The Urgency of “I don’t know”

The centerpiece of the Once Upon a Roof: Vanished Korean Architecture are three chimi—roof ornaments. They look similar enough that one might, at first glance, assume they come from the same site. After all, they are displayed together. However, they come from three sites across Korea: Iksan, Buyeo, and Gyeongju. Two are from Buddhist temples, the other from a palace complex.

It’s not the museum’s fault I leaped to an erroneous conclusion. Even a cursory examination reveals differences in the three chimi: articulation of the “feathers,” ratio of height to width, and depth of the curl. Clearly, they are not from the same site. Could a map display have helped me not make that mistake? Maybe. Fortunately, I was able to sort out my error and enjoyed getting past my mistake to something more truthful.

On the other side of the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art is the exhibit: Falcons: The Art of the Hunt. Two statues of falcons preside over the exhibit, and walking up to them, I thought, “What wonderful Horuses.” Both of the falcons have notched flat spaces atop their heads. Crowns would have rested on each, like this example of a Horus found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Except they aren’t representations of Horus. The display card reveals that they “bear the names of two gods, Herakles and Aphrodite, who were worshipped during the Ptolemaic (305-30 BCE) period.” This startled my mind into the thoughts: “How did the Ptolemaic Egyptians graft Greek and Egyptian religion (myth)?” and “Could falcons represent any god in ancient Egypt?”

Lesson one: read the display cards at the museum.

Lesson two: the story already in your mind may not be correct (even if you are wicked smaht). And while I recognize this on my Sunday wander, it happens everywhere else.

In recent memory, these things happened. The timeline of the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, changed, which led to accusations of incompetence and malfeasance. COVID masking guidelines changed and changed again, which led to allegations of incompetence and malfeasance. History textbooks changed, which… well, you get the picture. I recall an early story that came out after the Benghazi attack that pointed to an anti-Muslim video as a cause, which was later discredited—the story of the Benghazi attack became, at once, more complicated and more straightforward. The fact that the story changed caused outrage.

Why does the first draft (or first glimpse) of a story impress itself so firmly in our minds? I know that it does. To begin with, our minds are incredibly attuned to how we feel when we take in new information. For instance, the sudden “Aha!” when I realized that the roof ornaments came from three distinct and distant sites or the Greek connection to those stone falcons is a feeling I cherish. I seek that rush of discovery, and experiences that trigger that particular joy stick with me.

The innate fight or flight response does not lend itself to a careful mulling over facts. We jump to conclusions because of a deep-seated survival mechanism. Our minds are attuned to getting a story set as quickly as possible. Add to that the way our brains anticipate or predict every event that occurs in the world, and second thoughts become improbable, if not impossible.

So, it is not a surprise that we punish those who change their stories. “These people cannot keep their stories straight” is a refrain used to denigrate those trying to tell the truth. The minute the story changes, an error message is triggered in our mind, and out of that error, we envision obfuscations that reveal possibly darker machinations. And yes, sometimes that happens. The lesson of Watergate was that the crime of the cover-up can outstrip the original crime. However, even when there are no ulterior motives, we fight against the changes because the initial story carries such weight, even when it is inaccurate.

But how often do facts change because we learn more along the way? How often is the first report ever as accurate as a final thorough reckoning? In Think Again, Adam Grant suggests the power of thinking like a scientist (as opposed to a prosecutor, priest, or politician) can help us embrace “I don’t know”–not just as a starting point, but a possible if provisional endpoint. Did I know that Aphrodite and Herakles could be represented as falcons? No, but I can learn.

It would be too easy to ascribe the rush to judgment to a particular ideological camp; it is a universal proclivity. I have friends on the left whose anger at the changing approaches to the pandemic matches the rage on the right. However, it also points out the rationale behind people trying to manage the first blush of any story. Whether they know by inclination or research, those who manage stories in the public sphere know that once the bone of truth is set, it is hard to break again. And they also know that when the truth breaks, we want it set quickly.

What does allow us to change our minds? Well, let’s go back to feeling. Our feelings create a steady background noise in our minds. Suppose we are driven by a homeostatic impulse (maintaining not just a narrow physical temperature but a steady emotional disposition). In that case, things that interrupt that constant state will be rejected. We will seek out truths that align with our overall frame of mind. For example, if you own guns because you feel the need to protect yourself and your family, you probably feel that a threat already exists in the world. After a mass shooting event, someone may suggest that you (and everyone else) need to give up your guns. But after a shooting, do you feel more or less threatened? And does the request to disarm enhance or alleviate your fear? No matter what facts are bandied about, our feelings take precedence. In a similar vein, do teachers feel more or less threatened after a shooting? And does the thought of more guns in the classroom heighten or lessen their perception of threat? Our thoughts change to fit our feelings. And the same feeling can lead to entirely different thoughts.

The recent season of Michael Lewis’s podcast Against the Rules focused on experts and how, when confronted with a problem, we fail to find the right expert to help solve that problem. One stumbling block (and Lewis documents several) is that real experts will say, “I don’t know,” and “I don’t know” is never satisfying. We gravitate towards people who speak with authority, even when they are wrong. When experts do not clothe themselves in the trappings of authority, when they work in the basement as opposed to the corner office, or when they offer probabilities as opposed to certainties, we reject them and complain. Anyone who cannot provide a single understandable narrative (and the narrative we first decided on) must be wrong. And that wrong must be due to an intellectual and moral failing.

It’s a commonplace to acknowledge that “there are no wrong feelings.” But I wonder whether fear is still as helpful an emotion as when we wandered on the savannah or across the landbridge to the American continent? That’s a false wonder. I believe that fear—manifested in its instinctual form—is, as Roosevelt proclaimed, all we have to fear. As daunting as it may be, the unknown is fertile ground. I don’t know how fear keeps us from discovery, but I know there are discoveries to be made. Some are easy, like revelations I make on my Sunday museum walks. Others will prove challenging, almost intractable, like bridging the gap between equally frightened political camps. A commitment to the unknown, which is a commitment to the future, must be our North Star.

Moving to Write: A writer’s journey

When I was in grad school, one of my teachers told me that swimming (I was doing 3000-4000 yards, 3 times a week) benefited my writing. I understood why. Putting one’s head down and churning away for an hour compares well with writing. You pile up the painful laps the same way you pile up the words, and there is no immediate end. You just have to do it every (other) day.

Pool at the University of Iowa

Sometime in my thirties, I decided that I had worked out enough for the rest of my life, that all those miles had inoculated me against the exigencies of time. After all, I was averaging 24,000 meters a day at my peak. You might wonder, “What is 24,000 meters, really?” The fastest runner ran a mile in a bit under four minutes, and the fastest swimmer swam four hundred meters in just under four minutes, so 24,000 meters in the pool is a rough equivalent of sixty miles. 6-0. Six days a week. Even the piddling 3000-4000 yard workouts I managed later in life amounted to five to eight mile runs. All those miles earned me something besides shoulder and knee injuries. Whether this is what I learned from swimming or if something already inside me made all those laps possible, I cannot be sure. All I know was that afterward, I knuckled down to a world of tasks, whether unpacking a truckload of books, driving all night to a funeral in Maine, or doing the daily work of marriage.

