In October of 2019, Professor Emerita at Wichita State University and poet Jeanine Hathaway was a visiting writer at the Ghost Ranch Fall Writing Festival in Abiquiu, New Mexico, and on Thursday, October 10 delivered a talk, “Idleness/Enchantment,” to a full house in Agape Gathering. Those of us who came early were lucky enough to find seats in (and I do mean “in”) the large overstuffed black leather chairs and sofas the size of a small boat. Those who wandered in later were stuck in wooden chairs that you might find on a porch or deck, and metal chairs, the bottom-pinching kind, that we have all experienced in church basements. How better to listen to a talk on idleness than scrunched down in a comfy nest where I was not required to take notes or prepare questions? As I knew it would be, Jeanine’s talk was laced with thoughtfulness, wisdom, linguistic play, and thankfully, some poems from her newly published collection, Long After Lauds. There were questions after she finished her presentation. Mine was simple and did not require much thought on my part: “What do you plan to do with this essay now?’’ Jeanine’s answer was equally simple, “I don’t know.”
That was my opening: “How about giving it to me and letting us publish it on the Center for Poetry blog sometime in the near future? I knew our Poetry Center followers who were not fortunate enough to be in Agape Gathering would love to hear (read) what Jeanine had to say. What is missing from the text here is Jeanine’s voice, the musical quality of her everyday talk-self, the pauses she slipped in for emphasis, or for pondering, and the wry humor that may not be as easy to pick up on the printed page as it is when Jeanine gives that sideways look. Despite those losses, I hope you will both contemplate and enjoy what she has to say here, how it might make you think differently about creating space in your life for idleness, which can ultimately lead to enchantment. To wonder. Don’t we all want to be wonder-full?
Anita Skeen 20 January 2020
FALL WRITING FESTIVAL Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico: October 10, 2019
Please forgive me. I prepared what follows as a talk, cavalier about keeping track of where I found excerpted phrases by others. A few citations are embedded in here but nothing academically rigorous. For smooth delivery, I mentioned the sources generally but not the appropriate bibliographic details. All the poems are from my recently published poetry collection Long after Lauds (Slant Books, 2019).
Love, Jeanine Hathaway
IDLENESS / ENCHANTMENT
- Here we are. We’ve come to Ghost Ranch, bringing with us hopes and goals, our desire to be prompted, kick-started, creative, productive. We of the 21st Century, post-industrial, even post-steampunk, digitally plugged-in, cyber-espressoed—We’ve paid good money, re-arranged schedules, made all our arrangements, even all our contingencies’ arrangements to be here now. We’ve looked forward to a fresh landscape, new people or old friends, perhaps secretly half-wishing for no cellphone service. After all, this is The Land of Enchantment. I mean, officially. We have made the choice to be enchanted. We have expectations. The minute we set up expectations, it’s as if the Trickster wakes up.
The gruff curator expects more of us, a tide
of schoolkids maybe after a long ride, bus rowdy,
to his makeshift sea lab, tanks cleaned. Terms
on the white-board wall color the language
of mollusk, cephalopod, sea star, anemone.
Only two of us show up, ambling along the beach,
our glasses smeared by sea spray and drizzle.
The man, heavy, bewhiskered Navy vet, bad back,
decides to withhold more than he’ll teach. “Go on.”
We’re free, hands on, to poke inside the tubs.
Your fingertip sinks down a sea star’s arm;
tube feet feel their wet way up to the foodless air.
My fingertip nettles an anemone, pink petaled
succulent, friction in the barbs. Stinging
nematocysts, they poison inedible me.
The curator from his stool across the lab grunts.
I head for the sink, touch nothing but soap and
scrub. All he’ll hear from here on: a woman
his age washing, not clapping, not the brilliant
applause he’d spent the morning setting up for.
- In his book, The Work of Enchantment, philosopher Matthew Del Nevo suggests “it is a lack of enchantment in rich developed countries that causes soul-starved Westerners to experience mental (and sometimes physical) illness.” Del Nevo argues that “this ‘enchantment’ is most often experienced in childhood, but can also be found in adulthood, particularly through art.”
Once upon a time, a medieval nun experienced “mystical lactation.” Enchantment can have strange physical consequences.
