Nature Walk + Thoughts for the Week

Well, it’s finally come – the end of a long, much needed, and memorable weekend.

Today my family and I went for a walk at a local bird reserve.  We’ve been going here for over a decade; it’s like visiting an old friend now.  Autumn is the best time to see it, though already a lot of the maples have lost their leaves.

After a short detour through the woods, the trail opens up to the tidal flats, home to plenty of sea gulls, mallards, and Canadian geese.  I’ve always thought this looks like something out of Middle Earth.

Though a cold day, it was a great way to unwind and mentally “reset” before the coming week.

Speaking of which, work has been pretty exhausting, and I’m trying very hard to stay positive.  Rapid changes and new responsibilities are the challenges right now.  I hope things will get easier by January.

To offset the stress, I’ve been alternating between several books:

  • The Concept of Anxiety – Kierkegaard, aforementioned
  • Open Letters – Václav Havel
  • Manalive – G. K. Chesterton.  (So far disappointing, to be honest.)

If you’ve never read Havel, I suggest dropping everything (as soon as is convenient) and reading “The Power of the Powerless” which you can find online.  Though a political piece, it can be read apolitically as well.  It is a call to “live within the truth” – as profound as it is simple, and as terrifying as it is essential.  I have started reading some of his other work in Open Letters and finding it just as excellent, so far.

Kierkegaard I shall soon finish; only about 26 pages to go.  It is tough to read, because in The Concept of Anxiety he is replying to a myriad of other philosophers (e.g. Hegel) and I am lost most of the time.  It seems like a book I’ll want to reread in the future.

I have found one quote I like very much.  It’s reminiscent of Myshkin’s “even in prison” quote from The Idiot, although a little less fanciful:

But life is rich enough if one only knows how to see.  There is no need to travel to Paris and London – and it does not help if one cannot see.

It’s something I believe in wholeheartedly. 

H. G. Wells on Victorian Short Stories

H.G. Wells LCCN2014701289

Lately I’ve been wandering down memory lane with H. G. Wells’ The Country of the Blind and Other Stories (1911).  This collection holds, in the words of Wells: “all of the short stories by me that I care for any one to read again.”  Some are new and some familiar – two of them are personal favorites, which I’ll be mentioning in Monday’s podcast episode (“Nine Creepy Victorian Short Stories”).

In the Introduction, Wells gives us a little recap of the short story form and its writers, as far as it had evolved in the late Victorian era.  He praises Kipling, whose writing “opened like window-shutters to reveal the dusty sun-glare and blazing colours of the East.”  J. M. Barrie also gets a mention, along with Henry James, Stephen Crane, Jerome K. Jerome, and Edith Nesbit.  Other contemporaries are listed, whose names are less known to modern readers.  Joseph Conrad alone is noted as having, in Wells’s eyes, continued in the 20th century to write pieces comparable to his pre-1900 work.

The golden age of short stories was not critic-free, Wells recollects.  For example, there was a question of what constitutes a short story.

There was a tendency to treat the short story as though it was as definable a form as the sonnet, instead of being just exactly what any one of courage and imagination can get told in twenty minutes’ reading or so.

Personally, Wells did not care to put a solid definition on what makes a “short story.”  In his view, a short story meant just two general properties, and those were a) “achiev[ing] the impossible,” and b) taking around 15–50 minutes to read aloud.

I have always enjoyed short stories, and to this day, I prefer them over novels.  They also appeal to me as a writer, because my inspiration tends to home in on a specific scene or piece of dialog, which doesn’t necessarily fit in a longer form.

What are some of your favorite short stories (or short story authors)?

Emily Dickinson in 10 Quotes

Yesterday, I finished reading a selection of letters written by Emily Dickinson (1830–1886). I read some of her best poems in my latest podcast episode, but really, her letters are even more interesting, showing us a glimpse of one woman’s life in mid-19th-century America. Here are some of the most memorable quotes from those letters.

Dickinson and Turner 1859 (cleaned)
This picture is unauthenticated but believed to show Emily Dickinson (left) and one of her friends, Kate Scott Turner, to whom some of the letters were addressed

Emily Dickinson in 10 Quotes on…
Being a Young Lady – 1845
How do you enjoy your school this term?  Are the teachers as pleasant as our old school-teachers?  I expect you have a great many prim, starched up young ladies there, who, I doubt not, are perfect models of propriety and good behavior.  If they are, don’t let your free spirit be chained by them.
Valentines – 1848
Many of the girls have received very beautiful ones; and I have not quite done hoping for one.  Surely my friend Thomas has not lost all his former affection for me!  I entreat you to tell him I am pining for a valentine.

