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The Star-splitter

December 26, 2016

When I was a graduate student, we talked a little about imposter syndrome, although I don’t believe we called it that; most of the English graduate students I knew at the University of Maryland felt that we were trying to live up to something, some idea of ourselves as potential movers and shakers in the intellectual world.

One of the stories we told among ourselves was a kind of progression joke, about the person who woke up one day and suddenly found she had her PhD—what do I do, she wondered, what do I know? How do I teach these classes? Then she woke up and found she was president of the university. And then she woke up and found she was president of the United States. The speed of the progression was supposed to restore our perspective.

Perspective is skewed, though, after November 2016. When we were told as kids that anyone could grow up to be president, I don’t think we thought that meant this… we thought you had to be smart.

The presidential election is only one of the things that happened since I was a graduate student that has shaken my faith in the idea that the people in charge know what they are doing. I know professors and college presidents. My generation is starting to take over some of what was done by the previous generation, the “baby boomers” who have always been ahead of us, always seeming to know everything already. Never good at moving aside, however, not enough of them have retired to let us actually take over; they are moving aside reluctantly, as their wits falter or their bodies no longer carry them where they want to go.

Now it looks like there is no one ahead of me, guiding the way. There are people too obsessed with making a living to pay much attention to how they are living, and too old to continue doing things the way they’ve always done them before. It makes me think of the poem “The Star-splitter,” by Robert Frost:

“You know Orion always comes up sideways.
Throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains,
And rising on his hands, he looks in on me
Busy outdoors by lantern-light with something
I should have done by daylight, and indeed,
After the ground is frozen, I should have done
Before it froze, and a gust flings a handful
Of waste leaves at my smoky lantern chimney
To make fun of my way of doing things,
Or else fun of Orion’s having caught me.
Has a man, I should like to ask, no rights
These forces are obliged to pay respect to?”
So Brad McLaughlin mingled reckless talk
Of heavenly stars with hugger-mugger farming,
Till having failed at hugger-mugger farming,
He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And spent the proceeds on a telescope
To satisfy a lifelong curiosity
About our place among the infinities.

“What do you want with one of those blame things?”
I asked him well beforehand. “Don’t you get one!”

“Don’t call it blamed; there isn’t anything
More blameless in the sense of being less
A weapon in our human fight,” he said.
“I’ll have one if I sell my farm to buy it.”
There where he moved the rocks to plow the ground
And plowed between the rocks he couldn’t move,
Few farms changed hands; so rather than spend years
Trying to sell his farm and then not selling,
He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And bought the telescope with what it came to.
He had been heard to say by several:
“The best thing that we’re put here for’s to see;
The strongest thing that’s given us to see with’s
A telescope. Someone in every town
Seems to me owes it to the town to keep one.
In Littleton it may as well be me.”
After such loose talk it was no surprise
When he did what he did and burned his house down.

Mean laughter went about the town that day
To let him know we weren’t the least imposed on,
And he could wait—we’d see to him tomorrow.
But the first thing next morning we reflected
If one by one we counted people out
For the least sin, it wouldn’t take us long
To get so we had no one left to live with.
For to be social is to be forgiving.
Our thief, the one who does our stealing from us,
We don’t cut off from coming to church suppers,
But what we miss we go to him and ask for.
He promptly gives it back, that is if still
Uneaten, unworn out, or undisposed of.
It wouldn’t do to be too hard on Brad
About his telescope. Beyond the age
Of being given one for Christmas gift,
He had to take the best way he knew how
To find himself in one. Well, all we said was
He took a strange thing to be roguish over.
Some sympathy was wasted on the house,
A good old-timer dating back along;
But a house isn’t sentient; the house
Didn’t feel anything. And if it did,
Why not regard it as a sacrifice,
And an old-fashioned sacrifice by fire,
Instead of a new-fashioned one at auction?

Out of a house and so out of a farm
At one stroke (of a match), Brad had to turn
To earn a living on the Concord railroad,
As under-ticket-agent at a station
Where his job, when he wasn’t selling tickets,
Was setting out up track and down, not plants
As on a farm, but planets, evening stars
That varied in their hue from red to green.

He got a good glass for six hundred dollars.
His new job gave him leisure for stargazing.
Often he bid me come and have a look
Up the brass barrel, velvet black inside,
At a star quaking in the other end.
I recollect a night of broken clouds
And underfoot snow melted down to ice,
And melting further in the wind to mud.
Bradford and I had out the telescope.
We spread our two legs as it spread its three,
Pointed our thoughts the way we pointed it,
And standing at our leisure till the day broke,
Said some of the best things we ever said.
That telescope was christened the Star-Splitter,
Because it didn’t do a thing but split
A star in two or three the way you split
A globule of quicksilver in your hand
With one stroke of your finger in the middle.
It’s a star-splitter if there ever was one,
And ought to do some good if splitting stars
‘Sa thing to be compared with splitting wood.

