I cannot yet explain why (perhaps I will be able to in time) but this passage, from Mary Ruefle’s essay, “Someone Reading a Book Is a Sign of Order in the World,” just made me cry:
We are all one question, and the best answer seems to be love — a connection between things. This arcane bit of knowledge is respoken every day into the ears of readers of great books, and also appears to perpetually slip under a carpet, utterly forgotten. In one sense, reading is a great waste of time. In another sense, it is a great extension of time, a way for one person to live a thousand and one lives in a single life span, to watch the great personal psyche spar with it, to suffer affliction and weakness and injury, to die and watch those you love die, until the very dizziness of it all becomes a source of compassion for ourselves, and for the language which we alone created, without which the letter that slipped under the door could never have been written, or, once in a thousand lives — is that too much to ask? — retrieved, and read. Did I mention supreme joy? That is why I read: I want everything to be okay. That’s why I read when I was a lonely kid and that’s why I read now that I’m a scared adult. It’s a sincere desire, but a sincere desire always complicates things — the universe has a peculiar reaction to our sincere desires. Still, I believe the planet on the table, even when wounded and imperfect, fragmented and deprived, is worthy of being called whole. Our minds and the universe — what else is there? Margaret Mead described intellectuals as those who are bored when they don’t have the chance to talk interestingly enough. Now a book will talk interestingly to you. George Steiner describes the intellectual as one who can’t read without a pencil in her hand. One who wants to talk back to the book, not take notes but make them: one who might write, “The giraffe speaks!” in the margin. In our marginal existence, what else is there but this voice within us, this great weirdness we are always leaning forward to listen to?
Perhaps I have been thinking too long and too much about reading and writing as a way to pretend we are not dying.
I spent an hour in the garden this morning, digging out some bulbs that had managed to take root, uninvited, throughout the yard. It is impossible not to think about time passing in the garden and how the hours pass, with me on my knees, accumulating a pile of spent leaves and branches and weeds and bagging them for the trash. These tasks repeated hour after hour, day after day, year upon year. For what purpose, these hours spent in the dirt?
The joy of blooms, yes; there is that. When the beds are tidy and freshly-mulched, there are aesthetic pleasures to be taken in their orderly arrangements. But that particular pleasure is fleeting and the work of it is endless.
A way to mark time, I think. To fill shapeless hours in a life that is itself shapeless. We sketch it out. We make grand gestures in the sky with our hands. But from our first breath, don’t we carry our death inside us? Cocooned within our bodies until it breaks through, its own kind of blossoming; the one inevitable yield of our time on this tender earth.