I may or may not have revealed by now that my dissertation director back at Cornell was a genius. Barely a day goes by when I don't use some piece of wisdom she bestowed on me in her inimitably wry way. One spring, when I was flushed with love and barely able to breathe, she looked me in the eye as I prepared to zip out her office door and said, "Work while you're hot." "Oh yes," I said. "Oh yes."
Today, I am invigoration itself. Not for the same reasons, to be sure. But I am going to follow her advice--after I tip out some of the excess things rattling around in this brain of mine.
The paperback edition of the newest translation of Tolstoy's War and Peace hit the bookstore sometime this week. Somehow, finding it this afternoon reminded me of what's waiting at the other end of this long month: time. Time to fathom what can be fathomed in the first reading of a 1400-page Russian masterpiece I haven't even allowed myself to think about for four years, lest it overwhelm my days. Which it will, if it's anything like Anna Karenina--and by many accounts, it's even better. The long masterpiece novel--the panoramic novel--is, for me, a genre of meditation, in a vastly different way than the lyric poem. It's entirely possible that my next book is going to be a meditation on this kind of meditation. Probably even with illustrations. "Do you have a teacher's manual that tells you how to read?" one of my first-year students asked me, when I was a first-year teacher. First-year incredulity met first-year incredulity. "No," I said. "Then how do you know what to do?" he replied. This question was an excellent one, precisely the kind of thing that only a student could show me I needed to consider. "I sit with the words," I told him. "I sit and I read them and I listen to what they're doing and I listen for echoes of things I've heard before and I watch for structures that eventually start to appear to my eye. It takes time. And patience. But this is beauty, right here: this paragraph is a beautifully structured paragraph." I don't know whether I convinced him. I know that I didn't get many "aren't you reading too much into that?" questions for the rest of the semester.
So now I have this new fat/phat copy of War and Peace, with its crazy chandelier, sitting to my left, and my just-arrived copy of Bechdel's Fun Home, sitting to my right on my office desk. And I have a belly full of omelet and ears full of music, just for the moment. And the sky is steely and open, dramatic in the very absence of drama it holds. And what I have between me and these books to my left and to my right: about three weeks. Though I'll tell you right now that I'll finish Fun Home before the day is through, on the principle of small rewards.
My dissertation director is not the person who taught me the principle of small rewards. This principle might be one that my friends and I developed collaboratively. It's also known as the small presents principle. When one has little money, little structure for one's time, and large tasks (like master's exams or a dissertation) to complete, it's important to break the time somehow. My friends and I decided that we could be compassionate to ourselves if we punctuated our work and recognized our accomplishments with small presents to ourselves. From where I sit--even though I'm not at home--I can see innumerable small presents I've gotten myself for one reason or another over the years: my pewter tadpole, my tiny geodes from the Children's Museum, my silver rings, my Ithaca Wisdom Snake, my steel bird. I can see the things that I've acquired with no money: the slips of blue and white china I found on the lakeshore in England two years ago, the rocks from Lake Ontario, the birds' nests, my photographs. I can see the things that have been given to me: the glass frog, the goose mug, the silvery new music machine, the bright quilt, the shiny teakettle, the poems, the student cards and notes. I am physically surrounded here. This afternoon, in front of the fiction shelves in the bookstore, with another friend's gift (a recording of Elliott Smith's "Angeles") in my ears, I realized that today I am columnar, grounded, pillared into focus in all the right ways for the things that need to come to fruition now.
And so, I flex my fingers, wait out a repeat of Smith's song, draw a breath for some completions. Some days are for finishing things. Today is one of them. And one of my small rewards for finishing the big things will be to read to the end of Fun Home--about which more soon, possibly tomorrow, possibly later (when I'll also tell you about 49 Up, which is just as good as, if not better than, I hoped it would be).
source for today's image: Amazon.com, bien sur.