Apologia pro vita mia

[with apologies to the Cardinal]

Night has fallen. As I sit down with a glass of sparkling water in my study out at Yellow Bird, it just crosses my mind, just faintly, that even my friends may not understand what I am up to, what the stakes are. So I thought I would sketch a Day in the Life of this two-legged, just to bridge the gap, if such there is. Sartre once recommended a life of total transparency. I would not go that far. But I could be more forthcoming than I am, so here goes.

6:20 a.m. 6 a.m. is the official time I get up. Sometimes I do wake up at exactly 5:55, microwave some of yesterday’s coffee in a glass, and I am at my small bar table desk by 6pm. Often, like today it is a bit later. I open the front and back doors to let the cool air through, and open the garage door downstairs to allow the gasoline vapors from the various bits of lawn equipment to dissipate. Today, this Dr Dolittle is greeted by a gift from Berzerker on the back Rat Mat – a small beheaded bird.

6:20 – 9:30. Yesterday I read from Rilke’s New Poems, and biographical intros by Leishman and Bayley. As well as short pieces by Borges, and Barthes. And Calvino’s Mr Palomar. I am working on a book called Things at the Edge of the World – a project it seems I began 10 years ago. I plan a longish initial chapter (or two) laying out the general idea of a fractal ontology – of worlds within worlds, each centered on a ‘thing’ – followed by short essays on 20+ such things, ranging from God to cat to 9/11. I am re-reading these authors both to remind myself of the importance of style, and, in the case of Rilke, because he shares an interest in Things (reflected in his writing about Cezanne’s realism). I realized this morning that there was something of a tension between the phenomenological approach which would expand our sense of the things before us by reference to the intentional ‘acts’ by which we constitute them, and the openness to the delightful complexity of the real that Rilke is recommending. So I wrote a section of a few pages that should go into my theoretical introduction, trying to show these two approaches are in fact compatible, at least if we interprete Rilke heuristically.

Before getting down to writing, I made a list of the major practical projects I had promised to complete this summer – somewhat in despair that they are not getting done – and vowed (again) to make progress on them. Finish sauna, erect tower, commission writer’s cabin etc etc.

Then breakfast at 9:30. This schedule really works. If I have breakfast when I get up, I am too woozy to think. I make more coffee. While its brewing I take the kitchen scraps down to the garden to compost. I bury it under a thick layer of last Fall’s Nashville leaves currently mulching the raised beds my New Zealand wwoofers bequeathed to me when they left in the Spring. I inspect the zucchini, tomatoes and water melon, and try NOT to get sucked into serious gardening. I am just waiting for the coffee to brew. I once asked Paul Ricoeur the secret of his productivity, and he said he wrote roughly from 6-1 every day, did correspondence after lunch, and spent the evening with friends. I’m trying at least to imitate part 1. I keep a separate yellow pad by my side as I’m writing to soak up the distracting thoughts – people I need to email, repairs I need to make, things I need to buy. After lunch I can either keep writing, or turn to this list. Today I drank a lot of coffee, kept writing until about 1:30, then made myself some lunch (avocado, bread and cheese, thick soup), and caught up with NPR news. After lunch I googled various philosophical references to Things that haunt the recesses of my mind. With my bad memory for detail, google is a godsend. I found various Heidegger references, the source for Bishop Butler’s “Everything is what it is and is not another Thing” and so on. And I kept in touch with a live text feed of England’s second World Cup soccer match (against Algeria). This, it seems was an abysmal showing by England. The result was a goalless draw, and fans (who had spent thousands of pounds to get to South Africa) booed them off the field. I posted my speculation on the Phil McNulty blog – that Rooney was ‘on something’ (quite legal, like beta-blockers) to temper his temper, which took the edge of his game, and because he is such a focus, the whole team collapsed around him. My entry was referred for further consideration!!

At 3pm, I took an hour’s siesta. Amazing, with a gentle fan overhead, how good that feels. I’m not using air conditioning, even in this heat. But the fans are indispensable.

