I was reading Rousseau’s wanderings when I fell into a reverie.
I heard her whisper, ‘Good night Andrew,’ and promptly awoke to you.
I wanted her to look attentively at the first sprigs of slender violets, to breath in the yellows and whites, the expectant magnolias and flowering quince of this sempiternal garden, of our earthly verdant home.
It was the penultimate day of February, early afternoon and already unseasonably warm, the Conservancy Gardens already alive, alight with life. We strolled through the English Garden, then sat for a while on a bench in the Italianate Garden and talked. She held onto herself, spoke unevenly, concernfully, looking inquisitive, dubious, yearnful. I saw hope.
Alexandra had first written to me four days prior on a ‘seeming autumn day’, I wrote, had written ‘from beneath the largest umbrella ever: a brick-encased four-story one’, had intimated anguish and despair and sorrow. It had rained all day that day. ‘This weather,’ I said, ‘puts me in mind of Chaucer. Whoever said that rain patters must have got his onomatopoeia from the drier. The rain crackles and splinters, window warping.’ So across the dour East River she must have felt, the dark dampness of life.
After our garden conversation, I walked her to the subway, kissed her on the cheek, hugged her warmly, tilted my head, and said, ‘Goodbye for now.’
I wrote, ‘You want for human warmth.’
She wrote, ‘I seek for soul warmth.’
We have been going to gardens and on walks and into the countryside ever since. We have, while smiling at ‘the praying mantis octopus trees’ of the Upper West Side, been learning to inquire about our lives, to hold good and gentle converse with ourselves, to hold fast – fast and firm yet flexibly so – to our conclusions. There is a sense of wonder in a life transformed.
In your Convergence With Nature, you write of attentiveness in terms of good speech. You write of good ‘speech which chimes in this way’ as being a ‘part of, not an obstacle to, mindful attunement to nature’ (87). Chimes, yes. I thought of my short meditation from two mornings ago:
Last night when I couldn’t fall asleep, the wind chimes dangled their silvery fingers, twinkling the breeze, now & again, against each other.
Every so often the wind chimes ask the breeze to introduce them. It does, they speak softly.
This dawn comes, moving me to move. I cannot help but be moved, being moved to move.
I thought also of my lavender meditations on nightfall:
The morning sky was turquoise, the colour of Swedish eyes. Moments before nightfall, the sky is fair, reticent, a woman dressed in fall. I know them both, mother & son.
To each home a different light, a different ensemble of lights, a different shade of orange, and no orange the same shade exactly.
I have been thinking quite a bit about the close-knit relationship between the good and the beautiful, about the kalon in fact. Like you, I have sought to draw virtue and grace closer together, going so far as to argue that the good life is a radiant way of being. I am still early in my thinking, now flushed with the first grace. Now, at any rate, I want to say that ‘the mother exhibited kindness with grace,’ that ‘the man exercised compassion with composure,’ that ‘the runner hiker thrummed along the trail exquisitely.’ I am hanging the beautiful on the adverb, you see. To me there is something wanting in crude kindness, in disjointed compassion, in clumsy running. A sythe sings, a dancer breathing expressed as wonder.
As I say, I dwell in this the first grace.
I sent a copy of your Daoism book to a friend who is practicing maternal medicine, for a time, in the midst of the burnished, dust-swept desert, out there on a Navajo reservation far outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. The men are poor, the women hypertensive and diabetic, my friend, a doctor, is brave and lithe in spirit. She spent the summer with MSF in South Sudan. She spends her Arizona evenings meditating on solitude out on the edge of the reservation. As I read your book, I think again of Dark Mountain Project, which has a very large and perceptive readership. I know Dougald; he is a friend. A review, or some such, would a small gift from me to you, a placing of hands over heart. More anon.
David writes, in Convergence With Nature, of the moods that come over the one (not least the practicing Daoist) who seeks to be at home with nature during a time of great estrangement, the time of modernity. There is, he says, the mood of yearning for communion with the natural world; that of nostalgia for an experience of past fullness; that of disillusionment with the technological orientation of civilisation; and that of mystery in the presence of the ineffable. The philosopher listening in a Daoist key would not attempt to extricate himself from each mood as if it were a snare he need unnoose but would instead give himself up to experiencing each mood in its entirety, much in the way that one experiences the season, opening oneself as much to the moldiness of autumn as to the desolation of the darkening winter.
I am fond of David the philosopher, sensing that I have found a fellow wayfarer on the path of inquiry: an older man, shier, less verbose than I, someone who dwells in a garden in a ‘small village lying north of Northumberland,’ a quiet man I have never met who is, in my imagination, standing now beside a younger man with golden hair who has left his tree house perch to come out and go with him for a walk. I doubt we will ever meet.
I write in philosophical moods, letting them envelop and transform me. I turn in disillusionment from glowering Midtown, I yearn for convergence with nature, I touch shuddering leaves, I look down into the courtyard at the magnolia tree whose flowers have been all but lost. The present alone, says Pierre Hadot; in the present alone I find peace.