We’ve looked and looked, but after all where are we?
Do we know any better where we are,
And how it stands between the night tonight
And a man with a smoky lantern chimney?
How different from the way it ever stood?

I like the line “the best thing that we’re put here for’s to see.” That’s how I like to think I’ve lived my life. In the last few years, though, while I haven’t succumbed to the temptation to install the app that replaces news stories with pictures of cats, I have avoided the news, to some extent. I haven’t made time to see, nor have I steeled myself to deal with the consequences of seeing. Instead, I’ve often contented myself with “mean laughter” at people I considered more ignorant.

What are the consequences of seeing? When you get much of your news reposted from social media, it can be something like in the poem: “If one by one we counted people out/For the least sin, it wouldn’t take us long/To get so we had no one left to live with.” So finally I decided it was time to subscribe to newspapers again, starting with the New York Times and the Washington Post. Right now I don’t much like reading them; I’ve fallen out of the habit. But I’m making myself do it, as it’s one of the best ways to support efforts to find out the truth and for a reader to figure out what is true in an era of fake news.

A lot of my friends are devoting themselves to one political cause—education or local government or environmental issues, and that seems like a good response to their need to do something. My response doesn’t seem as good. It’s what “ought to do some good if splitting stars/ ‘sa thing to be compared with splitting wood.” It’s not practical. It’s not much of an action.

But it is a worthwhile endeavor–to try to become more wise instead of just more curmudgeonly as I get older, here in this small town in “flyover country,” in a “red state.”

It’s the way I know how to continue to work towards becoming a person others can follow. It’s like when my kids got old enough to start picking out a catnip toy to drop into the cat’s Christmas stocking, and then as they got older, we let them put a few things into other peoples’ stockings, and then we finally gave them a turn at what we call “dropping in” on Christmas Eve night, when all the stockings get mysteriously full. If you want to believe in Santa, then your family has to create a Santa tradition to believe in.

If I want a star to follow, then I guess eventually I’ve got to find a way to give off more light. And the only way I really know how to do that is to keep learning more, keep learning and looking for new ways to share it.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. December 26, 2016 7:34 am

    Nice post. I can’t believe I never read that poem; I thought I read all of his; maybe I skipped the “long” ones LOL. I did some grad classes at U. of Md. – to be honest, I can’t remember much of anything except that a prof forced us to learn to use the internet, and of course, that turned out to be very beneficial! :–)

    • December 26, 2016 9:47 am

      I think there are a lot of lesser-known Frost poems; it’s easier to find “other” ones by using something like the Poetry Foundation now that we have the internet. But I’m still in the habit of going downstairs, where most of our books are, to find something I half-remember.
      I was at U of MD 1983-1990.

      • December 26, 2016 10:49 am

        I’m pretty sure I was there in 1990. But I went at night because I had a full-time job. I don’t remember hardly anything, can you believe it!

        • December 26, 2016 10:52 am

          We moved to Ohio in December 1990; that fall I was dissertating, rather than taking classes. We overlapped, but not really!

  2. December 26, 2016 11:48 am

    I know what you mean about realizing that the grown ups, the people who run the world, don’t know what they are doing! That realization is perhaps the scariest part of getting older. Great post.

    • December 26, 2016 12:01 pm

      Adults who can stay curious, like the guy in the poem who was only a “hugger-mugger” farmer but a lifelong searcher, are the ones I want to see in charge of more things. I think many of them (like me) would not consider running for public office, though. I’d volunteer to do something if no one else was available or interested, but I’d never put my name on a ballot.

      • December 26, 2016 1:36 pm

        Agreed. Often the people who most crave power are the ones who definitely should not have it.

  3. December 26, 2016 1:07 pm

    In reading this, it sounds like you are feeling what I am, and what other friends of mine have said in so many words. We’re it, we’re the ones who need to (or get to if you’d prefer to reframe it in a positive way) step up and actively act toward what we want.

    My first response to your post was to think of what I’d been told was a quote from Gandhi (be the change you want to see in the world). Only he didn’t actually say that. What he did say, though, is just as applicable:

    “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

    Or to put it more simply: batter up (and I am the batter now).

    • December 26, 2016 2:02 pm

      I like that Gandhi quotation because it clears up what I never understood about the shorter version, how to actually do it. “To be” can be a very vexing verb. The part about not waiting, though, makes sense.

  4. December 27, 2016 10:02 am

    It is a startling discovery of adulthood to find out that no one knows what the heck they are doing including the people you always assumed did. But we muddle through and find our own way and do what we can the best we can.

    • December 27, 2016 10:08 am

      I would like to see more experts in charge, using their expertise!

  5. December 27, 2016 2:33 pm

    I, too, have subscribed to the New York Times and am making myself read it (not just the book sections, which is what I usually only read before.) I have also been guilty of burying my head in the sand, but that won’t cut it any more. One of my goals for the New Year is to find any way in which I can participate in community-building and kindness. Social isolation and social media vacuums have in part led us here to this point. Thanks for this post.

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