Wandering Aim-fully
An Antidote for Cynicism

My Morning With E.B. White

One thing about Saturday mornings that is enjoyable is the fact that I do not have to get out of bed at any particular time.  It doesn't mean I sleep later, though.  I awoke at 5:45, as usual, my biological clock ringing and the gray cat complaining that there was no water in the sink to drink.  And yet, I lay there thinking of everything and nothing in particular.  Draped one leg out of the bed so the gray cat, who has a foot fetish, could make multiple passes at it, claiming me, I suppose, which is undoubtedly the case.  I lay there longer, conscious but not willing to move, until 7:45, actually, at which point I realized that perhaps by some miracle I had gone back to sleep.  I sat up. I reconsidered and lay back down.  I sat back up, noting the rain on the roof and the grayness seeping in the windows, and I reconsidered yet again, and yet I got up nonetheless, there being some smug satisfaction prized only by the small-minded at rising before the rest of the household, that is if you do not include the gray cats, and I certainly do not include them for this purpose.

Mounting the recumbent bike I busied myself at going nowhere fast.  Listening to a sermon by Tim Keller.  Exploring tangents like what to eat for lunch set off by something Keller said, no doubt.  I seem to associate sermons with food, as they typically precede a time or constitute a time of perceived hunger. Keller finished just short of my finish.  I went downstairs and considered breakfast.  I started the bread toasting first, because there is nothing better than the waft of toasting bread.  I scrambled egg whites and then lay them in a plate, anemic.  Salted them even though salt is bad for you and yet justified it to myself in that my blood pressure was a bit low last time I checked and could use some stimulus, so the salt was actually healthy I reasoned.  Toast, scrambled egg whites. . . oh yes, some yogurt, and grapes, and a huge cinnamon roll.  Actually, I dreamed the last item.  I sat down at the table by the window and prepared to dive in, prayer said, picked up the latest copy of The Pesdestrian, and set to reading E.B. White's essay, "My Day," circa 1941, not a bit concerned about the poor birds outside who had been without bird seed for days now, who undoubtedly were weak and falling from the trees and sky by fatigue brought on my undernourishment.

But I tell you all this just to say that E.B. White can write about his day of ordinary things and it sounds quite better than my morning of ordinary things, and you need to read it.  He essays in a way that is so ordinary and yet which infuses the ordinary with humor (because it is humorous), insight, and humanity.  He reminds me that even my ordinary morning is all of those things and more.  And when I hold it up to the refracted light of his prose, it has a faint light of its own.

But back to White.  Here he is on the eve of WWII writing about an ordinary day as if nothing else important is going on in the world, as if there is nothing serious he needs to be doing, and on numerous moments he makes me smile, inside at times and sometimes slightly outside, at nothing that would be very funny to my kids or my wife if I were to describe it and yet which is funny becuase life is funny when you think about it, when you think about the things that happen and the things that people say and the thoughts you may have.  Take this colloquy between White and the plowman neighbor:

        The plowman mentioned the smoke pall when I was talking with him in the afternoon, and I asked if he knew where the fire was.

        "Canada," he replied.

        "What part of Canada?" I asked.

        "The whole of it," he said.  "They tell me the whole of Canada is ablaze."

        "That's a big fire then," I answered.  "Canada is a large place, larger than the United States even."

        The plowman considered this distasteful pronouncement a moment.  "Well then," he said, "it is a big fire."  But he added cheerfully, "Anyways, it'll have to cross a pile of water 'fore it gits to us."

        I nodded in perfect agreement, for this seemed a spiritual rather than a geographical discussion, and I felt instructed and renewed.

There's more, of course, much more than I can say.  White returns home to the farm "and settled down to work, and worked diligently for about four minutes and then remembered that I was to call for some children, this being the last day of school and a picnic having been arranged."  And that's funny too, and oh so ordinary.  He "worked diligently for about four minutes.'  Life intervenes.

I learned two new words reading White's essay, not that he bandies unknown words about to impress us.  One was "sartorial," meaning "of or pertaining to clothing or style and manner of dress," a word I doubt I'll try out as I do not know anyone who uses it.  But it was, after all, 1941.  The other word was "integument," a covering or coating, White referring to the smell of lilacs that covered the farm while out doing is evening chores.  Probably won't use that one, either.  And yet those maybe useless words are enriching and will probably come back to me at some time, and I'll smile that I know them even if I don't use them.

Insights come to you in the ordinariness of a day, but only with reflection and only with time.  White picks up a neighbor for help and heads to an abandoned farmstead near him to pick up a farm implement with which to roll his field, a place described by him as remote and quiet.  In the midst of his work, he began to dream about what it would be like to start life over again in the old Harrick place, free of all responsibilities, fresh, and alone, and he says this:

        A Man sometimes gets homesick for the loneliness that he has at one time or another         experienced in his life and that is a part of all life in some degree, and sometimes a secluded or         half-mournful yet beautiful place will suddenly revive the sensation of pain and melancholy         and unfulfillment that are associated with that loneliness, and will make him want to seize it         and recapture it; but I know with me it is a passing want and not to be compared with my taste         for domesticity, which is most of the time so strong as to be overpowering. 

And I find myself nodding slightly, because I know what he is speaking of.

The gray cat has taken to joining me on my desk as I write, winding back and forth with the goal of distraction, and so I write her in right here,  make he a part of what I'm saying.  

When I went to the wild bird store to get feed for the poor helpless birds that inhabit my backyard, the lady who chirped a greeting to me said "nasty day, outside, isn't it? and I allowed as to how it was.  One of those sissy dogs that forgot it was a dog, that surrendered its dog-card, lay curled up in a blue basket behind the counter, red sweater on.  I bought the bird seed.  The fat birds who visit my yard, who have perpetrated this racket on all my neighbors, will not die today, anyway.

After E.B. White, I found it all mildly humorous.  The bird-like woman in the bird store.  The pathetic dog,  The largesse of the Yukon Denali whose hindquarters had lapped over into my under-occupied parking space. The gray cat with the foot fetish.  The other gray cat who just knocked my book with White's essay on the floor, who just activated the voice control on my cellphone, as if she were intelligent life.

And the surprising intervention of the profound in all this comedy.  A sense of homesickness for something that, as with White, is not even describable.   A nodding agreement of shared domesticity, of ordinary loveliness.

I like to think of the late E.B. White as the prophet of the ordinary, a truth-teller of the mundane. Reading him enriched my morning.  Reading him brought a little shine to the day.

[I highly recommend White's essays, many of which you will find collected in the Essays of E.B. White.  For an excellent journal of essays, both modern and classic, check out The Pedestrian: Explore the Ordinary.  And of course, you can write your own.]