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The Bearable Lightness of Being

The Stars Have Not Dealt

by A.E. Housman

The stars have not dealt me the worst they could do:

My pleasures are plenty, my troubles are two.

But oh, my two troubles they reave me of rest,

The brains in my head and the heart in my breast.

O grant me the ease that is granted so free,

The birthright of multitudes, give it to me,

That relish their victuals and rest on their bed

With flint in the bosom and guts in the head. 

That comes from W.H. Auden’s Oxford Book of Light Verse, about which more in a moment. Since my last post I have taken more time alone, more time to be silent, time to walk, time to play fetch with my doggish little Abyssinian cat, and best of all, time to read. The result is a definite lightness of being, an easing up, a falling-away of tension and striving. Is that all it takes? 

I have listened to the news on NPR and grieved over the affect of biofuel production and rising fuel costs on people in places like Haiti, where food shortages and increasing food prices mean starvation. (What sounded like a good idea was not, rather like “No Child Left Behind.”) Nor are the affects only in Haiti. There are people in the building where I live who can no longer afford to buy a tin of soup. I may soon be one of them. When I arrived here in February, a can of Progreso chicken soup was sixty-eight cents; yesterday it was $1.79. Things for those of us on the bottom of the food chain are changing FAST.

I listen to the news on the radio for as long as I can stand to hear it, but I haven’t watched the news on TV (haven’t turned on the TV at all), and I haven’t allowed myself to be sucked into surfing the net or keeping up email conversations–not as much as I’m in the habit of doing.  (Still, I find it impossible not to follow the story of the 416 children rescued from sexual abuse at the FLDS compound in Texas. Abused as a child myself, spellbound by a cult for a year as an adult, I can’t take my eyes off that story.)

Starvation in Haiti and child sexual abuse in Texas notwithstanding, my own vastly unimportant small self feels much stronger for the dip into solitude and reading. More taking in. Less putting out. The change I feel in my body from cutting down on social interaction is profound. This is better than a week at a spa. It amazes me to note how much energy it takes for me to meet new people, to put myself out, to tell my stories and receive the stories of other human beings, to write hundreds of emails a day (well tens, anyway; I do lean to hyperbole); even to talk on the phone. I don’t regret a moment of the effort I’ve expended up till now, but I’m glad to slack off.  I don’t want what Housman asks for: flint in the bosom and guts in the head. Nor did he, I’m sure. I don’t want that, but it makes me laugh.

One of the things I allowed myself to do in a non-doing kind of way is take a long stroll to Powell’s Bookstore, open every night till 11 p.m. I set out after dark, around 8 p.m., and it was a good long 21-block walk there and 21 blocks back home in the chilly Portland night. I felt very urban and grown-up and, well, yes, romantic. I went up to the fourth floor to pick up the Alan Bennett book I’d ordered, skirting the crowd of about 150 people on the third floor listening to Tobias Wolff talk about his latest book. Then I drifted toward the poetry shelves. There I found the copy of W.H. Auden’s collection of “light verse,” first published in 1938, from which the Housman comes. After I got home with Auden’s anthology (only $7.50, or a little more than four tins of chicken soup, which is how I am counting costs now) I noticed that there is just one woman in the whole 550-page anthology, someone named Jane Taylor, represented by a vicious little poem about silly women gossiping. About a quarter of the authors are anonymous, however, so that may be where the other women writers ended up. Or not.

Anyway, Auden’s introduction has two bits in it that I keep turning over and over in my mind like beautiful stones: 

Behind the work of any creative artist there are three principal wishes: the wish to make something; the wish to perceive something, either in the external world of sense or the internal world of feeling; and the wish to communicate these perceptions to others (vii).

So clear. I wonder if the wish to communicate these perceptions to oneself counts. I want it to count. And then he says this:

The problem for the modern poet, as for every one else to-day, is how to find or form a genuine community, in which each has his valued place and can feel at home.

That of course can only be done by putting oneself out. Meeting and exchanging stories. Building up connection. But maybe what I need to know is that this process takes time. I have been rushing it. I always do that. I always think I am in a great hurry to do, to meet, to understand, to see, to tell, to hear all I can hear. There’s never enough time, I tell myself. And there never has been enough time. But now things have changed. I can take more time. Slow down. Chill. Rest in the bearable lightness of being.

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5 responses to “The Bearable Lightness of Being”

  1. donna says:

    Ah, how can you not be happy with Powell’s to hang out in? My husband and I used to joke about just living in a bookstore, happy with just a cot and all the books…

    I’ve longed for community lately, too, and yet, in the crowd of those who would call themselves my community last night, I felt pretty alone, really.

    Sometimes I feel the least alone when I am simply by myself, at one with everything around me, and wondering why in the world others simply cannot feel that way with me, as I do with them when we are not all pretending to be a community….


  2. Kathryn says:

    Amen to that! What’s that phrase they used to put on posters in elementary schools? Something like, “There’s no friend like a book.” I’m reading and at ease in my good self, at home with my head in a book. Really at home. Glad you know what I mean.

  3. Dave says:

    I also know what you two mean. I just love reading. By the way, that’s how I got into cooking, by reading a book by James Beard, Beard on Food. (And I think he is a Portland native). Reading is how I get into everything, I guess. And isn’t that what the internet is really, just a chance to read about a whole lot of things. You know, when I read about your new life on your blog it just seems so romantic, indeed kind of like what you talked about in your entry on the movie Damage. I love my solitude, but I just love reading about other people’s lives. Especially those night walks to the used bookstore.

  4. Bob Currier says:

    I think, perhaps, that when Auden says: “the wish to perceive something, either in the external world of sense or the internal world of feeling” he may be talking about the need to put pen to paper [or fingers to keyboard] in order to figure out what we think. It seems to me that I don’t really know what I think about something until I try to explain my position to someone else…including to the future me that may read my diary sometime.

    I’m disappointed at the lack of women, but perhaps we can excuse this as a youthful effort, if it came out in 1938. Besides, when he’s not writing his own poetry, Auden can be a bit of a stuffed shirt. On the other hand, when he is, he’s one of the poets that speaks volumes to me. I just had occasion to remind Jeremy of “Lullaby” [“Lay your sleeping head, my love,/ Human on my faithless arm;…]. It’s magic.

    I’m another of those readers…in fact, I may well have more “friends” who are books than I do friends who are people. In any case, the pleasures of books are quite different from the pleasures of people.

  5. Kathryn says:

    Me too, me too. Like you, Dave, I love reading about other people’s lives. It’s like being invited into their houses, but less intrusive. I always wonder what the life is like behind the lights in people’s windows. And like you, Bob, I never know what I think till I write it. And like all of us, books!

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