My cat is dying. I have four cats, and one of them is dying. In the past 35 years, I have had 9 cats. 5 of them have died. I have been present for the deaths of 4 of them—3 in the auspices of cat hospitals, where their deaths were hurried on beyond their suffering, 1 as renal failure finally blotted out his light. The cat who is dying now has some kind of neoplasm—a cancer—and his descent has been swift. He is just under 7 years old; he entered my life 6 years ago.

When you adopt a pet, you know you are, for the most part—tortoises and parrots aside—going to outlive your pet. Your cat or dog will die. Children’s first experience of death often happens when a pet dies (or Santa Claus is excised from their lives, another kind of death). But, by the time you are older, mortality has been hanging around, making itself known. It’s a savage kind of knowing.

I’m in the middle of teaching Shakespeare’s sonnets—bouncing between the appeal of the “eternal summer” and hard fact of Time’s “bending sickle’s compass.” There is no comfort in death, or in the slow inexorable passage of time. All the comparisons he discounts in Sonnet 130–the sun, coral, snow, roses, perfume, music, goddess—are ideals that flower easily in the imagination. These are worth striving for! And yet, we are all “Time’s fool”—how can we be anything else? We must “tread on the ground.” Life—and its end—happen here.

Of course, I hear Thomas’s “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” And I do. I wear glasses that alleviate the dimming light. I adapt. I go to the pool and the gym, preparing to extend that rage, thinking “Only halfway!” Perhaps the rage blinds us to the grimmer particulars. Then I’ll take that blindness for now, and rage.

Still, my cat is dying, and is confused and anxious about what has happened, is happening to him. I try to comfort him, and know that in the end, easy passage may be the way (I have phone numbers at the ready). I wish I could hold him, pet him, and reassure him that his girls—the two kittens he tended when they followed him into my household, who are now 5 years old—will be all right. That I will take good care of them. That he has been a good cat and a good companion. And I know those reassurances are echoes of words and thoughts I had for other cats. And, of course, for other people.

I may be done with death, but death, I know, is far from done with me.


When kids are little, you can play peek-a-boo with them, and delight them for hours because they have not yet developed their sense of object permanence. Objects that drift out of their sensory field cease to exist—the perfect “out of sight, out of mind” circumstance. It does not occur because of anything they will—it just happens. Sometime during the second year of life (and this is an imprecise measure), children learn that there is a world beyond their immediate senses. Trial and error teaches them that parents and food and comfort exist (or, do not!).

Jean Piaget proposes that we learn schemas—models for understanding the world. As we mature—during our early life—these schemas become more complex. They show us how to navigate a world that is not in our immediate grasp—at our egocentric beck and call. But how much do we simply extend our egos—using the schemas as a way of organizing the world in accordance with our desires?

I wonder how this applies to how we develop a sense of the world—how the schemas we develop shape our senses of morality and mortality. Do the schemas imbue more ephemeral things with a greater permanence than is warranted? Can the trial and error of early childhood be subverted by experiences that teach us about the ambiguity and ambivalence of the world? Or do we, from an early age and onward, cling to one master vision that cannot waver?

Because, as we age, we learn that impermanence is the standard. People come and people go. There must be some kind of formula for this: for every two people who enter our orbit, one must be released. Later, the ratios rise, switching to 1:1, and then 1:2. The causes are myriad—death, disaffection, dumb luck. People appear and disappear with stunning frequency, with hardly a moments notice for peek-a—

For example, I often think of my father, and miss him. I know that he is dead and cannot be a part of the life I lead now, however, his presence feels like the lingering effects of object permanence. Somehow, I have located him in my schema of the world, and no loss, no absence can remove him from that schema. Just like the child who can hunt for the toy hidden beneath the sheet, I can find my father behind the darker veil.

And yet, I am also fully aware that he felt often absent while he was still alive. He entered my life at intervals—holidays, sailing trips. There were stretches of time when I only saw him once a year, other times when when he was without more than with—present in the dimes and nickels that he left on his dresser for us to buy milk and ice cream at school, but only appearing, briefly, in the flesh, at dinner, and then disappearing into his den. Was he really there, or have I constructed a vision of him that became a durable substitute for the times he was away?

My parents championed independence in their children. While we were expected to be independent from them, did we, by happenstance, learn independence or absence as part of the schemas on which we built our early lives? We became free-floating, detached, prepared, in advance, for the disappearances that life would throw our ways—not the peek-a-boos of play, but the more enduring, and finally, more heart-breaking absences of adulthood. There is some solace in that, but also a modicum of sadness. We were pre-lost, almost, before we were found.

