There is all Africa, and her prodigies in us; we are that bold and adventurous piece of nature, which he that studies, wisely learnes in a compendium, what others labour at in a divided piece and endlesse volume. -- Sir Thomas Browne
In the last city I lived, I used to take nightly walks in the cool summer evenings. That is, I used to stroll around my subdivision with a rather aimless purpose about me. The summer evenings, though cool in degree, were usually muggy in feel. But I didn't mind, for it was always a joy to amble around the long line of houses which at first glance always appear so similar but upon review are fantastically unique. Some have porches. (Mine did not). Some have elegant entryways and even more elegant doors of wood with splendid designs carved into them and knockers that may make Scrooge's blush with shame. I had always dreamed that one day I would own a house with an elegant wood door and a gold knocker shaped in the head of lion or some other wild beast. A Nag's Head would suffice if I wished to be ironic about it.
An awkward loneliness themed my walks. For I could not help but muse on the deadening silence of suburban neighborhoods at night, where sewer systems can serve as creeks, and the only sound comes from the distant automobiles cruising around the multi-laned roads surrounding the subdivision. Belloc had wisely said that the internal combustion engine came to destroy the world¹, and I happen to agree. At times those distant automobiles left the multi-laned roads and entered the community of hallowed homes, disturbing the silence and my thoughts. But then they would leave and I would be left alone again. And I would consider how I was surrounded by so many people who had decidedly shut themselves off from the world. And the blue lights which flickered from their homes were only the tiny torches of the tomb modern man had made for himself -- a tomb that took him further and further away from this world.
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I remember one evening in particular I was ambling about, staring at the houses I had become so familiar with when a triumphant rumble proceeded from the heavens above me. I had determined not to check the weather before my nightly walks. A young man who wishes to properly amble will do so by taking chances and out of principal. If your word is given, even to yourself, you ought to see that word through. So I did not check the forecast this evening, but proceeded anyways to stroll along the suburban neighborhood that was my current place of residence.
And a triumphant rumble proceeded from the heavens. Now, the odd thing about the heavens is their seeming deception from our point of view. The rumble I heard sounded as if it was right on top of me, but as I lifted mine eyes above me, I saw but stars to the east and south (for I was heading that direction) and a large moon, which, if memory serves correctly, was in the early stages of waning, for it was nearly full, and we had just been blessed with a Supermoon days before. But this waning moon seemed not scared at all at the impending doom which appeared to be coming from the northwest, and I continued my usual sauntering pace, proceeded to check out the houses, and decided to keep on my predetermined route.
But the rumbling continued, and though I was now entering the part of my route that led me home, shelter was at least a good ten minutes away. So I naturally picked up speed as my heart pumped wildly within me, perhaps picking up on the danger moreso than my wits. I took a decided turn to the west and scrambled onto the last leg of my journey, my favorite part. To the south was an open field which naturally led a man to an open mind at the time of night. The moon always appeared so much more triumphant over this field, and it was no different tonight. Nevertheless the battle between my safety and the scenery was won by my desire to stay dry, and I pressed on, dismissing the field and facing forward, noticing all the while that as the rumblings above me grew louder so too did the skies to the west grow darker.
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It is not merely a modern ideal or temperament that says we are to enjoy the small things in life; it is the entire philosophy of the modern. It is, of course, nothing but ironic that the last thing a modern will take comfort in is the small things. Your nihilistic neighbor will spend ten minutes telling you to enjoy the small things and the next hour planning a trip to Rome. I wish not to get on to the modern about this; it has become his prerogative to contradict himself. And I cannot blame him in this, for his philosophy proclaims meaninglessness in the big things, meaning only the small things can matter, though they too are but matter.
It is only the man who has his head on straight that can properly enjoy the small things. Chesterton has given us a story² concerning two boys who are granted wishes. One wishes to be a giant and see the world, the other to be very small. It is the smaller boy who turns out all right because only he can see the grass beneath his feet as a wild forest. If there is no meaning in the moon there can certainly be no meaning in the milk. And the milk will not satisfy that intuitive feeling inside us that screams for meaning.
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The man who is truly relaxed and freed is the man who has once again become a small child. Now, children are constantly doing and learning new things. Thus, they are free to wonder. They are free to be excited about a light switch or terrified by a toad, for they know nothing of how common either are. But the fallacy in the modern is the fallacy in believing wonder and terror are inherently connected to unfamiliarity. Thus, we must try something new in order to be excited when unending excitement lies right by our side. A man may know no one better than his wife; a man may also concede that nothing is so surprising and terrifying as his wife.
Monotony does not breed a dull man. A dull man makes monotony dull. The modern view of monotony is that it cannot breed excitement because it cannot breed surprise. That is, the same town mixed with the same people doing the same things proves that nothing new will ever happen. On the contrary, the fact that the same wild creatures in the same wild town are still saying the same wild things they said the first time I saw them only proves the wildness of monotony. A thing does not become less interesting merely because it occurs more than once. It is, in fact, perhaps more surprising that Uncle Albert always bellows, "A mighty fine meal!" and slaps his belly after family dinners than that he ever thought about not doing the action. His discontinuing of the event would not be surprising; it would be depressing.
The Ambler may be stuck inside the four walls of his suburban subdivision, but the Ambler is also more aware of the wild farce that is his subdivision than anyone else. While the rest of the world is millions of miles away, the Ambler is making rivers out of sewers and tombs out of houses. The Ambler knows which families drink and laugh on the porch at night and which houses seem to always stay dark. The Ambler notices the slightest change in an evening, and though it is true that nothing new every happens in a suburban subdivision, the Ambler is also well aware of the effect few loud rumbles of thunder has on a lad miles away from shelter.
*This essay is the first of many essays under the broader title The Ambler. I have recently been reading two books of essays. The first I began reading was Chesterton's Tremendous Trifles and the second was Samuel Johnson's The Rambler. I hold that good writing is much about imitation, and so I wish to imitate the two men in this series of essays. My editor/secretary/scribe, Sam Snow, is requiring them to be completed by Monday of each week, and so one can expect a new series each Monday. As with any compilation of anything, there need be at least some common thread. I trust that will be fairly obvious in the reading, though I suppose if one wishes to know what the thread is, I would suggest they pick up either of the aforementioned essays. Indeed, reading those two men would be far more beneficial than the ramblings you will find here.
¹Quoted from some essay which I read in his compilation of essays titled A Conversation with a Cat.
²To be found in his first essay "Tremendous Trifles" in his book also titled Tremendous Trifles.
Sam Snow (theficklefarce.com)
In my dilapidated apartment, Manhattan, KS
February 17, 2014
"A Brooding Storm"
Oil on Canvas
John Milne Donald, N.D.