Kay Ryan, “Least Action”

“The world / might become the / Kingdom of Peace,” Ryan writes. I should be overjoyed at the prospect. Many who are hurt will be uplifted. Justice and happiness will spill over to all.

I’m focused on smaller injustices. One in particular that’s almost petty. I was on the phone for 45 minutes, 43 of which I was being talked at, when not talked down to.

Sometimes petty things are merely that. Demonstrations of power. Using others to vent rage or project one’s feelings.

But other times, what’s small is a sign of a much larger problem. If you can’t be heard at all—if you don’t have the right to talk—then how can you conceive anything good? If it’s good for you, you will speak on your terms. Especially a good as great as the “Kingdom of Peace.”

Least Action (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

Is it vision
or the lack
that brings me
back to the principle
of least action,
by which in one
branch of rabbinical
thought the world
might become the 
Kingdom of Peace not
through the tumult
and destruction necessary
for a New Start, but 
by adjusting little parts
a little bit—maybe turn 
that cup a quarter inch
or scoot up that bench.
It imagines an
incremental resurrection,
a radiant body
puzzled out through
tinkering with the fit
of what’s available.
As though what is is
right already but
askew. It is tempting
for any person who would 
like to love what she
can do.


Ryan narrates a fantastic story. I am filled with hope as I read. A “Kingdom of Peace” comes about not through “tumult / and destruction,” but by “adjusting little parts / a little bit.” An “incremental resurrection,” “a radiant body / puzzled out through / tinkering with the fit / of what’s available.”

It’s too much hope. Too good to be true.

Thinking about the times in my life I genuinely improved. Made the effort to admit I was wrong and simply did better. I was a better person—I was proud—but forget the “Kingdom of Peace.” Anyone who noticed or cared might as well have been invisible.

This story doesn’t apply to those who are invisible, who struggle to have our presence acknowledged even in the same room with others. Who always have to be more eloquent, more qualified, better read, more knowledgable with the few seconds we have. 

I didn’t get talked over because the person on the other end of the phone valued me.

The rabbis were wise people, innocent of the insane cruelty of our hell world.  They could not possibly account for how harrowing our present bigotry is. How so many are the dead walking.


The story doesn’t account for our present trauma. So many families who’ve lost the members that kept the spirit. I remember one story of a kid who lost both his parents to COVID-19.

“As though what is is / right already but / askew.” Another conversation, another person on the phone. There’s an 18 year old, I’m repeatedly told, with exceptional maturity. He already knows what job is right for him and how he’ll get it. All he has to do is pick the right college. His maturity is not to be questioned. Anything I might ask or conceive as a concern has already been addressed by him.

(I should just block everyone who calls me.)

Little adjustments don’t do anything for gaping holes in our lives. Holes exactly where we learned love.

They don’t do anything for the scope of our delusions. In fact, they allow for a further delusion: a little bit more knowledge can fix anything. Nothing ever need be a problem, especially for those of us denying any problems exist or could exist.


All the same: how did I improve, when I improved?

It was incremental. Listening more. Speaking slower. Asking more questions. Showing more interest and enthusiasm. Writing shorter sentences, writing more personally.

Of the “incremental resurrection:” “It is tempting / for any person who would / like to love what she / can do.”

Maybe the “Kingdom of Peace” will come about through “least action.” The supernatural does not have to correlate with anything in this world in any sensible way. If it does occur that way, that will be the greatest miracle of all. The full realization of the resources at hand.

But I like Ryan’s comment—this is “tempting.” No one with any ethical sense would walk into another’s life and try to live it for them, as if they could do better. What we do now for improvement depends on circumstance and community. Factors, one might say, present in the Kingdom of Peace. The rabbis, perhaps, got the causality backward.

Christopher Bruell on Plato’s “Cleitophon”

The trap in commenting on the specific work of a specific scholar is that the audience can become hopelessly lost. So I know it’s important to make a few remarks about Plato’s Cleitophon to a general scholarly audience, one that may be familiar with Platonic themes, whether they’ve engaged them in political science, philosophy, classics, or literature. Why should we talk about this short dialogue where Socrates barely says anything?

