I’m Not Running The Show

“There’s a similarity in the quality of the daily life” on the road and in the monastery, Mr. Cohen said. “There’s just a sense of purpose” in which “a lot of extraneous material is naturally and necessarily discarded,” and what is left is a “rigorous and severe” routine in which “the capacity to focus becomes much easier.”

Zen has also helped him to learn to “stop whining,” Mr. Cohen said, and to worry less about the choices he has made. “All these things have their own destiny; one has one’s own destiny. The older I get, the surer I am that I’m not running the show.”

— Leonard Cohen, interviewed by Larry Rohter, in the The New York Times

The Boy In The Moon

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Dr. Wang turns to me. “Do you have any questions?” “Just one. For the past few summers, we’ve rented a cottage in Georgian Bay, a couple of hours north of Toronto. It’s a very remote place, very quiet. An island, no one around but us. Walker seems to love it. It changes him, calms him. It means a lot to me, that place, and how it changes him. Will I ever be able to explain all that to him?” Dr. Wang shakes his head. “Not rationally, probably not. But” — he stops, thinks — “it sounds like he already understands it.” Another pause. “The Buddhists say the way to enlightenment, to pure being, is by getting your mind out of the way. I’m not trying to be trite, but Walker already knows how to do that. He is pure being. He may be developmentally delayed, or moderately retarded, but in that way, he’s already miles ahead of most of us.” This is the first time someone suggests Walker may have a gift the rest of us don’t. On my desk at work is a picture of Hayley reading to Walker. This was up north, on the quiet island. They are lying side by side on a bed, and Walker is looking up at the book in Hayley’s hands, as if riveted by every word. I’ll never know if he understood a syllable. But he can hear her voice, is thrilled to be with her and clearly grasps his smart big sister’s affection. He has become the moment and it has become him, because he has nothing else to be. Walker is an experiment in human life lived in the rare atmosphere of the continuous present. Very few can survive there.


The problem, Dr. Blumberg said, lies in our unwillingness to accept that a handicapped life has real value, especially if the value is subtle and hard to quantify. “Families often do find raising a handicapped child a gift, despite the hardship,” he said. “It creates new relationships, reveals new capabilities. The trick is to give up the idea of the potential child and accept the actual child.” Dr. Blumberg is familiar with medical catastrophe. He was blinded in one eye as a boy while helping his father spread fertilizer. He went on to become a doctor via some of the best universities in the world. “It’s arrogant of us to assume that these states are inferior to the normal state,” he said. “If you have an IQ of 60, that’s a serious handicap in our society. But if you’re a migrant farm worker, it might be fine, plenty. So who is to say that the state of non-verbal rapture you describe in your son — who is to say that that is inferior? Who is to say that? We’re arrogant enough to believe that sentience is all that counts. It’s not all that counts. A sequoia is not a sentient being. But they count. There is nothing more magnificent. It doesn’t require me to think about it to be in awe of it. I don’t want to minimize the difficulty of raising a handicapped child. It says something about the place we have reached as a society that doing so creates a serious handicap in these contexts. But it’s just a mistake to think of them as lesser than. There’s no lesser than. There’s just different from. It isn’t just great minds that matter. It’s great spirits too.”

— Ian Brown, in The Globe and Mail

Time To Stand And Stare

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare. 

— from “Leisure,” by W.H. Davies

“People walk up the escalator, they look straight ahead. Mind your own business, eyes forward. Everyone is stressed. Do you know what I mean?”
Let’s accept that we can’t look at what happened on January 12 and make any judgment whatever about people’s sophistication or their ability to appreciate beauty. But what about their ability to appreciate life?
We’re busy. Americans have been busy, as a people, since at least 1831, when a young French sociologist named Alexis de Tocqueville visited the States and found himself impressed, bemused and slightly dismayed at the degree to which people were driven, to the exclusion of everything else, by hard work and the accumulation of wealth.

If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that — then what else are we missing?

That’s what the Welsh poet W.H. Davies meant in 1911 when he published those two lines that begin this section. They made him famous. The thought was simple, even primitive, but somehow no one had put it quite that way before.

There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.

— Gene Weingarten, from The Washington Post

The Roots Of Modesty

So this is where civility comes from — from a sense of personal modesty and from the ensuing gratitude for the political process. Civility is the natural state for people who know how limited their own individual powers are and know, too, that they need the conversation. They are useless without the conversation.

The problem is that over the past 40 years or so we have gone from a culture that reminds people of their own limitations to a culture that encourages people to think highly of themselves. The nation’s founders had a modest but realistic opinion of themselves and of the voters. They erected all sorts of institutional and social restraints to protect Americans from themselves. They admired George Washington because of the way he kept himself in check.

But over the past few decades, people have lost a sense of their own sinfulness. Children are raised amid a chorus of applause. Politics has become less about institutional restraint and more about giving voters whatever they want at that second. Joe DiMaggio didn’t ostentatiously admire his own home runs, but now athletes routinely celebrate themselves as part of the self-branding process.

So, of course, you get narcissists who believe they or members of their party possess direct access to the truth. Of course you get people who prefer monologue to dialogue. Of course you get people who detest politics because it frustrates their ability to get 100 percent of what they want. Of course you get people who gravitate toward the like-minded and loathe their political opponents. They feel no need for balance and correction.

