I have been reading a lot of Montaigne lately and he has popped up in several places.
I first encountered his essays last summer on a coffee table at a friend’s cottage. (Thanks Brad!) I read a few of the essays and was intrigued at how they were written – so random, so personal, so rapt with attention to the life around him, and so many references to his cat.
The next encounter came about a month ago, the beginning of our social distancing.
Brad, Chris’ friend, had lent two of his books where Montaigne is the major subject:
How To Live: by Sarah Bakewell
The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl
I started with the Bakewell book and it turned quickly into 21-Days of journaling challenge with the older teens and their group of friends I teach.
I loved how Bakewell calls Montaigne the “first blogger.” And how he coined the term “essay” which comes from the French verb “essayer” – to try.
All these recent encounters with this pioneer of blogging led me back here to my blog. My eleven year online journal. I haven’t been as regular or consistent as I would have liked. There are many posts that are apologetic for being gone so long or not showing up when I promised and I would pull the “I got five kids” Card. Story of my life.
I had trouble writing publicly during the “The Death and Destruction Years” of 2016-2019. It was an especially rough time in our family and I was busy “living the questions” as Rilke poetically wrote yet not so poetic to be lived with five children and a husband who needs routine.
When you are thick in the shit of life, the last thing you want to do is describe how it smells, especially when you didn’t expect everyone to shit on you at once. It wasn’t all shit but there wasn’t enough time of the re-surfacing above the shit to make a coherent blog post without feeling like I was exposing our family at a time when we were all pretty raw from goodbyes and grief.
(The word “transition” is a bad word in our house.)
I come back to the blog again like the true prodigal daughter I am, inspired by Montaigne.
For those that have been reading along for the last few weeks, you may have noticed that some posts seem more put together than others. I tend to ramble or repeat myself like that elderly aunt who tells you the same stories about that time you were little and you had that epic tantrum with her. (Yes, I was a brat. Thanks for the reminder, Auntie).
I feel that Montaigne is a kindred spirit in many ways. As Hampl remarks, Montaigne saw:
the act of leaving the world’s stage as the best way to attain balance, and beyond that to reach the self’s greatest achievement – integrity. The retreat from ‘the world’ was the way to avoid the evil of certainty. The malignant cells of certainty that create the monster of demagoguery.
Is that what my desire to move out into the jungle is? My best shot at attaining balance and to have integrity, in the purest meaning of the word:
**To be whole. **
An opportunity to do what Humpty Dumpty could not, to put the pieces back together. Maybe he just needed an off grid home in the jungle away from the familiar.
Hampfl asks a question, at a time in recent years when people began reading Montaigne again:
Why Montaigne? Why now?
Her attempt at answering is full of maybes that make sense.
Maybe Montaigne appeals to this age because he “retired” – that word again.
Some days Chris and I feel retired. A re-tired. Tired again. Tired of all of the definitions of us that we made in Toronto, twenty-two years worth of definitions. Tired to the point where we needed to be away, to redefine in seclusion. Or at least have a place to retire when we need it, which as we get older, and the world gets more and more “too this” or “too that,” we definitely appreciate.
More on Montaigne from Hampl:
He had left the world of power and command, sequestered himself in his tower to investigate the furnishings of his mind. Individual consciousness was his subject, not the sweep of his tumultuous era. Yet his was an age of terror and cruelty, crying out for explanation, for a big-picture narrative of its seismic divisions.
In times of peace the age itself is the story, leisurely with intrigue, gossip, affairs of state, affairs of love – busy, busy, busy with its social self, making massive formal shapes. In times of terror like Montaigne’s, like ours, we (we readers) seek instead the sane singular voice, alone with its thoughts, maybe to assure ourselves that sanity does exist somewhere, and the self the littleness of personhood is somewhere alive, taking its notes. And that this matters. We know the awful part, the sweep of history’s cruelties. We want the singular voice, abiding. This is why a little girl keeping a diary in an Amsterdam attic is ‘the voice of the Holocaust.’
Ah yes. This makes sense to me now. I blog about the bits and pieces of my thoughts and maybe I am not alone with them as my family crowds this house and I cannot lock myself in a tower, although I would love to at times. But these thoughts are mine, proof of an alive self that matters. One voice among the billions. It doesn’t matter to me who reads this. What matters is that I write it.
Back to my word of the year, “Comfort.” I take comfort in recording these details of my life just as I take comfort in reading all of the previous posts that deliver the tiny snapshots of attempts at understanding how to live.
Did you know that the root of the word “comfort” is “con” + “fort”, which means “with strength”?
It is here, my mundane words about life with kids and home and family – my essentials – that I find strength when I think about the world. I can’t make sense of what’s going on out there half the time so why not root down in the little things I can wrap my head around or at least my large comforter.
There are so many “insert #-day” challenges right now. I have done my fair share on this blog: 100 scribbles/Book of Hours, 42 Days of Gratitude, 31 Days of MayBE (2015 edition), 31 Days of MayBe (2019 edition), 28-Day Get-Through-February Writing Prompts, Mau Mondays based on Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto, and the 100 Love Notes (the one I fell short because the love notes were so heart-wrenching and during that Age of Death and Destruction although one of my favourite posts of all time is there – A Love Note to Lady Rage).