First and foremost, there’s this remarkable passage where Cleitophon describes what he thinks what he learned from Socrates:

“This speech of yours [Socrates] ends finely, too—that, for anyone who does not know how to make use of a soul, it’s better for him to keep his soul at rest and not to live than to live and act on his own. If, however, there should be some compulsion to live, better for such a one to pass his life as a slave than as a free man and to hand over the rudder of his thought, as of a ship, to another, who has learned the art of piloting human beings—which, Socrates, is the name that you often give to statesmanship, saying that this very same art is that of judging and justice.” (Cleitophon 408a-b)

Cleitophon claims that what he learned from Socrates is that it’s better to die than not know how to use one’s own soul. If one wants to live, better to be a “slave” and give over one’s life to one who does know how to pilot human beings. This is the political art—this is justice—according to Cleitophon.

One can say Cleitophon exaggerates here. That Plato writes ridiculously, in bold strokes, to get our attention. I’m not so sure. I know plenty of people who think they are best equipped to run the lives of others. And there are definitely political movements which think that if a nation simply screams their sense of value, all will fall into line and there will be no problems. Anyone who voices a problem, for those movements, is of those who don’t know how to live. Their souls don’t allow them to govern themselves. So they ought to be ruled by those with the right souls, who happen to know how to rule, who know what justice is.

Cleitophon’s flirtation with dehumanization makes the dialogue worth reading and examining.

However, another reason to look at this dialogue is to ask whether Socrates has anything to teach. Cleitophon claims Socrates is great at exhorting people to be just but fails at providing an adequate definition of what justice is. Socrates’ followers, according to Cleitophon, can’t tell what good justice produces. So the question of whether Socrates can teach—really, the question of whether philosophic discussions about justice are nothing but college dormitory debates—is at stake.

Finally, the Cleitophon raises the question of the possibility of philosophy. The good philosophy creates is unclear, sure. But Cleitophon seems to have been exposed to quite a bit that might be considered philosophy. His political views seem to have hardened. If he was never a fit for philosophical discussion, then when does philosophy occur? Are there clues in what Cleitophon misunderstands?


I believe you are convinced of the relevance of the text at this point. Now comes the tricky part. I want to talk about the views of one commentator on the Cleitophon, Christopher Bruell, a teacher of my teachers. Bruell builds from the views of Leo Strauss and writes in a clipped, cryptic style. The way I just argued for the relevance of the Cleitophon—yeah, you’re not going to find anything that straightforward in Bruell’s On the Socratic Education: An Introduction to the Shorter Platonic Dialogues. A lot of Straussians read this book to try and find an esoteric message.

There’s plenty of value, though, in taking passages from his essay on the Cleitophon and trying to do justice to his general argument there. Bruell’s thought can help us get a better grip on the third problem mentioned above, when philosophy occurs.


Bruell’s way into the text challenges us in several ways. First, we need to obtain clarity on what philosophy could be. Second, we need to think about the value of Socrates asking, for example, whether a general is an expert on military matters in order to show someone they’re wrong. How does that “vindicate” philosophizing? Does it attend to “the most serious challenge to its possibility?” Finally, how is anyone served by Socrates’ argumentative rhetoric? Bruell’s approach, in its original statement:

“…if philosophizing is fundamentally inquiry into nature, the examinations or refutations, which were intended to vindicate the possibility of such inquiry over against the most serious challenge to its possibility, serve also to prepare the suitable natures among the youths who are exposed to them to carry it out.” (Bruell 196)

“If philosophizing is fundamentally inquiry into nature” needs clarification. I imagine most people believe that Socrates had lots of questions about ethics and not many ideas about science. The topics the dialogues concern lend themselves to this impression. Everyone knows the Republic is about justice. People with more familiarity know the Lysis is about friendship, etc. And even here, with the Cleitophon, there’s nothing resembling science as we know it, and I’ve pointed to Cleitophon’s harsh political rhetoric as a justification for reading.

