21. The last freeze of winter

For what one hopes is the last freeze of winter. At dawn the air still crackles wickedly, but its echoes fade with the night, and as the sun clears the spiderweb treetops the bite of morning dulls into a muddy coolness that grows more distant by the hour. The day takes command so pompous and full of itself that you begin to think winter this time has truly gone. The thought comes oddly bittersweet, as if an annoying and detested roommate has finally moved out, one whose departure you longed for, prayed for, crossed off each calendar day until and beyond his promised leaving, and now in the reverberation of the closing door you fear you may miss him after all. But in the silence of his absence you hear the birds singing, and a little breeze ruffles the grass, and you find you have forgotten him already. You hope, this time, for good.

20. The uninvited squirrel

For the uninvited squirrel. Lithe as an acrobat, quiet as a leaf, round-bellied as a stone Buddha, he arrives in a distraction and is gone as quickly as starlight. No one announced him, but there he is at the buffet, bullying your guests and scarfing up the canapés. The hodgepodge hungry wait their turn while he gorges on prosciutto and melon. Turning to the meatballs he catches your eye and freezes. But what are you going to do? He’s so damn cute. Call the waiter: he’ll bring more.

19. The broken clock

For the broken clock that keeps its own time. On our arrival it heralds the dawn, too late, too slow, like a robin with a hangover. At lunchtime it still languishes in early morning — or has it raced ahead to quitting time? When we would gauge the progress of the afternoon, it appears to have stopped, its second hand quivering just south of four. Freed again it passes us in our late-day torpor, and when at last we are done with our work, it has moved on to evening. Is it fast or slow, or merely unconcerned? Here where the sun is not permitted to shine, none of us can be sure. We each must keep our own time.

18. Hypothetical connection

For hypothetical connection. Two strangers talking over a counter, the one ringing up groceries, the other sipping his coffee. Words slip through the buzz. “He could be so much better than he is,” says the one. “If he sticks around he could be so much better next year.” The other nods. “I think the kid just needs a cheerleader.” This boy, his presence only imagined, hanging too easily in the air over a loaf of bread and a bag of chips. A troubled youth. A basketball player? Two strangers over a grocery counter: the only boy held by both in common would be public knowledge, public property, everyone’s business and no one’s responsibility. We can comfortably analyze his sins, safe from seeing the inevitable reflection of our own. We can chastise without resentment, prescribe without consequence, sympathize without hope—hope being the most dangerous consequence of all. And having done our duty, pass over in ignorance the real presence around us. The woman buying a thank-you card needs a cheerleader. The man in line behind her could be so much better than he is. Who knows?

17. One man with a sign

For one man alone with a hand-lettered sign, standing on the busy street corner. Cars fly past, too hurried to read his words, their desert wake ruffling his hair but not his determination. Grimly he stares them down; grimly they ignore him. His eyes challenge the people on the sidewalk as they approach, but most are too lost in their phones to notice the urgency of avoiding his gaze. The rest find sudden fascination in a cloud, a license plate, a speck of broken glass. What does he need so urgently to tell them? Some fool’s errand, no doubt — but every errand needs its fool. If you have not the courage to stand alone, who will stand with you? How dare you ask?

16. Sore muscles

For sore muscles that justify the sabbath to the restless mind. My mind, when tired, only races faster, careering from slippery thought to slippery thought, finding no purchase, until at last it stumbles weary into some rocky oblivion, and wakes still restive. The body, wiser, simply flags and quits. Enough, it says, and the mind acquiesces. A well-warranted pillow awaits. Tomorrow both should get some rest.

15. Young streams

For streams in a hurry to get to the river on the first day of spring. Swollen from the lackadaisical trickles of summer, awakened from the chilly slumber of winter, reborn from the endless rains of March, they rush along muddy slopes and cascade gleefully over ridges, leaping rocks, bubbling, laughing, gleeful, silly. In an awful hurry. To get to the river — and then what? To join the river’s double-time march to the sea? To roll down the slow-eroding plains to the sea, to be dismembered and disappear into the great waters of the earth? Slow down, just a little, maybe. Life is shorter than you think.

daffodils in the woods

14. Feral flowers

For feral flowers gone a-ramble over roots and moss, from the tumbledown stones of a life’s foundation. From the mossy bones of a house that must once have been tidy, must once have been kept tidy by her who planted the bulbs whose blooms return each year long after her own has faded from the earth. A streak of gold in the slow-greening woods, a proud adornment to a modest house. Now in defiance of all sense and logic the adornment outlives the adorned, and by the grace of God and springtime has come to pay its respects. Flowers that mark the grave of a life, of lives once made and joined and shared. Of a way of life gone from this place, and too quickly by us forgotten. The earth remembers.

daffodils in the woods

13. Unnecessary bridges

For unnecessary bridges. The rickety aged and patchwork bridges we walk over too many times, for too many miles, feeling them rack and wobble and sway, fearing they may collapse and send us tumbling headlong into streams we might as easily have waded. A well-timed leap would clear them. Or one poorly timed; what are wet socks to lingering fear encouraged by a useless habit? What are muddy shoes beside a clawing need for safety? Why must our way be always made straight? But here: a new one. Its wood still ammber-fresh, its posts straight, its railings square, unchecked, unsplintered. Only three paces to span a mere kitten of a creek, barely a muddy ditch in a dry spell. But with letters proudly routed on the tread: Charles E. Johnson, Eagle Scout. The aid is no more needed for being well meant, but the effort seems to compel a grateful use. So I’ll take the clean boards under my feet, at least for today, and God bless you, sir.

Does the physical task of writing shape our words?

These thirty-six miseries of reading and writing in 1806, penned by the pseudonymous Mssrs. Timothy Testy and Samuel Sensitive, are (like most anything written two hundred years ago) a mix of the familiar and the archaic. The first will, I expect, be true as long as there are writers and readers:

1. Reading over a passage in an author, for the hundredth time, without coming an inch nearer to the meaning of it at the last reading than at the first; — then passing over it in despair, but without being able to enjoy the rest of the book from the painful consciousness of your own real or supposed stupidity.

But many of the complaints remind me that writing, especially, used to be a complexly physical affair, one that required the writer to engage with physical objects and his own surroundings in a way that made him subject to their own natures and demands, and not merely to his own — and slowed him down as a result. Here are just a few of the indignities I did not have to suffer in writing this blog post:

24. Emptying the ink glass (by mistake for the sand glass) on a paper which you have just written out fairly — and then widening the mischief, by applying restive blotting paper….

27. In sealing a letter – the wax in so very melting a mood, as frequently to leave a burning kiss on your hand, instead of the paper: — next, when you have applied the seal, and all, at last, seems well over — said wax voluntarily “rendering up its trust,” the moment after it has undertaken it….

33. Writing, on the coldest day in the year, in the coldest room in the house, by a fire which has sworn not to burn; and so, perpetually dropping your full pen upon your paper, out of the five icicles with which you vainly endeavour to hold it….

At first these complaints inspire amusement, maybe, and some combination of gratitude and feelings of superiority that we have better means of writing today. We have Open Office, and WordPress, and at a minimum the very nice fountain pen with which I initially drafted the main ideas of this essay. But being someone who writes both ways, by hand with a fountain pen and with various “text editors” on a computer, I wonder to what extent our means really are better. They’re more convenient, certainly, but do convenient means necessarily produce better ends, or even ultimately save time? And, specifically, how does the physical process of writing (or relative lack thereof) change not only the way we write but what the reader sees?