Monday, October 23, 2017

Halcyon Days

The word for these golden fall days is "halcyon." The colors of the changing leaves are magnificent, and the temperature is perfect—low sixties creeping improbably into the seventies from time to time, with cool nights and bright stars.

Yes, but how are we to respond? Each moment is perfection in itself. Why do anything? But we must do something. It's the definition of poetry: the intensification and exaltation of experience.

I'm not a poet. So I spent the day Thursday repairing and regrading the window well behind the magnificent yew bushes just outside our living room windows. All the while, I was thinking to myself, "I should be reading Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici." But first things first.

I dug out five inches of soil from the well while lying on my stomach behind the bushes, and replaced it with two bags of cherry stone pebbles, wondering as I did so if anyone really appreciates how beautiful cherry stone pebbles are. I used the excavated dirt to shape the drainage away from the house, topped that with a sheet of landscape fabric and a few bags of cyprus mulch, and had a lightning flash of intuition that sent me back to Home Depot to buy a five foot piece of drain pipe to extend the nearby downspout out beyond the roots of the shrubs into the yard.

The weather on Friday was so inviting that Hilary and I drove down to Rice Lake State Park, one of the least celebrated parks in the state, but a mere ninety minutes from the Twin Cities. We camped, we hiked the perimeter of the park, past golden leaves and cattails rustling in the gusty wind. We ate chips and dip for dinner, washed it down with a bit of bad sauvignon blanc, then looked up at the brilliant stars beyond the branches of the naked branches overhead, faintly lit by flickering campfire light. The Orionid Meteor Show was at its peak...but we saw nothing along those lines.

The next morning I was awoken by a flash of lighting—or the headlights of a car passing by on the gravel loop road around the campsite. Thunder a few seconds later, then the rain arrived. Ten flurried minutes later we were packed up and in the car, only half soaked ourselves, headed for Owatonna in the dark with the smell of wet manure coursing through our nostrils.

We ate breakfast at The Kitchen in downtown Owatonna, bought a pumpkin in the dark at the farmers' market in the town square, and stopped for another cup of coffee at a place called Goodbye Blue Monday Coffee House in downtown Northfield.

The place was bubbling with activity. A large group of men sat around a long table near the front window. Closer to us, five young women were discussing an event they had all attended the previous evening, though I never gleaned what it was. The street outside was still fairly dark, but the long  warm room inside was well-lit, colorful, and filled with animated chatter—a sort of ideal vision of funky intellectual stimulation and collegial gemütlichkeit

I was only a little disappointed to discover that the women behind me were discussing, not Hegelian dialectic or even the novels of Doris Lessing, but their pets. One of them was trying to find someone, without quite asking outright, who would agree to give her "million dollar cat" shots twice a day while she was gone on a four-day trip to Madison.  (There were no takers.)

Northfield was hosting its annual art crawl that morning. (Before we left the house I had printed out a map pinpointing the participating galleries and studios.) But the event wasn't set to open until ten, and by that time, we were back home again, sitting comfortably in front of another fire. It was still drizzling, but not a single drop had penetrated the window well in the basement.

In the midst of this pleasant hygge (pronounced "hoo-ga," I'm told), I turned, finally, to Religio Medici by Sir Thomas Browne, the English essayist whom I had been eager to get a handle on for some time.
[Music] unties the ligaments of my frame, takes me to pieces, dilates me out of myself, and by degrees, mee thinks, resolves me into heaven.
Yes, music. I fetched my 12-CD collection of the keyboard works of William Byrd, a composer Browne himself might have listened to. Upon first listen, years ago, I got the impression that this set was actually composed of a single CD reproduced 12 times. I am now convinced that a harpsichord doesn't sound exactly like a virginal or a muselar. There's a good deal of exploring still to do here.
I love to lose myself in a mystery, to pursue my reason to an "o altitudo." 'Tis my solitary recreation tp pose my apprehension with those involved enigmas and riddles of the Trinity, with Incarnation and Resurection. I can answer all the objections of Satan, and my rebellious reason, with that odd resolution I learned from Tertullian, "Certum est quia impossible est."
Browne is sometimes thought of as an English Montaigne, but that French skeptic fueled his reflections on Horace and Ovid, while Browne seems more concerned to reconcile Christian doctrine with human reason, or at least to conjecture how much of experience lies beyond reason's purview. 

The two writers share an easy command of prose, always curious, often bemused, never strident. Browne is credited with adding more than a hundred new words to the English language that are still in use. Quite a few of his neologisms have since vanished from the lexicon, too, hence the need for the lengthy but easy-to-use set of notes in the back, which help us to figure what, for example, dissentaneous and improperations mean.   

One of Browne's favorite words is indifference, which he uses to describe, not the attitude we might have toward an idea or thing, but a point or issue itself that is not so important as to demand our assent. An indifference is a position that we can take or leave to suit our whimsy, or suspend judgment on altogether, entertaining it, as it were, without embracing it wholeheartedly--the way that we vacuously enjoy a halcyon afternoon in front of the fire, well knowing that a long string of less agreeable days lies ahead.

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