But a closer look shows why philosophy and natural philosophy were inseparable for classical thought. It’s Socrates himself, at the opening of Plato’s Apology, who brings up the accusation that he is “a wise man[,] a thinker on the things aloft, who has investigated all things under the earth.” Socrates will say this is untrue, but there was no need to even mention that he was accused of thinking about the things in the air or under the earth. Why does he mention it? Compare with Symposium 175d, where Socrates should be arriving at a dinner party, but finds himself standing still, lost in thought. When asked to sit down at the table and teased about being distracted, he responds:

“How fine it would be, Agathon,” he said, “if wisdom were a sort of thing that could flow out of the one of us who is fuller into him who is emptier, by our mere contact with each other, as water will flow through wool from the fuller cup into the emptier. If such is indeed the case with wisdom, I set a great value on my sitting next to you…”

Why the talk about how water flows? Socrates was more than likely wondering about fluid dynamics. The usual question is why, if I have a container that’s full of water and connect it to one of equal size that’s empty, the fluid fills both in equal measure. This is not the simplest puzzle in physics (physics from the Greek “phusis,” meaning “nature”).

There’s so much more than this—it’s all over Plato. In Xenophon, the corresponding statement is in his Symposium, chapter 7 line 4:

“[Socrates:] For it is of course no rare event to meet with marvels, if that is what one’s mind is set on. He may marvel at what he finds immediately at hand,—for instance, why the lamp gives light owing to its having a bright flame, while a bronze mirror, likewise bright, does not produce light but instead reflects other things that appear in it; or how it comes about that olive oil, though wet, makes the flame higher, while water, because it is wet, puts the fire out.”

One may respond that Socrates denies doing science in Plato’s Apology, and there is no overt teaching about the inquiry into nature being science. This is true. What one has to do is extrapolate from the questions “What is virtue?” and “What is justice?” and the way they’re treated. Definitions are offered and those definitions are measured against examples and evidence. In like manner, one would ask about the properties of triangles or water or light this way. If one needs proof that this is how Plato was interpreted, it helps to know what the Platonic Academy and Aristotle and ancient scholars actually did. It is true they could find inspiration from the Presocratics directly, but Socrates is not failing to endorse such efforts, if he isn’t providing a framework for them.

Bruell speaks of Plato’s caution with regard to the teaching regarding nature in a later passage we will examine. For now, what we can conclude is that philosophy as inquiry into nature includes questions about the elements, the characteristics of animals, the properties of language, and whether or not there is a human nature and things associated with it (i.e. a definition of virtue, of human excellence).


Let us assume, then, that philosophy is “fundamentally inquiry into nature.” What do we make of “[Socrates’] examinations or refutations, which were intended to vindicate the possibility of such inquiry over against the most serious challenge to its possibility?”

What is the most serious challenge to philosophy? Revealed religion considers itself to be the most serious challenge, but while it has silenced, imprisoned, appropriated, and burned philosophers, it has never stopped philosophy. Certain political regimes also have managed to injure philosophers themselves but never challenged the legitimacy of the enterprise on its own grounds.

In Bruell’s estimation, what might stop philosophy can be found where Plato exercises the most caution:

“Plato’s insistence, in another such letter, that he has never written down and never will write down his understanding of nature (Seventh Letter 341b7—c5, d2—e1) is fully in accord with or even dictated by this caution. For he knew that the exposure of his understanding would fill those not prepared to receive it either with unwarranted contempt or, in the case of those who thought that they had learned from him some great or grand things, with a high but empty hope (341e3—342a1). As for the few who have at any time acquired the necessary preparation, they are able to discover what he understood on their own, with the help of slight hints or indications (341e2—3 as well as 341c5—d2).” (Bruell 189-190)

The most serious challenge to philosophy, we might surmise, is an opinion among the few inclined to pursue it that it is worthless. “Unwarranted contempt” and “a high but empty hope” among those exposed to it but eager for rewards more than discipline creates fear and shame among potential philosophers themselves. This won’t kill philosophy itself, but it poses the problem of a nature doubting itself, a nature which should be asking questions and seeking answers instead of panicking over one’s own commitment. 

