“Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood?”

This week, I will reread Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” which includes the oft-(mis)quoted epigram, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” In my work (editor, tutor, teacher, among other gigs), I often advised writers to strive for consistency (in voice, tense, naming conventions, punctuation, “messaging,” etc.), referring them, when appropriate, to related passages in the assigned grammar book and / or style manual. “Isn’t consistency the hobgoblin of small minds?” some responded, clearly frustrated that more effort was required of them. In the interests of civility (and looming deadlines), I usually let the (mis)quote pass unchallenged. (Although, yes, especially when I worked in the university writing center, I itched to reply, “Define consistency. Define hobgoblin.“)

One afternoon about twenty-six years ago, though, I did not. A new claims attorney — one who had repeatedly communicated his contempt for the requirement that all submissions to company publications go through my office (“You’re kidding, right?”) — interrupted my review of his submission to the firm’s annual report, theatrically sighing, “You know, [insert my first name here], consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” It is difficult to determine which stung more, the smug mansplaining or his secretary’s smirk.

“You know, [insert his first name here],” I replied. And, yes, I had time enough to choose, “You’re right,” or, “Yeah,” or an uneasy but conciliatory you’re-the-man giggle. Instead, I continued, “The quote is, ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.’ And here’s what I’m thinking: I’m thinking that Mr. [insert surname of firm president] would share my view that closely adhering to the company style guide he helped me pen would represent an, oh, I don’t know, wise consistency.”

The beat during which his face so thoroughly betrayed his thoughts (he may as well have called me the epithet) caused his secretary to waver in her allegiance — but only momentarily. “Whatever. Leave the changes for [insert secretary’s name] to input. Thanks.”

“Yeah. Whatever. Thanks,” she said without looking up, when I placed the marked-up submission in her box.

Yeah. Whatever.

This is a frustrating and, yes, embarrassing recollection, for many reasons, not the least of which is this: It was so petty. It was so terribly, terribly petty. Small. And Emerson wasn’t talking about company “messaging,” grammar or punctuation conventions, style guides or publishing formats. He was talking about something… something life-sized.

Or larger.

From the essay:

The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them. […] A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

Read. Think. Learn.

Note: This entry was adapted from a 2004 post to my previous site.


A few new books.

I haven’t read much this month.

When the last gray-white mounds melted, we swapped snow shovels for yard tools in order to rake and dethatch the lawn, pull leaves from beneath bushes, scrub squirrel baffles, and scrape winter seed from beneath the feeders. The house wash team scheduled our roof and hardscape cleaning, taking advantage of the sun and warm temperatures earlier this month. Later this year, the house will be painted. The color selection process, which began in earnest just after the winter holiday, alternately interested and irritated me, so our painter paired us with a knowledgeable consultant, after which, I promptly selected the color I had chosen back in January. I do not recall my parents or the parents of my friends washing their roofs or agonizing over shades of paint. Did they? I was a terrifyingly observant child who grew into an adult with a terrifyingly reliable memory. I do not think they did. They didn’t wash roofs. And while they may have debated light or dark blue, green or gray, they were not confronted with an infinite crayon box of shades. They had their troubles, our parents did, but roof washing and “greige” were not among them.

Why haven’t I been reading more? Between walks in the neighborhood, exercise videos, and the stationary bike, I move two or more hours daily. Previously, I read while on the bike, though, and lately, I’ve been talking with my daughters, listening to the news, or watching a show (recently, Olive Kitteridge and Allen v. Farrow).

And it’s not just reading. My flute practice schedule has also been somewhat inconsistent. My plan calls for 90 to 100 minutes daily; I have been doing 60. My current selections are wonderful, and my tone quality has improved markedly over the last six months. I’m nearly ready to record my contribution to the virtual spring recital, Joachim Andersen’s Scherzino. But I feel I’ve done enough once I’ve prepared for my weekly lesson.

It’s something about March, I think. A restlessness, maybe. The sort that leads to misguided romance — or spring cleaning. Washing the windows and screens. Scouring the woodwork. Scrubbing the bathroom walls. Reviewing the budget. Determining garden purchases.

March also lends itself to more standing and staring than, say, June or November.

When I stand and stare, I think about what L. asked in the last meeting of our book group — How do we gauge the sincerity of Fyodor’s various pronouncements about his own character? — and my own comments about the role of women in this complicated novel. (Dostoyevsky’s is not a particularly charitable view, is it?) I remember the rituals and rhythms that were the hallmarks of Marches past, like ordering praying mantis egg cases and looking for signs of spring in the neighborhood and nearby conservation areas. I recall that March signals the conclusion of winter swim season, a cycle that defined our family’s calendar from 2004 until 2016. No evening practices, no weekends at meets for nearly two months. Bliss. I watch the dog across the street. Does the neighbor know he’s having hip trouble? I notice the juncos whose arrival each fall and departure each spring inspires a blend of sorrow and delight that is a close cousin to the caressing ache I experience when looking at baby photos of my children. What is that feeling? The acknowledgment of time’s passage, yes, but I taste a pinch of something else. Is that… regret? No, not exactly. Fear? No. It’s… what is it? I consider my daughter’s observation that the tone of the piece she will illustrate is not quite right. How will I rewrite it? I’ve been stymied for months. Is this how creative projects die? I play scales in my head; rather, I say them in my head, around the circle and back. Again. Again. Again. And again. Learning music as an adult is hard work: repetition until it becomes (if it ever becomes) part of you.