Humor and Real Life – 1851

When I know of anything funny I am just as apt to cry, far more so than to laugh, for I know who loves jokes best, and who is not here to enjoy them.  We don’t have many jokes, though, now, it is pretty much all sobriety; and we do not have much poetry, father having made up his mind that it’s pretty much all real life.  Father’s real life and mine sometimes come into collision but as yet escape unhurt…

Missing Friends – 1853

…I thought of you all last week, until the world grew rounder than it sometimes is, and I broke several dishes.

Dickens and Stowe – 1853

[Father] gave me quite a trimming about “Uncle Tom” and “Charles Dickens” and those “modern literati” who, he says, are nothing, compared to past generations who flourished when he was a boy…so I’m quite in disgrace at present…

Ice-Cream – 1861

We have at present on cat, and twenty-four hens, who do nothing so vulgar as lay an egg, which checks the ice-cream tendency.  

The Fourth of July Fire – 1879

And so much lighter than day was it, that I saw a caterpillar measure a leaf far down in the orchard; and Vinnie kept saying bravely, “It’s only the fourth of July.”…Vinnie’s “only the fourth of July” I shall always remember.  I think she will tell us so when we die, to keep us from being afraid.

Her Father – 1880
The last April that father lived, lived I mean below, there were several snow-storms, and the birds were so frightened and cold, they sat by the kitchen door.  Father went to the barn in his slippers and came back with a breakfast of grain for each, and hid himself while he scattered it, lest it embarrass them.  

Sisters – 1883

Your bond to your brother reminds me of mine to my sister – early, earnest, indissoluble.

Doubt – 1883
We pray to Him, and He answers “No.”  Then we pray to Him to rescind the “no,” and He don’t answer at all, yet “Seek and ye shall find” is the boon of faith.

Though I’ve read a fair bit of 19th-century literature, Emily Dickinson’s letters showed me another side of it, through one woman’s life challenges and her own inner struggles.  Some of it made me smile, and some of it was heartbreaking.

I’m again reminded what a blessing the internet can be and is for those of us who live more introverted lives.  The ability to communicated with like-minded people across timezones and geography is so powerful.  It staves off some of the profound loneliness which people, especially women, have endured in times past, while bringing more perspective to our own ideas of the world.

Romanticism in Lord Jim

Despite a bit of a guilty feeling – not having finished The Brothers Karamazov yet – I was really in the mood to read Lord Jim.  This is my second or third attempt.  Previously I could hardly get past three pages; now I’m nearly a third of the way through and have definitely put BK on hold.

That’s not to the detriment of BK, but to the genuinely captivating prose in Lord Jim.  Once I finally get into a Conrad story, I become intrigued and entranced.  It doesn’t matter if I don’t always understand what is going on.  This novel, probably Conrad’s best-known after Heart of Darkness, is almost quite as surreal, reading like stream-of-consciousness, albeit very structured and subtle.  Part of this comes from a familiar voice: the narrator Marlow.  Ever loquacious, he recounts his perspective of the controversial seaman “Jim,” his trial, and his personality.

There is much to talk about, even so early on.  What particularly stands out are the echoes of Romanticism (and, at times, Melville-esque “Dark” Romanticism).  The story itself is simple: the ship Patna appears to be about to sink; the officers escape, leaving their passengers behind them, and Jim is one of those officers.  It is the psychology of the case that fills pages with nuances and further questions.

Conrad refers back to themes from Heart of Darkness, which he had published earlier that same year (1899).  Again, there is the idea that motives are complex, and that Kurtz is not so much an entity as he is a trait or alternative identity.

The commonest sort of fortitude prevents us from becoming criminals in a legal sense; it is from weakness unknown, but perhaps suspected, as in some parts of the world you suspect a deadly snake in every bush—from weakness that may lie hidden, watched or unwatched, prayed against or manfully scorned, repressed or maybe ignored more than half a lifetime, not one of us is safe.

Juxtaposed with this pessimism is the character of Jim.  He is fascinating because, like many Romantic or Byronic heroes, he is a product of his times and he strives for what he has not achieved – heroism.  Jim spent his childhood dreaming of being a hero, being always prepared to be a hero, yet ultimately missing opportunities and being confronted finally with what, from many perspectives, constitutes not only a disaster but a crime.

It was solemn, and a little ridiculous too, as they always are, those struggles of an individual trying to save from the fire his idea of what his moral identity should be, this precious notion of a convention, only one of the rules of the game, nothing more, but all the same so terribly effective by its assumption of unlimited power over natural instincts, by the awful penalties of its failure.