Cleitophon himself has both contempt for philosophy and “a high but empty hope.” When he describes what moved him about Socrates, what moved him was not unlike watching a tragedy, seeing a larger than life figure come alive:

“When I was together with you, Socrates, I was often amazed at what I heard. You seemed to surpass all other human beings, so very finely did you speak, whenever, taking human beings to task like a god on the tragic stage…” (407b)

It is easy to overlook the significance of this statement. A quick look at our media consumption today helps. People are impressed not just by celebrities, but by celebrities who put others in their place. The news shows hosted by those who shout others down night after night are not Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. But people tune in regularly and repeat their talking points as if they were correct about everything. They see rightness and power as connected, not unlike “a god on the tragic stage.”

Cleitophon’s own expectations are similar: “the art of piloting human beings… is the name that you [Socrates] often give to statesmanship, saying that this very same art is that of judging and justice.” Politics is the same as justice which is the same as knowing how to rule others. 

There is a further complication. Cleitophon has a political career; he does partake in rule. So what exactly does he want from Socrates? What drives him to tell Socrates to his face that he is only capable of exhorting people to virtue and nothing more?

The unstated expectation, I hold, is knowledge as commensurate with rule. Cleitophon wants exhortations about justice to produce a good. Bruell points out that this happens in quiet ways. In the dialogue, Cleitophon gets into an argument with followers of Socrates, using a most Socratic method to start the argument and demonstrate his point:

“…he fails to draw from his success the conclusion which another might feel compelled by it to draw about him: that he had already learned something from Socrates or was already on his way to learning something of some importance when he began to question members of his circle.) That Cleitophon would have approached Socrates and his circle in some doubt as to whether he would receive there the instruction that he was eager for might well have been inferred from the very distinction between the two groups or kinds of Socratic “turning” speeches that his report of those speeches permitted us to draw—and thus showed us that he himself felt, even if he did not see it clearly.” (Bruell 196)

Bruell draws a fine distinction between the speeches Cleitophon heard from Socrates to exhort him to virtue. Some of them, like one Cleitophon details at length, have powerful emotional appeal but aren’t perfect with regard to facts and logic (I feel like Ben Shapiro just saying that). Others are “very many and very finely spoken, to the effect that virtue is teachable and that one should bestow one’s cares upon oneself before all else—these I have hardly ever contradicted, nor do I suppose that I shall ever do so hereafter.” (408b)

What did Cleitophon learn about justice? He learned that it is closely connected to rhetoric. Rhetoric does not just entail treating different audiences differently. There’s a complication to which the rhetorician themselves can bear witness. What persuades emotionally may have nothing to do with the truth itself. Justice, one can say, is the problem of reconciling the truth to its advocates. This is task that bestows responsibility upon power. It ennobles power, but at the expense of an individual’s—or perhaps a party’s—gain.

Cleitophon shows no interest in this teaching or anything approximating it. He’s enamored with Thrasymachus and his infamous “justice is the interest of the stronger,” which can be a naked defense of tyranny. Knowledge of justice should produce that much more power and goods should be flowing to him. Cleitophon’s defense of Thrasymachus in the Republic, I believe, bolsters this argument.


In this last, concluding section I want to talk about how Cleitophon’s failure and what it means for more “suitable natures.” Bruell pays heed to Cleitophon’s “intelligence,” and I think I understand why. It isn’t just that he imitated Socrates and refuted his followers, or that he has the teachings he thinks important memorized. It’s that he’s trying to take what he considers a body of knowledge and go further. He wants to see more and do more with it.

In this, Cleitophon bears resemblance to those who think their insight into Shakespeare’s history plays or Aristotle’s conception of the regime makes their comments on contemporary politics profound. It doesn’t. Anything you want to pronounce authoritatively upon takes more than diligence or hard work. What’s at stake are weird, elusive goods, things which one might not consider good in other circumstances.