But no matter how hard I worked, no matter how much thinking or interacting I did, eventually, my body let me know that the actual workouts had to start again. By my middle forties, I was back in the pool, gobbling down yards. After one knee surgery, another looming on the horizon, and rotator cuffs that kept me up at night, I decided to stick to dry land training (weights, elliptical). I’m still at it.

Maybe it’s no surprise that I struggled with writing when I stopped working out. There were a dozen other reasons for my hiatus, but the lack of steady physical movement played a part. When I furiously wrote and read in grad school, I swam, then ran, and always took long walks in the middle of the night. I never taught sitting at a desk but prowled in the classroom, even, at one point, doing the backstroke across the length of several tables to demonstrate the power of metaphor.

Writing requires resilience. You have to be able to face down the blank page and the open ended-ness of your project. Most of us do not write with a guarantee of publication (or adoration). We write, compelled to add word to word, stringing together sentences, scenes, and scraps of dialogue, until something like a novel accrues. Some writers don’t need the physical analog to bear them forward in their pursuit of words on the page. Their minds take flight and find their ways through the canyons of words without having to ride the rapids through them.

We think of the imagination as free of physical constraint, even when we write scenes replete with physical—sensed—detail. It’s pretty to think that this works. I can write a depiction of flight even if I can’t fly because I can imagine it. My mind is not bound by what I cannot do.

Yoda pinches the “crude matter”

I am reminded of a movie I saw ages ago. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda castigates Luke about the force. He grabs Luke’s arm with his claw-like hand and insists, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” And that’s the whole point: what’s inside you matters. Of course, this appealed to me when I was a sophomore in college. What does imagination—the expression of the soul—have to do with “crude matter”?

My belief in an inner self separate from bodily suffering—or ecstasy—was fundamental to my worldview. I wasn’t alone. Whether in theology or philosophy, the notion of something like a soul runs deep. Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (the first principle of his philosophy) locates being in the process of thinking—rigorous and effortful thinking, but thinking and certainly not feeling, and definitely not tasting, seeing, smelling, hearing, or touching. There is a longstanding division between the spiritual (the imagination included) and the physical. The mind is that “luminous being” within or around us. I learned to ignore the crude matter while I swam—playing songs in my mind while lactic acid built up in my muscles and my body cried out for oxygen. I was happy to engage in the separation of body and mind.

 Except they are not separated.

While neurobiologists distinguish between the brain—a profoundly physical, almost mechanical thing—and the mind, which arises (or descends) from the machinery, they see the connections between the brain/body and the mind. Caroline Williams’ recent book Move tracks current science about movement—whether dancing or walking or crawling about—and how it impacts our mind. Reading her book alongside Anil Seth’s Being You, Mark Solms’ The Hidden Spring, and Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary, I find it hard not to see our minds as a product of evolution—much in the same way that our brains and bodies evolved. We got opposable thumbs, eyes, and consciousness. Our thoughts—even the most abstract thoughts—are grounded in the dynamic range of physical existence. This thing we imagine as a brain-based entity is formed in concert with sensory signals from our bodies. We are made up of our smell, sight, taste, touch, and hearing. Our minds did not blossom while we sat at a desk and contemplated, but as we moved through and sensed the world.

Whatever else we are, we are sensory data collectors. Maybe the dog does a better job of sniffing or the bat of hearing. Our brains are tuned to the sensual world—it seeks and expects constant sensory stimuli. Mark Solms argues that our consciousness results from the perpetual influx of information coming into the brain. Our consciousness checks that flood of information against our brains’ equally endless sets of predictions. Whether we are regulating the temperature of our bodies or the emotional tenor of our workplaces, our brains and minds (I am using “mind” almost interchangeably with “consciousness”) govern unconscious and unspoken expectations. Stimuli that occur outside the narrow predictions trigger error messages, and our minds leap into action—defending the status quo with alacrity.

However, what happens when our minds expect smells, sounds, and sights (and the occasional taste and touch), and there are none? What happens when we remove the wealth of stimulation? I hypothesize that the lack of signals about the world creates an error message in our brains akin to the kinds of error messages about our temperature. Our body-brain-mind system adjusts for too much heat or too much cold, but it adjusts because it constantly surveying for information; the system expects information. Without that information, it must (I surmise) recalibrate the sensory array and how the information is processed. Our brains don’t atrophy—that’s what you would guess, yes?—but reach out in new overexaggerated ways.

However, I do not suggest stimulating children in expanded versions of Skinner boxes. Our body-brain-mind systems develop through self-directed use. We are designed to move through a world of sensation—to process on the fly and on foot. We learn to think, read, and imagine—we write—by moving through the world. Williams cites the work of Kyung Hee Kim on the value of movement. Kim states that “[c]reative thinking is stimulated by physical activity, whether walking, running or active playing”—all of which run counter to the dictum of “writing=ass in chair.”

And creative thinking does not contribute to just writing or sculpting; it’s a matter of finding solutions that don’t plop themselves down in front of your nose. Or just behind your nose in your prefrontal cortex—although this too is vital. Creative thinking must veer from the straight-ahead planning that our prefrontal cortices make so fabulously possible. Planning in a straight line—our preferred method—bound by the powerful predicting mechanisms in our minds does not always lead to the best outcomes. We discover solutions by getting lost, encountering (and embracing) the unexpected, then adapting. We have to trigger error messages in our brains and become comfortable with the inevitable mistakes. I think of my students who more and more routinely fight against reading because they “do not relate” to a particular text. What is “do not relate” other than a self-reflective (“It’s not me”; “It’s not something I already know”; “It’s not something I can easily predict”) error message?

Every Sunday, I rely on long walks through museums to help reset and reinvigorate my mind. I walk through space (about five miles) and time. I proceed on a well-worn route: garden to museum to garden to museum to lunch to museum, and within the museums, I travel from Neolithic China to Philadelphia in 1984. In one display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art, objects displaying nearly identical winged protectors encompass fifteen hundred years. It’s a visual echo that resonates over millennia.

More than that—if that wasn’t enough—the walk takes me gradations of the unknown. We don’t know why the jade bi were sliced from jade. I return every week to them to revel in not-knowing—not ignorance per se, but engaged wonder. The bi remind me that some wonderful human-made things have no explanation. We can guess—we should guess—but our guesses should always be acknowledged as such. Precise and well-informed whenever possible. However, we must never let our desire to know ONE answer outstrip our willingness to learn as we go. Remember that you don’t know. I sit in front of a row of paintings by Monet, and I listen as someone explains how he had cataracts, which was why he painted like that. I do my best not to correct or alter the assumption, but it’s hard. Borofsky put the number “3277542 ” on his Man with Briefcase, and I may know how he numbered his work and why he said that he counted into the millions (these are documented facts), but as far as what motivated the artist, well, that’s an educated guess.

