I am and always have been a creature of routine. This goes all the way back to childhood; it cannot be attributed to old age’s discomfort with “change,” though I admit to feeling that keenly as well. But along with the observance of countless routines, large and small (the first Spring Training games for Major League Baseball’s 2023 season will be played today!), I am also grateful for moments that in one respect “break in” or “break through” routine but that also, like routine, come with no big fuss, no planning, no “ceremony” (to which I am congenitally allergic).
Here are some examples. The other day, when I was taking a load of recycling out to the bin, I heard the unearthly cries of cranes, somewhere high above. I looked up into the bright sun and couldn’t locate them. I stood in the front yard for thirty seconds or so, looking at green shoots that had begun to appear during the last week (much to Wendy’s delight), and then turned my gaze to the sky again. There they were, moving to the west, angling slightly north, in their hypnotic weaving pattern, uttering their unearthly cries. I wished Wendy could see them and hear them too. The cranes fill us with piercing joy and sadness at the same time. Their primeval Otherness is a gift; at the same time, they remind us of all that is imperiled, willy-nilly, in what gets called “the natural world” or simply “nature.”
Another such moment was triggered by Richard Brookhiser’s column in the February 20 issue of National Review, which arrived several days ago. Like the cranes, though in a very different register, Brookhiser’s column is a reminder of another age, admittedly on an entirely different time-scale: the heyday of “the columnist” in newspapers and magazines, the end of which fills me with a sense of great loss, even though you couldn’t have paid me to read a lot of columnists back in the day, let alone their feeble counterparts today. To write a column for decades, as Brookhiser has done, at a consistently high level (not falling into slackness, not lurching desperately to “reinvent” himself) is a mind-boggling achievement. I often finish one of his columns thinking “how does he do it?!” And of course, “on the side” he has written a number of admirably concise and readable yet also impeccably researched accounts of various figures in American history.
This particular column, resonantly titled “Real Presence, Sad Absence,” is about the “in-house” office of his wife, a psychoanalyst, in the city apartment they share. It so happens that I despise Freud and psychoanalysis. On the other hand, I know many people (some of them close to me) who have been greatly helped by therapy and therapists of one variety or another, and a very close friend of ours has practiced as a therapist for forty years (he often serves as an expert witness at trials). So I don’t feel scornful when I read Brookhiser’s question—“And how many come anymore to sit in this nest of knowledge and concern?”—and his account of the pandemic’s impact on his wife's practice: Most of her patients, he tells us, “arrive by phone now (she will not Zoom), which isn’t so bad, mimicking as it does the averted gaze of the analytic couch.”
Speaking of columnists, when I was a kid in the 1950s, my introduction to the world of newspapers was the Pomona Progress-Bulletin (Pomona is a bit east of Los Angeles; in those days, there were still orange groves to the west of town where we lived, on Orange Grove Blvd., and my brother and I passed them as we were walking to school). I devoured the paper, including the sports pages, where one columnist was a favorite of mine. I don’t remember his name, and if I could find his columns in some digital archive, I would probably struggle to grasp why I admired them so much. And yet, he was the first example of a writer who made me conscious of “style” in a practical, everyday way—though I wouldn’t have used that word at the time. He had all sorts of tricks and trademarks, stylistic idiosyncrasies, and a distinctive sense of humor (distinctive at least to me, a kid stretched out with the paper on our living room floor). I’m indebted to him even today.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?