Why now, in this sunset portion of my life, has the intense desire to learn so overwhelmed me?
by Charlie Leck
I’m talking to myself in this blog; but the problem is that I'm not answering me, so you get mainly questions and, between them, long pauses marked by riveting silence.
I’m rushing toward my 70th year. The years pass swiftly and there is nothing one can do to slow them, even as much as one would like. Time’s haste gets incrementally faster with each fleeting year. All now seems so ephemeral.
Why do I now feel so compelled to read so much, and to learn so many things that I should have absorbed years and years ago?
Why am I only now reading the Frederick Douglass autobiographic work? Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave should have been required reading in high school, or certainly in college. It wasn’t! I read it today and fell captive to it. It answered a few questions, but raised so many more. It’s simple reading. High school kids could easily handle it and it would mean so much – especially to African-Americans. No black kid in America should fail to read Frederick Douglass.
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” [Frederick Douglass]
“The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery. I loathed them as being the meanest as well as the most wicked of men. As I read and contemplated the subject, behold! That very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come, to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish. As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast. I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Anything, no matter what, to get rid of thinking! It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me. There was no getting rid of it. It was pressed upon me by every object within sight or hearing, animate or inanimate. The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.” [Frederick Douglass]
I hope black kids are being taught about Frederick Douglass.
Why have I read so little Faulkner? I build a sizeable stack of his works and put them on a small table near my desk, to remind me.
“A mule will labor ten years willingly and patiently for you, for the privilege of kicking you once. [William Faulkner]
I’ve rushed lately through all the short stories of Eudora Welty. What a powerful writer! Such mysteries bound in spectacular sentences. Her characters come to life and you feel you are close to them, near enough to reach out to them. Why did it take me so long to find her? Perhaps I would not have appreciated her in my youth.
“Greater than scene is situation. Greater than situation is implication. Greater than all of these is a single, entire human being, who will never be confined in any frame.” [Eudora Welty]
Why does a rather new and complex friend of mine not like the work of the essayist, Patricia Hampl? (“I wouldn’t care what Hampl ever said!") Is it important? Have I time to understand. I pull one of Hampl’s works from the shelf and read a chapter. How can you not appreciate her? I should read her again.
“She managed to generate several microseasons in that garden out of the single rushed one Minnesota makes of spring and summer. Each of her seasons had its crop of flowers that gave way to another, different breed and then to another – from tulips to lilies to asters and petunias, through roses and more roses (which always required a scissors for cutting, though in general hands were the instrument in that garden) until only things as sturdy as the mums and the dry red flames of the salvia were left in the shadowy corners by the shed. Finally even those were cut back or taken indoors, and she was back again on her knees burying the bulbs that would start it all over again next year.” [Patricia Hampl]
I’m tempted to pull a Jane Smiley (13 Ways of Looking at the Novel). She determined to read 101 novels in the period of three years. She made a list and began. She did it without rushing. It's about one novel every 10 or 11 days. A few times she couldn’t handle a particular book. She scratched it and added another to her list. I could make a list of 100 books I should have read. It might be a good exercise.
“If to live is to progress, if you are lucky, from foolishness to wisdom, then to write novels is to broadcast the various stages of your foolishness. This was true of me. I took up each of my novels with unwavering commitment. I did not begin them by thinking I had a good subject for a novel. I began them by thinking that I had discovered important truths about the world that required communication…. But at the end of each novel, I would more or less throw down that lens along with that subject. My curiosity was always about how the world worked, what the patterns were, and what they meant. I was secular to the core, and I investigated moral issues with the dedication only someone who is literally and entirely agnostic would do – my philosophical stance was one of not knowing any answers and not believing that there were any answers.” [Jane Smiley]
Get hold of yourself! Don’t be so frantic! You’ve learned what you’re going to learn! Just enjoy now whatever comes along. See a bunch of great movies you should have seen. Read some books you should have read. Play some golf courses you should have played. Take better care of your body! Exercise! Eat better! Surprise everyone by living another 10 years.
“Float like a butterfly! Sting like a bee!” [Mohammed Ali]
I’ve got a game plan for all these things. Fate, give me but the time!