I constantly compile lists of things I know. People congregate in doorways. The left lane holds an uncanny attraction for slower drivers. Most people have not noticed that in Gallery 81 of the National Gallery of Art, the figures in the three paintings on the westward wall mirror those in the painting on the eastern wall. Children sometimes fall asleep in their parent’s laps. A man will ask, “Are you writing the great American novel?” (Answer, yes.) Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler sometimes looks strident, sometimes annoyed, but rarely befuddled. People take photographs of themselves that feature Mercury’s bottom, and I am sure that often this is an oversight. The people who work at the Courtyard Cafe will put aside the last napoleon for you. After that, mystery is certain. And necessary.

The writer and the fountain

To return to movement: swimming was always a venture into the known—the well-loved, effortful known. I swam with my head down and eyes focused on the line on the bottom of the lane, chasing yards and time, sure that neither would fundamentally change. Fifty yards is always fifty yards, and a minute is always a minute. Yes, I filled those minutes with more yards (or spent fewer minutes swimming more yards), And, most of all, pain is always pain. Variations in the depth and texture of pain were a cause for concern (the knees, the shoulders), but pain was always a given.

While writing requires sustained effort, one must also embrace the unknown. Moving helps.

I became a better reader (which helped me become a better writer) by moving between tables in various restaurant jobs. I wasn’t a bad reader in college, but that was because I could do the determined slog of three hundred pages between a Tuesday and Thursday class. I read with my committed swimmer’s mind. Whatever brilliance I glimpsed only came into full view after turning my head in seventeen directions and delivering service, hot food, and cold drinks, all in the proper order. And because I moved in a dozen other, unexpected ways. Words on the page became easier and more ecstatic. And no, I don’t think one needs to wait on tables to be a better reader (or thinker). However, learning to think on my feet and realizing that the persistent thrum of “I, me, mine” became more powerful when it moved through the music of “him, her, them,” helped me become a better reader and writer.

“I, me, mine” are necessary, especially when writing. You cannot hope to enchant some unknown “them” until you find a way to please yourself as you slog away hour after hour. And then you may fall into a rut. That’s not always the worst thing. There are plenty of creative and successful people who hew to the ditch they dig. Their neural pathways run straight and certain down deep gulleys. Helpful habits will keep you returning, chairbound, to the work.

And yet, stuck happens, and sometimes banging our heads in the mud only makes it worse. Seat of pants dully applied to seat of chair risks stagnation. And no amount of instruction (this is the structure of plot; this is the value of metaphor) and mental exercise (write a paragraph in another character’s voice; write a story about an animal) will return you to the light. Go for a walk, breathing through your nose so you can smell the world. Take out your headphones and listen to the world as you pass through it. Dance in a crowd. Break a sweat, and forget your brilliant, luminous mind. You don’t have to go to the woods, the mountains, or the ocean. You are a wild animal wherever you are if you just remember to be one.

There is a wildness to writing, and not just a wildness of mind, although, please, a wildness of mind. But our minds, we forget, are grounded in the crude animal matter of our bodies. The glorious, perfectly imperfect body will help us move the words, ounce by ounce, page by page, and pound by pound into the world. What happens next is a mystery, but by moving my body and mind, I have learned the value of mystery. It’s what comes next.

Art and Intention

My friends ask what I have planned for the weekend; it’s part of the Friday small talk. “Oh, you know,” I answer, and they do. Every Sunday, I go to museums in Washington DC. They comment, “How nice,” or “How peaceful,” or “How beautiful.” I think they believe that I am some kind of sybarite, grabbing my croissant, then luxuriating in the presence of beautiful things. Maybe there’s a bit of that. Maybe.

Calder, Animals

It’s not just the company of beautiful things; I could just as easily take a walk in the woods—on occasion I do—or on the beach. With all its complexity and contradiction, nature puts me back in my place in the world; these britches won’t get too big. I’m only one part of the play. As far as it goes, I’m reminded of the Bible passages about the birds of the air that neither reap nor sow—nature strikes me that way. Yes, of course, great energies are expended—the gazelle dashing away from the lion’s maw; the salmon casting itself against the rapids; the seedling bursting through fire-charred earth—but reaping and sowing implies a plan. Nature happens without a plan, gods aside. It just does, even if it finds a way.

Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), 1950

Yes, there are accidents in museums—unplanned gestures captured in stone or on canvas. Pollock surely didn’t know where those drips would land, and when they landed, I suspect that he did not know precisely what shape they would take. But he knew they would land. Art is an intention, even when the artist trusts the random and accidental events surrounding their art. Some artists play with that idea.

An active line on a walk, moving freely, without goal. A walk for a walk’s sake. The mobility agent is a point, shifting its position forward.

Paul Klee

The line may not have a goal—the curve of the jib, the abrupt stop at the end of a nose, a bare limb of a tree in winter—but the artist does. Draw. Write. Make something.

Roxy Paine, Graft, 2008-2009

We keep making things. Their history is the history of intention.

A friend once commented that I never listened to the news, that I always had music playing in the car. I wish. I think I have paid inordinate attention to the news. In the morning, the first thing I do is rummage through the New York Times, as attentive as the man Thoreau criticizes for waking up after a half hour nap to exclaim, “What’s the news?” My rest is longer; my curiosity is commensurate with my rest. “History’s first draft” is a bleak reminder of how rarely intentions meet their desired ends in the world. It is a record of the misguided and misconstrued: proving how poorly we make decisions, how willing we are to follow some unexamined narrative. Music is another made-thing—Bach or Joni Mitchell, Radiohead or Michael Nyman—and stands in counterpoint to the news.

You may argue that some art is misguided and driven by poor decisions. I have friends who railed against Laurie Anderson, Morris Louis, and the Pixies on those grounds. Answers directed by personal preference (But I wanted Donald Trump to win re-election; But the CDC changed its guidelines; But I don’t like how beets look) can lead to all sorts of misguided conclusions. The repercussions vary from the grave (insurrection) to the frivolous (missing out on Chez Panisse’s borscht). Once you get over those prejudices, you see the pattern, and if you are of the mind to, you see your place in that pattern.

Basin (jian) with dragon interlace, Middle Eastern Zhou Dynasty, 500-450 BCE

My weekly wanders are not just a journey through a forest of intentions—I walk through orchards of fulfilled intentions. Oh, you did it this way. Butterfield, Monet, or some unnamed ironworker in China. Thousands of made things—intricately intended things made by human hands—each blaze like a beacon: “Here, find me here.” I learn by going where I have to go.

Audience (part two)

So, I posted my workout on Facebook, and one of my friends replied, “sounds like a good swimming workout to me!” Another responded, “Or something rather naughty.” A few weeks later, the woman I was married to threw a log onto whatever fire we were in the middle of and said she was ashamed by what I had posted. Her response did not rise to the level of high dudgeon: “How could you!” Instead, “You’re an embarrassing idiot.” Later in life, one of my blog posts earned a chilly, “Why are you sharing your emotions? It’s just like Taylor Swift.” I should be so lucky to have Taylor Swift’s “readership.” I lay myself bare here—joys and struggles—to let my tiny audience know that they are not alone. I have been in the hole, and I found a way out.

