Reading into the new year 

The fog comes

on little cat feet.

The new year is tiptoeing in like Carl Sandburg’s cat — or maybe I’m just in a personal fog, unable to recover from the whirlwind of the last two months. President Obama’s re-election, Thanksgiving, our 55th anniversary, Christmas, my 80th birthday, and New Year’s Eve tumbled through our house swelling with noise, joy, alarm, children and grandchildren, gourmet feasts and, as my father liked to say, “tee many martoonies.” Our youngest grandchild, Kai (age 2), poking at my hearing aids, wondered what these little “bugs” were doing in my ears. (We observed, seeing James Bond in Skyfall, that our home was both shaken and stirred.)

Now it’s time to settle down. British novelist E. M. Forster (1879-1970) was born on January 1, so I’ve chosen him to jumpstart my annual and much-ignored New Year’s resolution to reread the great novels I loved when I was young. I’m off to a good start this year, up to Chapter 6 in Forster’s Howards End. Maybe 2013, despite its unfortunate number, will be a lucky year.

It’s a case of mind over matter. Back when we took our youngest son Tim to his dormitory at Eckerd College, he rolled his eyes when he saw his assigned room was #13. Without blinking, Jeanne immediately said, “Oh, you’re so lucky! That’s a special number!” She was exactly right: Eckerd turned out to be the perfect place for Tim to be studying.

I like the word “triskaidekaphobia” (pronounced “trissKIdakaFObeea”), meaning “fear of the number 13.” Hard to know where this fear started. Some say 13 is unlucky because of Christ’s Last Supper (Jesus + the 12 disciples). More probably it had to do with the moon. In the years when we have 13 full moons, it complicated our calendar, which we solved by giving February an extra day every four years. 2013 isn’t a leap year, so maybe we’ll be OK — plus we loved the movie Lincoln which is about passing the 13th Amendment; and that seems like a good omen.

Still, it’s hard to be optimistic at 80 — it takes such energy! We wake up thinking of our knees, or eyesight; or the morning paper full of crimes and crises waiting for us, snakelike, on our pathway. With this in mind, I turn to beautiful writing.

Forster’s most popular books are A Room with a View (1908) and A Passage to India (1924), but all of them have similar central themes, and Howards End (1910) works perfectly for today’s America.

We’ve just gone through an election so savage that many of the losing states claim they want to secede from the Union. The lines are drawn along those that our Civil War tried to erase. Lincoln, that great Republican Emancipator, would weep to see it.

Howards End is about the polarization of British society in the early 1900s, with three groups struggling to live together in harmony, roughly represented by different families and individuals: the wealthy capitalists, the working class that supports them, and a liberal middle class that, often impractically, tries to bring them into some fair relationship. Good and bad traits spread through all three groups.

“Only connect” is the novel’s epitaph, best expressed when the large-hearted Margaret thinks, “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.”

This is really what Obama needs to do: Connect the prose and the passion, get over that “cliff,” and fix affordable health care in there efficiently and permanently! Lincoln reminded us that the idealistic 13th Amendment, setting our slaves free, was passed with poetry, bravery, and a touch of necessary chicanery.

Anyway, we’re stuck with 13 all year. We’re OK with it, as long as Sandburg’s cat doesn’t cross our path at night.

Happy New Year, everybody, and watch your step!

It sets looking

over harbor and city

on silent haunches

and then moves on.

—Both quotes from “Fog,” by Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)

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