In the years since turning to philosophy, I have turned my eyes from the cosmopolitan (the Stoics, the Cynics, the Kantians) to the parochial (the Daoists walking along the forest path, the Epicureans tending their garden and their words); from the universal to the particular; from the public forum to the personal essay. I have given up on universal morality – deontological, utilitarian, the Right’s as well as the Left’s – having instead put my heart and speech into the diurnal project of self-cultivation: a life of the virtues exhibited and exercised among friends, a slow and steady transformation of my soul and theirs through mindful philosophical inquiry, a growing reverence for our shared fragilities and our deepening breaths. I welcome new conversation partners and attend to old ones. This is my life in full.
It was David who first keyed me into one particular kind of attunement to the natural world: what Rousseau calls reverie. A reverie is a mode of thinking in which I allow myself to drift along with the Way, letting one perception lead on to the next, one thought give way to another, with the result that the thousand things all get their turn. Through reverie, I attune myself to each particular thing, to the coming of one and the going of another, to the falling of all, and, by the end, to the whole run and ramble of this wordly, worldly experience. David elucidates further:
The world of experience in which reverie freely moves is a limitless web from which nothing is left out, including those beings–ourselves–who attend to it. Almost anything may prompt and guide a particular route through this web: half-remembered lines of poetry, a recently read book on botany, recollections of some episode in one’s life, images of people and animals who mattered to one, a sense of a place’s beauty, a philosophical thought, an insistent tune in one’s head. For example, Bachelard describes a reverie which starts with attention to a bird’s nest. This reverie has no cut-off point or terminus. Looking at this ‘precarious’ nest leads to thoughts of other fragile objects, then to images of security (of home and household), then to the idea of the well-being of one’s own and other people’s children, then to larger speculation on confidence in the regular workings of nature, then to…. (92)
Perhaps what is most fitting about the mode of thinking Rousseau calls reverie is that it ends as it begins, in ellipsis. A reverie does not trail off into loneliness or become entangled in endless digressions. A reverie is neither mere idle time nor droll laziness nor even mindless self-indulgence. A reverie is a mode of self- and world-reflection, a meandering of thread leading from you to me, because just insofar as we are finite beings passing into each other a reverie cannot do otherwise than put my hands in yours.
Nancy and I are writing an oceanic love song. We float in ocean, green glass rocking us, blue sky behind closed eyes. Salt encrusts our brows, sun warming sand and flesh, flesh and breath. We lay there unmoving while under us all moves, and moves us gently, up and down, side-longing.
At sea we are not ourselves;
At sea we are the Cosmos.
On Saturday night, Alexandra and I ate raw oysters, briny, icy sea minerals, and afterward she asked me where they had come from. ‘New Brunswick, I think. Beausoleil?’ Which led her to talk about a cruise she and her family had taken to Canada when she was a girl. Then to tell me a story about a kayaking trip with her father. A horror story.
She and her father were in a kayak heading downriver when he turned his stern brow on her. Paddle, he said. And when she shrank from him and refused to row, he said, ‘Just… just sit there.’ She wrote me the next day that in the kayak my father made awkward gestures, painful groans. He paddled alone and I sat in the back, feeling the weight of things. I remember my heart sinking when he initially asked me to go with him. I knew that if I assented, then he’d impose his will on me. But I also knew that if I stayed behind, then he’d ridicule me for ‘being scared.’ I’d feel shameful for declining but I’d be powerless if I went along. He would persist, as he did, and I would shrink, as I did.
Your father rowed, imposing, exhausting his daughter, fighting the river and life.
A police car drove by us with its lights on, passed us, then passed on. By now, we are walking along the southern side of the Jackie O. Reservoir, not far from the Gate House, near the Police Precinct where two boys are smoking weed in the bush. ‘Duuude,’ we say and laugh. ‘Sooo close bro.’
I made that up – not the kids but their words.
One river story led on to another, this one much calmer and lighter, this one not one about pressing hard and giving way but of being and faring well. In high school, Alexandra and an acquaintance were put in a canoe together. Novices both, they drifted down the river, paddled together, tapped the shoreline when it approached their boat, pushed off in due course. When they came upon a fallen tree, they went around the finger, accepting its invitation. When they got turned about, they laughed and set about again. I imagine these two girls, beautiful beginners, learning to live according to the Way: neither fighting one another nor submitting to each other, neither fleeing the river nor staying put on shore, not forcing and bracing but harmonising their rowing with the flowing flower.
We are in the midst of a season of lessons, breathing like the ocean. I have always loved watching young girls double dutch for this very reason.
The Daoist sage seeks to transform his life through self-cultivation, in solitude and with his fellows. He seeks to make de – the virtues of humility and patience, of pliancy and simplicity, of soft speech and spontaneous action – accord seamlessly with Dao, his body flowing like water, his mind like light, his life one of singing scythes and sternum songs.
