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QUINTESSENCE

Hearts and Boxes

THE LITERARY LIFE
by Billy Collins

I woke up this morning,
as the blues singers like to boast,
and the first thing to enter my mind,
as the dog was licking my face, was Coventry Patmore.

Who
was Coventry Patmore?
I wondered, as I rose
and set out on my journey to the encyclopedia
passing some children and a bottle cap on the way.

Everything seemed more life-size than usual.
Light in the shape of windows
hung on the walls next to the paintings
of birds and horses, flowers and fish.

Coventry Patmore,
I'm coming to get you, I hissed,
as I entered the library like a man stepping
into a freight elevator of science and wisdom.

How many things have I looked up
in a lifetime of looking things up?
I wondered, as I set the book on the piano
and began turning its large, weightless pages.

How would the world look
if all of its things were neatly arranged
in alphabetical order? I wondered,
as I found the
P section and began zeroing in.

How long before I would forget Coventry Patmore's
dates and the title of his long poem
on the sanctity of married love?
I asked myself as I closed the door to that room

and stood for a moment in the kitchen,
taking in the silvery toaster, the bowl of lemons,
and the white cat, looking as if
he had just finished his autobiography.


This poem spoke to me this morning for the simple reason I, too, woke up with an odd question occupying my mind. Not about a poet, but about the boundaries of autonomy. Is it possible, I wondered, for independence (the state of being independent) to nest in dependence or codependence, like so many Russian nesting dolls that symbolize the various degrees of autonomy and community? When we speak of personal independence do we mean the standard dictionary meaning - "freedom from the control, influence, support, aid, or the like of others" - or sweep all that definition of the body-politic and more into a proclamation of self-thinking? A cultural salute to the "solitary intelligence"?

The world itself is a loosely-stitched global quilt of independencies and co-dependencies, and intermingled, shifting national states between the two. Hearts and boxes. In some ways happily delineated, organized, and in others roughly folded, crunched at the corners. In my house for the next twelve weeks we will practice our own independent-comingling as my daughter, a third year medical student, takes up her old room, now guest room, for a brief set of clinical rotations at nearby hospitals, all part of her required medical training. I am beyond thrilled. It is a gift to have her home. It is also my challenge to respect and observe the shift in borders in the shadow of the old. Is she wary behind that easy smile? Does she wonder if her sturdy independence will wobble as she takes up her old seat at the family dinner table? Will she miss her personal space and newly adult world, however short the time home or respectful the daily routine? I suspect so. I would. But we love time together, and this can be an opportunity to invent a new degree of "us."

The sun this morning seems more brilliant in her presence, the kitchen tomatoes red and ripe in the bowl. The sauvignon blanc I pour for the two of us as we share the wide rocker and discuss the day under the shade of the cherry tree, ever more sweet and satisfying on the tongue. Here's to Independence, my friends. Of whatever varietal you celebrate this weekend, personal or national. It's all good.

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