And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. — John Steinbeck
I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone! —Ebenezer Scrooge
In March of 1973, a Mr. Nadeau sent a letter to E.B. White, the famed New Yorker writer and author of Charlotte’s Web, expressing his hopelessness about the state of humanity. Considering the state of political affairs today, especially in the U.S., we have good reason to revisit White’s encouraging and hopeful letter of reply:
North Brooklin, Maine,
30 March 1973
Dear Mr. Nadeau:
As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.
Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.
Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.
E. B. White
I typically read a couple books at one time. When someone asks, How can you do that?, I always reply, “Well isn’t that what you did in college or high school? Didn’t we have to read multiple books at once?” Sure we did, and I guess the habit (or more accurately, my lack of focus) has stayed with me. Well right now I’m reading both a history book and a book of selected letters of Mark Twain.
Now, if you’ve read this blog you may have detected my affection for Twain. He is, in my view, one of the finest writers this soil has ever produced. His humor and charm hit you solidly between the eyes through that trademark prose.
Last night I read these words in the opening of a letter Mark Twain wrote to Frank Burrough. It brought a good laugh and as always contained a grain, if not a bushel, of truth.
My dear Burrough,
As you describe me I can picture myself as I was 22 years ago. The portrait is correct. You think I have grown some. Upon my word there was room for it. You have described a callow fool, a self sufficient ass, a mere human tumble-bug imagining that he is remodeling the world and is entirely capable of doing it right. Ignorance, intolerance, egotism, self-assertion, opaque perception, dense and pitiful chuckle-headedness—and an almost pathetic unconsciousness of it all. That is what I was at 19 and 20 and that is what the average Southerner is at 60 today. Northerners too of a certain grade. It is of children like this that voters are made. And such is the primal source of our government! A man hardly knows whether to swear or cry over it.
I should note, Mark and I are both southerners and neither of us take any offense to the self deprecating humor. And that’s largely because it’s painfully true…
In a book I recently bought, I came across this fascinating poem by William Stafford.
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.
Like many readers, I suspect, I like the poem even if I’m not sure exactly what it means. Stafford’s meaning is enigmatic, yet mysteriously attractive. There is something deeply alluring about poetry that takes us to the edge of our understanding and leaves us there searching the depths of our soul.
In 1977 Stafford was asked if he could paraphrase his poem to provide greater insight into it’s meaning.
“When it’s quiet and cold and we have some chance to interchange without hurry, confront me if you like with a challenge about whether to me my life is actually the sequence of events or exploits others would see. Well, those others tag along in my living, and some of them in fact have played significant roles in the narrative run of my world; they have intended either helping or hurting (but by implication in the way I am saying this you will know that neither effort is conclusive). So – ask me how important their good or bad intentions have been (both intentions get a drastic leveling judgment from this cool stating of it all.) You, too, will be entering that realm of maybe-help-maybe-hurt, by entering that far into my life by asking this serious question – so: I will stay still and consider. Out there will be the world confronting us both; we will both know we are surrounded by mystery, tremendous things that do not reveal themselves to us. That river, that world – and our lives – all share the depth and stillness of much more significance than our talk, or intentions [bolding added]. There is a steadiness and somehow a solace in knowing that what is around us so greatly surpasses our human concerns.”  — William Stafford