Monday, December 28, 2015

The End (Of the Year)

It’s very tempting to compose some paragraphs about the year just ending. Predictions for the year ahead are also in generous supply about now. I might as well toss some words of my own into the pot.

The year began in cold and snow here on the mountainside. That was good, because we needed something to harden the ground left soft and slippery by the extended Fall. We are used to, and comfortable with, temperatures that dip below zero, that occasionally even fall far enough to require really heavy coats and more frequent trips to the woodshed and furnace. It sorta didn’t happen. We did have some weeks of cold and snow, coming late in the season, but overall it was a mild late winter. It’s happening again.

Today we will probably have temperatures in the 50s, fog and maybe light rain. No snow. So far this season we have had flurries once, and that has been it. We have four seasons here: mud, snow, fly and dust. Some days we have all of them at the same time. While any one of them can be sufficient, none of them seem to last very long anymore. You just get one level of clothing out and easily available and you need to go up or down to another level: coats and hats, boots, gloves come out of the closet, but by the time you’ve outfitted yourself you are overdressed for what you will find when you actually go out the door. Or you find yourself shivering and turning up the heat in the car because you’re dressed for the 60s and the temperature has suddenly fallen through the bottom of the glass.

But that’s enough about climate change. What about the rest of the environment? How about safety in public places? No calendar provides a guide to that either. There was a time when we were secure in our homes and offices and schools, but that has changed over the years, too. Today we think about people in other countries, countries where we have felt safe and welcome in the past, but where we would not want to visit today.

It is hard, some days, to feel positive or even hopeful about the world we are going to live in for the foreseeable future. For some of us, of course, that is a short-term issue. For those we have brought into the world, have nurtured (continue to nurture), it’s a different story. Same plot, same characters, just a different clock perhaps. I’m not the first to think that compulsory military service shouldn’t begin until one is past retirement age, and it’s unrealistic to even propose it, but it does, you must admit, have its attraction.

There was a time when I was drawn to science fiction, both as a reader and a writer. I tried my hand at it while I was still in college, but gave it up for the same reason I had stopped reading it in the first place: it was all coming true. My introduction to the genre was in the 1940s, but by the early or mid-fifties so much of what the science fiction community was offering was based on reality that I lost interest. I’m rethinking that genre now.

In the first place, science has taken us so much farther than most of us even considered sixty or seventy years ago. Walking on the moon is so much history today, and the recent book and film about surviving alone on Mars is already a little behind the known science. The mystery, the opportunity for imagination to soar is limited, but growing more intriguing, offering more real possibilities. Maybe we can imagine our way out of the future some people are imagining today.

We will have to turn to our new calendars on Friday of this week, with all the little and large changes that will mean. The date on checks, for instance, and on letters written by hand, will offer opportunities to get it right (and wrong), at least until we’ve written it a few times. But there are more opportunities for us all.

We can try to devote more time and effort to discovering truth, seeing people as people, asking thoughtful questions and giving thoughtful answers to the many questions before us. These are times of struggle and uncertainty, to be sure. There will be new challenges and still-to-be-discovered truths, if we but learn to listen. There may even be answers, if we want them, but we will have to listen with care and answer with thoughtfulness. This is not the time for off-the-cuff responses to deep-from-the-heart questions. It will be a time of work and study, if we are to understand the changes our universe will spawn. We need to be ready for it to happen. Now is a good time to begin.

Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

I Don’t Know

I hope you will not turn away from this essay because it isn’t about writing or dogs or life in the country; the things I usually choose to write about here. Normally I keep to those sorts of subjects because they are what I feel most comfortable writing about, and understand the best. Today I want to focus on tomorrow.

I just don’t know what to make of the current social climate. We are beset by enemies at home and abroad, we are arming citizens as if we were all just graduating from boot camp, we are letting the people who make more in a week than most of us earn in a lifetime dictate fiscal policies and control who serves in congress and perhaps even the White House and you and I have almost nothing to say about it, given the loud voice with which money speaks. I’m scared.

