Exactly four years ago on the First Day of Spring, I left Washington to come here to Los Gatos in California. The day of departure, the Spring Equinox, was deliberately chosen. The days become longer; though, in the Southern Hemisphere, they become shorter. We spend our passing lives on a planet that continually turns on its axis, dips forward and backward with the seasons. All the while it follows a millions of mile elliptical orbit around the Sun, our Sun, not somebody else’s. We don’t own it. In a way, it owns us. None of us had the slightest thing to do with its being there, in making it possible for our kind to exist and to draw out our days—through in never quite the same Springs, Summers, Falls, and Winters.
During the first years out here, we had severe droughts, made worse both by “earth-warming” and by California’s fifty-year neglect of its infrastructure as well as by its ideological policies. This year, we have had bountiful rains, made possible, again, by “earth warming”. (This is California; we can have it both ways). In preparation for the next drought, never far away, the storms’ run-off waters were again not adequately collected behind dams never built.
Across from us, the Mt. Diablo and Mt. Hamilton Ranges rise above the tip of San Francisco Bay and the Santa Clara Valley (once known as Prune Valley, now as Silicon Valley). The visible hillsides and woods continue into and over the near-by Santa Cruz Mountains. They separate us from Monterey Bay and the Pacific some fifteen miles away. The hills all glisten with a delicate light green, almost unbearably beautiful at times as different configurations of clouds, winds, sunrises, sunsets, and time of day bring to life some corner of this world that we had never noticed before.
Noticing is one of the most important things about us. Or to put it negatively, our lives are filled with myriads of things we never paid attention to. We couldn’t mark all of them. Oftentimes, however, someone else did notice, which is why, I suspect, we have literature and memory. But it is a good thing to come to terms with our finitude. We suspect, ultimately, that it does not have the last word.
In his Grammar, N. M. Gwynne wrote: “Traditionally, the purpose of the fine arts, in which poetry, literature, is, of course, one, has not been considered to be one of self-indulgence, but of trying to make the world a better place, in however small a degree.” That is a telling sentence. It is mindful of a theme in Tolkien that the great deeds of this world are not always accomplished by the great ones but often by some unknown wayfarer in some unsuspected corner of the world.
The notion of “making the world a better place” sounds almost trite today when we have little agreement about what we mean by “better”, though Gwynne’s term “self-indulgent” still gives a pretty good idea of what we do not want to be. “Self-indulgence” does not mean that we cannot enjoy a good beer or dessert. It means that we can enjoy them because we know where they fit into the kind of lives we have been given.
If we look about us, most of the once well-known vices are now at least “rights”, if not crimes to oppose them, even to define them accurately. Indeed, it is called “making the world a better place”, if we do not look too carefully at what actually goes on. We define our babies out of existence so that we can have compassion and, simultaneously, remove any grounds from the next wave of compassion that will soon eliminate anyone who is defined as less than perfect.
Love, they say, means looking to the good of another. That “looking” usually means “sacrificing for”. It means the effort to be virtuous. It also means the constant effort to know the truth of things. It means not to lie about them. They say that virtue is its own reward, but so is vice. The self-indulgent man wants everyone else to love him for his own sake. He is convinced that he deserves it. How quaint!
What else do we know about Spring? A friend’s sister tried hiking in the Georgia Mountains with her 21-year-old athletic grand-niece. But they turned back. “I’m indescribably tired. And cold. And freezing,” she explained to her sister. “’Know thyself’ a wise man said. So I know, now, that I will never be doing the three month Appalachian Trail ever in my life. Ain’t gonna happen.” Another thing to notice about our lives—they betray certain limitations. This awareness is not self-indulgence. It is prudence. It is metaphysics. It is making the world a better place.