Woke up to find the street full of owls. How many of us get to write a sentence like that more than once in a lifetime?
There was owlish hooting and more back-and-forth hooting and loud hooting then muffled hooting, so I got up and went to peer out at the dark road. Owls in the catalpa tree, owls in oaks, owls on fences. A conference of owls. If you stay sober, mysterious things happen. (Of course, if you stay drunk, mysterious things happen too, but that is because you can’t remember much about anything, a debased order of mystery.) The white stretches of grass are stiff and pointy with dew, darkened with dog prints and bird tracks. The sun is eating up the dew. The owls have flown away.
When I can’t sleep (and I sleep like the proverbial log), I sit up in bed reading fiction, philosophy, collected letters, biographies, recipes, travel books, theories about physics or the Enlightenment or why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings. Reading is elemental. As Helen Vendler argues here:
Without reading, there can be no learning. The humanities are essentially a reading practice. It is no accident that we say we “read” music, or that we “read” visual import. The arts (music, art, literature, theater), because they offer themselves to be “read,” generate many of the humanities—musicology, art history, literary commentary, dramatic interpretation. Through language, spoken or written, we investigate, describe, and interpret the world. The arts are, in their own realm, silent with respect to language; amply showing forth their being, they are nonetheless not self-descriptive or self-interpreting. There can be no future for the humanities—and I include philosophy and history—if there are no human beings acquainted with reading in its emotionally deepest and intellectually most extensive forms. And learning depends on reading as a practice of immersion in thought and feeling. We know that our elementary-school students cannot read with ease and enjoyment, and the same defect unsurprisingly manifests itself at every level, even in college. Without a base in alert, intense, pleasurable reading, intellectual yearning flags.
The former art teacher has been taken by ambulance to the city, into a very expensive and pretentious retirement home/frail care centre with fake Italianate villa surrounds and lollipop topiary in courtyards, accountants leaning over the nurses’ shoulders, highways buzzing with traffic and sirens. She has lived in the quiet village for decades and spent her days painting farm cottages, herons by the river and mountains with snowy peaks.
To our amazement, she is ecstatic about this transplantation and has made new men friends, says she has always been a city girl at heart. She adores the ‘trumped-up luxury’ and says she will be quite content to spend her children’s inheritance on her ‘bachelorette pad’. She says she intends to spend money like water and call pizza delivery twice a week and hire and fire night nurses as she likes. She sent everyone a cell phone pic of herself in lipstick and a platinum blonde side-swept fringe, sitting in a wing-backed armchair next to a picture window and tearing up her latest will.
‘Let them eat cake,’ she says, and the children laugh dutifully.