Comments, rituals, rhythms, signals, cycles, bliss, sorrow, delight, ache, time’s passage. Again. And again.

I haven’t read much this month.

The Drum Major Instinct

Theater of War presents “The Drum Major Instinct” tomorrow. Details here.

And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, (Everybody) because everybody can serve. (Amen) You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. (All right) You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. (Amen) You only need a heart full of grace, (Yes, sir, Amen) a soul generated by love. (Yes) And you can be that servant.

The full text of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “The Drum Major Instinct,” sermon delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, can be found here. Audio also at that link. An article of interest — “Revisiting One of King’s Final and Most Haunting Sermons” (The Atlantic, April 1, 2018) — can be found here.

How’s the weather?

It’s been two weeks since it last rained. In that time, our weather has swung from snow to sun, from overnight frost to temperatures in the high seventies. Most folks we’ve encountered on our daily walks over the last week have remarked on the beautiful weather. My husband and I love autumn and winter proper — cold nights, short days, and all — but we nodded and waved: Yes, lovely. Weather talk is, after all, simply an acknowledgment that we’ve seen one another, a verbal wave.

Although… when we homeschooled, our family kept logs of the weather and temps, listened to Tom Skilling’s extended radio segment, and regularly reviewed ten-day forecasts. My daughters even took a meteorology course at the local college. Weather colored our days and interested us enough to learn about it, to weave it into our narrative. Even now, we regularly compare predictions and daily high and low temperatures. Weather talk is, of course, a way to bridge the distance, a verbal hug.

Full of care


On the road into the conservation area.

Landing in the hospital for a preventable accident is one of the last things anyone wants — ever, I suppose, but especially right now. So we are careful, so much more careful. Careful with the knives. Careful on the steps into the living room and garage. Careful at the stove. Careful in the shower. Careful with the yard tools. Careful behind the wheel.

Careful. Careful.

My husband’s car had been no further than the grocery store for two weeks. It really needs a run, he told me last Thursday. It’s not a thoroughbred horse, I replied, tempering the retort with, But why don’t we drive to a nearby conservation area and back?

To be hurt is the last thing anyone wants — ever, I think, but especially right now. So I am careful. Careful about sarcasm. Careful about criticism. Careful about sharing the news. Careful, so much more careful, with my words. Not so careful that I am a stranger to myself, of course, or to him, but careful enough to cushion the blow a soft apocalypse could deliver.

This will be nice, I added. The park will be beautiful.

We took his reliable and decidedly ordinary sedan to the drive-through car wash. My husband parks beneath an oak, and it is spring. Rain or not, the car needed a wash. Then we took it not for a run so much as a sedate stroll on nearly empty roads beneath heavy clouds.

Careful. Careful!

We had already worked out, and my husband had several meetings scheduled for the afternoon. Hiking the kames on last autumn’s slippery leaves? Not on this finally healing knee. And you don’t want to miss any of your commitments. We saw a few walkers on the backside of the area, but part of that trail abuts the creek, which in spring and summer frequently overruns its banks. A stumble. A cold. No, we must be…


The park was beautiful if gloomy and gray. On the way out, we stopped to watch a pair of sandhill cranes, and on the way home we stopped at a store. We were armed with gloves and sanitizer and wipes. Fine, but we must be quick. And careful.

When we returned home, he carried the bags into the garage and wiped down the contents. Did we really need toilet paper? Gently, not critically.

They haven’t had any in weeks, and you can’t be too…


He’s right; I know.

After showering, we put away the groceries and made lunch. (Careful by the stove.) After we called our daughters, he dialed into the first of many meetings, and I washed the dishes. (Careful with the knives.)

As the soapy water drained from the sink, I heard the chorus of murmurs that signals a meeting has begun in earnest. He moved down the hall, and I poured a mug of coffee and carried it into the living room. (Careful on the step.) As I looked out the rain-splattered window, a cardinal couple alighted on the platform feeder. Careful. A sharp-shinned hawk has been spending a lot of time in and near our yard. The male passed a seed to the female, and I thought, Be careful with one another.

Letters from a Stoic


Detail from “Head of an Old Man, Possibly Seneca,”
Circle of Peter Paul Rubens; circa 1620. I captured the image at the Rubens, Rembrandt, and Drawing in the Golden Age exhibition at the Art Institute.

Letter II
Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.

Letter III
For a delight in bustling about is not industry — it is only the restless energy of a hunted mind. And the state of mind that looks on all activity as tiresome is not true repose, but a spineless inertia.

Letter V
:: Finding wealth an intolerable burden is the mark of an unstable mind.

:: Wild animals run from the dangers they actually see, and once they have escaped them worry no more. We however are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come. A number of our blessings do us harm, for memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight brings it on prematurely. No one confines his unhappiness to the present.

Letter IX
What is my object in making a friend? To have someone to be able to die for, someone I may follow into exile, someone for whose life I may put myself up as security and pay the price as well. The thing you describe is not friendship but a business deal, looking to the likely consequences, with advantage as its goals.

Letter XVIII
It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself to deal with difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favours on it then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.

Letter XCI
The fact that it was unforeseen has never failed to intensify a person’s grief. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events. For what is there that fortune does not when she pleases fell at the height of its powers?