The Sounds of Silence

Much has been written about the infamous year, 2020. There is nothing I can add to the litany of tragedy, isolation, economic deprivation, and feckless political/presidential leadership. Maybe that is why on some days my concentration has been “off.” Like others, my mind has been cluttered by the simultaneous merging of anxiety, disbelief, and worry—not to mention frustration. (FedEx lost or destroyed a shipment of my mail, delivering instead an empty package and charging me for the delivery! And USPS is still promising to deliver a Priority Mail letter I sent three weeks ago.) Such challenges burden a distracted mind, one already fatigued and listless from semi-quarantine.

Essays of E.B. White
One of my favorite gifts, this book will always remind me of Christmas.

This state is perhaps what prompted me to design one of the most memorable Christmases I’ve had. After checking in with family and friends—many via Zoom—I built a fire in the fireplace and settled down to read a book—just for pleasure. I read, uninterrupted, for what turned out to be four hours. During that time, I got the closest I have come, in these last ten months, to a sense of peace. Essays of E.B. White is a collection of short pieces by the master of that genre, mid-20th century author E.B. White, the acclaimed writer of countless New Yorker Magazine essays and author of children’s books including classics Stuart Little (1945) and Charlotte’s Web (1952). The essays he wrote from his Allen Cove farm in Maine are a symphony of joyful wonder at the lives and personalities of his animals and his neighbors—and the persistent necessity to manage this idiosyncratic bunch. His love of the place is evident in his observations of the feisty geese, his irascible Dachshund, and the trespasses of an aggressive fox. The simplicity of the moment and White’s turn of phrase made me smile and utter repeated chuckles. The locals added the spice.

While White’s political observations are sprinkled with quizzical annoyance and occasional indignation, he bestowed on his DownEast farm a prose unmatched in elegance and insight. Often, he would add larger points to news of the day. In describing the experience of a runner who had broken a recent record, for instance, White quotes Jim Bailey not long after he had made his run.

 “‘I have no sensation of speed when I run’ [Bailey] said, ‘and I never know how fast I am going.’”

White stops and observes: “Such is the case with most of us in this queer century of progress. Events carry us rapidly in directions tangential to our true desires, and we have almost no sensation of being in motion at all—except in odd moments when we explode an H-bomb…” 

By now we have grown accustomed to the H-Bomb and its unthinkable capacity for destruction. Instead, it is COVID-19 that has shocked us. We were unprepared for it. And because of that, it has called into question all our earlier assumptions and brought our harried lives to a screeching halt.

Like many who love nature—and today many of us are trying to reconnect with it—White pushed against the kind of change that distorts the natural flow of things; the “progress” that has mechanized the relationship between man and the world around him.

“I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority,” he wrote.

This will be a book I will always associate with Christmas, a favorite gift given to me by one of my literary daughters. And I will take it with me when I return to Washington DC, when we confront a new chapter in our nation’s history. I will reflect again on the conflict White found in the motivation and drive of New England writer, Henry Thoreau, known for his pursuit of the simple life. Thoreau’s musings in Walden must have reminded White of himself—a man keenly at home in the countryside but attracted to, if often at odds with, the vanities of teeming city life. Both locales, he acknowledged, draw on impulses that create an irreconcilable dilemma.

“Walden,” White observed, “is the report of a man torn by two powerful and opposing drives—the desire to enjoy the world…and the urge to set the world straight.”

Wouldn’t we all love to set the world straight right now? But our effective capacities as a nation may only be able to do that once we have re-centered ourselves, simplified our lives, and drawn some conclusions from our current experience. At that moment we could be re-inspired by the richness of White’s perspective, and even the poignancy he describes in trying to stay human in the modern world.

Sending you and your family my best wishes for 2021. 