I’m scared because at this time of my life I should be feeling the warmth of a life well lived and enjoyed, and turning my face more to the past than the future, but instead I am filled with concern for our younger generations. I’m worried that they will not have the future they expect; that we, the people who were to have given them a future, will have given them a world trying to destroy itself instead.

I understand that some of what I am feeling is just an old man’s squint at the bright light ahead, but in fact, I do believe that while we will always face war and the threat of war, we are approaching a future that is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced not just as a nation, but as a global neighborhood. I don’t want that bright light to come at the end of a countdown.

Somehow we seem to have become so polarized that there is no more shading of images. Everything is cast in absolute terms. Do you follow the realities rather than the newsviews? Do you really base your understanding of the world on sound bites? And if you do, is that fair to those who come after?

If you read (and I assume that since you are following this blog, you do), and you listen to what others are saying, then you must be hearing the same things I’m hearing. Do you wonder, as I do, who is listening? It doesn’t seem to me that the people we want to hear from are saying what needs to be said, but instead are saying what they think will bring in the most coin. Dollars, pounds, yen, you name it: everywhere the political life of our world seems in the hands of those holding a fist full of currency.

Is there an answer? I don’t have one. I just know that in the long run, we are the people most affected by what the free-spending politician-owning class does. And political party doesn’t seem to matter.

And if that is true, then neither do we. Matter.

Sunday, December 6, 2015


I spent most of last Saturday among a group of fellow writers. We had gathered at a local venue to offer our books for sale directly to readers and (we hope) fans. It’s what writers do, or should do, when they aren’t actually writing. Putting work up on the internet, contacting real bookstores and other sellers, and finding other ways to make contact with readers is all part of the world of writing and publishing. Nothing new in that; selling books is simply part of the writing process. If a book falls onto a tabletop, and nobody reads it, does it make a sound?

Writing books, selling books, go together like whatever pairing words you choose: bees and honey, coffee and cream, sand and surf . . . you choose. And then you must add one more: reading. Reading is where it all begins.

When I was very young, just learning to read I think, I was presented with a most ususal gift – a package of bookplates. Don’t know what they are? Perhaps in this new age of digital books the bookplate is on its way to obsolescence. For me, it is as much a part of acquiring a book as the book itself. It is a simple way of identifying books one owns and (almost as important) one shares by lending to others. The ones we have in our books today simply have the name of our farm and the image of a tree. The tree reminds us of our debt to wood as the prime ingredient of paper and the printed pages we treasure. That is today.

The first bookplates I had (and can still find in some books I’ve owned for a long, long time), have a drawing of a sailing ship, and the words of Emily Dickinson: "There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away." That’s as true today as it was when I was five years old. Books work both ways: they take us "lands away," but they also bring lands and lives to us.

What magic the written word holds, what knowledge and pleasure, what truth and treasure we have before our eyes, simply by opening a book, turning a page. What pleasure and knowledge we are able to ingest and digest simply by turning a piece of paper, a collection of pieces of paper, bound between a beginning and an ending. Danger is there, too, of course: what you read is not guaranteed to be true. How widely read you are determines that: nothing is all true or all false. Words are not simply a collection of letters. Words represent ideas and not all ideas are good. The only safety is in numbers: the more you read, the better you are able to find the truth, to understand the meanings, to make the right choices and decisions in life.

That frigate, that ship of thought you board when you open a book is the way you travel the universe that is life. I’m not trying to write poetry, or create great literature here, just trying to share with you the excitement, the pleasure, the learning that reading has brought to me. That, and the understanding that without words, without books, we remain where we started. To grow is to learn and to learn is to apply and to apply is to make decisions about one’s life that can take you to the best or the worst places. How you survive, what you do when you get there, is a reflection of what you have learned along the way.

Enjoy the journey.