Note the portrait of Socrates we get in the Cleitophon. He seemed “like a god” to Cleitophon; exhorted all of Athens to avoid injustice and learn justice; was irrefutable with regard to pushing people to be better; modeled for Cleitophon himself how to engage those doing philosophy. Socrates gave Cleitophon a powerful rhetorical toolkit, one that Cleitophon could use to expand his political power. (For a contrasting but ironic picture of what I’m describing, consider Xenophon, Memorabilia III.7). But again, he’s not interested in that—he wants license, he wants the assurance that using his strength however he wishes is good.

For those of us interested in pursuing philosophic matters, we have to take some pride in small, almost trivial gains. This present essay came from making a bunch of notes on Bruell’s chapter on the Cleitophon and realizing I couldn’t explain to myself what I had learned. I had to start over; I pushed myself to explain a passage. While I don’t know if I’m a “suitable nature” for philosophy, I feel like something more has come from it.


Bruell, Christopher. “Cleitophon” in On the Socratic Education: An Introduction to the Shorter Platonic Dialogues. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.

Orwin, Clifford. “Cleitophon” in The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, ed. Thomas Pangle.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Emily Dickinson, “A Letter is a joy of Earth” (1639)

Calling distance from others difficult is an understatement. If unloved, distance can be especially maddening. You might as well be a ghost in the world, seeing but never seen, hearing but never heard.

Here’s Dickinson celebrating distance. A letter requires it, and “a letter is a joy of Earth:”

A Letter is a joy of Earth (1639)
Emily Dickinson

A Letter is a joy of Earth —
It is denied the Gods —

I’m almost tempted to regret the times I was hurt and alone. But I know I couldn’t simply have changed my feelings through enthusiasm for letter writing. People do neglect each other cruelly, and we do need to recognize each other in order to understand who we are and what we’re doing.

Short poems tempt. They’re read because they can beautify a moment, a day. No one wasted time trying to take a few lines of Dickinson to heart. However, beautiful words are no substitute for our judgment, even when they express sublime and sincere emotion. The pain of distance is all too real. One might say it underlies every religious impulse the human race has had.


Still. Sometimes, distance has a use. We panic far too much about not knowing who others truly are. Whether elaborate frauds are built in order to make oneself always attractive, beyond judgment. 

My letters so far have been failures. They try to say too much. I want them to be memorable and profound, so I try to speak about issues that take months of serious conversation to appreciate. And I’ll reduce those issues to a few awkward paragraphs and come off as clueless and misinformed.

I’m thinking now that the failure of the letters wasn’t the worst outcome. There’s lots to talk about and understand. The letters were pointing to the opportunity to be real and share experiences. They were pointing to a self to which I could aspire, one who could hear another and give something credible to them.

This is a very Earthly joy. The teenage complaint “you don’t know me” has relative value. Here it’s an opening to faith, hope, and love. Yeah, lots of people are fake—I’m not going to deny that’s a problem. But finding what they’re real about takes time. Often, neither party in a friendship or a relationship knows this from the outset.


I can’t help but feel the “Gods” in this fragment correspond to our consumerist visions of finding love. They have everything and must always be intimate. In fact, that intimacy and proximity are conjoined is a curse. They have to live out a version of “The Bachelor” every day of their lives.

There’s nothing to discover, despite how glorious everything is to see, hear, and touch. There’s no privacy when everything is known. The Gods may be eloquent, but they can’t speak love. I don’t know, for myself, how much I can deal with uncertainty in relationships. It isn’t as much fun as this reading of the fragment would suggest. I do remember how much fun it was to discover something new about someone I loved.

Kyla Houbolt, “Five Things You Need to Know to Start Your Day”

In “Decline and Fall,” Evelyn Waugh throws his protagonist into prison. He then reports the protagonist became happier in prison because he did not have to worry about the news every single day. Worrying about the news occurs as it is nothing but a constant stream of story-like things. Once the stream is broken, one need not return to it.