16 thoughts on “The Sounds of Silence

  1. Just watched your comments on the video “June 6th” on YouTube. As a Military Historian born at West Point on July 31st 1941, I agree with what you said in that video. It’s not just students who can not answer your questions, it is also adults. Today, Monday June 14th is FLAG Day and I have seen none. I am also a Member of the Board of the American Ideals Foundation in Ruskin Florida. We are trying now (If it’s not to late) to communicate with educators (Not politicians) to join with us and find out how we can get a honest presentation of History and Geography back in our schools, Thank you Frank Baltra

  2. Thank you for sending this note, The Middle Way is another way to say, “common ground.” You inspire me to think more
    about how we can reach others about such a critical undertaking. Best wishes, SE

  3. Ms. Eisenhower, I recently finished reading your book How Ike Led, and I found it both inspiring and deflating. It inspired me to have learned more about the great character traits exhibited by your grandfather. (I already knew many, from other readings, including Michael Korda’s Ike and from visiting his Presidential Library in Abilene — 2 hours from my home.) It deflated me to be reminded how far we have slipped in our current leaders from the elevated example DDE gave us. Our nation is in dire need of his brand of leadership. The Middle Way, as mentioned in your book, can and must be brought forth as a new Party, which will pull from both the current Republican and Democratic Parties, to work against their current extreme polarization. A Party based on service. I’m ready to go to work for this. You could help.

  4. Hello Ms. Eisenhower,
    I have learned of, and will watch the upcoming Protecting the Truth of the Holocaust with some interest as our grandfathers were very close friends and this is a topic of some interest to myself and my partner.

  5. Susan
    I am sitting in front of a fire reading How Ike Led. Greatly enjoying it. I also enjoyed the talk you gave to Ohio Wesleyan this fall.

    The lessons from Ike on leadership are in sharp contrast to recent national leadership.

    David Ferris

  6. Susan,
    Thank you for the E B White reading tip……

    Just this very day was thinking about the myriad of anonymous individuals who are presently & unceremoniously keeping presently degraded NYC running (this can be equally translated to a whole host of municipalities—both American & otherwise);
    The key/operative/salient word here is ‘anonymous’…….Where exactly is/are today’s modern day writer(s) edition;
    Manifested akin to a Studs Terrell, or, for that matter, Jimmy Breslin?
    These individuals, when in their prime, could get random people stories into the print of their writings & literally have them jump off of the page to their respective readership—what used to be known true ‘pop’ to their scripts!

  7. Susan
    Great! Sounds like you have done it again. On my “must read list” for January.
    The best to you in the New Year.
    Ethan Welch

  8. Susie – thank you so much for sharing your ever-so-wise observations about E.B. White book of essays which I have just ordered! Susan Robfogel and I have been reminiscing recently about how proud we are of your monumental achievement with “How Ike Led.” Anyone who wonders what a true leader is should read your book, and It should have won a Pulitzer, but
    today’s politicians on all sides,critics – and sadly, even what left of journalists – are too dumnded-down to appreciate the time-honored and profound principles that you bring home so eloquently in your book.

  9. Susan, Looking forward to a world set straight in the new year. And let me know when you are back in DC. It’s been too long since Servigny! Happy New Year. Margaret.

    On Wed, Dec 30, 2020 at 11:34 AM wrote:

    > Susan Eisenhower posted: ” Much has been written about the infamous year, > 2020. There is nothing I can add to the litany of tragedy, isolation, > economic deprivation, and feckless political/presidential leadership. Maybe > that is why on some days my concentration has been “off.” Lik” >

  10. Well said, Susie! We will find ourselves in a different world in the future, one shaped by new economic efficiencies born of this tragic interlude; new motivations and perhaps more reluctance to be drawn into meaningless distractions.

  11. Finding that priceless space of solace, IS, The MOST Important, Sacred gift, we can give to ourselves. Staying grounded and balanced in times like these, is essential. Sending Peace and Blessings… Happy New Year Susan ! 🙂

  12. Best wishes for 2021 from Christopher Catherwood – and I loved your book on your grandfather! Those were the days…

  13. Thank you very much, Susan, for adding a “must read” to my list. A healthy and happier New Year to you and your loved ones, including nature.

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