Sunday, July 10, 2011


You can think too much about how you want your life to be, forgetting how little control you have over it – how little engaged in the day to day decisions that make your life, is that morose and detached little twist of the the frontal lobe that likes to speculate on what a Good Life would be. The two things, the thought and the life, don't really have that much to do with each other. And it's probably just as well it should be so, because that little twist doesn't have much sense.

But on the other hand, you can lose track entirely, for months at a time, until you wake up one morning and ask yourself, “who is this person, and what are they doing? And why are they doing it?” And you watch, puzzled, while your hand reaches for the toothbrush. “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers,” intoned the objectionable William. “We have given our hearts away – a sordid boon!”

Since I am quite sure that I have a heart – is this real glass? I asked, and smashed it on the table: sure enough, real glass – since I'm quite sure, now, it might not be completely useless to ask, where I want to lay its patched together fragments. With the complete understanding that the morose little twist that asks the question can speak neither for my heart, nor for my operations manager.

“It will have leaves in it, and massage,” was the first answer I came up with. “And it will read books it delights in.”

And that set me to thinking of how much of this life I've dreamed away in books, following fantasy after fantasy. In the days of bondage I used to read all the time, sometimes thinking that the day would come when I would have a life and a story of my own, sometimes thinking I would not. And the habit lingered into my freedom, until now I have to ask, are the stories now my bondage? What is it that I do, when I read a story? Where am I? What do you call that intimacy with the dead? Because they are mostly dead now, or dead to me. The living writers I know are poets, mostly, and poetry lives in a different space – less controlled, less escapist, altogether more dangerous and unpredictable.

Last night Martha invited me to come read in the back yard, as the long summer afternoon settled into evening, to keep her company while she spread compost and planted grass. So I went and settled into a lawn chair, and she was going to come down and join me. I was reading Dancing Aztecs, by Donald Westlake. I read for an hour and she never joined me. She had been drawn into conversation with a neighbor.

It was a perfect evening, and the book – a dreadfully uneven mishmash of shrewd observation about America, with bits of undissolved racism bobbing in it – was basically about new lives. “Get a fast car and keep on driving,” as Tracy Chapman said. I sat in the yard with the leaves shimmering around me, a perfect summer evening, and thought of how little time I ever spent in this yard, and wondered how we would live in the new house.

Well, obviously, we'll live there exactly as we live here. We'll be the same people. Not much will change, no matter how much hope or anxiety we invest in it. If something is to be different, we will have to do something different. What do we want? Well, we never decided. I was too busy building a private space in which to smash glass to even ask the question. And the demands of raising children overwhelmed us. We're not high-energy people. We do a bit and stop and rest and wonder.

And that, I think, should be all right. Anyway, it's what we have to work with. Unless what we really have is lots of thwarted energy running opposite ways. Sometimes it feels like that. The vector sum of the forces is small, but that doesn't mean the forces are small. That's another thing I wonder about.

I was thinking about IBM, how intolerable it became there. I always think that “I jumped before I was pushed,” but I don't really know that: all I know is that I quit. And it occurred to me, as a startling and novel thought, that I was lonely there.

I don't think of myself as someone who gets lonely. All my life people have pestered me with suggestions that I must be lonely, when I was perfectly happy. I used to roam in the hills alone, and people thought I was lonely. I eat breakfast by myself and write and think, and people think I'm lonely. I wasn't, and I'm not. And I was always exasperated by the “team-building exercises” at work, which jammed a bunch of loners like me into groups to play putt-putt golf or drive little race cars around tracks. I wanted to be left alone to work. But now I think that I was lonely, at IBM, and maybe I have been lonely the last couple weeks at the Foundation.

“Some people,” said Barney, “run on a pretty lean mix.” I don't need much, or want much. But I miss Faith, who used to come in once or twice a week to check on me, and would touch my shoulder, and reassure me that what I was doing was important. Ten minutes of contact a week, maybe. But she looked me in the eye and gave me her whole attention, for that time, and took what I said seriously. It was the mix I needed. And Barney suggested that if I didn't have it now at work, I should think about how to get it, possibly even going to the radical extreme of asking for it.


Zhoen said...

The loneliness of being alone in a crowd, especially for those of us happy to spend time alone, is awful.

In the new place, just make sure you have some familiar stuff in a familiar place. The same bedspread, or lamp, or picture on the wall, the same potholders, fridge magnets, that's what will help you feel at home. It really is the little things, the people, the smells, more than the structure.

I like the idea of running a lean mix. Just have to make sure there is some octane in there. So little margin, sometimes.

Dale said...

Yes, a lot of people who get tanked, instead of drained, by groups, really don't get that!

-- We never buy new stuff, so we'll be taking your advice willy-nilly. I think you're right.

-- & yes, the margin is pretty small. I don't envy the people who have to try to keep us running :-)

carolee said...

this is a wonderful ramble. even though i am making radical changes right now, i know some of the old fights will find new containers. xo

JMartin said...

If Barney always rings this wise and useful, he is quite the find.

We lean-mix types (per Zhoen) definitely cut it too close, and only register no octane when we putt-putt-putt. As for the ability to request (gasp) a fill-up from someone else (second gasp) -- I really must write this down.

Kathleen said...

I like this ramble, too. I will keep thinking about. I think I am seldom lonely, when alone. I am indeed sometimes lonely in a group, if I don't belong.

Mike Porter said...

I've experienced that many people do not understand the difference between solitude and being lonely. I love solitude and I'm never lonely...well, except perhaps in relationship where I sense I'm not being understood and the other person doesn't seem to care to understand.

Anne said...

It's true, when you are young (and you are young, Dale) life has a tendency to send you willy-nilly in any old direction, whether you like it or not. You have to earn a living, take care of children, cook dinner, do the wash, take care of aging parents. If you are lucky, like me, and live a very long time, you get to the point when you can really do as you like most of the time -- as long as you like cooking dinner and doing the wash. And the question you ask yourself then is -- how long is this happy state of affairs going to last?