Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Just Breathe

Scott McLemee's column today in Inside Higher Ed unearths a marvelous chestnut from the relatively dim reaches of the past.
The volume in question, America as Americans See It, was published by the Literary Guild in 1932. It contains more than 40 essays by various eminent and near-eminent figures of that era, plus dozens of photographs and cartoons. The editor, Fred J. Ringel, says in the introduction that he intended to prepare a study of the national culture after he arrived in the United States. (From where, he doesn’t indicate, and this seems to be his one major publication.) But he gave up and decided to edit an anthology instead. Among the better-remembered contributors are W.E.B. Du Bois and Upton Sinclair. There is also an essay by one Clare Boothe Brokaw, an editor at Vanity Fair, on the rituals and pretenses of high society. This author would become somewhat better known when she changed surnames after marrying Henry Luce, and her observations would be recycled into more memorable form in a play called The Women.


“Americans are a queer people,” [Canadian political scientist Stephen Leacock] writes. “They can’t rest…. They rush up and down across their continent as tourists; they move about in great herds to conventions, they invade the wilderness, they flood the mountains, they keep the hotels full. But they can’t rest. The scenery rushes past them. They learn it, but they don’t see it. Battles and monuments are announced to them in a rubber neck bus… So they go on rushing until the Undertaker gathers them to the last convention.”

The same state of distracted haste prevails in the educational system and in publishing. Americans “have more schools,” Leacock writes, “and better schools, and spend more money on schools and colleges than all of Europe. They print more books in one year than the French print in ten. But they can’t read. They cover their country with 100,000 tons of Sunday newspapers every week. But they don’t read them. They’re too busy. They use them for fires and to make more paper with.” Today, of course, we publish everything digitally, then ignore it.
Tomorrow, take a moment or two in all the busyness to just stop. Look at those around you, think about who they are, what they mean to your life. Look at the home in which you stand, whether your own, a friend's, or a relative's. Think of memories the place evokes. Drink deep of the smell of roasting turkey, the sage from the stuffing, the sweet potatoes and green bean casserole.

We need to stop, in the midst of all the rushing about we think defines necessity, and simply be, in the moment. We need to remember that, in giving thanks, we need to be conscious of what is before us. We cannot do this if we are too busy rushing to the next item on the agenda, the next meeting.

May your Thanksgiving Day be filled not just with food, but with laughter and the joy of being together with those you love and like or merely tolerate. May you have the opportunity to stop, take in all that surrounds you, and be thankful. My prayer, I suppose, is this lesson can be carried with all, and each, of you throughout the coming year.

Virtual Tin Cup

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