Some of this I learned from other writers. Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle wrote that effective speakers (and writers should think of themselves as speakers) needed to be aware of their own character, the demands of the audience, and, finally, the logic or quality of their arguments. I will not investigate or interrogate your character, and, honestly, character seems less and less an issue these days. Or, just as troublesome, the only issue. I have read excellent work by writers of execrable demeanor, and awful work written by saints. I don’t need my favorite writers to join me for dinner or win my vote in the next election. One hopes for excellence on the page, in public, and in private, but it doesn’t always work that way. Writers, like readers, are human.

As far as the quality of your work, if you have read any of what I have written before, you know that I believe the more you write, the more likely you are to improve. Grit out an hour, two, or six a day and fill the buckets. Murky water will become clear, and with a bit of luck and a ton of persistence, it will transform into decent ale, wine, or smoky whiskey. Are there savants who miraculously produce exceptional work as if their quills were wetted in holy ink? Maybe. While I am sure that lightning strikes, most writers have written gobs before their first miraculous effort arrives on the page. Dickens, Twain, and Marquez wrote for newspapers under deadlines. Virginia Woolf kept dense journals.

But audience…

And here’s the second (the first was process) thing: when you write, you don’t write for yourself. Of course, you write for yourself, to answer some deep-seated god-only-knows-why-I’m-doing-this compunction, but the whole point is to tell. Your words seek another’s ear. Yes, yes, delight yourself and unburden yourself (or profoundly burden yourself) by what you do, but never forget that your words seek an audience. The reclusive Emily Dickinson wrote for God—at once the most daunting and forgiving audience. Joyce wrote the nearly impossible Finnegan’s Wake for a tiny audience—one that was brazen enough, curious enough, playful enough, and willing enough—but the effort was not solipsistic. His claim that if it took seventeen years to write, it should take seventeen years to read is as ponderous a gauntlet to throw down to the reader as any writer should manage. Easy messages (those that surprise but stay within narrower, almost expected bounds) get bigger audiences, but even Dubliners’ original print run was for only 1250 copies. It did better, but he fought hard for that initial print run. You will fight too.

So, write with an audience in mind, and know your audience. Your audience is not everyone (even if it could be anyone), and it is certainly not someone who willfully (and vindictively) misconstrues your meaning. Some people are beyond convincing It could be because of something their parent said, or where they were born, or the weather in Tasmania. If you chase that rabid white rabbit, you will get bitten. You have no control over how the reader feels when they read. With any luck, you will cheer those in need and charm those ready to be diverted and enchanted. Every reader carries baggage to your work, and not all of it will get in the way. Some readers are packed for whatever journey you take them on. Be ready for them. Seriously, they will expect your best work—meet their expectations.

Besides, writers come with our own freightload of luggage; it’s okay. The best you can do is enter into an unspoken contract with your readers to provide something clear and engaging (and in the broadest and most profound sense, entertaining) to read; they will enter into a similar contract to read as generously as they are able.

Not all readers will. Not all readers can. Some are just curmudgeons. Some will comment and criticize for their own delight. I once had a classmate add an illustration of eyes in flight to the margins of one of my fledgling efforts. He said he wanted to remind me that “eyes cannot fly around a room.” The eyes were artfully crafted but perhaps beside the point. Maybe you like that kind of attention. There is something enthralling about gobs of feedback, even down to the level of “Use curly, not straight quotation marks.” Or the other way around. A writer can become mesmerized by confirmation that readers have given their fullest attention even if the attention is toxic.

Let me remind you that some readers refuse to read anything out of their comfort zones, refusing to read a book about football, or only wanting to read books about football. They remind me of my daughter, who always wanted mac n’ cheese no matter where we ate. Some people don’t want a salad with goat cheese, a veggie burger, pasta primavera, or grilled fish. Some people turn their noses up at pecan pie. They aren’t wrong; they just aren’t right for you.

And there is a side to people we must admit. Let me share stories that will put this in sharper relief. On a zoom meeting with fellow faculty (weather kept us home), a number of us displayed our pets. One faculty member chimed in, “I can feel my allergies getting ready to kick in.” Delight, delight, delight, and fuck you. Or, while I sang the praises of hot and sour soup with duck from a Chinese restaurant, one person volunteers, “I don’t like spicy food.” It could have been “I don’t like duck.” Leaving a movie with friends, I shared that I was going home to enjoy a small glass of Lagavulin 16 year old Scotch. “If you like drinking a campfire,” one acquaintance replied. Witty, but really? Humans have a predilection for negativity, and on the other side, we drag negative comments behind us like a chain of money boxes. Oh, the humanity. This negative penchant can be fatal for writers struggling to break the shell between themselves and the world made of words—the world they can and should make.

You are going to need a thick skin. More importantly, you will need a clear vision of the star you hitched your wagon to (some readers will complain about what I just did).

In Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction, Seymour advises his brother Buddy about writing: “[Y]ou’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer… ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world [you] would most want to read… The next step is terrible, but so simple… You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself.” Remember what delighted you, what amazed you, what made you turn page after page, or read and reread over and over again. What book do you thrust at friends and strangers, exclaiming, “You’ve got to read this!”? Of course, some will complain that they cannot keep all the Aurelianos straight in One Hundred Years of Solitude—you don’t have to be friends with them anymore; it’s okay to make that judgment. I jest. No, I don’t. Yes, I do.

No, I don’t.

Yes, you are the writer, but you are also your first audience. Have you written something that delights, amazes, frightens, shocks, excites, encourages, and engages you? If you have, it stands a chance to do the same for someone else. You might wonder if anyone will publish—or buy—what you write? Keep this in mind: shelves (actual and virtual) are full of product (yes, product) with a range of quality. Write well and let the market settle its own problems.

Be ready. Your audience will want you to guide them, to tickle them, and torment (for the right reasons) them. They will adjust their schedules and expectations when you surprise them. Surprise them!Write for that audience, delight and amaze them. And disregard all others. I think I may have drifted too far into a warning about that other audience, so let me insist that some people will cheer you on—as you work and for your finished work. One of my teachers would always comment “Keep writing!” on my stories whether he liked what I wrote or not. He wouldn’t invite me into the weeds of precisely what he thought I should fix or revise, even if his overall comment was “No,” he still cheered, “Keep writing!”

And so, keep writing. Find your audience. Be more patient with yourself and them. They will come around. So will you.

Process: Swimming and Writing (part one)

Every so often, Facebook reminds me of where I have been. I posted this a dozen years ago. I was still swimming, and this was the template for the 2500 meter swim I did that day. Not the most exciting workout, but after two or three hundred meters of warmup, I held hundreds at 1:15. Pretty fair for a non-competing 49-year-old swimmer. The swimmers out there will recognize that I was breathing bilaterally (on both sides) every five strokes; they will also acknowledge that I was taking 15 strokes each length. Again, pardon me for saying this, but that wasn’t bad for a 49-year-old. I trained myself to breathe bilaterally after I left college because my stroke had a hitch that breathing to each side helped eradicate. My right shoulder was happier.