ONE OF THE PRACTICAL MYSTICS
On reading Margaret Eben, c. 1300
No Magi clomping down the spotless cloister
hall, no Holy Family packing up for flight.
Past Epiphany, it’s just the sculpted Baby
who lies in Margaret’s cell.
Candles glow, their miracle of beeswax
melting into wings around the Infant. Now,
urgently incarnate, he’s fussing in his alabaster hay.
On hearing—look—the nun unties her gown,
draws her shawl across the gap between what
we can see and what she means to do. One could
name it more than need, but no one else is there,
a stone cold baby’s crying — what should a busy
woman offer but a sweet, her own, the overflow?
- “However, adults must cultivate within themselves the ability to appreciate art by a kind of prescription of reading, listening, and gazing, activities often misconceived in advanced industrial societies. . . Enchantment may be found in the power of words, as an expression of the desire of the soul, a complement of melancholy, and in art that points to something beyond itself. . . . [The Work of Enchantment], inspiring and enlivening, is ‘a stirring call to idleness.’” (from a book review)
This phrase “a stirring call” is what captured my attention. I mean, that’s the point: wonder! awe! vital attentiveness! We can’t be ‘enchanted’ if we’re distracted. And most of the time, distraction is our condition. “How much longer? Are we almost there? Did I remember to? OMG! Look out!”
“The power of unobtrusive, silent things [is] to make the world whole again; to invade the blatant world of noise and despair and bring it back to hope and love and faith. . . . There is an immeasurability in happiness that can only feel at home in the breadth of silence” (The World of Silence, Max Picard).
Of course that’s how silence does reveal itself.
I want to hear it but there’s the beep
of a forklift in reverse; there’s the ringing
in my ears. A bug crashes against my
daughter’s high frequency curls.
Refrigerated food breaks down despite the cold
and there’s the deafening deconstruction
of this make-do bookmark, this postcard written
by my mother days before she died. In church
the interpreter wears solid colors, a curtain
behind her hands’ deft evocation of God
whose beguiling privacy unsettles
the heart, the “lub” addressing its twin,
the other side of the river
where women wash work clothes, the shift-change
siren of sweat released into larger bodies
of water, where a sister’s hand will slap
the surface, introduce rhythm by skipping a beat.
- How do you feel when you hear the words “Once upon a time” said in that storytelling voice? Most of us, iron filings to the magnet, are drawn to attuned attention. Oh! A story! Once upon a time, we believed in transformation, metamorphosis. Magic. Wolves dressed as grandmothers. Brothers became swans. Trees spoke. The etymological root of “magic” is “magus,” wise one. As we matured according to what our culture called wisdom, though we may still put out cookies for Santa, we were trained to be skeptical, not to believe so willy-nilly in those old tales that held us marvelously spellbound as children. But now and then we call up the feeling—that feeling of possibility, that feeling of possibility that flips or undermines our determined prospect of inevitability. We plot for consequence as if we could control fate. We even say, well, “no wonder”—what a loss. To be without wonder? We’re drawn then to pay attention because we hope the moment may hold beauty. It’s only in a moment that magic can happen. Enchantment “is the possibility of being captivated by the beautiful” (Del Nevo, 3).
Exhibition of a Rhinoceros at Venice (1751)
Commissioned to paint her in situ, Pietro Longhi is sketching
downstage the sturdy Indian Clara: her dimpled vertical folds,
her riveted armor of skin. Wheat straw’s in a loose pile,
a few gold shafts in her mouth as if birdlike she’s making
a nest that edges off the frame; piling out the other end,
a mound of offal like loaves city birds expect to pick through
after the show. Brought to entertain the borghese of Venice,
she’s a curiosity in an age of curios, entitled ladies in pleats
and dominoes, tricorn hats. Clara’s horn detached; in his right
hand, her keeper Douwemont Van der Meer waves it and a whip,
a relic and threat in a city awash in Chistian body parts.
It’s carnivale when citizens demand what’s unexpected.
Patrons pay artists to render a record shaping what
later they cannot believe they saw. All Clara’s years,
watched and crated, she’s made her expectations clear.
Venetians in galleries with elegant disgust regard how
she enjoys what she is given, her usual post-show meal:
oranges, tobacco, a bottomless bucket of warm Dutch beer.
