Aristotle on learning

“Learning is an ornament in prosperity, a refuge in adversity, and a provision in old age.”
― Aristotle

Aristotle got this correct, I believe.   Some of my family members always thought I was seriously lacking in my  non-existent zest for football, alcohol, recreational drugs, the bar scene, the daring.  My mother, who had more than a small problem with nymphomania, thought I was born at the age of 40.   Certainly she had no respect for a daughter who liked to read.  Really, being an introvert has served me well and kept me away from many of those places where people are likely to gamble with their money, their health, their resources, their bodies.  I am not boasting, to be clear.  I always envied people who could just to out and “have a good time”.  But it’s been many decades since my failure to chug kegs has puzzled people.

My light is flickering but I am certainly reaping the rewards of my investment in education.   Reading and listening to music and kissing cats.  That’s what I was like when Eisenhower was president and my education has sustained my interest in many topics.

Sometimes I have a little fantasy:  what would my quarters look like if everything came alive?!!  If all the bookcases turned to trees, if all the books and papers returned to their previous incarnation.  If that food in the refrigerator—the milk.  How many cows?  What did they look like?

I imagine this collection of stuff going back to its beginnings—some tiny calves; many trees; cotton coerced from the ground; the tea from China and the ink from Japan and the pictures from France.

I look at my books and see Thomas Mann bedded down between Wilkie Collins and Iris Murdoch.  My poetry is in disarray:  look at Sophie Hannah cuddling with Ben Jonson!   “Eugene Onegin” is placed between two Barbara Pym novels.  How puzzling for a Pym heroine to see the cold-hearted Onegin turn his back on  a warmly offered macaroni cheese.

I have some odd little niches:  I always like to buy sheets and pillow-cases that represent cowboy culture with spurs and boots.
I am, of course, not the only Salmagundi spirit around.   But my rooms rhyme so much with the way they looked almost 70 years ago.  Music, books, cats.   I hope I don’t sound smug—one can only lead an unquiet existence in this world of savage inequality where 600 narcissistic billionaires are accounted to be of much greater importance than the 15 million (or more) children living in poverty.   Or the 2.1 million native Americans.

Frankly, I’m glad I don’t have any money to speak of.  I read that one of our billionaires (and not our wealthiest)  earns $23,148 per minute and about $32 million each day.  I cannot think of one single item I could buy that would offer ease and solace in my old age that I am capable of enjoying.

“Provide, Provide”

by Robert Frost


The witch that came (the withered hag)
To wash the steps with pail and rag
Was once the beauty Abishag,

The picture pride of Hollywood.
Too many fall from great and good
For you to doubt the likelihood.

Die early and avoid the fate.
Or if predestined to die late,
Make up your mind to die in state.

Make the whole stock exchange your own!
If need be occupy a throne,
Where nobody can call you crone.

Some have relied on what they knew,
Others on being simply true.
What worked for them might work for you.

No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard.

Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!



When I first read “Provide, Provide” I was little more than a child and was enchanted by the triplet rhymes.  I think that a bombshell actress from the 1940’s ended up mopping floors but now of course I cannot recall her name.  It was not Betty Grable but it may have been a woman with a similar name.

Of course it’s better to go “down dignified” but so many of those who made “the stock-exchange” their “own” are unethical and repulsive people.  I’d rather be alone and unprovided for than to have been on the top of the financial/food chain.

So I rely on “what [I] knew” and turn more and more to poetry and music to accompany me.   I could never “buy” a friend.  I can’t afford it. But good books and music are better than most friendships I’ve had.

More than anything else I miss my memory.  I’ve lost a lot of my hand to “Arthur Itis” and my legs and neck like to spontaneously freeze.  My skin gets papery.  Most of all I miss having a trustworthy memory.  It was my biggest pride.   Watching Jeopardy! is a moral teething for me.  I garble syllables.  I have to search deeply into my mental encyclopedia to retrieve anything of help.  I sometimes get 19th century presidents confused.  Did Polk come before or after Pierce?   Why was Chester A. Arthur president during the 1880’s?  I would have guessed the 1840’s!

I have never really entered the 21st century.  While I am out of place in this new dispensation, time whizzes by at warp speed.  My only remaining goal is to vote in the 2020 election in 364 days.  And the futility of my vote washes over me.

