I Have Wasted My Life

The view from my hammock

The view from my hammock

Lately, everything has felt busy. Sometimes I think this is the mantra of my generation, at this time in our lives: we’re working parents, we’re social beings, and we’re ambitious, and many of us feel like things are about as full as they could be. In the past year, my life has amped up in several ways, and it’s left me simultaneously dizzy from the excitement of it—I’ve felt, finally, like a real adult, a real breadwinner with a real career path—and overwhelmed by the day to day.

In general, I’ve been proud of the way my family has adjusted to me working more and L starting Kindergarten and all the other things we’ve added to our plate. B has become an extraordinary caretaker, making bread for us every week and planting the garden with veggies and folding all the laundry. L is a pain about doing anything to help out, but he’s five, after all. And I’ve loosened the reins on certain projects and I still manage to get a good dinner on the table most nights and keep us in groceries and a clean bathroom. Our life together has felt very manageable, and very happy, if at times a little too…full.

But something small can throw a huge wrench in the gears, and that’s what March was: this weird cold/flu I had that migrated to my ears and became a double ear infection. For the past month, I’ve had tinnitus (no fun) and this constant sensation like a valve in each ear is popping open, closed, open, closed. I missed a week of classes, which I had to make up, and once I felt a little better I found that my work ethic was shattered: it didn’t feel like much fun to sit at my computer and listen to the roaring in my ears, so I started to postpone grading and planning until the last possible second. And of course, when you get sick, you end up having doctor’s appointments, which means time away from work and writing, and then there are those bills to pay and meanwhile everything else continues unabated. I’m not complaining—it’s been an interesting reminder to me about the nature of life, and in particular the nature of my life, and now that’s it’s all getting a little better I’m much happier seeing it in a different light—but nonetheless, all the worry and sickness and anxiety and discomfort have been…disorienting.

And so, on the most practical level, I had a few days there where I felt quite firmly that my life was spinning totally out of control. I worked a lot over the weekend, just trying to get caught up with a book proposal and all the grading I’d been neglecting, all the while feeling like I was barely making a dent. Hardest were the liminal spaces, the hours and minutes in between classes or events, when I’d expect to accomplish small tasks or phone calls and for whatever reason, utterly fail. Finally, on Monday night after a full day, I spent a few hours catching up with travel plans and my son’s school activities (oh, how I had been neglecting the various appeals from the PTA) and filing bills and paying bills and generally trying to get my head to clear.

It was amazing how much better I felt once I’d done all that.

But one thing I still hadn’t managed to do was blog, here in National Poetry Month, of all times, when I always feel I should be blogging.

And then, a certain poem came barreling into my consciousness yesterday and I knew exactly what I wanted to blog about.

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
© James Wright, from Modern American Poets: Their Voices and Vision (Random House, 1987)

When I read this poem in college, the professor asked us to interpret the last line. And I recall many of us, then on the cusp of becoming adults, saying that the last line meant that lying in the hammock, looking around, was a waste of life. I felt quite firmly that what Wright had meant when he wrote this poem was that he had been lazy in his life, that he should have been more ambitious.

How wrong I was. Now, saddled with all the things I’m saddled with at 41, bills and obligations and worries, I see clearly that what Wright meant was that all the noise we fill our lives with is, truly, the waste. Now, this poem speaks to me in a way it never could have when I was twenty-one.

And so, yesterday, after I’d taught two three-hour classes back to back, and used all my liminal spaces for phone calls or emails, I came home to a quiet house. I calmly washed the dishes, changed my clothes, and sat quietly at the table filling out raffle-ticket stubs before picking up L at school. And when we came home, and he decided to run off to play with the neighbor, I sat in the hammock in my backyard for fifteen minutes, reading The Remains of the Day and listening to the birds and the sounds of the guys working on the house across the way.

I will not waste my life.

It’s National Poetry Month! And, two great books of poetry you gotta read

Eliot was wrong: April is not the cruelest month (I have a particular belief that February is, but actually, I think it’s different for everyone). For me, March was a bear, since I spent much of it sick and am still temporarily (we hope) deaf from a double ear infection that’s lingered. So it was not with great sadness that I said goodbye to March yesterday (but it was with great sadness that I said goodbye to my parents, who, visiting for three weeks, made the month somewhat bearable).

Because I’m still digging out from illness, I don’t know that I’ll be able to post a poem a day in April this year. But we can celebrate National Poetry Month nonetheless.

Today, I wanted to plug two beautiful books of poetry that found their way to me this winter.

The first is called Where’s Jukie? (Absurd Publications, 2013) by poet Andy Jones and essayist Kate Duren. I met Andy at the San Francisco Writers Conference in February. It’s interesting to meet someone as charismatic and upbeat as Andy. He’s something of a legend, with his own radio show and a reading series in Davis. But his book is about his family’s struggle to figure out life with a child with a rare disorder called Lemli-Opitz syndrome and regressive autism, to boot. It’s a really beautiful book. Kate Duren’s essays about her son feel controlled and confident and wise, but Andy’s poems attest to the incredible doubt and difficulty of parenting a special-needs child.

Here’s the poem “Dinner” from Where’s Jukie?

DINNER

When I get up from the table,

you cry.

Our relationship is the most honest.

 

Sometimes with the spoon,

sometimes with the napkin,

I wipe the applesauce from your chin.

 

The crow caws to us

from the backyard.

You crane your neck to see.

 

At dinnertime your fingers

are dull tools.

You swat at the spoon.

 

Feeling gravity too keenly,

you sink into the chair.

You must be strapped in.

 

You look at me as if to speak.

Your eyes refocus before

you chirp like a hyena.

 

The wasps thump against the screen.

How they wish the door

were thrown open.

 

Sometimes your mouth opens

so wide that I think you could roar.

 

The wind shifts the vertical blinds.

You look at them and cry.

How I wish I could understand you.

© Andy Jones

The second book is called Thunderbirds, by Christine Penko (Turning Point Press, 2015). This is an extraordinary book. It’s poetry, but the poems are linked so as to tell a story, so it feels as much like a memoir in verse. And the subject of the memoir is a family riddled with dysfunction and confusion, and a mother who’s both observer and orchestrator. I came away–having not been able to put the book down, I should add–with great respect for the writing and the characters in the book. Here is “Science Fiction” by Christine Penko:

SCIENCE FICTION

Dazed by your news, I pretend

it’s possible for us to take

that summer trip we’d planned,

possible to leave our alien selves

locked in the battered house

I’d once considered a fortress.

In Sedona, it’s monsoon season.

Clouds boil against mountains.

Buzzards reel.

Words pass between our mouths, melt

into lozenges of despair.

The future is impossible to imagine.

Inside my chest, something poisonous rips

open, spreads wings, gains speed.

© Christine Penko