A few things to note. First, I am virulently attentive to and oriented to process. Swimming was never a “zen” activity for me in which I transcended the effort to reach some peaceful state of mind. Instead, the effort focused me on the effort itself. I paid attention to where my hands entered the water, how they caught the water, how my body moved over my hands, and where my hands exited the water. I was aware of the position of my arms as they flew forward to grab the water again. And again. And again. In this case, I remember thinking, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5 (breathe)”—taking three breaths each length. Focusing on what I was doing helped fend off the building exhaustion.

I grew up swimming when there were no devices to pump music into wet ears to help keep the beat while you worked out. I developed an inner hortator who drummed out a rhythm to keep me on pace. It was similar to the inner voice that kept step following steps when I hiked 500 miles as a 12-year-old, but now more driven and more ecstatic.

“Ecstatic”? You maybe ask. Through my four years of high school, as I improved from a middling age group swimmer to what I eventually became, it seemed that every swim (in practices and meets) was faster than the last. Every set provided an opportunity for improvement. I may not have gone to the Olympic trials, but I swam faster, following the beat that my cruel inner taskmaster laid down. Swimming fast exhilarated me. The effort I made showed an immediate result. The sweeping second hand of the poolside clock never lied, never expressed an opinion. And I swam in the company of some of the fastest young men on the East Coast. Keeping up meant something. I never again swam without that goad in mind.

Throughout my life, swimming offered the solace of process, repetition, and speed. Tired and overworked? I swam. Heartbroken or happy, I swam. Sick? I swam. No matter the tumble of work and life, swimming was one thing I could control. It was years before I connected the bones of that daily practice with writing, drawing lines from “this” to “that.” While some people had told me that swimming and writing were twinned activities, I felt that writing required another kind of effort. I believed that creativity was antithetical to the dull repetition of physical exertion. Writing required audacious leaps. Even when I began to write, words ran like a flood, flowing from inspirations as varied as my life to what I read. And then, they didn’t.

When I lost the thread for writing, I poured my effort into teaching and, later, churchwork. I wrote everything an English teacher writes—class notes, assignments, student evaluations—and then curricula for Sunday school classes, children’s stories for worship services, and little else. I had a book in mind but no room in my day or brain. Work and family occupied my day—as they should. After years of being too busy to thrash about in the pool, as I approached 50, I answered the old call for 30-45 minutes in the pool. Everywhere else, I felt at someone else’s call.

So, I started swimming, and little by little started writing too. This post, with its repetition, was modeled on a kind of prose poem—a metapoetic “word word word word word punctuation ad infinitum.” I’m not claiming that it was a perfect prose poem. I have changed my mind about the value of writing when inspired. I have sung the praises of word counts in some of my blog posts. An accumulation of words will create its own gravity until it catches fire—almost the way the sun catches fire over and over again. Trust the process and write word after word after word. Don’t wait for inspiration—write yourself there.

My swimming post pointed me in a direction, and eventually, the fire took hold.

Gallery Walking

The clay pot from Syria and the stone head from Egypt. “Syria and Egypt are not so far apart,” you think. Shapes, after all, are shapes. I get a sense that Charles Freer would like this thought. He assembled his collection to bridge differences of time and space, to find unities and common threads. And yet, nearly three thousand years separate these objects.

Jackson Pollock, Going West

In the National Gallery, a few steps will take you a hundred years from Raphael to El Greco, and nobody’s confused by the differences between them. Gallery after gallery is organized by time, place, and artist. On one wall, Eakins, on another Whistler, and then two of Sargent. A row of Monet’s, each featuring a reflection in a body of water. We recognize the separate hands. We differentiate—pointedly so—Cassatt from Manet. We recognize that an early Pollock gets tossed upstairs in the glass cases of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Benton gets a wall in a room, and Lavender Mist has a bench in front of it at the National Gallery so you can sit and think about it.

Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1950

Walking the galleries can be a jolting experience. It should be a jolting experience. Even in the galleries designated “Arts of the Islamic World,” the shifts from one work to the next makes me question what any of the artists thought, and even more so, what any of the viewers thought. There is no monolith here—or there is, and it constantly fractures and fragments. Yes, of course, Islam, but also them, and me.

Some of my friends comment, “What a nice Sunday ritual you have,” hinting that the museums are peaceful places of reflection. I walk past two sets of angels (Mohammed and Mary, each surrounded by beings of glorious verve and color) listening to The Rolling Stones singing “Can You Hear Me Knocking.” Yeah, peace is my goal. I spend time every Sunday in the company of Monet and Calder—quieter voices after a fashion—at least they aren’t dissonant. The day is dissonant.

Entirely not to scale. The Minaj of the Prophet, by Jami, 1492; Mary, Queen of Heaven, by the Master of the Saint Lucy Legend, 1485/1500.

The vase from Syria and the head from Egypt. 1100 kilometers between them–roughly the distance from Washington DC to Alabama, Illinois, or Maine. So yes, I can see the confusion. Add 3000 years. 3000 years ago, Greece was beginning to lose Mycenaen writing. The New Kingdom in Egypt was collapsing. Babylon was in decline. Celts had started migrating from central Europe—Ireland was still in the future. Turn your head and watch the world change.

Perhaps we think that it changes more slowly now. The leaps from Stone Age to Bronze to Iron seem so slow and so enormous. Now we are cocooned in steel and silicon. Everything is instantaneous and, almost by magic, eternal. Time has stopped. Travel and commerce brought every place within our grasp. Disney helped us imagine a small world, but how quickly it fragmented over my lifetime. Maybe the differences were always there.

from The Wonders of Creation by al-Qazvini

Even walking through the Art of the Islamic World at the Freer, there is an early 15th Century folio from al-Qazvini’s Wonders of Creation. From 100 years earlier, a page of the Shahnameh includes an illustration of Gushtasp slaying a dragon. I don’t know how these stories were received.

It is a commonplace to claim that people have universally enjoyed, even hungered for, stories. I don’t know how each of these audiences spread over 100 years, a thousand years, longer, came to story or to art. I cannot simply state that what I feel, they must have felt. I walk the galleries and try to imagine across time and space how those who came before felt.

Art and Time

My Sunday walks take me from 3000 BCE to just a few months ago. All in the span of some five miles or so—less if I just walked a straight line. From the oldest—the Neolithic Chinese jades at the Freer—to the most recent—Kay Rosen’s Sorry—each reflects a moment in time. These are not the rings of a tree, grown without intent, just as evidence of growth. Each made thing encapsulates its time and drops out of time—enduring over centuries. In another city, my walk would be longer (Washington DC has an advantageous clot of museums) and reach back further, if only by a few thousand years.

