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Henningsen: On Unfinished Business

11/03/09 7:55AM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST) As the days get shorter, commentator Vic Henningsen has been thinking about things he hasn't finished - and wondering why he's so concerned about them.

(HENNINGSEN) It's always like this at the end of the season, as nature locks up for winter.  I walk around the place and I don't see the jobs done - but the things I meant to do but never got around to.  Yes, the wood's in, the screens are down, the storms up, the wooden chairs by the pond retired to the barn. The fields are mowed, the garage swept, the climbing gear put away 'til spring.

But we haven't finished painting; there are apples and pears yet to pick; and what about that dead pine in the upper pasture?  We've been meaning to take that down for two summers now.  And the grove of birches we meant to thin? The blowdown resting on the old sugarhouse?  And all those invasives along the boundary line I promised neighbors would go this year?

There's more.  Sure, I got a lot of writing done over the summer, but that doesn't mean much when I think about research that's languished for months and a pile of books I meant to read to update a course syllabus.

Why is it we see what isn't done - and why only at this final moment?  It hasn't bothered us until now.  Perhaps it's the turn of the season - the clear sense we have that the days are shortening; winter's dark closing in. In his poem "October", Robert Frost caught that feeling of trying to hold on to what little time remains:

"O hushed October morning mild
Begin the hours of the day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief."

But there's something darker in this late autumn brooding:  a darkness Frost caught in another poem, "After Apple-Picking".  "Overtired of the harvest I myself desired", the narrator is haunted as much by what hasn't been done as by what has. In a chilling line, Frost writes:

"One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is."

Frost sees this totting up of things done and undone as a precursor not to winter, but to death. And perhaps he's right - perhaps our taking stock as winter closes in is a rehearsal for the final reckoning.  And our obsession with what's been left undone is an affirmation of life - a way of staving off the inevitable.

I'd like to think so, for it's human nature to be optimistic. And I'm reminded of people who continue to plug along, like Albert Einstein. Like many physicists, he did his most notable work as a young man, yet he remained a lifelong researcher and spent his last years trying to develop a unified field theory. On his deathbed, he continued to work at his equations, complaining at the very end, "If only I had more mathematics."

As with Einstein, so with us.  However shadowed by oncoming darkness, we continue to plan, to cast far ahead, defining ourselves by work undone.
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