Beneath all the other things that have contributed to polarization and the loss of civility, the most important is this: The roots of modesty have been carved away.

–David Brooks, The New York Times

One Of Reverences

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…but more her sense of wonder, her openness to the possibility of wonder in herself and others. It underlines in her an unexpected warmth and delicacy. The openness has always been a kind of survival strategy too: for all its fierceness – and after she recorded her debut album, Horses, in 1975 and found herself on the path to being a rock star, defiance – her career has been one of reverences, of chasing and collecting icons and relics and friends from whom she could learn the things she needed to proceed. It’s a pleasingly unironic predeliction: “I’m not an ironic person,” she once said. “I’m not always articulate, and sometimes I’m just crap, but I’m never ironic.”

The trouble was, Smith’s motivations were never to stand for anything but herself, particularly not any political movement, however worthy. She continued to explore wordscapes and the soundscapes that might make them live; her accidental career gave her choices, and the freedom to travel. But it didn’t give her, eventually, the satisfaction or integrity she craved. So she left – she met Fred Smith, married him, and moved to suburban Detroit, becoming a non-driver (she is too dyslexic) stranded in a land of cars. “That’s where he wanted to live,” she told an interviewer some years ago. “He was the man.”

Those who looked to her as a feminist pathfinder felt betrayed. They accused her of selling out, called her a “domestic cow”, a phrase that clearly still stings. “I was still a worker. Some people said, ‘Oh, well, you didn’t do anything in the 80s – first of all, to be a mother and a wife is probably the hardest job one can have. But I always wrote. I wrote every day. I don’t think I could have written Just Kids had I not spent all of the 80s developing my craft as a writer.”

Whenever anyone does something of worth, including myself, it just makes me happy to be alive. So I listened to that song all morning, totally happy.” Her face lights up, her eyes shine. And I think that the joy she finds in these things, the searching for them, the openness to them, the wanting to do them herself, are, finally, so much more interesting than being held to any creed; more interesting, more inspiring, and far more profound.

— Aida Edemariam interviews Patti Smith for The Guardian

We Emerge Out Of Relationships

First, the unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind, where many of the most impressive feats of thinking take place. Second, emotion is not opposed to reason; our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason. Finally, we are not individuals who form relationships. We are social animals, deeply interpenetrated with one another, who emerge out of relationships.

You get a different view of, say, human capital. Over the past few decades, we have tended to define human capital in the narrow way, emphasizing I.Q., degrees, and professional skills. Those are all important, obviously, but this research illuminates a range of deeper talents, which span reason and emotion and make a hash of both categories:

Sympathy: the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups.

Limerence: This isn’t a talent as much as a motivation. The conscious mind hungers for money and success, but the unconscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task or the love of God. Some people seem to experience this drive more powerfully than others.

–David Brooks in The New York Times

A Life Worthy Of An Adult

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As a whole these volumes work not by synecdoche or metaphor, beauty or drama, or even storytelling. What’s notable is Karl Ove’s ability, rare these days, to be fully present in and mindful of his own existence. Every detail is put down without apparent vanity or decoration, as if the writing and the living are happening simultaneously. There shouldn’t be anything remarkable about any of it except for the fact that it immerses you totally. You live his life with him.

…a life filled with practically nothing, if you are fully present in and mindful of it, can be a beautiful struggle. In America we are perhaps more accustomed to art that enacts the boredom of life with a side order of that (by now) overfamiliar Warholian nihilism.

My “struggle”! The overweening absurdity of Karl Ove’s title is a bad joke that keeps coming back to you as you try to construct a life worthy of an adult. How to be more present, more mindful? Of ourselves, of others? For others?

You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there…. That’s being a person…. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty.

That’s the comedian Louis C.K., practicing his comedy-cum-art-cum-philosophy, reminding us that we’ll all one day become corpses. His aim, in that skit, was to rid us of our smart phones, or at least get us to use the damn things a little less (“You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kinda satisfied with your products, and then you die”), and it went viral, and many people smiled sadly at it and thought how correct it was and how everybody (except them) should really maybe switch off their smart phones, and spend more time with live people offline because everybody (except them) was really going to die one day, and be dead forever, and shouldn’t a person live—truly live, a real life—while they’re alive?

–Zadie Smith on Karl Ove Knausgaard in The New York Review of Books

Fill the Void

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What the film makes clear, with unfailing sensitivity and wry humor, is that for Shira and her family the ordinary arrangements of living are freighted with moral and spiritual significance. Their routines are dominated by prayer, ritual observance and obedience to Jewish law, but their world does not seem narrow and austere. On the contrary, it is at times almost unbearably full of feeling and significance.

— A. O. Scott reviews “Fill the Void” in The New York Times

Trailer here.

Leonard Cohen

Does he learn anything from writing them? Does he work out ideas that way?

Leonard Cohen: I think you work out something. I wouldn’t call them ideas. I think ideas are what you want to get rid of. I don’t really like songs with ideas. They tend to become slogans. They tend to be on the right side of things: ecology or vegetarianism or antiwar. All these are wonderful ideas but I like to work on a song until those slogans, as wonderful as they are and as wholesome as the ideas they promote are, dissolve into deeper convictions of the heart.

–Dorian Lynskey interviews Leonard Cohen for The Guardian