Wednesday, February 19, 2014
the benefits of sustained attention
As I continue on through Mark Twain's Letters (University of California Press, six volumes), I rediscover yet again what I rediscover every winter with these long reading projects I take on - the tangible benefits of paying close attention to something. Besides the obvious rewards gained from reading pages and pages of wonderful words, the act itself - of concentrating for hours on a worthy task - aids in the maintenance of equanimity to no end. I am well into Volume 6, however, and since the University of California decided, for many good reasons, not to continue printing the complete letters in book form, I will soon have to resort to reading as many of the others as I can online. They have a nice e-reader set-up, with all the footnotes right there, and facsimiles of many of the letters, and all sorts of bells and whistles, and it looks manageable. Lovely, even! But oh, how I tire of the click-clicking of keyboards, and the back-lit screen, and the need to scroll through words not printed on paper. Well, I have already read The Innocents Abroad and am halfway through Life on the Mississippi, and so I think I will take a break from the Letters to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, next. Then return to the Letters. Online. Click clickity click - not so helpful in maintaining equanimity, I find. Too fragmented. But if that's all I can get, of course I'll take it, to keep on reading his wonderful epistles for as long as I possibly can. How his friends must have cherished them! A sample, sent to William Dean Howells, in 1875 (Volume 6 p.357):
"I've been sick abed several days, for the first time in 21 years. How little confirmed invalids appreciate their advantages. I was able to read the English edition of the Greville Memoirs through without interruption, take my meals in bed, neglect all business without a pang, & smoke 18 cigars a day. I try not to look back upon these 21 years with a feeling of resentment, & yet..."
And (apologies, but he is so deliciously quotable), to David Gray, (ibid p.430):
"Yesterday I began a novel. I suppose I am a fool, but I simply couldn't help it. The characters & incidents have been galloping through my head for three months, & there seems to be no way to get them out but to write them out. My conscience is easy, for few people would have fought against this thing as long as I have done."
But back to the aforementioned equanimity for a minute - that calm state which is often the effect of lending sustained attention to something worthy or necessary. The Letters have helped me live there, this winter. Over the past year several people in my family experienced and are still experiencing dire health emergencies, and even though I've been on the sidelines most of the time, my anxiety is still running much higher than it usually does. What helps - sometimes the only thing that helps - is simply this sustained attention. I find it, gratefully, when reading wonderful long books. I also find it while practicing yoga, painting, walking outside, writing, doing physical work like lugging wood and shoveling snow, and helping others when I am able to do so. These simple things bring comfort, continuity, and peace. A lot happens in life, most of which I don't talk about here, and yet in discussing books the way we do, I always end up feeling like I've conveyed the essentials anyway. For me, reading books such as the Letters is akin to lighting candles in a dark room. They illuminate, even though shadows still exist. They give us enough light to see our own lives by.
Holy crackers that last paragraph was difficult to write. How to talk about what's on my mind, without talking about what's on my mind, I do not know. Let's finish up with more of Samuel Clemens, not me. In 1870 he signed a guestbook just underneath someone he disliked and thought was... well, read his words and see for yourself (Letters Volume 4 p.7):
"(She) had left them her autograph, with this boshy, clap-trap legend of humbuggery attached:
'Yours ever, for God & Woman.'
I followed it with my signature, & this travesty:
'Yours always, without regard to parties & without specifying individuals.'"