And now 21 Days of How To Live sponsored by Montaigne (a lesson with the teens that I haven’t published and we are actually on Day 23.)
I love these challenges because there is a purpose and a theme. When I have followed someone else’s prompts or inspired by another’s creativity, like the ones from WriteALM or Bruce Mau, it was even better. I could just write and not think about what to write about the next day. I let the theme create a comfortable blog from which my words and worlds could flow out.
I created the other challenges at times in my life when I wanted to kickstart my creativity. Creativity blossoms when I create a habit of it, ironically.
Montaigne went into solitude to find freedom and to write about his process. He quotes some heavy-hitting Stoics but also found solace in the Epicureans and the Sceptics. He didn’t have a master plan or specific prompts except the questions he was seeking answers to regarding how to live. Maybe “living the questions” can be lived poetically even with the obscene and grotesque and the ordinary. Or it just means to show up each day.
This is what I am trying here. I am trying to show up daily and write.
To stalk my life without too much planning, without an overall purpose but to show up and look around. It is very uncomfortable not to have a plan for this. I was just complaining to my husband this morning that my blog feels all over the place. And don’t get me started on the spotty tags.
In a world where we are always looking for the neat little box of themes and organized spaces, I am taking a page out of my own book and the life I have created and will with absolute disorganization and abandon. No prescribed challenges. When you visit me here, “you get what you get and don’t get upset” – a favourite little rhyme I tell my children. Don’t get upset when I jump topics or linger too long on one.
It may be like reading someone’s thoughts mid-thought. I often talk to my husband that way. I will look up and say something like, “Do you think it’s a good idea to do that? We should think about that the next time we go to the grocery store.” This is a normal occurrence in our relationship of twenty-six years. He always says his go-to sentence when this happens, “You forgot to fill me in on the first half of the conversation in your head.”
That’s what this blog will look like for awhile. An experiment of sorts. A place that isn’t just about homeschooling (working on those tags!), or parenting, or creativity, or even writing. Sometimes you may read about how I feel about my cats a la Montaigne or the colour blue. And sometimes I might write a post that has it all – how blue cats make you a better homeschooler. Who knows.
Maybe visiting here will be your daily kinder surprise? You never know what you’re going to get. (Oh wait, that’s a box of chocolates…)
I am not discounting the value of those insert #of days-challenges right now that everywhere. These can really help with focus and consistency and even open you up to a part of you that you dearly missed or never knew existed.
I want to do something I have never done and do the thing that I keep reading about it all the books I have on writing. Show up every day and write. I haven’t gone longer than 100 days. (I am currently on Day 24 on the blog although I couldn’t post this past Monday due to a surprise vehicular restriction and no time to schedule it before.)
Tyler Cowen, one of my favourite bloggers, has blogged every day for almost seventeen years. EVERY DAY. And of course, Seth Godin.
As Lamott writes in Bird By Bird, her little book on instructions for writing and life,
You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively.
There’s that word again. Try.
Maybe that should have been my word too this year.
So this is what I have been trying for the last eleven years on this blog:
I try to share my experiences, more good than bad, not to brag but to talk about the lessons I have learned that I wish someone had shared with me when my kids were little. (I borrowed that from Tony Robbins’ quote that I can’t quite remember…he is not bragging about his achievements but sharing lessons learned.)
I try to share tidbits of our life today to update family and friends. (We are all still alive in the jungle. We just don’t have reliable internet to keep in touch. This blog can serve as a one-stop shop.)
I try to write. I practice this because I enjoy it.
I try to record the ordinary and extraordinary moments of my days because I love looking back to read what I found ordinary and extraordinary in days gone by.
I try to share cool things I am reading or doing with the kids because we all need a little help or burst of inspiration.
I try to look at the ways in which I stumble with objectivity and non-judgement and humour. It’s like not wiping up the spill right away but seeing what shape it takes to discern the meaning even if it feels more like a tea-leaf reading.
I try to write down what my children are thinking and saying and doing without infringing on their privacy, allowing them to keep pieces of themselves secret.
I try to write the funny and the heavy. My eldest likes to read the older blog posts because she says that I “used to write the funny more.” Then they grew up and posts became as serious as the issues that adolescence brings. Now that I have grown accustomed to teenagers in the house, I find them funnier. Now that “The Age of Death and Destruction” is over, I am ready to usher in “The Age of Comfort and Joy” – a rare age from a woman that has shunned both states out of habit and self-deprecation. An age which hopefully will tell its own story as it is lived.
I try to make sense but I don’t hold much hope in sounding like I do. I am still a mom of five and I will always play that card but will try harder to play it less. They can be so overwhelming. Like my friend Brooke and I would say, “Some days we feel the five.”
I try to be consistent in my posting schedule but I have five kids. (Ok, seriously, the last time now that I am committing to writing daily.)
I may not last seventeen years but maybe I can do a bit better than my last record – 100 days.
I will end this post with two quotes from the man himself, Montaigne:
Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.
I portray passing.
I will write and you, whomever you are, will read this. We are two individuals passing by each other through space and time without a specific purpose but to meet briefly and make an attempt to answer how to live.
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