Thursday, January 31, 2008


Change is good

Big doings in our household today. The company Ryan works for is holding a staff meeting this afternoon to announce that they are closing the big building he works in. This means several things - some layoffs, some available space in the adjacent building, some relocations to the other offices down state - and to us it may mean that Ryan will telecommute most days. We're not afraid he'll lose his job, he's a database adminstrator and someone's got to keep the darn thing functioning, but it's a bit anxiety-making nonetheless. I mean, has anyone ever trusted upper management to make decisions that protect their good, decent, hardworking employees? In recent memory, not so much. So we'll see.

I'm reading Montaigne this morning and trying not to worry, not to think about the mortgage and the cost of heating the house, not to create paper tigers to fight before we know what's really happening. Montaigne is a good reminder that everything changes, all the time, that life is a wonderful spectacle, and change is natural and not to be feared. I'm nearly mid-book at this point, well into the long Apology for Raymond Sebond, which is downright terrific and seems to be nothing less than a complete argument for Nature and God being overarchingly more important than the affairs of us confused and puny humans - and a lovely argument it is, presented in great detail and at length, with many specific examples that would surely make people like Bill McKibben and Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry smile. Montaigne essentially says, Look at the heavens, the night sky and the sun, look at the animals of the earth, their complexity. Who do we think we are?? More important than all this, or any of this? Ha! This essay is a portrait of one mind applying its logic, in depth, to the staggeringly complex universe around him: "Shall we say that we have seen in no other creature than man the exercise of a rational soul? Well, have we ever seen anything like the sun?" (p.330)

He also has a lot to say about why he's writing these essays at all, the first of their kind in literature, and some of his reasons resonate deeply with this particular writer, as she struggles to find appropriate words for her own wildly meandering thoughts:

"It is a thorny undertaking, and more so than it seems, to follow a movement so wandering as that of our mind, to penetrate the opaque depths of its innermost folds, to pick out and immoblize the innumerable flutterings that agitate it.... There is no description equal in difficulty, or certainly in usefulness, to the description of oneself. Even so one must spruce up, even so one must present oneself in an orderly arrangement, if one would go out in public." (p.273)

One must have some coherence, indeed. He continues:

"My trade and my art is living.... What I chiefly portray is my cogitations, a shapeless subject that does not lend itself to expression in actions. It is all I can do to couch my thoughts in this airy medium of words.... It is not my deeds I write down; it is myself, it is my essence." (p.274)

Montaigne examines himself from all possible angles, and is at his most endearing when he admits some failing or openly states a simple habit or trait. His prose is thick with such things and they serve to bring him fully alive, which must be why he's still widely read over four hundred years after having written. Here's a small sample, from On books, of what I mean:

"If I encounter difficulties in reading, I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there, after making one or two attacks on them." (p.298)

Little snippets like this frank admission awaken such empathy - I'm doing the same thing in this very book, for god's sake - attempting and sometimes failing to read through all the classical references he provides - while not feeling like a dolt, because I'm not (too much), instead just taking it in stride and moving on. Which is what I'm trying to do, today, in general. Where's The Little Book of Calm when you really need a copy, I ask you. I guess Montaigne's my big book of calm, if I can so trivialize it. Which I can. This being my blog.

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