Who wants to live in a world where Buffalo Wings allows a racist to determine who gets seated where for the weck?  A world with republicans and their hostility to anyone who is not a billionaire is a dangerous plutocracy based on the fundamental American evil–the Eurotrash of the 15th and 16th and 17th century blithely spreading pox and measles and effectively creating a genocide?  A world gleefully continuing its ecocide…..  It’s time to check out indeed.

“Are We Still Here?”

Are We Still Here?

Between the woodpile and the window
a line of small black ants is moving,
some to the north, some to the south.

Their constant industry is admirable,
as are their manners when they pause
in meeting to exchange a touch.

I must have brought their home inside
for fuel, heating my small house.
And if it burned I too would move

along all points of the compass rose,
touching my neighbors on the path.

by David Mason

I like this extended metaphor about people and ants. Even though they are incredibly busy, ants will stop to greet their neighbors and colleagues. I wish I could keep my own purposes in sight just like the ants do.

This poem reminds me that close observation of what is going on around me can keep me intrigued.    I love Mason’s observations about ant etiquette.  How often I see good, neighborly/family manners in my cats.   When they jump up on my bed, they greet me.  When they are fed they will often take a little lap of gratitude around my ankles before they tuck in.  I would like to have the sense of purpose that ants have.   Thinking of them, however, is decent medicine.  My neck won’t move much today and it hurts a lot less when I am reading provocative poems about animals.

Each poem is a little elegy, I find.  I never know if it will be the last poem I read.  Or perhaps I won’t meet up with this poem again.

As an invalid, I’m bemused and very anxious about the sundry people who want to visit me or have me come to visit them.  One of my sisters is paying a visit soon.  She did not ask me if, when, why, or where.  She’s coming with her granddaughter later this month.   She sent me a list of things they want to do.  The Zoo?  How splendid but I cannot walk around for  more than 10 minutes maximum and then I’m totally wiped out.     She has a non-refundable ticket.   I can’t drive anymore although I might take a chance on 3 or 4 blocks in the broad light of the day.  But I can’t pull off a job like a perfect ant.

Wendell Berry

by Wendell Berry

I know I am getting old and I say so,
but I don’t think of myself as an old man.
I think of myself as a young man
with unforeseen debilities. Time is neither
young nor old, but simply new, always
counting, the only apocalypse. And the clouds
—no mere measure or geometry, no cubism,
can account for clouds or, satisfactorily, for bodies.
There is no science for this, or art either.
Even the old body is new—who has known it
before?—and no sooner new than gone, to be
replaced by a body yet older and again new.
The clouds are rarely absent from our sky
over this humid valley, and there is a sycamore
that I watch as, growing on the riverbank,
it forecloses the horizon, like the years
of an old man. And you, who are as old
almost as I am, I love as I loved you
young, except that, old, I am astonished
at such a possibility, and am duly grateful.

“VII.” by Wendell Berry from Leavings. © Counterpoint, 2010.



Berry evokes the way I feel.  My once robust skin is growing very oniony.  My veins, formerly subterranean on my skin, now pop up with their light blue wanness.   Soon I will have lived with the same person for 50 years.   Half a century.  My ungovernable thick hair has thinned.   I start to worry about bald spots appearing.

I remember leaving the house.  When I was young, I kept my eyes open to see if there were any little girls close to my age around.  When I was a bit older, I kept my eyes open so I could compare myself (negatively) with others or greater beauty, scope, and promise.  Whether men, women, boys, or girls, I was looking for charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent.  And lots of brains.   When I was a bit older I judged people by the books they read the the politicians they supported.  Then when I had babies, I wanted to gape admiringly at every child.  My eyes ranged for mothers with young children.  Once or twice there was a father!  Affinity of a sort, even if we did not speak.

My body is old and burdensome.  I remember vividly what it felt like to be 4, 10, 18, 25, 36, 45, 57 and now I don’t know if 2011 was just a minute ago or possible 100 years ago.   The mind has its own geography and chronology.   60 years ago I took my 5 younger siblings out on Saturday mornings to visit the Peabody Museum and its dinosaurs and dinosaur bones.   How I was enraptured yet terrified when they displayed a mummy!  In  1962 we would go off to look at the American debut of King Tutankhamun.   It was vivid and it seemed to have the dust of centuries and African sand, transported all the way from Egypt.  I dreamt of being a little Egyptian mummy and it made me cry—so much fate, so much time, so much of both drama and tedium it was to be a mummy.  I felt the helplessness of the mummy and now I think that the young King Tut gave me one of my most enduring emotions about helplessness, hopelessness, and how peremptory and perfunctory time and death are.