Eleven-tier tube (cong 琮) with masks
Late Neolithic period, ca. 3300-2250 BCE
China, Lake Tai region
Jade (nephrite)

I’m not as interested in the stones that are older—so much older—but I am aware that they tell a story that predates existence as we know it. What struck me most about the Grand Canyon was not the majesty of the view—the views—but the exposed rock that told half the history of the earth. There are two billion years of rock on view in the walls of the canyon. And that’s just half the history of our planet.

I live in the small, human slice. As noisy as it is, compared to the roar of 4 billion years, it is barely a whisper. If it lasts another 4 billion years—and it will, with us, or if history any guide, without us—then this—writing, art, music—is somewhat less than futile.

Except, it isn’t. We have stopped time as long as we have occupied the earth. We have some evidence, and we know that so much evidence is lost. The placard that explains the Cong declares, “While their original meaning and function remain unknown….” We don’t even know ourselves, and we have only been here for a moment.

It may seem grandiose, but we evolved to mark time—to stop it and extend it. We did not evolve to chase girls across the plain or club each other into submission to get more girls. We are aware of time in a profound way—our prefrontal cortex allows us to plan and reminisce (perhaps about girls, if that is our particular bent). At the other side of the Freer, Hokusai conjectures about living until he is 110–and imagines what his art will be like. My cats, as far as I know, and as much as I love them, are not wondering about much beyond the next meal or cheek scratch.

Someone will object, making a claim for elephant art or bird nests or whale songs, but, over and over again, not as the exception but as the rule, we alone make art.

I’m listening to Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold’s When Brains Dream. Part of their query engages what we get from dreaming—how (and if) it functions in an evolutionary schema. It’s a helpful book, and alongside Mark Solms’s The Hidden Spring, it offers some genuine insight into what our brains do.

One of the things our brains routinely do is make art. Rather than dismiss it as a spandrel or simply a flourish of peacock feathers, perhaps it points to something else. For the moment, I suggest it shows an engagement with time that is exceptional (from other living creatures) and functional. Each work reveals something about its making, even if we can only decode some technique connected to a particular time and place. But each work also punches out a hole through which it falls out of time—or rather falls into time. It exists in the past—a then, several thens—a now, and the future—a time, like the present, that will become the past. Sometime and forever.

Art’s subject matter is always time. “In these lines to time,” Shakespeare wrote. Philip Glass’s “The Grid” moves us through space at several paces, propelling us through time. Monet’s Houses of Parliament at Sunset is an impression of a place and an impression of a time. It shimmers from one moment to the next, and in its shimmer, it opens a moment.

I surmise that like the cong (or dreams), we do not know the function. But there was, there is, and there will be a function.

Bi and the Dream

A placard on the wall of Gallery 19 at the Smithsonian Asian Art Museum announces that thousands of bi were found at “elite burial sites” dating from the Liangzhu culture (3300-2300 BCE). They are jade: nephrite colored richly by strains of iron and other ores over millions of years. Craftsmen sliced the discs with string saws.

The bi are displayed face on—almost perfect circles. Suspended in midair, they appear perfect: several circular discs floating behind plexiglass enclosures. This is, in part, a trick of the eye; we see what we expect (or want) to see. Actually, their shapes vary. While definitely circular, many are lumpy or lopsided. A long look from the side shows even more irregularities—thicknesses vary, and some of the bi undulate like warped records.

Some of the bi have barely intelligible marks. The note on one display explains that markings were “extremely rare.” What does that mean? 1 out of 100? 1 out of 1000? The marked bi are neither more nor less perfect than the others.

Nowadays, we mark everything. Like it or not, we even leave a faint digital signature on what we wish to be anonymous. Mostly. At my school, we check drafts of student essays for plagiarism, and when they come back with unnamed and unnecessary sources, it is an embarrassment of unoriginality. 5000 years ago, anonymous discs went to the grave and into eternity. We have them now—disturbed from rest—because of a construction boom at the beginning of the previous century. They could have slept longer.

Not surprisingly—or entirely a surprise—we have few records of the Liangzhu Culture. Evidence of the once-thriving culture ends abruptly. The people who lived in the region around Lake Tai seem to have disappeared. We don’t know why. We know that they thrived primarily because we discovered their funerary deposits: jade bi for the rich and pottery for the others. We build an idea of their lives on what they took to death.

We do not know why they prized their bi. Nor why a few of the bi have marks.

We do not know. Those words can feel intractable, like a dead end. Or like a challenge, a kind of epistemological “try harder.” But how can you know what you cannot know?


We coined the word “Kafkaesque” to describe the nightmarish world circumscribed by a bureaucracy of the soul. Franz Kafka, who repeatedly depicted such a world in his fiction, also told us how to escape. In his short story “An Imperial Message,” the emperor is dying. Before he dies, he sends a message for you. Sadly, or predictably, his messenger cannot get it to you. This is genuinely Kafkaesque—the emperor is at the center of a thicket of throne rooms, attendants, imperial bureaucrats, and cities within cities. Even though he is the emperor and his messenger bears the imprimatur of the emperor, the message will never arrive. However the story ends, “Du aber sitzt an deinem Fenster und erträumst sie dir, wenn der Abend kommt.” (Roughly, “But you sit at your window and dream it to yourself when evening comes.”).

Of course, the emperor is god—something or someone with absolute power. Except, once enthroned, the emperor’s power is circumscribed, in no small part by the same apparatuses of the power he wields. How often do we mistake the apparatus for the thing, imbuing that which is meant to do little more than act for or transmit with more? How often do we mistake laws for actual authority? We create limits (I can, or I can’t) because we cede control—and the attendant responsibility. Our current idea of self-authorized action is little more than lust and gluttony on steroids; to be the emperor, we must grapple with the full repercussions of having authority (read Shakespeare for a full gloss on the weight of the crown).

But, in Kafka, a dream cuts to the quick. You already know the message. You are the emperor.

In our dreams, we build worlds. A few nights ago, I dreamed of traffic patterns, and police, and cul de sacs. There were merge lanes and scofflaws who drove on the shoulder. I was looking for a purple Jeep. I didn’t make any effort; the world bloomed in my mind—a mind profoundly(and subconsciously) at work. So must it be as we sit by the window (a liminal space) in the evening (another liminal space). Dreams are no time for laziness but a bursting forth of our full power.

If I want to know what I cannot know, then I must dream.


We have found thousands of bi. Each one cut from a long round piece of jade. I wrote “craftsmen” earlier, but how did this not become domestic work—foisted, as much domestic work is, on women?  Or children? I think of the scene from Parasite when the family folds pizza boxes. Instead of sewing circles, sawing circles. Who did the repetitive work that wore down fingers, hands, and arms for hours at a time? Not a crew of slaves hoisting blocks into pyramids alongside the Nile, but an army of hands slowing sawing through stone.

