Good morning, Jim. You’re back, are you? Well, as you can see, we’re still here. You’ll want coffee, of course. Look, everything’s where it’s always been: filters, coffee, machine, cups. The same. Even the tempered-glass cutting board on which Mr. Coffee sits — “has sat” for many, many years —with one corner missing its tiny round cushion. Go ahead, take your favorite cup. Those stains in it are probably from your father’s day, you know.
It’s may be too early for this, but tell us, how are you? What news from Atlanta? Oh, that’s good. No, no, we remember, though they were so much younger then. In the high chair or underfoot, pleading for pancakes, scattering their toys and books everywhere. White sand on the floor, tracked in from the backyard. Sippy cups half-full of lukewarm apple juice. The whole place more or less askew for days after you left.
A bit unsettling, sure. Still, we knew that eventually we’d be put to rights, and in the meantime … in the meantime, it was also … stirring.
How to explain. Let’s see.
Do you know that essay by Gregory Bateson, “Metalogue: Why Do Things Get in a Muddle?” from Steps to an Ecology of Mind? It begins this way: “Daughter: ‘Daddy, why do things get in a muddle?’ / Father: ‘What do you mean? Things? Muddle?’ / Daughter: ‘Well, people spend a lot of time tidying things, but they never seem to spend time muddling them. Things just seem to get in a muddle by themselves. And then people have to tidy them up again.'”
Yes, you’ve read it? Good. You remember this part, then:
F: Now we begin to get into more difficult questions. Let’s start
again from the beginning. You said “Why do things always get in
a muddle?” Now we have made a step or two—and let’s change
the question to “Why do things get in a state which Cathy calls
‘not tidy?’ ” Do you see why I want to make that change?
D: … Yes, I think so—because if I have a special meaning for “tidy”
then some of other people’s “tidies” will look like muddles to me
—even if we do agree about most of what we call muddles.
And soon the father progresses to the final step, namely, his demonstration that things appear to “get in a muddle” because there are infinitely more ways that his daughter calls “untidy” than there are ways that she calls “tidy.”
We ARE getting to the point. You have your coffee now, so what’s it to you? Sit down in your recliner and listen.
It’s not just that it was helpful to be reminded that what seemed like “chaos” to us was the “normal state of things” for your young boys. (Better, maybe: the desirable state of things.) The patience such a realization encourages. The greater tolerance. The openness to whatever the moment offers.
No, not just that. It’s the process itself. The toggling back and forth. That was what we found stirring.
Like gazing at detritus, rubbish, waste, and being both revulsed by it and attracted to it.
What’s that you’re muttering? Well, obviously, because you can’t have life without detritus, can you? What’s the tidiest place in the universe? A black hole, yes. Perfectly ordered nothingness.
As an aside, didn’t you yourself say once that you found those panoramic photographs by Josef Koudelka, in his collection titled Chaos, strangely beautiful?
Maybe it’s time for us to say something we’ve been meaning to say for quite a while. We’ve watched all of you for 50 years now. Four generations in all. And it seems to us, Jim, that you yourself are always falling into a certain kind of thinking. Call it “either/or” thinking. Either you’re happy or you’re sad. Either you’re doing something worthwhile or you’re wasting time. Either the kitchen’s tidy or it’s a mess.
Which means you’re missing out. If the Kandinsky is painted on both sides, then the one is incomplete without the other. You don’t choose a side — you toggle back and forth between the two. That’s where all the “fun” is, as your young sons once demonstrated. An ancient philosopher would say that it’s the only way to live in accordance with nature. Or if you prefer, you can call it “living life fully.” Whatever.
Oh, just drink your coffee and watch the film clip. You’ll see what we mean.