When I am out walking with my daughter I have one, simple repeated lesson: pay attention. Crossing a street? Pay attention. Walking past a flower bed? Pay attention. Meeting people? Pay attention. It is the cornerstone. I point out when I fail, as she does: Pay attention, daddy. Did you look? Did you see me? Two eyes seem like slim equipment for the work of days.

As a teacher, the central lesson is a finely tuned attention. The study of literature is a proving grounds for giving attention its fullest due. Words, images, sound. The unpacking of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, or Joyce Carol Oates’s stories, or a passage from Joyce’s impossible novel relies on the attention one gives and the knowledge one brings. All the knowledge in the world is wasted if one does not look outward and pay attention.

When I write, I also pay attention—it is a balance between inward and outward attention—letting the still, strong voice inside reflect on the outward world. I try to write about what I see, what I learn, what surprises me—almost all outside of me. When I venture within, I hope to turn the same sharp vision within—seeing myself as if on a journey, as if I was foreign and strange—as I must be, even to myself.

But those are only three roles I play in life: father, teacher, writer. I am also a friend, and enjoy paying attention to my friends’ likes and dislikes, their peculiar fascinations and passions. We tend to have similar interests—we are, after all, friends. And I know that my friends pay attention to me—that they appreciate my odd vision.

There is one other role—and it is at once the easiest and most difficult. I love paying attention to the person I love. I love learning the stories that comprise a life, listening to the dreams of possible futures, and discovering the intricacies of another’s heart. All this is so easy—I could listen and learn for a lifetime—I feel like all else is practice for this.

The hard part is having someone pay attention to me. First, allowing someone to see me, all my flaws and strengths. That is, almost, easily assuaged by repeated kindnesses—I have learned to accept being loved.

Harder is accepting when someone misses something. When my daughter stumbles into a crosswalk, head tilted toward phone, there is a quick check—pay attention. When a student misses the meaning of the image: “star to every wandering bark,” I can quickly point out that Shakespeare is punnier and more ribald than serious young students give credit. When I make a mistake in an early draft, I can edit. And I can accept my friends “misses” easily—chalking it up to our simple flawed and generous humanity.

But, with love. Perhaps because it is only then—when I love romantically—that I feel most vulnerable. I sometimes become all but selfless—loving most and desiring least, as if true love could enable a perfect kind of detachment. So much for flawed and generous humanity—I must be perfect. Jeff Tweedy sings, “No loves as random as God’s love”—this random indiscriminate, impossibly generous love. Shakespeare calls it “lascivious grace”—unimaginable to those who walk upon the ground, and yet, the only ideal.

And yet, the hope, beyond hope, that someone is paying attention. One of the great joys of love—and of life—is feeling recognized, not simply on someone else’s terms (This is how you are like me! This is how you complete me!), but on your own terms (You showed me… You taught me… You amazed me… You surprised me… You changed me…). Isn’t this how we feel love, when we are at our best? Isn’t this how we want to be loved?

I share little details, bits and pieces, and listen and wait. What is she paying attention to? Through what screen does she see me? I expect hesitantly, trying not to overburden possibility with my hair-shirted set of (non-)expectations. And then, after sharing a story, a glimpse, a piece by Dinesen, some recollection of a journey, she travels away and returns with a small blue jar filled with water from two seas. I know there will be misses, but I also know I have been seen. And this makes all the difference. This is how.

An occupational hazard of a career of reading English Literature is an almost fiendish doubt in the power of love. Just think of all the novels—serious literary novels—that you have read, and multiply the effect by a thousand. Sure, Jane Austen has something to offer, but seriously, Pride and Prejudice without Darcy’s fortune waiting to bail out Elizabeth Bennet is a tragedy.

Am I a cynic? Here in the early years of the 21st century, it is hard to be anything else. I fight this impulse with every fiber of my being, and yet, there is a quiet, persistent voice that advises, “Have you lost your mind?” Not so quiet after all.

So much of what I have written in these posts over the past several years is illuminated by the tension between the bountiful and generous impulse to love unabashedly and the counter impulse to protect (what is left of) myself. The gift—if there is a gift—I give is to wrestle between those countervailing forces—to recognize the struggle and not to deny the struggle.  It would be easy to give in to unbridled cynicism—I would not be alone, might even be called wise to make this decision. But even when I declare “(what is left of) myself,” I couch it parenthetically. I don’t believe that I have dwindled over the years and experiences and wisdom. Somehow I have grown—not just older, but deeper.

I can point to literature for this counterweight—just as I can point to literature for the darker impulse.  But not (most) novels.  When I read Whitman’s grand declaration of connection—“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”—I know that there is no loss so large that can obliterate me, because there is no loss that can obliterate you—“You, whoever you are.” Or when Creeley writes, “Be for me like rain—the getting out of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-lust of intentional indifference”—what could be worse than intentional indifference—or semi-lust? What good is anything short of Dickinson’s “Wild nights… Done with the Compass—Done with the Chart!”

