Travels of the Mind

Two contrary news items struck me yesterday. Both speak to how the creative person can cope in this time of isolation.

The New York Times carried a story about three elderly people who are thriving in this forced quarantine. One of them was the literary agent Sterling Lord, a legend in the publishing business. Lord is 99 years old, and in the midst of starting a new agency. How’s that for optimism? One of his clients is centenarian Lawrence Ferlinghetti, equally legendary beat poet and founder of City Lights bookstore in San Francisco.

The reporter also interviewed Janet Wasserman, 85, a historian who is researching a Dutch forger who inspired the titular character in Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” And she’s doing it all online.

Lord, Wasserman, and theater producer Gordon Rogoff, 88 – who’s spending his time catching up on Jane Austen – all demonstrate that for some people, internal engagement is more important than external motion. Whether using online archives, video conferencing or the low-tech hardcover book, they demonstrate that isolation is, well, all in the mind.

Which brings me to the second tidbit. On Instragram I scrolled across a post from country singer/songwriter Miranda Lambert, who just purchased a retro RV and plans to travel in it with her husband – seeing the country in a way that rushing down an interstate in a tour bus does not afford.

My first thought was, “Imagine the contribution she’s going to make to the American songbook.” Fans may love her voice, which can go from soft crooner to edgy rocker in a beat, but Lambert also is a talented songwriter. My favorite is “Automatic,” that paeon to the past that brings in everything from driving stick to using a Rand McNally road atlas in assessing just how far we haven’t come.

It may seem contrary, these two reactions to the coronavirus lockdown. On the one hand, we have an aging writer, agent, and theater producer remaining engaged from the confines of their homes. Then we have Lambert, who can afford to travel in retro high style while maintaining her social distancing. 

I think, for example, of Emerson’s metaphor of travel in “Self-Reliance.” In this classic essay he writes, “Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home.” If that isn’t a motto for the Lost Year of the Pandemic, I don’t know what is. 

But Emerson equates the traveling mind as a loss of the self, of imitation. I think the mind can travel in positive ways; it can remain in motion while all else stagnates around it. 

Stagnation and motion are key here. To stagnate is from the Latin root, stagnum, “a piece of standing water.” Consider what happens to water that doesn’t circulate. Robbed of oxygen, it grows putrefied, full of algae and other stinky growths. We all know about internal putrefaction. Without light or air, our thoughts can grow repetitive, paranoid, and dark. 

We need the opposite of stagnation, which is flow. Flow equals motion. Our thoughts, like rippling water, need to move; whether cascading or trickling, they must circulate if we are to remain engaged and creative. 

To change the metaphor, think of blood circulation. Without it, we would die; absent metaphoric circulation, our thoughts congeal and our best ideas perish.

And so I examine why I was so drawn to these two contrary coronavirus responses. Is it possible to practice both Sterling Lord’s active quarantined mind – traveling metaphorically – while longing for Miranda Lambert’s literal journey into America? I think it is.

Emerson journeyed abroad after his first wife Ellen’s death, and although he denigrated the old country idols, that trip in 1832-33 to Italy, France, England and Scotland energized him. In the span of a few days, he met the poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the essayist Thomas Carlyle, who would become a lifelong correspondent and friend. The trip crystallized his ideas about the need for a new American intellectual identity.

Thus in “Self-Reliance” he distinguishes between travel “for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence,” contrasted with the philistine who “travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry,” a traveler who thus “carries ruins to ruins.” 

I may be imposing my own ideas on a country singer’s journey, but I do not see Miranda Lambert traveling simply for amusement. Her mind is too finely tuned to the world for that. Like John Steinbeck or Henry Miller, she will feel the need to report back on what she sees and hears. 

At home in my office, I embrace these contradictions. My mind continues to circulate. Like Wasserman, I’ve found the internet a fruitful source of research for my biography of Wellesley President Caroline Hazard. Like Rogoff, my head is often in a book. And like Lord, I’ve found my day job of teaching can be accomplished from home. 

But like Lambert, I yearn for the inspiration of literal motion too. My creativity bulletin board this month illustrates this longing. Past destinations, from Florida to Yosemite, tease with their memories, while future ones beckon: New Mexico and Mount Rushmore, Barcelona and Edinburgh. For now, I can only dream, but dreams are the travel agent of the mind.

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