Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Joseph Mitchell in the New Yorker.

 Wordsworth had it right, ‘The world is too much with us…”

In just the past couple of weeks we’ve had beheadings, ass-annointings, and the awfulness of Ferguson. Now that Thanksgiving, and thank god, my daughters are upon us, maybe it’s time we put some of the world aside. Maybe it’s time we stopped ‘Getting and spending.’ Maybe it’s time we stop ‘laying waste our powers.’

Maybe it’s time to breathe.

Fortunately for me, the “New Yorker” arrived last night, only a day late thanks to the great good graces of the United States Postal Service. Inside were eight pages or so written by my favorite writer, Joseph Mitchell. They were never-before-published pages of his never-finished memoir. These recounted his boyhood in rural North Carolina.

Mitchell died almost two decades ago, having spent the last 30 years of his life suffering from a legendary case of writer’s block. He kept his post at the “New Yorker,” but from 1964 until his death in 1996, he published nothing.

I read, with relish, his “Remembering the South in the City,” part of his unfinished book. Here’s what I noticed.

Mitchell includes a lot of lists.

His lists go on.

They are exhaustive.

And repetitive.

They force you to slow down.

To consider.

Why, how, what, where and who.

He’ll enumerate every fruit he picked. Or every tree her climbed. Or every animal he saw in the woods.

“Early one morning last summer, around daybreak, going for a walk to the farther side of the branch, I saw a raccoon on the canal bank. It was eating a frog. A few minutes later, I saw a diamondback water snake. And then I saw an old and obese opossum crawl out of one of the ditches. It waddled along the ditch bank for a short distance and then abruptly darted through some bushes and into a hole in the base of the trunk of a dead tree. And then I saw a box turtle. And I saw a pair of muskrats. And then, passing through a grove of hickory trees, I sensed something moving along a limb far up above me, and glancing upward I saw fleetingly and out of the corner of an eye what I am sure was a wildcat or, as we call it, a bobcat. It is still possible to see a wide variety of birds in the branch, and a wide variety of insects, and a wide variety of wild flowers.”

It’s not boring.

It’s living.

We write today as breathlessly as we interrupt.

Like machine-guns, we fire off little bursts of words and then send another volley hurtling through the cyber-void.

Mitchell, you can tell, did something people rarely do today.

He spent time alone.

Not online. Or watching a video. Or the clock. Or cable.

He thought.

He thought about the world.

And the invisible forces that put a river there, an arrowhead here and a raccoon eating a frog there.


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