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December 28, 2007


I think what matters is intent, in blogging and in life. We have very little control over consequence. You have no idea who will stumble upon what you write and you may never know and none of that should matter if your intent is pure.

I wrote a comment on someone's blog, yesterday I think but it might have been today – I lose track, and in it I suggested that meaning does not need to be the end product of a poem, for many it is thought, that place where, as you eloquently put it, "language falls away".

That does not mean what you write is meaningless, rather that the meaning your reader winds up with may be something else completely. I'm not one for mysteries but it is a mystery how we manage to communicate anything to another human being considering how the fluidity of the languages we use gets in our road.

You made me think. I can't ask for more nor can you expect more. You may of course feel free to be, or not to be, encouraged by any of the foregoing remarks.

Hi Jim, are you kidding? That's a very encouraging comment but more than that, I'm grateful for your additional insights. All of us have despaired of the limits of language, I think, and part of what's interesting about writing is that determination to persevere at the attempt to communicate, even so. And you're right to remind us that we have no ultimate control over meaning - it would be kind of horrible if we did, wouldn't it?

Communication -- that is the key for me in reading and writing, as it seems for you, Beth. I am in the middle of reading a piece in The New Yorker on "what will life be like if people stop reading" written by Caleb Crain ("twilight of the Books), and he quotes Proust in there, who, I think, has it nailed, what it means to read (and why we write for readers, by extension): "reading as "that fruitful miracle of communication in the midst of solitude." The same, of course, goes for writing, that other "fruitful miracle of solitude" that is informed and resonates with the voices of the multitude, even if it is practiced in solitude.


And yet...why does what we do need to matter? I mean, most of what we do in our daily life doesn't "matter" in a larger, cosmic sense, and yet we do it anyway. So why all the hoopla over stuff that "matters"?

An example. Right now I'm doing laundry -- bedding, towels, and a few days' worth of clothes. It's something I do every week. It doesn't "matter" in any real sense: as soon as you do laundry, you have to do it again. You'd have to take a big leap of faith to say my laundry "makes a difference" in the world. When I'm dead & gone, no one's going to remember whether I did my laundry; in fact, in a few weeks, I myself won't remember this week's laundry. And yet, every week, I do laundry, and I don't expect it to "matter." It's just, after all, laundry.

If I limited my actions to things that matter, I wouldn't get out of bed in the morning. Knowing that I'll die in the end, NOTHING matters. But yet, I do things that don't matter all the time. So why would I expect blogging to be Bigger and More Important than, say, laundry?

If you like blogging, do it. Writers write, and bloggers blog. Sometimes other folks enjoy the stuff we write and/or blog; sometimes people don't care. Why should that make any difference, though? I've never received accolades for doing laundry, yet I continue to do it faithfully because it brings me a sense of satisfaction to wear clean clothes.

What you wrote in your post is also the way I feel. What matters for me is a simple smile from a stranger when I'm having a difficult day ... a smile that brings me back to life and helps me to gain new insights. Now, I smile at people as often as I can as I shop or walk down the street hoping that a smile can make a difference in some one else's life. Doing little or big things for other travelers is what makes me happy and I believe, matters.

In response to Lorianne, I think that these repetitive, necessary, physical tasks such as doing laundry matter very much. They keep us grounded, force us sedentary writer-types to get up and move around, and nourish our work in all kinds of ways we can barely begin to imagine. I gather some Buddhist teachers stress the importance of "mindless" labor as an opportunity to practice mindfulness, too. But if housekeeping is ALL we do -- as was the case with my late maternal grandmother -- then I would argue we aren't living up to our full capacity as creative beings.

For some reason my trackback isn't displaying, but I blogged my response to Beth's question here.

It was provocative of me to seem to call your values into question. Though I did get a bit of a rush from that, and chagrin as well, it's not what I meant to do! It is writing I am thinking of, writing which overturns first, second, then third readings. Writing that offers new things that matter by the boatload! I don't have a clue where such writing comes from. Your post offered easy makings for a conjecture -- so I formed it!

As for having figured out what matters, I wonder if the older I get, the more thoroughly I am able to let go of what I thought I knew. Maybe I could always do that, but it seems that what rushes in is ever more insistent.

Thanks, Maria, Lorianne, JRZ, Dave.

Bill - I didn't think you were calling my values into question, but by all means, feel free! And now I have to offer a further caveat - like you, I also find it much easier now to let go of what I thought I knew. When I say I have figured out what matters, I was referring to that "shedding" process but instead it sounded like I had arrived in some fixed place. The only constant seems to be that trying to be kind and loving to others has become pretty central, and involves choices I once was unable to make because my own needy ego got so much in the way. It's still needy and noisy, but quiets down faster these days!

In response to Dave, exactly right. You said "I think that these repetitive, necessary, physical tasks such as doing laundry matter very much. They keep us grounded, force us sedentary writer-types to get up and move around, and nourish our work in all kinds of ways we can barely begin to imagine."

What if we replaced "physical tasks" with "mental tasks," "laundry" with "blogging," and "force us sedentary writer-types to get up and move around" with "force us solitary writer-types to share our work rather than writing in isolation"? Then you'd have a definition of the personal value of blogging regardless of whether it "matters" in a cosmic sense.

