Cotton Mather died when I was a boy. The books
He read, all day, all night and all the nights,
Had got him nowhere. There was always the doubt,
That made him preach the louder, long for a church
In which his voice would roll its cadences,
After the sermon, to quiet that mouse in the wall.
Oh, that mouse in the wall, so familiar to Wallace Stevens, who wrote about it in his poem The Blue Buildings In the Summer Air. We talk and talk, we plan, theorize, and pontificate, but we can’t silence the mouse scratching in the wall.
Nights is when I hear them. At the end of the day I lie in bed, tired, and it’s as if the rodents up in the roof are waiting just for that moment to start scraping and scampering, and setting up their nightly parties. As if they’ve checked their watches and consulted: Is she finally falling asleep? Her day full of ideas and goals finally done and she’s letting down her guard? THEN LET’S ROCK!
They seem to scamper from one corner of the roof to the other, maybe doing their own version of three-legged races to keep warm before they huddle together in their own peaceable kingdom, and after another hour or two the house finally settles down to sleep.
It took me many years to respect the mouse in the wall. Not to accept it—long ago I decided that, in these long, cold New England winters, mice had as much of a right as anyone to find warmth and food where they could. Just stay in the basement or up in the roof, I tell them. Avoid the dog food bags and large canister of bird feed in the laundry room, and please stay out of the cars. But they do get into the bird feed, and every winter/spring Toyota’s repairmen inform us of another nest they had to clean out of our cars, notwithstanding my valiant weekly sprays of peppermint into glove compartments.
Acceptance has nothing to do with it. What I am learning to listen to is the scratching on the walls of my narrow, stale consciousness, the lifeless bars I build with my own hands day after day. Endless to-dos, the discipline of sitting and writing, organizing house, teaching, schedules—just watch the bars get narrower and narrower.
And then, as a gift from heaven, the mouse scratches in the wall. The dog comes over and whimpers though it’s not walk or food-time. A bottle of ice tea appears on the kitchen counter—how did it get here? The shadow of a hawk in the snow. A package fallen on the road, slipped off a delivery truck. A horse nibbling the apple in my hand, always reminding me of a giraffe in a Texas preserve many years ago that lowered its long, long neck and gave my palm the softest kiss I ever received, though my palm was empty for I had brought it nothing.
Intimations of another world, of the invisible reaching out to me. No, not reaching out to me at all—that’s my usual self-centered way of seeing things—just manifesting in so many ways only a few of which I recognize. And I can teach and plan and theorize, resolve to be good, resolve to listen better and love more, but the real teaching is in the mouse scratching in the wall.
And in that vein, a stranger entered the luncheonette where I write this and announced the following jokes:
Why should’t you get into a relationship with a tennis player? Because love means nothing.
Why does Santa’s helper have such trouble? Because he has low shelf esteem.
No better teachings than this.