Crumbs From the Corner: Adventures in Woolgathering

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Just Another Day

Six years ago Spouse and I lived for a brief period in a small apartment in California. It was at this time of year that we moved in and I was not long in the country. At about five thirty one evening I stood gazing out the window of our third-floor living room. I was waiting for my Spouse to return from work. I watched as a car swiftly rolled into its alloted place directly under our window. Oddly, nobody exited, and, curious, I continued to peek from my vantage point. There was a man inside and he was scribbling furiously on some sort of card. His hand was moving so rapidly that it was a faint blur. Finally he put the card into a red envelope which he sealed. He climbed out of the car and went into his home.
A moment later another car pulled up and slid into the next parking space. Again, nobody came out quickly. I saw, once more, a hand moving faster than a bird, working on some sort of writing. The man finally left his car and went into his home.
Not two minutes after that, a third car returned home. This time the man was not performing penmanship but nevertheless he staggered out of his vehicle verily weighted down with balloons, a cake, and what appeared to be chocolates in a decorative, ribboned box. He, too, went into his home.
I could not understand what I had seen.
Some short while later my Spouse returned. He was, of course, empty handed. I queried what on earth the reason might have been for the display. We eventually discerned that it was Saint Valentine's Day and those men were all hurrying to bring gifts to their wives. We had not remembered the event. I had not found the sight of two hastily written cards and a man with an entire store's worth of gifts in the least bit romantic; the fury with which the cards were written put me in mind of fearful fellows who were merely doing their level best to survive the evening without putting a foot wrong. I made my Spouse promise there and then never to return home with armfuls of anything remotely linked to Valentine's Day. He never has and I am thankful.
Rather than dismiss all notions that I do not care for, I shall go a step further and actually clarify, for the occasion, what I do consider to be romantic. One will find many a traditional gesture missing from my delivery. Certain elements require more explanation than others and more clarification.

To begin, I expect that it is proper to define what I mean by romantic. I propose the word to stand for anything that makes one feel humble in the world but at the same so much a vital part of the clockwork of life. That one feels able to accomplish anything; that one can find beauty in the most unexpected things, be it a pebble or a rose or the stretching sweep of the sky. Any one thing which can capture the profundity of being alive and wanting to know things and of wanting to see, ought to be considered romantic.

A striking scene in a novel: Touie, the wife of Arthur Conan Doyle. In the novel 'Arthur and George' which I have paid homage to at another time, Touie was ready within a few minutes to prepare to join her husband in a new life. She was a character with no recriminations and in that scene she had just one question: "when do we leave?" followed by a gentle statement, "then I must be quick" before she put away her needlework and prepared to pack. As regards adventure, capacity for change and compromise, she was the ideal companion.

An almost wordless scene in a film: 'The Thin Man', from 1934. William Powell and Myrna Loy were incredible in this film. They played Nick and Nora Charles, a husband and wife detective team. The strong willed Nora Charles could save her husband's life in one scene and resume her knitting in the next. That is classy, that is adaptable and that is devotion. In my favourite scene from the film Nick is in the study comforting a young lady he has known since her childhood; she wishes him to solve a mystery involving her father and is devastated at the turn of events. The kindly fellow wraps her in his arms and offers her some solace. His wife, oblivious to the arrival of the visitor, strides into the room with a drink in hand for herself. She stops short. The younger lady, her back to Nora Charles, is not aware of another party in the room. She is crying too loudly to notice anything.
Suddenly, then, the husband and wife are looking at each other, he holding another woman. He soon recovers. He asks his wife through facial expressions, "what are you looking at?" and makes a gesture at his wife, who promptly makes a face in return. She sticks her tongue out; he does some eye rolling. Nora then gracefully makes her presence known and the young lady apologises for crying so much and for being a nuisance. Nora, without missing a beat, passes her drink to the person who needs it most and tells her not to worry, that everything will work out fine.
I am partial to that scene; it would not work, I believe, in a modern film.
Today, Nora would in all likelihood have thrown the drink in her husband's face, slapped the crying lady and marched out to pack a suitcase.
I have a profound respect for the scene in which the couple merely looked humorously at one another before taking gentle care of their guest.

