I awoke this morning to the shrill chiming of starlings, their chirps like knives sharpening–tinny, metallic, clanging. I imagined their black beaks open, their tongues ululating in unison. A siren started up, shrill too, gathering momentum, then faded. The starlings stopped suddenly then, as if a conductor had lowered a baton. The alarms ceased. What followed was a luxurious quiet, peaceful and contented, pierced finally by the plaintive song of a single cardinal.
Last night, my daughter said on the phone that she felt like a “bad friend” when she didn’t post on someone’s Facebook page. Two dear friends of hers have died tragically in the last four years, and “everyone” on their birthdays, posts about them. She feels these losses deeply, but doesn’t always have words to express them. “I prefer one-to-one communication,” she said, and then, “time goes so quickly–I can’t believe how quickly it passes.” It only gets worse, I told her.
I wonder about the need to be always on, always producing, always engaging, always communicating. As I watch the hostas turn yellow and curl inward, the King Solomon’s seal return to the ground, the oak leaves and acorns littering the ground, I think about how important it is to mark seasons, to know what season we are in our lives. There are rhythms to our lives, times of engaging and times of retreating. If you are an artist of any sort, you have to respect those rhythms. I think especially you have to respect fallow time, the dissolution of what worked and the openness to something new. Yet the culture at large has only one season, summer, and only one age, youth. So there is always pressure to be on, to be producing, to be posting on Facebook, to be shrilly tweeting away.
I wonder how all our gadgets for communicating make that communication somehow thin and meaningless. I think of letters I’ve saved over the years and still read, how I’ve labored over letters to send, feeling the importance of trying to frame the communication just so. We don’t have time to experience our lives if we are always rushing to represent them, do we? The sort of mass communication we’ve grown used to can also be a trap–we are curating our image, advertising it, not truly communicating. Don’t get me wrong, I use all these things too; I just don’t want to be used by them. I want to be clear about what is what.
It was interesting to read the poet Jack Gilbert’s obit in today’s New York Times for these very reasons. In today’s celebrity-driven world, here was a poet who eschewed publicity. In 1962, for six months, he was famous, and this is what he had to say about it:
“I enjoyed those six months of being famous,” he recalled in the Paris Review interview. “Fame is a lot of fun, but it’s not interesting. I loved being noticed and praised, even the banquets. But they didn’t have anything that I wanted. After about six months, I found it boring. There were so many things to do, to live. I didn’t want to be praised all the time — I liked the idea, but I didn’t invest much in it.”
Here is a poem from the obit, “Brief for the Defence.”
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
He may not be to everyone’s taste, but I’m not sure if his singular voice could have achieved what it did in this poem if he’d been looking for twitter followers.
Maybe all of this is just a brief for my defence, for taking time off to gather energy in like a root vegetable.