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December 29, 2011

Up on Hawthorn Hill: Circularity

— When she was a puppy my dog Gabby would run in what I described then as “circles of joy.” She celebrated her15th birthday a few weeks ago and despite the inevitable frailties that old age imposes upon all of us, she is doing pretty well.

She does not run much at all these days, but once in a while she gets that old look in her eyes and prances ahead of me for a few steps when we head down the hill for the paper. She always turns around just to make sure I am enjoying the show. Winters are long and arduous. She has weathered her fair share.

We are not unaware of time’s inevitable victory over us all. Life is always both circular and concentric. Each of us is ineluctably determined by a central core that does not change much at all.

Our lives are characterized by outward manifestations of inner constancies. Gabby is just an older version of herself, as am I. For better or for worse, I find that to be somewhat comforting.

I have dedicated this winter to rereading those writers to whom I owe the most. At least that is the plan. I am sure, as is the case with all poetry that conforms to basic forms, that there will be sidesteps and pauses. No one wants to lead a metronomic life whose beat never changes. Variety does add spice to life. However, too much spice can cause spiritual dyspepsia. Things are so dyspeptic out there in the so-called real world these days, who needs to add fuel to an already disturbingly toxic diet!

In his essay “Circles,” Emerson writes that “the key to every man is thought. Sturdy and defying though he look, he has a helm which he obeys, which is, the idea after which all his facts are classified. He can only be reformed by showing him a new idea which commands his own.

The life of a man is a selfevolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end.” My journal note is as follows: “Try as he might an individual can not act in a way that is contrary to that nature.” And: “ … wisdom entails discovering over time what one’s basic nature might be. We have inklings. We usually know when an act or a thought is anathema. When we act in a way that we know to be morally or ethically suspect we do not need anyone or any extraneous values system to clue us in.”

I am more aware than ever of the concentricity of my own life. I can see now, since age does give one a broader and much deeper perspective, that while maturity does refine and hone one’s essential self, not much ever changes.

As I think back on past events I can see that what Emerson says is absolutely true, a truth that I have always, frankly,  known for myself. And that is that all I believe, and all that has informed those beliefs, is adjunct to what was there in the first place. I believe that we can improve ourselves, that we take on useful baggage as we move through time, but that in the final analysis what one ends up with, well, is that same old essential self.

I often feel as if I am going in circles, that no matter what I might be up to, it always seems as if I had been there before. While shoveling snow this morning and cursing under my breath at having to do this over and over again every winter, the circularity of it all occurred to me. My curses never change much. My complaining seems to conform to some sort of seasonal script.

Sandy says I claim to hate snow removal work but that in truth I really do enjoy it. Not the first love-hate dichotomy to characterize my life. I guess it can be characterized as a kind of truthful disingenuousness!

So, winter is once again upon us. I am again making the same claims, issuing the same statements, pre-ordaining this winter’s intellectual pursuits with the same fervor and commitment that I always have. In short, not much has changed at all. Gabby’s winter routines remain unchanged, although I wish she would wait an hour or two before waking me out of a deep sleep to let her out to do her business. Old men, however, are in no position to castigate old dogs for the insistencies of old age! At this point I am edging out beyond the rim of one concentric circle into another’s realm. At the same time the pull of my essential core remains constant and unchanging. I feel good about that.

So does Gabby.