4pm: time for tea – I brought back lots of tea bags from Bangladesh. I THINK they taste different, but it may just be my imagination. And whole grain bread from the Turnip Truck, with honey and with peanut butter. Woodbury is hopeless for bread – indeed for good food of any sort. Is rural America all this culinarily deprived? This is not some relativist value judgement; it’s a sad truth.

After tea, another gift on the Rat Mat. This time, a small crested bird. I can tell because this one was not beheaded. Perhaps that’s just a morning thing. It lay there intact, feet in the air, as if having its own siesta. But I could not wake it. I set about doing some “small things around the house”. I transferred some young seedlings (more tomatoes, squash etc.) into pots; I hosed down the recently purchased lawnmower that needs to be returned under warranty because it has seized up under heavy use; I repaired a mysterious rectangular hole in the deck that has always been there (now it looks like a lovingly patched deck), almost Japanese. I restrung a hops plant that is supposed to be covering the deck with its leaves. I bombed the four-wheeler up to the first cabin-site and chain-sawed up a large cedar branch that had fallen on the pile of floor timber. I went down to the barn and fed corn to the goats, who had already assembled at the sound of my engine. Zip, my new Great Pyrenees puppy, actually followed me around the back of the barn to the dog sized entrance where I feed him. And I think he finally realizes that I am the regular source of his chow. I do not want to be friends – see the WALDO problem in earlier posts – but somehow, minimally, I need to be able to handle him so he can get his shots etc. He does look SO cute. The substitute ignition switch on the four wheeler broke at the ridge-top cabin-site. Fortunately I managed to nurse the machine back to the house (about half a mile) and soldered it back together, much to my relief. I was tempted just to park it in the basement and attend to the problem tomorrow, mañana. But I remembered something Schweitzer once said, running a clinic in what was then French Equatorial Africa. He did not pause between one chore and the next, he just kept going.

Schweitzer – organist, physician, philosopher, pacifist – is something of a model for me. Ditto Leonardo, with his painting, his anatomical investigations, and his machines. And then Wendell Berry, farmer and poet. I guess I’m committed to a version of the Renaissance ideal. When chatting to WB at Vanderbilt, we talked seamlessly about goats and coyotes, as well as the ethics and poetry of place. I fantasize sometimes about living the life of a pure writer. There is something about Roland Barthes – academic, writer, lived with his mother and for whom, it seems, words were his whole world – that is deeply attractive. But I am too deeply wedded to sensuousness, to materiality, to shaping and creating, to exploring and mending, to protecting and encouraging – hence the shape of my day – making, fixing and growing things. And if Barthes had been a tad more worldly perhaps he would not have been run over by a laundry truck. But then again, he would not have back-ache from hauling things, nor bruises from falling over. I imagine that physical exercise will keep me healthy, and that engaging with matter in all its richness will feed my writing with images. I share Rilke’s almost spiritual appreciation of things, stuff. But the word spiritual suggests we need to add a layer, like salt on food, to bring out what is there. If, as Blake put it, we cleansed the doors of perception, would we need to add anything? Perhaps we need to acknowledge our breaks from the dulling power of habit.

As dusk approaches, four crows kick up a squawk on the newly mowed grass outside the garden fence under my study window, pecking and scrimmaging. Shall I compare them to a dysfunctional family of umbrellas?

This evening I wrote emails to graduate students, to friends, to people connected with various art projects, and I wrote this blog, to try to explain myself a bit better. I worry about whether Yellow Bird is just a private fantasy, or whether it can have the wider buy-in that I want and need for it. It’s not NORMAL to have a project like this. But I keep saying to myself: this is your dream, you actually have the chance to make it happen! And so it continues. Across the fields, Jacob (“Dream Builders”) is completing a small house for my neighbor. I think I will ask him to help construct the first Writer’s Cabin. And then perhaps finish off the cob sauna.

Come by sometime. After lunch.