Will I change the world through my blog? Maybe...but probably not. Will I become a famous writer who gets lots of acclaim & influences generations with the profundity of my blogging? Again, maybe...but probably not. Will other people think what I do "matters"? Maybe, maybe not. But is there a value to "repetitive, necessary, mental tasks such as blogging" that "keep us grounded, force us solitary writer-types to share our work rather than writing in isolation, and nourish our work in all kinds of ways we can barely begin to imagine"? I'd say yes...but that's a radical re-definition, in my mind, of what we mean by something "mattering."

Usually when I hear people lament that their "work doesn't matter," they mean it doesn't matter to other folks, and that's discouraging: why continue to do something when other folks don't care that you're doing it? So when I asked my initial question, "Why do we need things to matter," what I was really asking was "Why do we need to know/be reassured that what we do matters to other folks?" If blogging matters to me because of the reasons Dave mentions (or more accurately, my re-framing of Dave's reasons), why isn't/can't that be enough?

Dave, I'd argue that Zen teachers (at least the ones I know) don't privilege "mindless" labor over more intellectual stuff; what's important is your non-attachment to results regardless of what you're doing. Once I asked a Zen Master in a teaching interview (i.e. an "intellectual" exchange) how he managed to stay cheerful & patient after seeing me bang my head against the same kong'an (koan) for months. In my academic teaching, I quickly lose hope (and all will to live!) when students don't "get" the lesson I keep trying to communicate, but this Zen Master kept re-visiting the same old stuff with thick-headed me, and he never seemed discouraged. In response, the teacher said "I'm not attached to the results." Because he didn't have an agenda for how fast I should "get it," he could simply teach even though the results (my ignorance) seemed to suggest what he was doing "didn't matter."

So I guess what I'm trying to say in a hugely roundabout way is I see blogging (for me) as a practice I do whether it "seems" to matter or not. It's not about the "results" of having people respond positively or at all (although of course we all like that). What matters is that blogging matters to me. If I were relying upon other folks to say/reassure me that "what you do matters," my mood would be contingent upon the roller coaster of other folks' opinions. Ultimately, the only thing that matters is that I think blogging (and laundry, and Zen practice, and other stuff other folks don't care about) is important in my life. So I do it regardless of whether it seems to "matter" to anyone other than me.

As a sock-thief, I know nothing of the laundry-work of blogging.

Lorianne - All very good points, and I like the way you re-framed my question. I guess it just doesn't occur to me to frame "mattering" in a cosmic sense — I've becomed so accustomed to think that nothing, not even the greatest works of art, lasts for ever or possesses universal appeal, and I don't believe in any other form of immortality, either. Asking about the meaning of life assumes a tool-like functionality for existence, warping the imagination. And any time we focus on results or success, we risk similar damage to our ability to truly inhabit the moment, I'd say.

Slipping in on the tail of an excellent post & a fine subsequent dialogue, I find I have nothing of wisdom to add! From a somewhat different spiritual position, I concur absolutely with your reflections, Beth, & am grateful for your having expressed them so eloquently. 'Will other people think what I do "matters"?' Emphatically, yes. With 'only connect' as our catch-phrase, the company we keep is so crucial an element of the blogging process. Your insights - in your own posts & in the comments you have made in response to mine - have been a powerful incentive to carry on at those times when it has all felt a little like shouting out loud in an empty room. Upwards & onwards together, 'we few, we happy few' into 2008!

Usually, the best posts (indeed, the best blogs) are those I find it most difficult to comment on. This is no exception. I've read this several times, mind in a whirl, wondering about your questions, and I'm still stumped. Posts like this, with the thoughtful insights offered by the commenters, seem to me very much to be condensations of conversations about subjects that not only interest but fascinate us, or about which we're deeply concerned. They're condensed because they're written, and (usually, unless you're channeling Kerouac), writing gives us the opportunity to revise; to make more precise — and, with skill and luck, more accurate — what would otherwise meander and potentially mislead. (This comment could do with more than a bit of revision but if I don't get it down now, it'll never get finished. I trust it doesn't mislead, but I'm reminded of Rushdie's comment that as soon as he says anything he wants to disagree with it. I know the feeling).

I've written since I was first able to write. I have to write. I don't know why. My original blog was read by no one (well, maybe two or three friends) for several years, yet I didn't feel discouraged. I think it was (and its successor is) an outlet; something that allows me to say, this is what's important to me — in your words, this is what matters to me. So, maybe I've finally arrived at what I should have said when I began this comment: what matters to me can be found in what I write. If I could say it in one comment, the blog wouldn't be necessary.

I have a long history of making things I generally don't manage to sell. I've found that if it's not getting sold, I need to give it away. It's a matter of flow. It doesn't matter whether someone wants it (though usually they do). It has to go. I can feel tragic over the lack of compensation for my efforts and expenses, but I get over it. What's something worth if I can't even give it away? Giving it away establishes a baseline of worth. A shop full of things going nowhere, gathering dust, only tells me that what I have done doesn't matter.

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.