Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love, and See
By Naomi Wolf
Dad leaned back in a rattan armchair on die sunporch. It was the middle of June; a warm wind was blowing. The pond had filled up with silt and water plants, so that only a trickle of water fell into the stream. The impatiens had proliferated, though die lamb's tongues had died. The air was thick with mosquitoes.
Sophia was at the house again, too. She was sitting in a rose-colored T-shirt on the sunporch, reading Manon Lescant - a novel about obsessive love-at my father's insistence and, at the same time, half-listening to our conversation.
It was the height of berry season, and there was a fully stocked supermarket in Hillsdale. But Dad thought that since we were roughing it in the country, we should never be without dried provisions, so we were eating the dates and dried figs that he had packed to bring up for us. He often told the story of how, when he was living alone in a hut in the woods after his divorce, and he had run out of canned goods, he had killed, cooked, and eaten a rattlesnake. I was relieved it was only dried fruit that he had brought us.
To give me notes for the sixth lesson, Leonard was dressed from the waist up like an urban 1950s hipster, wearing a fine charcoal T-shirt that my mother had given him. From the waist down, he was 1980s rapper; low-slung jeans from a discount store, and huge sneakers with Velcro straps that he had acquired from a street vendor's bin on the sidewalk. "These are the most comfortable shoes I have ever worn," he said proudly.
"Nice. And you look so fit!" I complimented him.
"That's because I got a haircut," he explained.
He had brought us a house gift: a homemade woodburning set for etching designs into scraps of lumber. If our kids played with it, it would mean Leaching them to heat a sharp tool and then dig it into the wood till everything smoked. When I was five or so, he had let me use a white-hot icepick for this purpose. My parents' apartment in New York was still littered with scraps of wood into which he had engraved small animals, cartoon characters, and tiny icons; family and friends would receive them as presents. I decided not to bring up any problems with the white-hot tool I envisioned in our three-year-old's hands-I would just pray inwardly.
"In Lesson Six," said my father, shuffling his papers, "I talk to my students about passion. I read to them from Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. Chaucer writes, about Criseyde, 'Men seyn-I not-that she yaf hym hire herte.' Chaucer is letting you feel the shadow of doubt there. Pay attention. If you feel that shadow of doubt in whatever you are doing, it is an important sign you are in the wrong place. Never ignore it.
"Criseyde has been held prisoner in Troy and fallen in love with Troilus. Her father arranges to give up Trojan prisoners of war in exchange for Criseyde. But Chaucer writes that, after the exchange has taken place.
"After the lovers are separated, you see, and only two months have passed, in spite of her intention to remain true to Troilus and return to Troy, Criseyde begins to lose her attachment to her lover. She begins to find Diomede, a Greek warrior, interesting. Troilus and Troy town," Leonard said excitedly, in that urgent tone of voice he uses when he wants you to really notice something, "slid, Chaucer writes, knotteles through her heart.. . Pay attention to that: it says everything about how you can tell whom you should marry."
Sophia looked up from her book and stared at my father.
"Why?" I asked.
"Well, he slid knotteles. Chaucer is saying that after a while, Criseyde felt no pain at the absence of Troilus. If a string with knots was pulled through a heart, it would hurt! No knots, no pain. You marry someone if you literally cannot live without.