The Rest Is Noise

I have been busy dying, which does not guarantee that I’ll die anytime soon.  But I feel it.  I have a natural affinity for those who have died.  I was never meant to fit in with the 20th century.   As an introvert, I don’t miss people much.   I feel more distant from neighbors, ex-collegues, and remote relatives (including my siblings and children) than I could have imagined.   My reading proceeds at a glacial pace.  And I mean the glacial paces of the past, not the hurried up melting glaciers of today.

My ears have failed in that I only can hear others mumble.  But I listen to music every day and cherish it.  I still love a good poem, but mostly rely on works from the past.

I work on my Swedish “death cleaning,” and  I have a difficult decision to make.     Will there ever again be a time when I choose to wear a dress?  All those nice dresses are gone and a black “funeral” dress, which I got almost 30 years ago stays.   All of my socks are gone because I’ve decided to wear merino slip-ons that don’t require socks.   And I never ever have to buy anything again:  I have enough nightgowns to last until I’m 250 years old and enough slippers to last a good 12 or 15 years.  I have enough perfume to sustain me forever and also coats and jackets to give away.

I gave away all of my beloved Trollope books and the academic criticism.   It had been almost 50 years in the making—me and my Trollope devotion.

What I have that I don’t need to give up are abiding little “obsessions”–Edward Gorey, Edward Young, “Urn Burial,” Barbara Pym, romantic poetry, Victorian poetry.

What pains me the most are the current conditions of the USA and the world in general.   I hate Republicans and their guns and their intolerance and bigotry.  I am deeply ashamed to be from this country.   I would like to seek refuge in Canada or England or Italy or a few other places but I never had enough money to appeal to them.

I wish I could say that dying has inspired elevated thoughts.  Instead, I am pre-disgusted by  my own corpse.  I want it to go away as quickly as possible.   At this point, I don’t have the money for a new “green burial” (doing the virtuous thing is often the most costly).








Classics Spin Redux

  1.  Pym:  The Sweet Dove Died
  2. John Galsworthy:  The Forsyte Saga
  3. Laurie Colwin:  Family Happiness
  4. Thomas Mann:  Death in Venice
  5. Trollope:  The Prime Minister
  6. Ibsen:  The Wild Duck
  7. Hawthorne:  The Scarlet Letter
  8. Butler:  The Way of All Flesh
  9. Anthony Hecht:  Collected Poetry
  10. Melville:  Benito Cereno
  11. Henry James:  The Spoils of Poynton
  12. R.C. Hutchinson:  March the Ninth
  13. Anita Brookner:  Providence
  14. Thomas Hardy:  A Pair of Blue Eyes
  15. Thomas Mann:  Buddenbrooks
  16. Iris Murdoch:  Nuns and Soldiers
  17. Barbara Pym:  A Few Green Leaves
  18. Edith Wharton:  The Bunner Sisters
  19. Edith Wharton:  Summer
  20. Helen Vendler:  The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar

New Classics Spin: Summer Edition

  1.  Laurie Colwin:  Family Happiness
  2.  Anne Perry:  A Dangerous Mourning
  3. Toni Morrison:  Jazz
  4. Pym:  The Sweet Dove Died
  5. James Longenbach:  Earthling
  6. R.C. Hutchinson:  March the Ninth
  7.  Yates:  Cold Spring Harbor
  8. Yates:  Young Hearts Crying
  9. Brookner:  Family and Friends
  10. Vendler:  The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar
  11. Sharp:  Cluny Brown
  12.  Shamsie:  Home Fire
  13. Plumly:  Against Sunset
  14. Logan;  Night Battles
  15.  Wharton:  Summer
  16.  Wharton:  Bunner Sisters
  17.  Wharton:  The Pot Boiler
  18. James:  The Spoils of Poynton
  19. Logan:  Guilty Knowledge, Guilty Pleasure
  20. Ann Patchett:  Commonwealth