Does this mean that the Liangzhu people had slaves? I don’t know, but I think about the tech factories outfitted with nets so that the workers do not find relief from their toil. Bone crushing construction or endless hours of grunting agriculture? Slaves, over and over again. Did they sing while they sawed? I try to imagine songs that keep to that frantic beat. Did they race each other to cut their slice first? We compete everywhere. Why not? Imagine a John Henry of the Neolithic Yangtze River delta, whipping a string bereft of crushed quartz through jade as if it was mashed rice paste.

We know that they did not speak Chinese. We know (from genetic analysis of remains) that they shared genes with Austronesian and Tai-Kadai people. But what we don’t know renders what we know into little more than conjecture and guess. Our knowledge is imperfect. In the same way that the bi have imperfect shapes and imperfect history, our understanding is imperfect. The message—the truth—is never coming from the emperor. All we can do is imagine.

More often than we would like to admit, we straddle the worlds of the known and not-known. We lead essentially liminal lives—caught between knowing and not-knowing. Too often, we trade hard-won ignorance (the awareness that as hard as we try—and we must try—our effort will not provide a satisfyingly clear answer) for arrogant correctness. We cannot admit that we do not know. We have a mechanical reflex against unpredictability—whether we read the past, present, or future. We value prediction over genuine discovery. “I was right!” supplants “I found out!”

If we are going to model reading on dreaming, part of the task is to recognize that we are out of control. We will predict—it’s what we do—but surprise will derail our predictions. Surprise is an error message in the infinitely predicting machine of our brains. However, if we substitute rigid certainty for precise and imaginative uncertainty, our interpretations will fail even if they are clear.


I’m going to make a leap here. Reading is prediction directed to the past; the words are already written. Even though it is past, we still try to fit what we read into models of everything else we have read. When my students assert, “I can relate to X, Y, or Z,” what they are saying is, “This fits with a model that I already know.” And those of us who teach know the living hell of relatability. Anything outside that narrow ravine threatens to stop the students in their tracks—already when they are 16. Earlier.

In the same way, when we encounter new situations, when a circumstance calls on us to genuinely predict, we predict following models we already know. It is nearly impossible to get someone to predict beyond what they expect to happen beyond the known. Happily, most things in our lives adhere to patterns. Until they don’t. Fortunately, most of us are not making predictions that will affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, but some are, and they fall prey to the same internal mechanisms. The results are too often catastrophic.

So, how do we avoid the quotidian and useful process of prediction? How do we read the exceptional? How do we incorporate the genuinely new and surprising into our homeostatically driven lives?

When I look at the bi, I can guess (which is not to say that I take incoherent swipes at possibilities) at their significance, but I realize that even my best guesses are circumscribed by the limits of my experience. I know there is something that I do not know, and I realize that ignorance will stymie me over and over. I return to the bi to marvel at them and to marvel at my ignorance. They remind me that despite my reasonably well-trained intelligence, that something as simple and elegant as a jade disc will remain out of bounds. I experience hubris in the face of the unknown. This drives me to consider the undiscovered countries. And consider them I must.

How then do we confront systems that are quantitatively more complex? We try to bridle wild horses (mistaking tigers for horses—they both have four legs!) with prediction and end up eaten. Our imaginations must be more thoroughly engaged.

When Kafka exhorts us to “erträumen,” I do not believe he is suggesting anything passive, or for that matter, lazy. The truth is like a message from the emperor. When we dream that message to ourselves, when we imagine it, our imagination must be fully engaged because it is not as simple as a dream for snack cakes or even a dream of bedding a fantasy partner.  Truth may be a dream, but it is, fortunately, a demanding and difficult dream. But if we do not dream the big dream, our thoughts will be confined to the palace’s myriad chambers and infinite passageways. Our imagination will take us to a place we do not yet know.

Writing and the Plague Year

The year came and went. After having change imposed on me, all I could think of was, what could I change? What would match the upheavals of the past fifteen months? The pandemic, my mother’s death, the next round of the pandemic, my school’s response to the pandemic, the election, the pandemic, the insurrection. It felt as all I did amounted to little more than defensive maneuvers: wearing a mask, cleaning my mother’s house, writing words for her service, eating outside, voting, reading the news, and charting the waves, eating outside in cold weather, wearing two masks. All I could do was persist.

            I hate “persist.” Fuck resilience.

            And yet, I love to persist—to take the helm in a storm. But to go! To have a destination and a challenge in mind, and then to pursue it heroically. Listening to The Iliad (because what else does one do when one needs to be reminded of heroic persistence?), I am struck by the grinding effort of warfare, even heroic warfare. In among the shining moments of triumph, Ajax sweats. Idomeneus is wounded and then returns to battle. Achilles waits. Before we witness his mastery of battle, he is a master of brooding. A friend said, “But he’s a god.” He is the son of a god, but many sons of gods perish at Troy. War does not distinguish—or it did not.

            Over the past two years, I have learned the value of persisting at my work. This does not mean learning to put up with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or the stupid requirements of the day—of all the other things I must do. This year, everything that took away from that work became anathema. Returning to the slog and joy of persistent daily writing has reminded me that anything else is not enough. While I am willing to work and commit to the project, I also need to throw overboard everything—and everyone—who does not contribute to my journey.

            After all, writing is work. It isn’t something I do to make me feel better. I listened to a young man who said that his writing “picked up during the pandemic” that it helped bond him to his friends. These posts try to reveal some of the bones and muscles and nerves of the writing animal. And while I may feel connected to some of you when I write them, I am still at work. I may not sweat as much as Ajax, nonetheless I aspire.

            One of the clichés about writing is that it comes from inspiration. We focus on art and the ineffable merits of vision. Yes, some writers are more talented than others and have a scope and art that exceeds all others. If you don’t have a list of 10, or 100, then you haven’t really thought about the problem and challenge of excellence. It’s a worthwhile list to make, so long as you don’t turn that list into a wall or a fortress. Walled cities do fall, but the casualties are as numerous as specks of dust in the air. You would die counting them.

The Vision and Inspiration (Joan of Arc series: I)
Louis Maurice Boutet de Monvel

What sets most writers apart isn’t vision. Writers write. Yes, Harper Lee goes silent after her one great book, and after a flurry, so does Salinger. Dickens, Woolf, Rushdie, Mahfouz, Kawabata, Austen, Eliot, Morrison. Or consider Rowling, King, Grisham, Steel, Gabaldon—writers whose books edge others off the shelves in bookstores. If there is inspiration, then it is the inspiration to sit down (or stand up) and write. Success—often determined in monetary terms—helps fan that inspiration (You like me! You really like me!), but chances are that those writers already established a habit, a ritual, or, more likely, a regimen. They worked, and the work was their inspiration.

The Turmoil of Conflict (Joan of Arc series: IV)

Louis Maurice Boutet de Monvel

            I have the natural bent to slog but have lacked the discrimination to choose the slog that best suited me. It is so easy to fall into work that offers something like a reasonable remuneration. Except no amount—neither how little nor large—is enough to satisfy. I am reminded of the psychology experiment in which a rat is rewarded for performing a task—pressing a lever. The rat that received a reward each time it completed the task stopped; fat and happy rats will not work. The rat that received no reward gave up quickly. No shock there. However, the rat that received rare and random rewards pressed the lever feverishly. I have been that rat. Give me a task—any task—and watch me work for unpredictable and unsustainable reward.

