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Duration:04:01
Uploaded:2020-09-22
Last sync:2020-10-12 12:15
In which John feels overwhelmed with dread so decides to go on a walk, where he thinks about Mary Oliver, Herman Melville, and the chill in the air on this first day of Autumn.
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Good morning, Hank, it's Tuesday. You know what? Let's go outside.

Sometimes it really does feel like the world is gonna roll me. I feel like a very small boat on very high seas, being tossed this way and that by forces so much larger than myself that I can't even comprehend them, let alone control them. Anyway, when that feeling crashes over me, I find it helpful to go outside.

It's technically only the first day of autumn here, but the air is already crisp and smells of fallen leaves. In past years, it always felt like autumn would arrive all at once­ – I'd be flying home from some trip and look out the airplane window and see that the leaves had changed. Or I'd leave my house one morning and notice I needed a jacket. But now, of course, time is unfolding differently, and so autumn has arrived slowly, but also with so much more uncertainty and even menace.

I find a lot of consolation in being outside right now, but I'm not quite sure why. Maybe it's because nature is still proceeding apace, even as so much else isn't. Like, this morning I was thinking of a Mary Oliver poem: "I go down to the shore in the morning, and depending on the hour the waves are rolling in, or moving out, and I say, 'Oh! I am miserable. What shall, what should, I do?’ And the sea says in its lovely voice, 'Excuse me, I have work to do.'"

This is a stark contrast from the way nature’s indifference was imagined earlier, like in, say, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, where we read of the demonic indifference with which the White Whale tore his hunters, and that the White Whale “shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe.” And so the idea that terrified Melville–that the heartless universe doesn’t particularly care about us–comforts the speaker in Mary Oliver’s poem.

And I have to say, I’m team Oliver on this one. I’m glad the world goes on orbiting the sun regardless of what I do. I’m glad the earth is not made for me, but instead that I am made for the earth, and also of it. I’ve read a lot of old novels where the character's moods change with the weather–you know, like how a dark and stormy night outside also means a dark and stormy night inside the heart of our protagonist, or whatever? That always used to make me roll my eyes, but now I see that it wasn’t just a metaphor. The closer you are to the outside world, the more that world can shape your sense of well-being. Same is true of the internet, come to think of it.

Of course this isn’t absolute–you bring yourself to the weather just like you bring yourself to everything else. But we don’t exist independently from the weather, or from the world, or from history, or from anything. And this is where the idea that nature is indifferent to us starts to break down for me. Because the thing is, we are nature. And we need not be indifferent toward ourselves and one another. Or towards life more generally.

It is not quite accurate to say that the ocean is wondrous or monstrous in its indifference to us, because the ocean isn’t indifferent to us. We move it around with our sea walls, and land reclamation projects. We change its overall size and biodiversity by our choices. We move the oceans around, and they move us around. We depend on the oceans, and they depend on us. Humans are nothing if not wildly, utterly, dependent. And like the sea says in its lovely voice, we have work to do. May the knowledge of our interdependence hold fast even in physical isolation, and may the work to get ourselves and each other through keep us warm in the cold months to come. Hank, I’ll see you on Friday.

This video contains a clue just like all my recent videos do. But that’s the clue.