The secret power of cynicism is that that it has a course. You can navigate to doubt in a straight line. There are doctrines and creeds to guide you to the heart of darkness. Tolstoy be damned—the road to an unhappy family is too familiar, too well worn and rutted. Happiness—not complacency, not mere contentment—but roof rending joy has no book of instructions.

If ever I doubt the power of unrestrained, unbounded, even unfounded love, I have a store of words and images to revive my failing trust. And if literature fails, I have taught kids and children for the past 25 years who give me palpable views of potential. And, if they fail, I have daughters who, even in querulous moments, give me hope. And when I am apart from them, I build one last bulwark against too easy doubt—have practiced building it for decades, and here, it is neither wall nor boundary, but an open road and unlimited horizon. It is a road built by these words, and met, beyond expectation, beyond hope, beyond doubt—met by another who builds a road to me—a road made with words and hands and trust and faith and an eye ever to the horizon.

In one of his books, the literary critic Terry Eagleton, points out that “I love you” is always a quotation. Other writers offer the same warning. No one says “I love you” for the first time ever. And yet, no one (sincerely) says, “I love you,” while thinking about all the times it has been uttered—by others, or by oneself. Each utterance feels original.

I added the proviso “sincerely”—and who’s to judge if someone is really sincere? Some people, I suspect, must have this phrase slip over their tongue the same way they order tacos at the drive thru. They mean it in ways I can’t imagine. I don’t know. And I don’t know it the same way that I cannot know whether they feel it. The words rise above sea level like the tip of an iceberg, or the keel of a capsized ship, or the dorsal fin of a dolphin. I can make a guess, but what is below the water is a mystery to me.

Oh, I know the general outlines as well as any, perhaps better. Years of life, of watching those around me, and reading—and what else is reading but learning about life captured in words—have helped clarify the varieties of emotions. “Love is not love,” writes Shakespeare. And no, it is not. And it is. If anything, I have learned too much, both in watching, in reading, and in living about love—or at least too much to think I know that there is one love, one way, one answer. The shapes beneath the water could be anything—the way the fin of an ocean sunfish has nothing to do with what rests beneath the glassy surface.

What preoccupies me is less what is beneath some other surface, than what is beneath mine. I can hardly utter the first word, “I,” without replaying every other time I finished the phrase. No matter how many versions of love I have seen others act out, or that I have seen portrayed, my single clearest—or least clear—vision of love comes from my own experiences. I am sure this is true for everyone. Who, in the final moment before she or he declares her or his love, trusts anything other than the one set of experiences that illuminates only one heart?

What follows will be about me, but what else do I know? I may be well informed, but there is only one about whom I can speak with even fair, if inevitably dubious, authority.

I do not recall if I ever said, “I love you,” to my elementary school sweetheart. I know that I said it and felt it—in varying degrees—from when I was seventeen years old up to a few hours ago. I wonder how my love—my capacity to love and be loved—has changed in the intervening 41 years. The first ten of those years I was awash in joy and pain and frustration. I knew so little about myself and the world—let alone how to love, or what the person I loved actually felt. We grow up so selfish—I did. I was perfectly attuned to my desires, by which I mean, I did not feel there was any difference between what I deeply desired and the love I thought the universe should place at my feet.

It wasn’t until I started teaching—when I actively had to think about how what I said and did would further the progress of my students—that I began to have a serious idea about love. Teachers never think about themselves. Okay, that’s clearly not true. Great teachers think about their students, even when they think about themselves. I don’t know how I learned that—probably from the examples that great teachers gave me. I do know that the first serious relationship I had in graduate school was made more potent, and ended more peacefully—if not less painfully—than any romantic relationship I had up to that point.

When one teaches, there is a realization that some students simply will not get it. No matter how hard a teacher tries, it takes two (to make a thing go right). A teacher learns a kind of detachment—self differentiation. This is incredibly helpful and healthy for teachers—we care about, even love our students, but we do not engage them in unhealthy ways. Well, most of us do not. And learning that distance is hard for some teachers, because there is an impulse to care for our students. It is a human feeling.

Learning to self differentiate helped me when I loved—I knew there were proper differences and distances between me and the people I loved. There is, of course, a big difference between knowing and knowing. I never stopped longing for the kind of fully romantic immersion that I dreamed about when I was younger. My relationships after graduate school went from degrees of immersion to degrees of differentiation. Is it possible to do both? I have friends who will reassure me, and tell me that all I have to do is wait. I am 58 years old, waiting gets harder, and easier—I have had so much practice.

There is another essay about how children and becoming a parent affect all this.

