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Parini: Cultivate Leisure

(Host) And now we turn to our Sunday Essay. Today, poet and novelist Jay Parini reflects on the meaning of essays themselves.

(Parini) The word essay has associations. By etymology, it has French roots in the term essai from essayer - meaning an attempt. The great essayist was, of course, Montaigne, who would take up a general subject,such as friendship or the education of children; but the topic at hand was a starting point. He went off into the deep woods of reflection by himself, unsure of his destination, stopping to smell the flowers or sit quietly by the banks of a stream. He claimed he would write for the private benefit of friends and kinsmen, and that his essays would reflect some traits of my character and my humours.

His so-called humours were his moods, and he moved through a range of these, being sometimes gentle and charming, other times fierce and testy. I have never seen a greater monster or miracle than myself, he wrote.

We all have a variety of monsters and miracles residing in our heads. And it's good sometimes to allow them room to wander, especially on Sunday, which is, for many, the Sabbath. In Genesis we read: God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

The tradition begins with the Judaic concept of Shavath - a day set aside from the others, when meals are elaborate and slowly savored, when poetry and music are enjoyed, when families gather to tell stories. It's also a day of reflection, which includes prayer and meditation, a celebration of the spirit. It's not that Israel has kept Shavath, as the saying goes, but that Shavath has kept Israel.

Life in the modern world often doesn't allow much opportunity for meditation, let alone deep and self-reflective thought. We're just too busy, living life at a pace our ancestors would not have believed.

I have to remind myself to keep the Sabbath, as it takes reminding. Many years ago, as a young professor and writer, with a growing family and obligations that seemed endless, I found myself unable to write. I went to my old friend and mentor, the poet Robert Penn Warren, who is buried in West Wardsboro. Red and I often took a long hike on Sunday afternoons up the back side of Mount Stratton. I remember him stopping dead in his tracks one day, putting a hand on my shoulder, and saying: Cultivate leisure.

I didn't understand what he meant, but I do now. One needs to set aside time to cultivate ease, to reflect, to savor life's genuine pleasures, to wander without an obvious destination. That might take place in a synagogue or a church. We might find it on a trail up the mountain. But wherever we're headed on this Sunday morning, the critical thing is that we continue to search, to open ourselves to the wonders that lie all around us, even deep within.

Jay Parini is a poet and novelist, and the D. E. Axinn Professor of English & Creative Writing at Middlebury College.
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