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.

Charles Wright poem on Poetry Daily today

I love the work of poet Charles Wright, and I loved the two poems from his book Caribou, reprinted on Poetry Daily today.

Enjoy!

——-

My Old Clinch Mountain Home

I keep on hoping a theme will bite me,
                                                       and leave its two wounds
In my upper arm and in my heart.
A story line of great destiny,
                                         or fate at least.
It’s got to be serious, as my poor flesh is serious.
So, dog, show me your teeth and bite me.
                                                            Show me some love.

Such little consequence, our desires.
Better to be the last chronicler of twilight, and its aftermath.
Better to let your hair swing loose, and dust up the earth.
I’d like to be a prophet,
                                  with animals at my heels.
I’d like to have a staff, and issue out water wherever it fell.

Lord, how time does alter us,
                                          it goes without saying.
There is an afterlight that follows us,
                                                     and fades as clockticks fade.
Eventually we stand on it puddled under our shoes.
The darkness that huddles there
Is like the dew that settles upon the flowers,
                                                               invisible, cold, and everywhere.

When the wind comes, and the snow repeats us,
                                                                     how like our warped lives it is,
Melting objects, disappearing sounds
Like lichen on gnarled rocks.
For we have lived in the wind, and loosened ourselves like ice melt.
Nothing can hold us, I’ve come to know.
                                                           Nothing, I say.

–Charles Wright, from Caribou, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux