination with burrows going back to when she was four, if not earlier. “What lives here?” was one of her first intelligible questions. Now more and more this question comes accompanied by a wish: to live there too. At any given charismatic opening in the woods: “This would be a great place for a kind of a house. Well, not with walls or anything. Just to sleep in. This summer we could camp here. We can bring blankets and make tea.”

We follow a deer trail through the woods, pause to inspect weasel and mouse trails. “How far is the spruce grove?” “We’re not heading for the spruce grove. In fact, we’re going in the opposite direction.” “Are we ever going to find these deer?” “Probably not. These prints were made before last night’s additional snow.”

So it seems animal tracks can’t be trusted to take you where you want to go. The chief detective looks for something else to investigate. Thirsty, makes a discovery: the snow right here doesn’t quite taste quite the same as the snow over there. Or so she says. We thread though the laurel to the woods road and make our way to the top of the field, stopping every ten feet to sample the snow.

“Can’t you taste the difference?” “Um, no. See, you lose your sense of taste when you grow up. That’s one of the great things about being a kid.” “This one tastes like cotton candy!” “I’ve never had cotton candy. What does it taste like?” “I don’t know. I’ve never had it either.”

At the edge of the field, a new wish: to walk without leaving any footprints. “What if you just ran really, really fast?” She tries it: no luck. I reason with her. “You saw all the squirrel tracks. Squirrels weigh less than a pound! Think about it – even the mice leave tracks. The only things that don’t are the ones with wings.”

At last, the spruce grove at the top of the field: the ultimate outdoor living room. Destination of countless picnic excursions with her Nanna. With me she plays tour guide, gets exasperated at my evident familiarity with the spot. Our footprints cross paths with a pair of turkey tracks, a lone coyote. We cut back into the field just soon enough to avoid the deer carcass, which neither of us mentions. “I love the view from up here,” she says. Ridge after ridge stretching away to the east.

Time to put the saucer to use. We go to the edge of the steepest hill and my heart sinks. I grew up with sleds you could steer; with the saucer, gravity has almost the only say over where you end up. But determined to cut a good trail I sit down in the thing and lie back, trusting in my outstretched legs to keep me pointed downhill. Bump bump bump, a half-turn and I’m at the bottom looking up. I shout something cheerful, trying hard to keep the shakiness out of my voice. On the brow of the hill a small red figure jumps up and down with glee.

I would’ve been terrified at her age, but I don’t tell her that. “Now hold on tight and be careful!” “Give me a push!” A quarter of my weight, she goes airborne at each bump. At the second one her hat flies off. Spinning around, going backwards or forwards, it’s one continuous shriek all the way down. Then here she comes charging back up the hill, half-unbuttoned coat flapping, stopping to examine the places where the saucer left the ground. “Did you see me flying?”


Snow in March
brings marvels:
a phoebe diving for snow fleas,
the track of a chipmunk,
a turkey vulture flapping its wings.

Diogenes’ Tub (6)

From the LA Times: “‘If you are intellectual and have a lot of book learning and talk in ways that make that clear, then you are feminized,’ said Messner, who researches gender stereotypes. ‘You are seen as someone who could waffle when it comes time to make a big decision. All of that is code for not being masculine enough.’ . . . Polls indicate more women remain preoccupied with so-called ‘soft’ issues such as jobs, education and healthcare.”

Actually, all issues of any kind are now clearly “soft.” Seeing who’s hardest isn’t about issues, it’s about guns. Desperate times require desperate measures, say the manly men. I agree. For the health of the republic, the time has clearly come for male suffrage to be revoked.

One-hit wonders

the bad penny
the wooden nickle & one
lousy dime
met up in
my pocket & tried
a trio gig

but as
you might expect
the penny kept returning
to the same tired riff
the nickle was dread-
fully flat
the dime couldn’t
keep time &
they all struggled
to make the changes

it’s sad
when these bit
players get big
without paying their dues

The calculus of luck

Ungrateful keyboard! I wake myself up two hours early to write and all you can do is sit there. Your so-called keys stay locked. My brain says write, my heart says hum to yourself.

The new snow stopped falling sometime in the night and a few stars were blinking in and out of the clouds by 5:00. Every snowfall has its own properties; this one brings the trains closer and drives the gurgle of the stream farther away. As I sat out on the porch with my coffee I was admiring as I do so often the unique pitch of each eastbound locomotive whistling the crossings: Bellwood, Tipton, Grazierville, Tyrone, Plummer’s Hollow, Birmingham. Now all I can do is sit here and hum, writing about writing about nothing. Because important things have been happening too fast for me to record, unless I were to turn myself into a writing machine with no time left over to experience anything except in retrospect. So I guess I’ll have to break an unwritten rule here and resort to bullet points, so as not to forgo all mention of:

~ The courtship flights of the woodcock at dusk almost every evening for the past week – the way it can slip in and out of sight against the almost-dark clouds, the sudden transition from strange nasal peent to the rapid piccolo it makes somehow with its wings, rushing across the sky in wide arcs like a released balloon

~ The week-long Visit of the Beloved Granddaughter (my niece Eva) from Mississippi, and her 8th birthday celebration yesterday in the snow she welcomed as “a present from God – I mean from Santa!”

~ The scavenger hunt for birthday presents, and the riddles my dad and I had dreamed up for clues leading from one present to the next all over the farm

~ Some of the things collected before the snow fell: ruffed grouse feathers; jawbones from winter-killed deer; bird’s nests; a large handful of wild grape tendrils, each one an eloquent restatement of the beauty in clinging, the unique possibilities of attachment

~ My mother saying yesterday morning as the birds mobbed the strewn seeds: “I wonder if a fox sparrow will show up today?” and a fox sparrow showing up two hours later, obligingly digging his trademark holes in the snow, the song sparrows and juncos giving him a wide wake

~ The very punctual return of the eastern phoebe in the middle of the snowstorm. I was attending to e-mail yesterday afternoon when he landed on a branch of the mulberry sapling right outside the window where I type and flicked his tail up and down three times.

It’s light now and I can see what the night brought: just the barest additional skim of snow on top of yesterday’s five inches. Today, we’re off to Penn State to visit museums – always a fun thing to do in the company of a bright and inquisitive 8-year-old.

I don’t get to enjoy the company of children very often – especially children who love nature, poetry and all the other things that exercise the imagination. So naturally I’ve been enjoying the excuse to relive my childhood for a few days (who knew that tinkertoys could still be so much fun?!). Fueling my enthusiasm, too, is the marvelous, multi-authored literary experiment unfolding over at Commonbeauty, “The Archaeology of Childhood.” The entries are in the form of personal letters between participants, describing an illness or an affliction suffered during the writer’s childhood and what it meant to him or her. The results have been very moving – not a dud yet. As Tom Montag observed a couple days ago, this is an experiment that takes advantage of the unique possibilities of the blogosphere for spontaneity and immediacy.

I believe today will see the seventh and final installment of this unique experiment, so if you have the time to stop over you can read the whole series from start to finish.


When I began thinking about luck yesterday it was with a specific destination in mind, but I ended up somewhere else instead. I’ll start again, with the “reprint” of an essay off my other website that’s also in the spirit of the archaeology of childhood. This was written in January of last year, as the chorus of harpies calling for “shock and awe” in Baghdad was rising to a crescendo.



There were always rats in the barn when I was a kid. We kept the chicken feed in wooden bins reinforced with sheet metal but they still managed to chew through. My father said that a Norway rat could chew a hole in a lead pipe in twelve hours, and I believed him. He put out d-con rat poison, but it never got them all. We tried not to think about how it worked: slow death by dehydration.

Then when we cleaned out the shed, we found dozens of mummified rats hidden in the scrapwood pile. My brothers and I kept the most gruesome examples for a long time, bringing them out to show visitors. The mummies were completely hairless, and their tough yellow-brown hides made them seem less animal than vegetable, dried seed husks or corn stalks in winter. Except, that is, for their heads, the place where their eyes had been. “Look at this one! It’s still got all its teeth!” “Why is it grinning like that?”

The rats had excavated an extensive subway system connecting barn, shed, and compost heap. The only way to catch more than a glimpse was to sit very still in the basement of the barn for a while, for instance with a loaded .22. They were part of the natural order of things, and it never occurred to me that they could die out. But one day a few years after we stopped keeping chickens and the raccoons killed the last of our Muscovy ducks, I realized there weren’t any more rats around. Their major tunnel entrances were all grown up with weeds.

My niece Eva comes to visit at least once a year, at Christmas. Two years ago, when she was four, she and her Uncle Steve discovered a mummified duck under the hay in the barn basement. Something had eaten half its face, but otherwise it was in pretty good shape. Eva was fascinated. Every day for the rest of her visit she would beg to be taken down to the barn to see the dead duck. Nor was it a passing fancy–a year later she was still visiting it faithfully at its resting-place on the hay of the next-to-last stall.

Had I been thinking, I probably could have predicted that Eva’s first poem would include a duck–very much alive, with ducklings in tow. In my family, we’re fond of attempting such auguries about people, about the weather, about world affairs, though we never bet any money on them. For major events, like elections or impending wars, everyone will predict a different outcome.

These days, there’s fierce competition for the worst-case scenario. No one actually wants it to come true, of course–in fact, some of us cling to the notion that a bad thing can’t happen if it has been fully exposed in advance. But even if it does come to pass, someone at least can enjoy the brief frisson of its discovery. “Why is it grinning like that?”


This brings me to what I wanted to mention in yesterday’s post: the role of luck/grace in the birthing of any truly original poem or work of art. I don’t mean to discount the importance of practice, practice, practice. In fact, I think that Pasteur’s dictum, “Chance favors the prepared mind,” perfectly captures the relationship of preparation to inspired discovery. All I’m saying is that such discovery is utterly chancey – as my experience this morning with the mute keyboard reconfirms. And that it comes from some specific place, some spot in the in-between of earth and sky: all genius was originally of place. The word applied to the production of an artist only by the once-conventional presumption that inspiration is (as its eymology still implies) a species of possession.

I had been invited to participate in a poetry reading for State College’s First Night celebration a year ago, and as usual I brought my audience with me in the form of the extended family. Eva was then six going on seven and wanted to know what kind of tree was this “poetry” I was going to read about. She sat with me in the front row throughout the entire two-hour reading – a fairly hyper, high-energy kid who is also blessed with the ability to concentrate. A month or two later, her daddy helped her type her very first poem and I proudly e-mailed it around to all my friends. She hasn’t written anything like it since, and I have no intention of pushing her.

by Eva Bonta (6 going on 7 years old)

How would it be to smell
like a flower and the petals
fall off from cold wet breeze
pink and silver yellow.

The birds fly up to
their nest as hot as the
sun with their hot smooth
egg. The frog at the
pond croaked once more
as the Duck with her
Duck-lings go silently to
bed when the moon is

What I told the fortuneteller

From the vault (Capturing the Hive). Every aspiring poet sooner or later takes on Joan of Arc. I imagined not so much the fanatic Maid of Orleans shouldering the immense weight of her own destiny, but a real prophetess, a kind of Gypsy Queen with humor and confidence to spare.


Like a fly in amber this world
she wants to save: golden. Brittle.
A talisman that burrows into the breast,
impervious to all but the sharpest instruments.

Or with a spin of the wheel, an ordinary pebble
wedged under the shoe
of her carousel horse.

While the world she has no use for
goes soft, pulpy, membranous,
inebriate with shadows.
Wobbles like an old newsreel
about the Enemy: delusional.
It cannot be bargained with.

In her neck of the woods it’s no big deal
to hear voices. I don’t get
love letters,
she jokes as
she suits up. Just chain mail.
With her left palm making
circles on her scalp: rosemary oil,
specific for vagaries of the brain –
equally good for weddings as
for wakes – and henna,
for that hint of flames.

Even so, to ride without a helmet –
Men will follow a flag only
if they think it’s inviolate.

I watch the unlit spliff
in the corner of her mouth
bobbing, waggling
with every consonant.
Little white bone how you shake,
how you never fall!


If forced to describe my own religious beliefs – I mean the things I really believe, not the things I would like to think that I believe in because they appeal to me intellectually – I would have to conclude that I worship Lady Luck.
What a disgrace! How more immature and egotistical could I get? For we know, don’t we, that one man’s good fortune is another’s disaster? Luck seems finite almost by definition. She is capricious, imperious, beholden to no one by herself. At least give her a pair of wings and call her Grace!

But hold on a second. It’s all in the interpretation, yes? If I can convince myself that everything that happens to me happened for the best, luck becomes, in effect, infinite. Plus, there is no reason why I can’t share in the good fortune of another – or, if the occasion demands, try to mitigate another’s bad luck by sharing from my own virtually inexhaustible store of good will. (Good will and good luck are close cousins; I haven’t quite figured out the relationship, but I don’t think you can have one without the other.)

O.K., but what morality? Despite my abundant admiration for Judaism, Buddhism and the other Organized Religions, I guess I still incline toward the position of the ancient Daoists: that the explicit formulation of an ethical system is a sign of failure. Only chronic social chaos and the disintegration of ordinary human bonds can explain the need to spell out something so self-evident. Most people know intuitively that you shouldn’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to yourself – it’s human nature to avoid conflict and work for social harmony. Our minds and bodies revolt against the artificial pressures of conflict and competition: 98% of men will crack up after 60 days of continuous conflict, according to studies of British troops during World War II. And the pressures of life under monopoly capitalism destroy the bodies of the rulers along with the ruled: their insides turn themselves into knots.

Thus when Daoism itself, in competition with Buddhism, morphed into a religion, it focused on body-as-microcosm, with this-worldly, personal immortality as the unreachable utopian goal. The Chinese are a uniquely earthy people. In Chinese popular religion – a rich blend of Buddhism, Daoism and folk beliefs of diverse origin – the god of good fortune is a quintessentially Rabelaisian figure, like Santa Claus crossed with the Carnival King. And yes, divinatory systems like I Qing and astrology occupy an honored place – much as they do in peasant religions the world over.

To die-hard rationalists, this sort of belief system is anathema. But I think they’re missing the point. In virtually every traditional society I’ve ever read about, personal auguries are meant to function much as the communal fortunes told by the nebiim (“prophets”) of the Hebrew Bible: as visions of what could happen, not what will happen. It makes sense that fortunes read for an individual’s benefit would tend to be quite a bit sunnier than the national prophecies of Isaiah their purpose is self-empowerment, not moral self-questioning.

But what is morality? If it involves nothing more than an utterly fatalistic dependence on the inscrutable will of an infinitely wiser and more powerful Being – the situation, I fear, with vast numbers of the adherents of Organized Religions – it seems more likely to breed irresponsibility. “Why should I care about the earth? It’s in God’s hands. Why should I involve myself in social change movements? It’s up to God to change people’s hearts.”

So yes, my trusting in Fortune may seem naive and superstitious. It certainly seems that way to me, sometimes! But to the extent that reliance on Lady Luck has taught me to expand my definition of fortune to include, basically, the very “music of what happens,”* is it such a bad thing? And if I end up viewing my life as the result of an active collaboration between my own imagination and the sum total of social and natural events that are too fearsome and wondrous and complex for any human mind ever to encompass – well, that leaves me in pretty good company. As near as I can tell, the vast majority of all the people who ever lived believed something very similar.

*from the Fenian Cycle, translated by James Stephens in Irish Fairy Stories and reprinted in John Montague, ed., The Book of Irish Verse (Macmillan, 1974):


Once, as they rested on a chase, a debate arose among the Fianna-Finn as to what was the finest music in the world.

‘Tell us that,’ said Fionn, turning to Oisin.

‘The cuckoo calling from the tree that is highest in the hedge,’ cried his merry son.

‘A good sound,’ sad Fionn. ‘And you, Oscar,’ he asked, ‘what is to your mind the finest of music?’

‘The top of music is the ring of a spear on a shield,’ cried the stout lad.

‘It is a good sound,’ said Fionn.

And the other champions told their delight: the belling of a stag across water, the baying of a tuneful pack heard in the distance, the song of a lark, the laughter of a gleeful girl, or the whisper of a moved one.

‘They are good sounds all,’ said Fionn.

‘Tell us chief,’ one ventured, ‘what do you think?’

‘The music of what happens,’ said great Fionn, ‘that is the finest music in the world.’

Diogenes’ Tub (5)

From the Associated Press: Outside the Popular Party headquarters, some 100 supporters chanted “Viva España! Viva Aznar” and waved party flags although there was nothing to celebrate.

How rare to encounter such honesty about patriotism and team spirit in the mainstream media!

My kingdom for a box!

“Thinking outside the box.” Not here, folks. Though I don’t claim immunity to the occasional appeal of sophistry (hell, I’ll quote anything if it supports whatever position I happen to be holding at the moment), I would never be so foolish as to claim that thinking – even of the most poetic, artistic variety – can take place outside some kind of “box.” It can be any shape; it can be as large as you please; it can overlap only to a very small extent – if at all – with received thinking. It can and should be a very topologically malleable sort of box. But I can’t see how any meaningful expression could take place apart from such framing. And the frame employed, if we are paying proper attention, will always seem something of an arbitrary imposition, a superfluity, extrinsic to “objective reality.”

I don’t discount the possibility of direct apprehension of reality unmediated by thought/language, of course. In fact, I’m inclined to think such apprehensions are rather more common than we might suppose. I will go so far as to propose that all kernels of insight, the sparks of inspiration out of which genuine thinking arises, represent in fact the commonest version of such direct, unmediated seeing. Let’s ignore for now the possibility that more complete, more fully transformative realizations can be had. I want to ask the poets and artists out there: isn’t this what keeps you writing/creating, really, this realization of something that cannot quite be put into words/forms?

And such an experience does seem transformative, at least in a small way. I think of how Rilke ended his famous poem about the “Archaic Torso of Apollo”: Du mußt dein Leben ändern – “You must change your life.” Because of that, that summons one feels at the heart of an authentic insight, one feels one must keep trying, poem after poem. If I can just find the optimal words in the optimal sequence, then something very similar to my original intuition might be passed along, might be felt in turn by the properly attentive reader or listener.

And who can’t read or listen with the necessary degree of openness? Who are these people who say things like “I just don’t understand poetry?” What’s wrong with them? What’s wrong with us, that we don’t know what they’re talking about when they say that? Perhaps they have been taught that every poem is a puzzle to be solved, that it takes a peculiar kind of intelligence to unlock it. But whence the insensitivity to that which lies beyond language? No normal five year-old seems ever to suffer from the obtuseness that so frequently afflicts otherwise intelligent adults who imagine a one-to-one correspondence between words and reality.

Such ignorance is not inborn, I believe, but must be deliberately inculcated through years of intellectual bullying and the meticulous application of soul-destroying curricula. Eventually, if all works according to the lesson plan, the Möbius river of time shrinks into a one-way street, and the Klein bottle of imaginative space acquires a definite inside and outside: it becomes a non-topological box, a mental jail cell. This is the box that must not only be thought outside of: it must be escaped for good.