WRITING SHORT: 31/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

Whenever presented with a question more complicated than what the weather’s like outside or should a friend send back the weird new shoes she’s bought – in other words, something that requires what could be called thinking — I often hedge. That’s because I don’t really know what I think till I see what I say.

I may think I know what I think. But once I begin talking or writing about it, what I thought I think changes. Sometimes the result is simply a more dense and complex version of my instinctive response. At other times, what I see is not so simple to parse.

When I began this series of short takes on “whatever,” not knowing where “whatever” might lead, I anticipated lightness and whimsy – fifty breezy trifles fit for summer days. I’ve just reread the first thirty, one after the other. How dark so many are. Beneath their surface froth, they’re colored by shimmers of loss – lost youth, lost opportunity, lost loved ones, lost life, the slow, relentless approach of death. Even the butterflies of which I was so proud not long ago: they’re both gone now, having lived out their miniscule three-week lifespans, as I knew even then that they would.

I do make conscious efforts to evade such thoughts. Judging by my summer output thus far, it’s been a losing battle.

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WRITING SHORT: 15/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

Between the second and third years of law school, I was one of thirty-two summer clerks at a major Boston law firm. We were all sure what we did and said that summer would determine whether the firm made a job offer. Actually the firm had already decided. It took really bad behavior not to be hired. But we didn’t know that.

To ease our way through the summer, each clerk was assigned a mentor. Mine was a senior associate who’d been a published poet before becoming a lawyer. He didn’t hover. But he was always friendly, helpful and generous with his time when I came to him. One day, a partner made a light remark about one of my research papers as we passed in the hall. I went to my mentor: “Is this something I need to think about?” His reply: “Never don’t think.”

At first I assumed he was telling me how to succeed at the firm. Later I began to wonder whether this intelligent and widely read man had also been offering wisdom about how to live. Never not thinking is not the currently trendy “mindfulness.” It means always looking behind the obvious, the conventional, the clichés and soundbites offered by pundits, politicians, talking heads, even by ourselves to ourselves. It’s hard to do. You can quickly develop a headache just thinking about never not thinking. But if you don’t, aren’t you living a lie?

When I later came back to the firm as a first-year associate, I sought out my former mentor to explore this interesting proposition. He had become a partner. His secretary asked what it was about and said I could make an appointment, but he had a lot on his plate that week and probably wouldn’t have time for a while. I did run into him now and then at the Friday all-lawyer lunches. He would smile, offer a pleasant nod of recognition and move on. I was no longer his assignment.  Now that’s something to think about.

WHO SAID LIFE WAS EASY?

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When Bill moved in with me fourteen years ago, his possessions moved in too. He had less “stuff” than I did (having left much of it behind in the house now belonging to his second former wife). So it was eventually possible, after some “friendly” dispute, to make room somewhere or other for what he had brought with him, even if it didn’t exactly “go” with what was already there.

However, one of his pictures I never had doubts about.  I was given no formal religious education and don’t know exactly who Rabbi Hillel was. Moreover, I have no religious beliefs whatsoever.  But there was no question in my mind that the saying attributed to the Rabbi which Bill had framed would come with us from Cambridge to Princeton. In fact, it currently hangs just outside the room that serves as my office, where it reminds me of life’s imperatives and conundrums whenever I pass it on my way to and from the computer.

In case the words aren’t easy to read in the uploaded photo of the picture, here they are again, writ clear:

“Hillel said, ‘If I am not for myself, who is for me?

“If I am only for myself, what am I?

“If not now, when?”

Forthright, isn’t it?  You can’t really argue with any of it.  If you let yourself be put upon or walked on, you will be. But if you act only for yourself, if you’re a selfish shit — what kind of person are you?

“If not now, when?” may be easier to understand, if not always easy to put into practice, and has occasionally been helpful to a daydreamer like me. But the more you consider that those four words follow the two sentences preceding it, the less forthright and the more cryptic the whole thing becomes.  Do what now?  Take care of numero uno?  Give unto others? Suppose those two directives are in conflict. Then what?

I offer no suggestions as to what the good Rabbi may have meant, other than that what he meant can mean different things to different people at different times.  And probably has. Or different things to the same person at different times. Which is also probably true.

But it’s worth thinking about. Especially in connection with one’s own life.

What do you think?