            When I began writing in earnest three years ago, after a hiatus driven by all manner of tasks (worthy, meaningful tasks, I should add)—I knew that I was fighting against the idiot rat. Or that I was in the wrong experiment. Because I do not expect the rewards to be anything other than rare and random: someone from Senegal read my blog post; an agent sent a complimentary rejection; the audience at a reading sat enraptured and gasped in unison at the right place. There are moments when, after putting words on the page that I raise my arms in triumph. I delight myself, which is, fortunately, neither a rare or random occurrence.

            And I am not a rat. Neither am I an ape nor a proto-human. While those instincts and drives may be part of the first draft of my evolving consciousness, evolution has provided me with a brain that can reflect. My brain (and yours) produces an inner voice that can guide me out of danger or deep-seated dissatisfaction. So, back to resilience—while I can persist or, even better, thrive in less than ideal circumstances, I can see that if those circumstances can be changed, I can change them. I can rewrite the early draft of my life.

The challenge for the late writer is that unlike Dickens or Woolf or take your pick, I do not have habits so ingrained that an explosive event—or a persistent eroding series of nonproductive events—will not affect them. And so, I must make a way forward that limits time spent elsewhere. I have lessons—the Sailing Lessons included—for how to plot my course. I have completed my practice sails. It is time to go, leave this year behind, and count the words as they tumble down.

Insistence of Memory

I got chickenpox, mumps, and measles. I had my tonsils out—an operation that required an overnight stay –when I was in 3rd grade because they had been the source of repeated infections. I bounced through cases of flu and other passing illnesses. Years later, I had mononucleosis during the first semester of college. Nothing keeps us from bumping into some microscopic problem. And forget about the web of mysteriously genetic and environmental causes that lead to Parkinson’s Disease or Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma—the two illnesses that plagued my parents—but that was on the distant horizon.

I read Alistair MacLean’s novel The Satan Bug—in which a mutant virus threatens to wipe out humanity—in the 7th grade. In a world that lived under the menace of nuclear war, a biological threat was quieter and almost less tangible, and therefore more insidious. I traced these threats through films and books like The Andromeda Strain, Pursuit, and Rage. Even Close Encounters of the Third Kind used the possibility of a gas or disease outbreak to move the plot along. The insidious unseen nature of these gaseous or microscopic adversaries held my interest.

In my 20s, the HIV-AIDS epidemic galvanized my attention. How could it not? The emergence of a disease that would kill you after sexual intimacy staggered all of us who enjoyed the freedom afforded by birth control and an unshackled moral climate. We felt screwed (and not).

Whether fear or mordant curiosity drove me, I began to study viruses and epidemics with fury. The sudden spread of hemorrhagic fevers that Richard Preston (The Hot Zone) and Laurie Garrett (The Coming Plague) wrote about exacerbated my concern. It was impossible to moralize about what was coming—this wasn’t about sex. Deadly diseases lurked. Diseases have always been half a hair away. In Norfolk, a small park memorializes those who died during an outbreak of Yellow Fever in 1855. I lived a block away.

Still, in my 30s, I read Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.  And then, almost by accident, stumbled on reports of the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918. I read Alfred W. Crosby’s America’s Forgotten Pandemic at some point in the late ’90s and then John Barry’s The Great Influenza when it came out in 2004. How could it be that we all knew about the Great War, but not the pandemic that occurred at the same time? We know about this now; Barry’s book made it to the bestseller list in 2020, but the memory of the pandemic faded in popular culture. I was surprised this past year when I realized that Mr. Gower’s son dies of influenza in It’s a Wonderful Life; it was the Spanish Flu. Where else was the pandemic?

So when COVID emerged in the winter of 2020, I was not surprised. After all, SARS and MERS had already flourished in their own specific ways. When it became clear that this would be more serious, I bought masks as soon as possible, kept my distance, washed my hands even more assiduously than usual, and settled in for the count. History provided stern warnings; I knew that a count—of cases and deaths—was coming.

We like to predict what will happen, and strangely enough, we tend to think that the future is unwritten. It is, and yet, for a good indication, look to the past. This is true whether you want to know what the weather will be like on May 14th or if there will be traffic on I-95 tomorrow morning. Yes, there are exceptions and random occurrences that will skew the numbers, but the past is all too reliable a guide. Fifty Million people have not died from COVID as died in the last great pandemic, nor have half a billion people contracted the disease. But our imagination does not need to stretch far to encompass those numbers. 675,000 United States citizens died in the influenza pandemic; that number is all too close to where we are headed this year. Yes, the population was smaller in 1918-19, but did anyone expect this to happen?

Over the past year, I gobbled down the numbers. I felt a strange intoxication with having a sense of where things were headed and seeing them move, painfully, sadly in that direction. Anthony Fauci, and most of the medical community, played Cassandra to a population that wished for another outcome. As if wishing could make it so. But what good did it do to know? What effect did my knowing have on anyone other than me? The numbers were a despairing gruel that neither nourished nor encouraged me. I had to wait them out. Eventually, I stopped reloading the numbers every hour and settled on the grim results that appeared each morning in the New York Times.

So what’s the point? Partly this: when you see it coming, get ready: hurricane, pandemic, or whatever is on the horizon of time and place. Get ready before you see it. You have been sick before; people have been sick around you. We should have known better, and our ignorance cost lives. The obvious is always right there. Yes, while knowledge can be overwhelming, there must be a sweet spot: enough information to teach us and lead us into productive discomfort without flooding us into anxious inaction The only way we learn is by exposure.

But there’s something more.

There must be a reason that the pandemic of 1918-19 disappeared from memory. Why and what do we forget? We forget, or remember selectively, and not just about events like pandemics. I’m not aiming at what we don’t retain. As a teacher, I am too aware that students do not retain everything. I wonder why do we forget some things and not others? This is not a reflection just on this pandemic or the last or the run of diseases.  What else have I forgotten? I scramble to instill new habits and new awarenesses or avoid falling down the well of past practices. To borrow from Robert Creely, “[w]hat am I to myself that must be remembered, insisted upon so often”? But more, what have I failed to remember and insist upon?

We resume the remembered rhythms of our lives and return to our old habits and anxieties as if they were never interrupted. Repetition has essential gravity and draws us back. Except sometimes some things should interrupt us. The persistent nudge of discomfort—that we do have something new to learn and some new way to behave—should goad us onto a new course. Except, we stay the course and return to the known, even if it is a life half-lived.

I can (and I suspect that I will) point to the world and shout, “J’accuse! You forgot!” I shout at myself. I must insist that I remember—or that I remember to insist. I write in the face of forgetting, in the face, to borrow once more from Creely, of “the tiredness, the fatuousness, [and] the semi-lust of intentional indifference.” I must return to the hard work of insistence.

The pandemic passes, the lessons must not.