I used to think this was somewhat wise; now I completely disagree with it. I don’t think the best reading of Houbolt’s “it would be best to avoid [“The News”] if you possibly can” depends on anything like Waugh’s sentiment. Our mass media acts in the service of entrenched interests and can be outright dehumanizing. This is not the same as saying people are in thrall to a narrative for which they need frequent updates. One must avoid media that, in some cases, willingly becomes fascist propaganda. That some people are a bit addicted to news in general does not hold the same import.

Five Things You Need to Know to Start Your Day (from the poet's Twitter)
Kyla Houbolt

1. There is still air and you should breathe some frequently.
2. However there is something called “The News” that it would be best to avoid if you possibly can.
3. If you wear a flag around your neck, everyone will know who you are.*
4. Around noon local time there will be sandwiches and something called “lunch”.
5. Your name. 

*You actually need to know more than five things.


When I first saw Houbolt’s list, I immediately thought “Yeah, I’m not actually sure how I start my day. Or how I would explain to someone else how to start the day.”

I guess I start with a lot of dread. There’s always something that could go wrong, and more than likely I’ll be the cause. Sleep is a relief because I don’t have to face those possibilities. I’d be better off, though, getting more air. As the poem says: “There is still air and you should breathe some frequently.”

There is still air. Movement helps one take in air. If I did more, maybe I would confront a great fear despite not being entirely conscious of it.



A few complications. There are the things which surround our heads and our necks. “There is something called “The News” that it would be best to avoid;” “if you wear a flag around your neck, everyone will know who you are.”

There are ways I shouldn’t start my day. Trouble is, they have to do with how we understand the world and ourselves.

If you wear a flag around your neck. I remember when I was into the news because I thought I could be informed. If I were informed, I could lead. I never believed that only reading an article or two was enough, but that was because I was 12.

At 12, it’s hard not to have a flag around your neck. Right is a marker of identity; without it, you’re just a hopeless little kid.

There’s no way I could have avoided being consumed by the news. Or the flag. Moral development is just that: development. It has to occur in stages. Some of those stages are scaffolding which must fall away.

Except it can’t. Society is thought to run on simpler concepts. Winners and losers, legal and illegal, good and evil, deserving and unmerited. 

It’s possible to be more successful by thinking less. By refusing to consider or see.


I wanted to write on this poem because it got me wondering how exactly I start my day. What if someone were an alien, wondering what we earth-denizens do with our time? Would I be able to say anything sufficient?

I imagine nothing I say would convince. I’d talk about teaching, and the alien would ask what exactly results from the classroom. Or I’d talk about responding to art and philosophy. I’d be questioned about the value of messages in a bottle.

Getting lunch and using my name—yeah, I can see these as things I could possibly explain. “I need food or my body will fail.” Surely an alien must understand that. “I have a name and the recognition helps me get from others what I need.” The alien asks questions and gets answers because they are recognized. I give that recognition. That too must persuade.

It’s true “you actually need to know more than five things.” But starting a day well and knowledge in general are more connected than one would think. Lunch isn’t a bad thought. Finding one’s name useful is pretty good too. These things are better described by the word foundational as opposed to humble. With them, dangerous commands upon our attention may be sidestepped.

Emily Dickinson, “Did We abolish Frost” (1014); Kay Ryan, “Crown”

Hass, in the translation below, lets Issa’s anger show. You can’t really say that a stoic or calm attitude is demonstrated here. Even if haiku may be considered part of religious practice—verse trying to see the world, striving to accept suffering and impermanence—Issa is at the least dismissive. If not outright angry:

       Writing shit about new snow 
 for the rich
       is not art.

At 20, I’d have looked at this and said “Huh. Sometimes an artist has to make a statement.” Then I’d promptly move on.

Now I find it remarkable that Issa’s statement strikes with the same sentiment as street art. There’s no art in romantic, glossy images of nature which the privileged immediately call their own. If art, religion, and culture are linked (they most certainly are, note the contempt from fundamentalists for “secular culture”), it becomes intuitive how it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

The problem is deeper than having lots of stuff or being worldly. It has to do with how the world flatters you merely for having more. How that flattery is built into the very way you see everything.

How that flattery is built into the very way I see everything.