Mathematics as an elegant whole is unimaginably romantic. There follows a puzzle I enjoyed in a book by Martin Gardner:

The Fork in the Road: A logician found himself on an island inhabited by two tribes. One always tells the truth and the other group always lie. The traveller is suddenly at a fork in the road and he is unsure which path to take, right or left. He must ask somebody but he has no way of knowing the truth-tellers from the liars. There is but one question that he can ask in order to get the correct answer. What is the question?
Ask one of them "if I ask the other, what will they say?" The opposite of the answer given is the true one regardless of which tribe is asked. Is that not magic?

Remaining on the mathematical theme, the next passage is from 'Mister God, This is Anna,' by Fynn. Anna is a tiny child who loves the beauty of mathematics and wonders about everything on the earth. She attends school and clashes with her teacher who is trying to teach the children to count.
"You have seven sweeties in one hand and nine sweeties in your other hand. How many sweeties have you got altogether?"
"None," said Anna. "I ain't got none in this hand and I ain't got none in this hand, so I ain't got none, and it's wrong to say I have if I ain't."
Brave, brave Miss Haynes tried again. "I mean pretend, dear, pretend that you have."
Being so instructed, Anna pretended and came out with the triumphant answer, "fourteen."
"Oh no, dear, " said brave Miss Haynes, "you've got sixteen. You see, seven and nine make sixteen."
"I know that," said Anna, "but you said pretend, so I pretended to eat one and I pretended to give one away, so I've got fourteen."

The path of mathematics seems endless and as long as we pursue answers the pace of mysterious life will not slow. Numbers continually astonish and vex us; they are magical.

Romantic, certainly, are the poems wherein the writer offers everything he has, and more. Thoughts, dreams, soul are being offered amid abject poverty and hardship. The poet entreats that the very sky would belong to his beloved were it in his power to offer it:

The Cloths of Heaven, by William Butler Yeats

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Love of one's country and of the earth is generous, humbling and decent. Learning how to kindly tend the planet is the most suitable education for learning how to take care of one another.
"You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of your grandfathers. So that they will respect the land, tell your children that the earth is rich with the lives of our kin. Teach your children what we have taught our children, that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves."
So said Chief Seattle when settlers sought to purchase the land he and his forefathers had lived upon.

There is romance in loving something, anything, so much and for so long that it literally falls apart.
This passage is from 'The Velveteen Rabbit', by Margery Williams. It is set in a children's nursery and the conversation is taking place among the toys.

"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
"I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.

"The Boy's Uncle made me Real," he said. "That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."

Romantic, too, is caring for one's new home as much as the old one left behind; wishing to be in two places at once; the ability to put down a new set of roots.
'The Seven States of California' and 'Gone the Rainbow, Gone the Dove' depict my two homelands with such delicacy and poignancy that, merely by opening each book, I am already home. Both of these authors love the respective places they write about and it is readily apparent.

I ought to include here the romance of hearty discussion in which there is no right and wrong- only debate at once polite and passionate which seeks to listen and learn as well as to teach. We each have something to offer and the wisdom it requires to understand this concept is beautiful indeed.

Rocks, stones, leaves, soil: how romantic it is to identify beauty in something that does not offer an obvious return! A courteous appreciation that in its turn benefits the giver.

Romantic ideals and love have, it seems, become tragically mingled. Contrary to popular belief, each can in fact exist peacefully without the other. Expectation kills romance. Look, and see; take a walk and show somebody, any person, a flower while it grows instead of paying for a dozen to be delivered to a doorstep on a very familiar and expected day when weary resignation might lurk without showing its face.
Perhaps this offers a helping hand toward understanding why Spouse and I are outside the Valentine's Day Circle and why we intend to remain so.

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