But self-cultivation and the ethical life in which self-cultivation is at home have largely receded from the modern world. We do well to remind ourselves how recent is their disappearance and how novel is our inherited conception of morality as an abstract rational endeavor whose essential property is its universalizability. David suggests that our modern conception combines two streams of thought:
I should determine what I do by considering what it would be good for people in general to do [our Kantian inheritance], and what it would be good for them to do is to produce certain practical results [our consequentialist inheritance] – increased welfare, reduced suffering, an improved environment, or whatever. (142, my gloss in brackets)
Like my friend, I have come to believe that morality construed either in deontological or in consequentialist terms does not get us very far. The idea that every time I go to the grocery store or corner shop or airport I should determine what any other rational person in my situation would also pick up or perform seems to me a non-starter. More generally, the claim that, before I act, I must consider my duties to nameless rational persons (Kantianism) or must calculate the highest utility for all faceless sentient beings (utilitarianism) already assumes that I live in a complex modern world characterized by bureaucratic institutions, mega-cities, global networks, a high degree of specialisation, and a general lack of acquaintance with my fellows. I have come to regard all talk of ‘the’ environment, ‘global’ climate change, ‘measurable’ carbon footprint, gay marriage, animal rights, the rights of minorities, human rights, the various briefs against torture, the laws of the state, and so forth as unrelated to the gardenia of ethical life. (It does not follow that this woman coupling with that one couldn’t be good and excellent and beautiful or that the suffering of this animal before me doesn’t matter ownmost to me.) In the case of the state, I will abide its directives and prescriptions but this is all, for I have set my thoughts on beings known to me.
The faceless woman suffering in Iran, unseen and unknown, is not alive to me. The unnamed species whose population is dwindling halfway around the world does not fall within my ken. The deleterious effects of climate change have no meaning for me and not least because I want to examine whether human life is worth living in the first place before I determine whether the earth’s passing out of existence would matter to me were this to be so. Ask me whether the modern state can win ‘our’ moral legitimacy and I will reply that frankly – and then grow serenely silent and likely amble away.
My philosophical life has gone elsewhere. In the past year especially, I have become contentedly parochial, doing well by these my friends here while remaining agnostic about the weals and woes of others who do not appear before me. I love my friends and I invite my conversation partners into my home. I do not know any more what it would mean to act according to a universal principle of morality. I am a member of a small group of fellows. I attend to my Carolina, to my dear Nancy, to my Ali.
I do not know why people despair over the future when the present alone is our home. What of tomorrow? What of the next? It may never come and that, to me, is all right, as all right as it ever was (my Epictetus from amid the near depths of mismemory: You tell me my child has died and I tell us I always knew he was human), for mine is a way of being, not a path of glory, not a final plan for life, not some project posited far into the future.
I confess I have become largely quietistic yet not out of pessimism or melancholy or bereavement but truly, humbly, truly and humbly with my eyes full of wonderment, my vibrating belly the cello of a body. I have become quietistic about all subjects save those flesh and blood beings who come before me, who write letters to me, who ask me for direction. I ask only whether she comes in humility, out of need, with an open heart or, on the contrary, whether she sneers in hostility, in callowness, in meanness. Toward my friend I am attentive, all loving. And why? Simply, as Montaigne says on beat, ‘because it is you, because it is me.’ My reason for doing well by my friend Catlin is, simply, that she is a kindred spirit. She is me and mine and she is also ours. Toward ‘the’ stranger I am, and remain, agnostic, the stranger already subtracted from the very possibility of my knowing him.
I do not want to lead a life of fight, of struggle, of toil; a life filled with vacillations, of iron-clad commitments and rigid plans; a life marked by wayward restlessness and hoarding lonely nomads. I have no grand missions, no ultimate causes, no opuses to score, have no joy but this joy in the presence of this tree, this courtyard, this fragile world, no more joy than the presence of the face of this Alexandra. Living in tune with the Way entails leading a life of grace. I can think of no other way of being which could be greater, more blessed, any more radiant.
As I write, two teams of surgeons are opening up your chest. So I pray:
You and I are walking up to the temple, breathless amid the steepness. Our bodies and mouths are agape. We catch our breaths, yours and mine, then smile, fagged, wide-eyed, brother and sister.
You hold a feather up to me. It is striated, ribbed, largely heather, touched in one quadrant by red.
A feathered heart.
Easter Sunday. Carolyn and I go hiking near Cornwall-on-Hudson. We are feathery love letters attending to the ‘hawks circumambulating from above, catching the sun in their sea wings,’ gliding, glinting lightly. The younger one wobbles, a kite. Trying to get his sea legs, I say, laugh. We are spring friends all. By day’s end, Carolyn’s head aches. She closes her eyes, puts a finger or two below the socket, in the soft hollow, presses gently. I rest two fingers on her temple, rest there, our temple.
Andrew Taggart is a philosophical counsellor living in New York City. Alexandra, Allison, Carolyn, Catlin, David, Dougald, Jennifer, Nancy, and Rebecca are some of his friends.
Attached Note of Thanks
I was asked to write a few things for the Dark Mountain Project. Here is one of them. It began, weeks back, as a book review and has steadily grown into… a reverie?
When I think, I think of you.
When I was a boy, I used to write and then say, ‘Look, Mom, what I have done?’ Now that I am older I think, beside you: ‘Can you believe that we exist? Do you see yourself in this?’
My prose begins where your nose ends and vice versa and back.
How strange this life. Thank you for being in mine.