Much has been written about the infamous year, 2020. There is nothing I can add to the litany of tragedy, isolation, economic deprivation, and feckless political/presidential leadership. Maybe that is why on some days my concentration has been “off.” Like others, my mind has been cluttered by the simultaneous merging of anxiety, disbelief, and worry—not to mention frustration. (FedEx lost or destroyed a shipment of my mail, delivering instead an empty package and charging me for the delivery! And USPS is still promising to deliver a Priority Mail letter I sent three weeks ago.) Such challenges burden a distracted mind, one already fatigued and listless from semi-quarantine.
This state is perhaps what prompted me to design one of the most memorable Christmases I’ve had. After checking in with family and friends—many via Zoom—I built a fire in the fireplace and settled down to read a book—just for pleasure. I read, uninterrupted, for what turned out to be four hours. During that time, I got the closest I have come, in these last ten months, to a sense of peace. Essays of E.B. White is a collection of short pieces by the master of that genre, mid-20th century author E.B. White, the acclaimed writer of countless New Yorker Magazine essays and author of children’s books including classics Stuart Little (1945) and Charlotte’s Web (1952). The essays he wrote from his Allen Cove farm in Maine are a symphony of joyful wonder at the lives and personalities of his animals and his neighbors—and the persistent necessity to manage this idiosyncratic bunch. His love of the place is evident in his observations of the feisty geese, his irascible Dachshund, and the trespasses of an aggressive fox. The simplicity of the moment and White’s turn of phrase made me smile and utter repeated chuckles. The locals added the spice.
While White’s political observations are sprinkled with quizzical annoyance and occasional indignation, he bestowed on his DownEast farm a prose unmatched in elegance and insight. Often, he would add larger points to news of the day. In describing the experience of a runner who had broken a recent record, for instance, White quotes Jim Bailey not long after he had made his run.
“‘I have no sensation of speed when I run’ [Bailey] said, ‘and I never know how fast I am going.’”
White stops and observes: “Such is the case with most of us in this queer century of progress. Events carry us rapidly in directions tangential to our true desires, and we have almost no sensation of being in motion at all—except in odd moments when we explode an H-bomb…”
By now we have grown accustomed to the H-Bomb and its unthinkable capacity for destruction. Instead, it is COVID-19 that has shocked us. We were unprepared for it. And because of that, it has called into question all our earlier assumptions and brought our harried lives to a screeching halt.
Like many who love nature—and today many of us are trying to reconnect with it—White pushed against the kind of change that distorts the natural flow of things; the “progress” that has mechanized the relationship between man and the world around him.
“I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority,” he wrote.
This will be a book I will always associate with Christmas, a favorite gift given to me by one of my literary daughters. And I will take it with me when I return to Washington DC, when we confront a new chapter in our nation’s history. I will reflect again on the conflict White found in the motivation and drive of New England writer, Henry Thoreau, known for his pursuit of the simple life. Thoreau’s musings in Walden must have reminded White of himself—a man keenly at home in the countryside but attracted to, if often at odds with, the vanities of teeming city life. Both locales, he acknowledged, draw on impulses that create an irreconcilable dilemma.
“Walden,” White observed, “is the report of a man torn by two powerful and opposing drives—the desire to enjoy the world…and the urge to set the world straight.”
Wouldn’t we all love to set the world straight right now? But our effective capacities as a nation may only be able to do that once we have re-centered ourselves, simplified our lives, and drawn some conclusions from our current experience. At that moment we could be re-inspired by the richness of White’s perspective, and even the poignancy he describes in trying to stay human in the modern world.
Sending you and your family my best wishes for 2021.