So, I wonder what I carry, how I have loved, and how that shapes my expectations and capacities now. In many ways, I still feel infinitely young at heart. I may recall much, but I do not bear scars. I do not feel broken. Still, I wonder what it means when I say or write, “I love you”—whether that other will know what I mean, that I am not ordering tacos, but saying a prayer. For eleven years I worked for a church that claimed no doctrine or creed, but my faith is love—deep, enduring, self-effacing, self-affirming, life-affirming, other-affirming. I try to differentiate myself from those I love, but I dive in head first—falling then flying—out of the depths, unknown, but wholly knowable.

What drives us to claim that someone must “earn” our trust?

Maybe we look at children, and their innocent acceptance of our magical disappearances and reappearances—silly children who haven’t figured out the mystery of object permanence. Or we recall the way dogs will chase the imaginary sticks we have thrown when we hold the actual sticks behind our backs. Dogs are so stupid. Or we remember how Uncle Max had two mistresses—at the same time!—breaking Aunt Sylvia’s heart; how did she not see the signs? Or, or, or…

How many thousand lessons does life provide, proving that if we let our guards down for even a moment, that life will either make fools of us, or render us hapless victims? And earned trust? Surely there are just as many examples when our earned trust was upended like a cheap pine table in an earthquake. We proceed like penurious bankers, giving out loans at interests rates that would humble Rajahs, and still, we are repaid by grief and betrayal. What hope can we have?

How much armor is needed—lead, steel, or titanium—to get us from our bedside to the fringe of the world? Who cares that accident statistics show that SUVs—great exoskeletons that we wear like Gregor Samsa wore his carapace—are more likely to be in a crash than the nimble little roadsters that weave in and out of danger? More armor! More protection!

For what? Wrapped inside a traveling sarcophagus we are pre-entombed—already arrayed for the burial. And trust is just another layer—a shroud that hides a face.

Why not just trust? Why not embrace foolishness, stupidity, Aunt Sylvia’s blissful ignorance (until it finally becomes too much)? How many moments of easy grace do we pass by in the name of incredulity? Protecting our fragile hearts and minds (our bodies are so rarely at risk, and so much easier to protect)? From what?

What price do we pay for the blanket of distrust we wear over our shoulders—leaded, like the dentist’s leaded sheet, to prevent the harmful rays from reaching within? How many more might we more easily trust? What fruits might we more readily sample? What lessons of hope and joy might just as easily fall into our outstretched hands, if we only stretched them out?

One of the questions—there are thousands of questions—on the OK Cupid dating website is:

Ideally, how often would you have sex?

• Every day

• 3 to 4 times per week

• 1 to 2 times per week

• less than once per week

Secretly, this is a writing question.

So, you say that you want to write. I have many friends and acquaintances who make that claim. Maybe they like to read, or maybe they have something to get off their chests, or maybe there is some kind of residual romantic cache to being a writer. I hesitate to ask them, is there anything you like to do every day?

Most people only do a few things every day. We sleep (perchance dream). We eat and drink. Cup of coffee? Glass of wine? My dad had a small dish of ice cream every night. Work? I used to work seven day weeks—which is exhausting and revelatory. Parents parent every day—every single day. Some work out daily. Fortunately, I have no worn meniscus in my brain to keep me out of the mental pool more than every other day, and I am happier when I get my actual wet mile in daily. For some with partners, or even without, some kind of sexual activity happens daily.

How many of those do you do willingly, with a sense of purpose bound to deeper joy? How many are obligations that feel like you need a respite from every five—or less!—days? If you are the kind of person who rankles at the daily grind, maybe skip the writing, unless the rankle gets you going. I know plenty of cranky writers. Plenty—Jeremiah has many brothers and sisters.

One of the early discussions in grad school was the tricks writers used to trigger their daily duty. Sharpening pencils. Cleaning house. Eating M&Ms. Waking up.

Antonio Machado writes (translated here):

After living and dreaming

comes what matters most:

waking up.

Writing is like waking up—and it happens every day. It may be fueled—strike the “may”—it is fueled by our lives and dreams, but it is more than either. The same way our bodies move through the day—chopping onions, carrying bags from the car, wheeling our mothers into the doctor’s office—they come awake when we make love (I hope, for your sake that this is so). Writing is like that—an intentional and yet mysterious waking up. A discovery.

I almost always write with a plan. I have a first sentence and last sentence. And then I wake up. The middle—every other part—is a surprise. I start grabbing books off shelves, looking up physics formulas, checking the weather data from fifty years ago, calling a friend. I almost always end up with that last sentence, but the route shifts as fast as a glimpse—the meaning of the last sentence changing as all the shifting words transport me to a city whose streets are unfamiliar and entirely welcome, and whose secret is revealed in a way I had only dreamed.

Every day. If you want to write. Dream, live, write, wake up. Every day.