I believe in rhythm—not just the magic of music, as in the Lovin’ Spoonful’s 1965 hit, but life itself as a very complex pattern of overlapping but always inexact repetitions. This became clearest to me in the combined effects on my 86-year-old father of developing dementia and the loss of my mother after their 62 years of marriage. I stayed for a few weeks with him after the funeral and witnessed how he was struggling to maintain order in the face of inconceivable chaos. The routines he engaged in seemed at first “pathological,” but in fact they were life-affirming: He would set the breakfast table, always the night before and often even before dinner, as if the placement of the cereal bowls at our assigned spots guaranteed where we would be after another dark night. He would stand before the calendar a number of times a day reorienting himself with questions: “Is today the tenth? Is today the tenth?” After the loss of all the old habits, these behaviors were like an attacked heart pulsating again.
And it dawned on me: My own desire to watch the news each night had nothing to do with the content of the stories, but rather with my own daily rhythms. Even though this kind of ritual now held no meaning for him, I needed its steady beat. I even found myself writing poetry at this time, putting my experiences and feelings into strict forms: DAH da da DAH da da DAH da DAH da da DAH da.
Indeed, my whole life opened up before me as regularity and minor change. Running marathons, I enjoyed the sound of thousands of feet falling strangely in sync. As a professor drawn to hard books of German philosophy, I can’t even remember how many times I’ve read through, say, Kant’s Critiques, but these books show up like bleeps on a heart monitor over my last 30 years. And how many times have I set my alarm for 6:30 on weekdays, 8 a.m. on weekends? Not just mild obsessions that make for a successful academic, these actions are ways to create calming significance.
Some philosophers disparage “reproductive” compared to “productive” labor, the kind of work in most patriarchal societies associated with women: routinized and repetitive tasks like cooking every day, or making the beds every morning even if they’ll just be disturbed again at night, or reading and re-reading the stories to the kids, not to mention changing diapers and assuring that everyone and everything is cleaned and where they need to be. True, this reproduction doesn’t contribute directly to the GNP. But its incalculable value is in establishing the rhythms we need to sustain us, physically and emotionally, in the world. The German poet Goethe saw all of nature, including human beings, as aflow in the movements of diastole and systole, pumping in and pumping out, inhaling and exhaling, expanding and contracting. Those rhythms are life, and life is those rhythms. This I believe.
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