The sun is up and the air is cool. My mate got up at 5:30, disappeared downstairs for 20 minutes and came back into the bedroom muttering.
“It’s freezing out!” he said and fell back into the bed in a sort of spiraling pirouette, like Holly Hunter does in The Piano after that meanie husband of hers cuts off her fingers with an axe.
It’s not freezing but it is just 60. And we had every window in the place open last night against all that humidit,y which made the air feel like the breath of an overheated dog.
Dave is asleep even as I write this now, at 9am. Needless to say, the teenage boy staying with us for these weeks is also asleep and will be until at least noon if the past weekend days are any predictor.
All of which I find pretty great because here I am with the morning all mine; the sun streaming on the windows of the screened-in porch mine; the day mine too, well at least for the next hour or so when I have to go buy a pork loin and giftwrap big enough to cover the box that fills the whole back of the Red Dragon, as the teenager calls my sweet elderly van.
To celebrate this sunny Sunday feeling I just drew from the shelves a book about Ralph Waldo Emerson.
I remember the day I bought this book. My kids were 6, 11 and 13 and it was the first day of summer.
In my ever-flowering optimism I actually thought I’d have time to read this 600-page tome about the life of one of my heroes.
I also recall vividly how I was walking through the mall parking lot already greedily paging through it when – wham! – I walked right into a bundle of two-by-fours protruding from the back of somebody’s pickup truck. I saw stars just like they do in the cartoons.
What does it mean? I thought at the time though I found out soon enough. It meant with kids 6 and 11 and 13 and no school for them to go to because school wouldn’t be in session again for months my future probably did NOT include a whole lot of lounging around reading the words of Emerson.
All that seems like it was just a second ago but it happened in 1990. Now, 22 years later, I pulled out the book and here in its pages are the sweetest little accounts the man wrote about his children as babies. I had no idea he had such a tender side.
I can quote some of them here tomorrow. For now, I can’t stop reading, because you know old Holly Hunter in his sweatshirt could get up any minute.
When you say you like one thing and then say you like another, you’re just doing what great minds have often felt free to do. Didn’t Emerson call a foolish consistency the hobgoblin of little minds?
I love Emerson’s writing and was thrilled to receive a pewter bust of him for Christmas. Still, at the same time I’m often sore at him, for all kinds of reasons, like changing his wife’s name to something he found more “classical-sounding” , and withdrawing into his books when their little boy Waldo died, leaving the poor wife doubly bereaved. I also feel like “Oh easy for him to look down his long nose at the littler minds, he who never made a bed or picked up after tea!”
But that’s how it was to by a gentleman of the comfortable class in the 19th century. They never carried their full chamber pots down the stairs mornings. They never hauled a hundred pounds of boiling water up the stairs for anyone’s bath. Invisible and nameless others did that for them.
So see? You can admire someone on one level and be mad at him at the same time. (Think marriage, any marriage.)
And remember that other famous quote from Emerson’s same century? Give ya five bucks if you recognize who said this one:
“Do I contradict myself? Then I contradict myself. I am vast. I contain multitudes.”
Yup. That was Walt Whitman, whose genial free spirit made stuffier 19th century types almost burst their corset buttons. Word of him even reached quiet Emily Dickinson in her seclusion who said never read his book, but was told it was “disgraceful.”
But that’s what you have to love about the guy. That maxim “Nothing human is alien to me”? That was Whitman all over. He could sing the praises of a pile of Plague corpses if you caught him in the grip of one of is ecstasies. (Could and did just about. Remember the “beautiful uncut hair of graves”? Remember him happily enriching fthe soil with his own lifeless body?)
I admire Whitman very much. I guess I’m more like him than I am like Emerson. One day I would love to visit his house in Camden NJ, but until I get to do that it might be enough to just go outside and dig things the way he did.
Hmmm looking outside here. Cloudy right now with a sky that looks like cake batter ladled into the pan. Like dirty snow. Like soiled bed linens. And yet an amazing radiance just at the horizon.
Dig it. It’s all God asks of us.
Below a video of my man Ralph Waldo Emerson, here reanimated in as hideously compelling way as the famous stuffed corpse of old Jeremy Bentham. He was gentle and good, was Emerson, even though he did make that poor second wife change her first name. Even though he did shut himself so thoroughly up in his rooms after their little boy died she must have felt doubly bereaved.
His first wife had died in her early 20s. This was before he walked away from the ministry to start mixing up the tasty pie-filling known as Transcendentalism. He had her dug back up, you know, just so he could gaze once more upon her face. Abe Lincoln did this too, after his little boy’s death in the White House years. It must make sense on some level to us the left-behind. We just can’t believe they are gone.
Anyway, I love to visit old Waldo’s house. I love to study his mild kind face with its deep-set eyes. It’s true I was a tad unsettled when I first saw this clip but strangely comforted too, maybe at the thought of them all still alive just on the other side of that mirror, talking away; trying so hard to give tips to us the living ,so heedless and so deaf …..