Scholastic philosophers say the characteristics of Beauty are wholeness; harmony; radiance. Wholeness: a piece has integrity, it’s all there. Harmony: the parts or aspects are in a kind of cooperative conversation with one another. Radiance: sometimes translated as Luminosity: the piece enlightens its (spiritual) environment. If it has a USB port, it could charge it.
- Here’s the thing: If we approach the world in our usual distracted way, we can appropriate but we cannot consciously apprehend or appreciate what’s here. How can we? How can we be “captivated by the beautiful” if we’re moving on to the Next Thing, like running a marathon through a museum? Or if we’re disappointed by x because we were expecting it to be y, like the sea lab curator? Or if we can’t spend that much time on the details because it doesn’t move us toward our goal? (Even as we know, we never reach the horizon, right?)
LANDSCAPE OF THE MIND
Wit-struck, the mind takes a stride off the side of its boat,
the Tempus Fugit. Don’t look down, says the divemaster.
Watch the horizon. Eight hours into this 12-hour drive,
it’s all horizon, geological forms that undulate, thrust,
and flatten as they did when this was a nameless stretch
of seabed. Cholla pointed back to bottle sponges,
tumbleweed, corals, lavender, and plankton brushed
mesa tops. This submersible I’m driving, finless, on I-40
is an egg-laying 45-foot marine lizard’s hallucination.
As she is mine, tired from steering only forward. Doing
nothing, the mind invents, populates its landscape out of
its briny past. Even when there’s no wind, currents carry
the remnants of old storms. Wreckage scoots me a little
toward a trench. Above, the blue surface, where foam rolls
spray and spindrift, breakers spill, darkening cumulus.
The evening rain’s begun. Eighteen-wheelers light up;
RVs fishtail in their wake; I turn on my headlights. White-
knuckled, off cruise control, don’t stop. At the critical depth,
diver, by breathing you can maintain neutral buoyancy.
- Here’s an anecdote about a friend’s coming to terms with her dead mother. She’d read a review by NYer art critic Peter Scheldahl who said he didn’t like the work he was reviewing. BUT, he wrote, if he did, this is what he would have liked. My friend’s relationship with her mother had been fraught in life, but death gave her the distance to look in an emotionally unfettered state at the woman. And she was able then to say, I didn’t like my mother, but if I had, this is what I would have liked about her.
Notice what’s needed for such a redemptive stance: willingness and what Thoreau calls “attuned idleness” or “the unfettered state” that brings our world, the world that is us, into us. That “idleness” the Italians call dolce far niente, the sweet nothing-doing. Sometimes when I’ve had enough of my own species, I go to the zoo. See how other animals seem to do nothing while enrichments texture their idleness. I watched the elephant and because she reminded me of Indian art I’d gazed upon, I saw her transformed in my imagination.
IMAGINING THE ANTIDOTE
to my species’ means to thrive
(guile, lust, preening, cowardice—
the list spreads, splits and ages)
unscientifically I roam the zoo.
A husky elephant trainer whispers,
Wanna cop a feel? meaning to lay a treat
with my whole hand in trunk-uplifted
Cimba’s mouth. If I say yes, she’ll glow
Hindu blue, elongate her earlobes, wave
her many hands full of manifest charms.
She smells of sandalwood and undigested hay.
On the slick pink pillow of her tongue
I plop my hand and a small sweet potato,
an offering the size of, say, a child’s heart.
- Idleness, then. Or idleness now. “Idleness is what happens when we thwart the impulse to plan forward and instead enjoy the present” writes Sven Birkerts in his essay, “The Mother of Possibility” (Lapham’s Quarterly, Fall, 2010). Of course it still carries associations unwelcome in our get-ahead culture: Idle hands are the Devil’s tools; idle minds the Devil’s playground. When we’re stopped, having maybe a driveway moment and the car is idling, we’re wasting gas, and probably time. Ever since churches put clocks in their towers, we’ve associated, architecturally, Time and the Deity.
The heart is but a small vessel, yet
there are lions: Saint Macarius
in his homily, of the heart. Home,
hot, I open my upper chamber door,
its frame swelled tight; I squeeze outside.
At the far end of here, bees tease out
an orchard. Closer, the gardens thrive;
inedible weeds feed cheaply the fowl
confounded by flung greens, ecstatic
at beetle and grub, just cause for cocky
hosannas or fights. There’s a stone wall.
