Pine trees, saxifrage, and the artistic temperament in minor key

Obvious as it is, I sometimes forget that I only met my parents and those of their generation after they were already much older than me — than I still am. I forget it because in the things that matter to me — religion, philosophy, and ideas, for instance, they let me hold my own. They take me seriously; perhaps more seriously than I deserve, and have for quite some time. Then I am a bit surprised to hear how their experience of growing up is similar to mine, but also strikingly different.

I was walking back from school a couple of days ago (unlike today, when I drove), thinking about moods, and how noticeable they are sometimes, hardly even pretending to justify their intrusion; about seasons, how I never expect to notice them, and always do, but partly unconsciously, showing up in moods and how I sleep and eat and so on; about the saxifrage growing up through the cracks in the sidewalk; about how this tension between wanting to be a good employee and also wanting to be a Christian and an artist (or a poet, or a poem… probably the latter, since my work ethic isn’t good enough to be a real artist) is probably the exact same tension artists are always complaining against, fighting with; how it must be the same tension I would sometimes hear rumors of in youth group through sermons and youth sorts of music about “not selling out.” My sympathies and all my habits lie very far on the side of doing whatever presents itself with only the least consideration for practical matters, so I thought that the practical side of life gets a bit of a bad rap. Actually, I ought to write lesson plans, even if that interferes with my attempt at becoming a good poem. Even if I should miss out on enjoying a dusky mesquite. Although, of course, I also ought to appreciate the mesquite, and the singular way in which the twists of its branches create a pleasing negative space, and use that to inform my lesson plans if I can. But even if I can’t, my obligation to enjoy it isn’t less than that to plan for work, only they’re obligations from different spheres, and the poetic obligation has — and deserves — a much greater sympathy.

Something that great novelists often show — especially great Russian novelists, it seems — is the peculiarity of a person old enough to be self-conscious, yet young enough to greet the world with effusive gladness simply because it is the world, and is beautiful. The saxifrage in the sidewalk, the great oak tree, the brilliant sky, the sticky green leaves in the springtime. But this kind of affection escapes being cliche because it is also true; the world is beautiful, and it is a true human reaction to kiss the earth in gladness or delight in the peculiarity of this tree, this sunrise, this thunder storm. But we’re also moderns, educated in cultural exhaustion and irony, so we’re complexly, self-consciously, almost ironically delighted, like Ivan Karamazov.

My father posted an essay today — not quite the essay he had promised, but a good one all the same. He had promised one on world-view, but ended up writing a little autobiography instead, With Apologies to Duke Ellington.

I had never cared much about English classes: I read a great deal on my own, during classes before and after school, and during the great swathes summer vacations cut in the year. In the first semester of my first year in college, at NAU in 1968, I took an English class which had an emphasis in literature. My eyes, as they say, were opened. I began keeping a journal for class. I lived with the ghost of Thoreau as I took walks in the woods, feeling one as he did with the pine trees. I had no more need of companionship than he; solitude was my mistress. But to my journal I confided that what I really wanted was to be normal. I wanted to play in pick-up volley ball games with boys and girls of my own age. I had to figure out what normal was, what “normal” meant. This problem haunted me for years.

My experience was quite, different, and in some ways wasn’t. I was learning to be Orthodox and struggling with how foreign the world of Education so often is from my own internal sense of order. I learned in college that people think me smart, that I could hold my own in a conversation; a problem which haunted me perhaps as much as that of being normal. We live with the strange phenomenon of having to all learn how to be the same and different — but that we must also live through that, and not simply bypass it or solve it with quick and simple answers. That seems very strange. One has to learn to break out of the mold of society and be alone with the trees, the sunset, and one’s view of life; to follow one’s art — just like everyone else.

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3 thoughts on “Pine trees, saxifrage, and the artistic temperament in minor key

    • That was more or less stolen from G K Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, where he introduced a minor character as (paraphrased) “The young man with the fiery red hair was more of a poem than a poet.”

    • Not paraphrased:

      The place was not only pleasant, but perfect, if once he could regard it not as a deception but rather as a dream. Even if the people were not “artists,” the whole was nevertheless artistic. That young man with the long, auburn hair and the impudent face—that young man was not really a poet; but surely he was a poem. That old gentleman with the wild, white beard and the wild, white hat—that venerable humbug was not really a philosopher; but at least he was the cause of philosophy in others. That scientific gentleman with the bald, egg‑like head and the bare, bird‑like neck had no real right to the airs of science that he assumed. He had not discovered anything new in biology; but what biological creature could he have discovered more singular than himself? Thus, and thus only, the whole place had properly to be regarded; it had to be considered not so much as a workshop for artists, but as a frail but finished work of art.

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