The down side of being the person in your group of friends and relatives and co-workers who makes the tinfoil suits for dead bees is that when things get busy, you’re not essential. This week, the 17-year-old didn’t need me to bring his forgotten lunchbox to school, texting me that he would buy a lunch. I get his e-mails from the colleges that have accepted him–one of them my own–singing their own praises in an amusing dissonance with the work I’m doing to wind up the semester. The students who work for me don’t heed my deadlines; since they know I’m unlikely to do much except inquire when they can turn it in, they let that ball drop (everything cannot be mandatory). My friends are all very, very busy working. Since the weather has warmed up, the cats don’t need my lap, and Chester, who as Ron’s grandmother would put it has “one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel,” doesn’t know that it’s me he needs to give him a bite of canned food every time I’m in the kitchen. Finally, of course, as in the original version of the joke by David Sedaris, Ron doesn’t need my help to do the taxes.
I walk outside the Kenyon library and see people sitting in circles on the grass, girls dressed for dance making weird gestures with their arms underneath the sculptures we call “angel butts,” girls in their summer dresses. I think about a recent photo tour of Oxford and read W.H. Auden, who did not always spend this time of the semester wearing the blinders of being too busy:
Nature is so near: the rooks in the college garden
Like agile babies still speak the language of feeling;
By the tower the river still runs to the sea and will run,
And the stones in that tower are utterly
Satisfied still with their weight.
And the minerals and creatures, so deeply
In love with their lives
Their sin of accidie excludes all others,
Challenge the nervous students with a careless beauty,
Setting a single error
Against their countless faults.
O in these quadrangles where Wisdom honours herself
Does the original stone merely echo that praise
Shallowly, or utter a bland hymn of comfort,
The founder’s equivocal blessing
On all who worship Success?
Promising to the sharp sword all the glittering prizes,
The cars, the hotels, the service, the boisterous bed,
Then power to silence outrage with a testament,
The widow’s tears forgotten,
The fatherless unheard.
Whispering to chauffeurs and little girls, to tourists and dons,
That Knowledge is conceived in the hot womb of Violence
Who in a late hour of apprehension and exhaustion
Strains to her weeping breast
That blue-eyed darling head.
And is that child happy with his box of lucky books
And all the jokes of learning? Birds cannot grieve:
Wisdom is a beautiful bird; but to the wise
Often, often is it denied
To be beautiful or good.
Without are the shops, the works, the whole green county
Where a cigarette comforts the guilty and a kiss the weak;
There thousands fidget and poke and spend their money:
Weeps on his virginal bed.
Ah, if that thoughtless almost natural world
Would snatch his sorrow to her loving sensual heart!
But he is Eros and must hate what most he loves;
And she is of Nature; Nature
Can only love herself.
And over the talkative city like any other
Weep the non-attached angels. Here too the knowledge of death
Is a consuming love: And the natural heart refuses
The low unflattering voice
That rests not till it find a hearing.
The ending of the poem reminds me of the ending of Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Animal Dreams:
“We’re at the edge of the field, far from other people. We stand looking out into the middle of that ocean of alfalfa. I can see my mother there, a small white bundle with nothing left, and I can see that it isn’t a tragedy we’re watching, really. Just a finished life. The helicopter is already in the air and it stays where it is, a clear round bubble with no destination, sending out circular waves of wind that beat down the alfalfa. People duck down, afraid, as if they’re being visited by a plague or a god. Their hair is blowing. Then the helicopter tilts a little and the glass body catches the sun. For an instant it hangs above us, empty and bright, and then it rises like a soul.”
I admire the way these two endings lift up and even farther up, offering readers a perspective on what they have been examining so closely. This time of year, it takes “all the jokes of learning”–and all its perspectives–to keep me focused on trying to be kind, continuing to do what is not essential.