Goats clamber, boulder to bucket,
defy again the electrified fence,
catch with both horns their browse, the fruit
tree’s overhang. Macarius follows:
rough uneven roads; there are
precipices in the heart. Even
in my state, flat as a sermon, wind.
Heartland weather’s precipitous,
roughs us up, indifferent. Or strategic.
Because There also is God, the life
and the kingdom, the light which I’m free
to blow out, withdraw into the dark, snug
fit for a smallish vessel, still allowing for,
you know, some lions.
For all its bad rap, idleness is still a lovely word, a kind of summer vacation word, a good tan word. Birkerts again: “Idleness is not inertness…nor is it laziness…or any form of passive resistance… nor prayer, meditation, or contemplation (though it may carry tonal shadings of some of these states.” It may establish a similar atmosphere. It slows us down to a kind of idyllic pace, though the words “idyll” and “idol” don’t share an etymological root with “idle,” they do rub up against one another: idyllic meaning ideal in a bucolic or Edenic way, and idol implying a false god. “There’s a long-standing connection, a harmony, between literary expressions of idleness and the invocation of the gods.” We’re told a god created Adam and Eve to enjoy being idle, but nooooo, they had to wreck the idyllic by succumbing to the idolatrous. “Be like god,” hissed the Serpent. “Take a bite.” Maybe it was their leisure, their very idleness, that afforded them the landscape, the mindscape, the vast soulscape to become aware of the possibility of a “Beyond” and thus was born the opportunity for temptation. Imagination and curiosity thrive in such hospitality.
The consequence of that “follow your bliss” Fall from Grace was work. But a child doesn’t know it’s work.
HOW IT BEGINS
At two, you learn to mulch short rows beside the stone fenced orchard.
Your parents fork then rake through compost easy in their chores until
startled by a shadow twitch, your mother ekes out
the name of your father who, now unfocused, lifts his head, as her keen edge
guides his gloved hand courageous toward the sunny stripe that parts
rye grass from granite. One foot long, the dangled snake reveals
its copper back, its belly private crimson. Toddle a fresh furrow,
earnest in your boots. You lean in to kiss what you hadn’t known was there.
Close by, the apple trees hum, your mother’s bees fuss in the petals.
For us, “work” means Be productive. Get ahead. For sure, kill to get ahead of the person next in line, even if as with Cain and Abel, that person is your brother. And the story goes on, nose to the grindstone, fingers to the keyboard. One of the memorable lines from “Downton Abbey” comes from the famously wealthy Dowager asking: “What is ‘a weekend’?” She could afford not to know. The rest of us, downstairs, reflect upon those upstairs as we work.
My whole life I’ve been a sub, took this
job nearly forty years ago when the real
teacher moved and I was flattered and broke.
Who’s been doing my work while I’ve covered
for quitters, resigned, and absent?
Who covers for me now and what are they
paid? What are their hours? Can they afford
exotic vacations, more personal days—
and how do they dare take my personal days?
In the dark of night, I know myself to lie abed
at prayer; for whom? Who is the I who knows
who prays? It’s getting urgent. What comes next
when I put down the briefcase, the grade book
and glasses? For whom do I retire and where?
On their 401k, I’m stuck in the house
that’s never been home while I’ve maintained
and paid off their mortgage, got siding though
vinyl if final doesn’t substitute for wood. Would
they want me to pull a few weeds while I wait
for them to come plant their permanent gardens?
I hope they don’t have pets; good Lord, I don’t
want to walk their dogs in this late Spring rain.
- Some cultures have kept at least a portion of “the weekend” for Sabbath, a work-gap marked by receptivity and an interior dilation for the human spirit to recall greater realities than what’s in the Day Planner. Idleness of this sort is a form of assent, with no agenda of progress, no line on the C.V., no accounting (no counting except the three stars that once visible mark the start of shabbat, according to the natural rhythm of the world). Idleness suggests that what it is is sufficient. Let us be fully present-to-the-present as it is—because it opens itself and us to the union we knew and felt unselfconsciously once upon a time.
WHAT WORLD DO YOU WANT
The tulip world. Husk and bulb
winter over under ground
yet premature always this green
shock of shoot through leaf mash
blown snow and slush brew.
Now muck then a cup of color,
say, curiosity first, then praise.