I’m happy right now. Lots of people are thrilled with finding love or success. But my current mood comes from trying to speak to myself for my birthday. Crafting a proposition which made a bit of sense, one which might prove useful.

It’s incredibly privileged. I had quiet and time to think. Money and resources I need to live. There were responsibilities but they were not overwhelming. 

These lines of Dickinson don’t exactly speak my mood. They’re about “us,” about something akin to the exclusivity of romantic love. How it creates a climate that can’t be broken by outside factors such as the cold, or time:

Did We abolish Frost (1014)
Emily Dickinson

Did We abolish Frost
The Summer would not cease —
If Seasons perish or prevail
Is optional with Us —

“Did We abolish Frost / The Summer would not cease”—for a moment, Dickinson is in love with love. She’s like those who must have crushes, must have honeymoon phases. 

I don’t want to put having crushes down. The honeymoon phase of a relationship is always fun. But a lot of people in love with love see their mood collapse if they’re not texting all the time or going out or arranging dinner dates at the apartment. Again, I don’t want to be harsh here. I’m in love with love my own way, too.

However, Dickinson highlights how absurd this is. “Did We abolish Frost / The Summer would not cease:” whether we abolish frost or not, whether we choose to deal with the cold or not, it doesn’t matter. Summer will not cease, no matter what.

It’s a choice to have no choices, to not feel the weight of consequence. The cute person who won’t finish school and will never read a book is the same as the Olympian marathon runner or the psychotherapist. Perpetual, unchanging summer.

Nothing about this is real. “If Seasons perish or prevail / Is optional with Us” shows the lie. The seasons will happen, there will be rising and falling. Things do change. “Is optional with Us” implies we, together, can be in denial. Putting “optional” near “Us” is suggestive in another way. Why can’t “Us” also be “optional?”

I said my mood wasn’t built on anything similar to having love or success. However, it seems eerily similar to what I see in Dickinson’s poem. If I’m insisting that I’ve found an authentic basis for happiness, something small that will always work, have I indulged the summer which will not cease? I might as well have a crush, no?


Of import is why.

This is hard for me to accept. I’ll look at someone 10 years younger with more success, a loving family, lots of accomplishments. For a moment, I’ll be jealous.

I’ll forget that can’t be my life, shouldn’t be my life.

That if my experience means anything, I have to prize its uniqueness. Accept the mistakes not to romanticize them, but because they’re mine. Know my own successes, not the ones others say I’ve earned.

Use my experience to break the hold my privilege has on me. Learn to see through what I’ve been.

Kay Ryan in “Crown” illustrates this. I feel like she’s speaking about how knowledge crowns, how it’s earned even if it doesn’t seem deserved:

Crown (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan
Too much rain
loosens trees.
In the hills giant oaks
fall upon their knees.
You can touch parts
you have no right to—
places only birds
should fly to.

“Too much rain / loosens trees.” I feel flooded. What I’ve helped grow falls apart because of too much, all at once.

I’m happier now, but I remember how I was a moment ago. How I might be a few moments from now. Too much all at once isn’t always me. The world I know is built to make people feel worse about themselves.

The trees fall. More than my assumptions are loosened. There are things that served as knowledge and in normal circumstances would be knowledge, the governing principles. “In the hills giant oaks / fall upon their knees.”

Giant oaks stand like all the ideas that helped us understand a place. A person. But they’re gone now.

The giant oaks fall. What’s left is devastation. A crumpled, vulnerable self. “You can touch parts / you have no right to— / places only birds / should fly to.” “You have no right” to these parts of yourself. A sane, happy, just world doesn’t force you to discover how you think all the time.

But Ryan doesn’t see this as completely bad. The tops and crowns of trees have fallen. You can search the roots and find which ones were strong before the trees were ripped away. There’s value in knowing what you understood which should, itself, have stood. There’s also value in knowing what you made where other things could nest and blossom.

The value of value can be said to be growth, and growth depends on what we place highest. It’s there, right in front of us, fallen. The tragedy frames the good. A good of actual import—delicate and hard to cherish, not built of blind permanence. A good that calls for rebirth.