Friday, July 1, 2016

Of Mice, Lice, Gifts, and Pages of Text

Somewhere in the 1720s, a farmer was plowing a section of his field, during the course of which, in all innocence, he dug up the nest of a sleeping or burrowing mouse, an act that has spanned centuries, continents, millions of people, and, in the bargain, you.

By night time, the farmer was a poet, in some probability composing to the light of candles he or someone nearby had made, writing, in greater probability, with a pen made from a goose quill. 

From time to time, thinking over the poem the farmer wrote, you try to imagine his frame of mind as he composed, pausing, always pausing, when you come to the lines that were most memorable for you. All I meant to do, you see the farmer/poet thinking, was plow my field.  I did not wish, you imagine his Scottish burr saying, do you any harm.  But--

"The best laid schemes of mice and men
Gang aft awry
And leave us nought but grief and pain
For promised joy."

He still had more to say on the matter, this Scottish farmer/poet did.

"Still thou are blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!"

Even though I sent you scurrying, the poet tells the mouse, you're better off than me. You live in the moment and I am afflicted not only by the present, but the past.

In 1949, a soft-spoken, hard drinking novelist, himself obsessed with the past, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, having produced reaching and plangent works wherein his characters in one way or another had to cope with the effects of the past upon them. Given the scope of his own reading and abilities of invention, he may well have read of the mouse, unceremoniously  roused.

A dozen or so years later, a college dropout, who had indeed read of the mouse and wrote of it with such plangent grace in a memorable novella he called Of Mice and Men, became yet another Nobel laureate in literature.

The Scottish farmer/poet was amazingly prolific for the relative shortness--thirty-seven-years--of his life. In yet another of his works that have become braided into your memory and spilled over to affect your judgement, he wrote to a louse he'd seen crawling about the hat of a lady in church.

"O wad some Power the giftie gie us 
To see oursels as ithers see us! 
It wad frae many a blunder free us, 
An' foolish notion: "

Reading, which at an early time in your life, became an engagement for the enjoyment of adventure and the escape from the boredom of those years. As the case with so many things in your life, reading evolved from mere transportation to the opportunity to learn how to make your own literary journeys, identifying the tools and uses the way a gardener identifies the state of soil and how it can be made to accommodate the desired outcome.

These things you have read and absorbed to the point where, after a certain number of bottles of beer or glasses of wine, you feel the urge to celebrate by recalling and perhaps even reciting, are among the keynote moments of your awareness. They are serious rivals to the joys inherent in writing a decent page of prose one day and, on encountering the next, find it a welcome friend.

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