Thursday, 25 May 2017

Time, Death, and the Novel

Some books I have to read over and over, once a year or every few years, because they encapsulate a truth or a kind of beauty I can't get enough of, and with each reading I experience that beautiful truth -- or that true beauty -- in a new, more nuanced way. One such book is Annie Dillard's An American Childhood, though it also contains a chapter so painfully poignant to me, for a long time I couldn't bear to re-read it and had to skip over it in my second and third and fourth readings. It's a chapter about the nature of time, and time's passing:

What does it feel like to be alive?

Living, you stand under a waterfall. The hard water pelts your skull, bangs in bits on your shoulders and arms. It is time pounding you, time. Knowing you are alive is watching on every side as your generation's short time is falling away, as fast as rivers drop through the air, and feeling it hit.

Knowing you are alive is feeling the planet buck under you, rear, kick, and try to throw you; you hang onto the ring. Have you noticed yet that you will die? Do you remember, remember, remember? Then you feel your life as a weekend, a weekend you cannot extend, a weekend in the country.*

Ka-wowza, right? As I say, the first time I read it, this passage knocked the breath out of me, and for a long time after, whenever I returned to An American Childhood, I'd carefully avoid that particular chapter. It cut too close to the bone. It reminded me too much of how I had felt in mid September 2007, the week after my mother had been pulled from a car that looked like a sheet of paper crumpled into a ball, and for a few days after we had not known whether or not she would survive. The day of the accident, I flew home from Chicago to North Carolina, and sometime that weekend I left the hospital to walk around my parents' now-empty house, looking at all the framed photos. Here was my mother holding my cousin's new baby (oh, how my mother loves babies!). Here she was on the beach with one of my twin sisters on either side of her. There she was in her black-and-white wedding portrait with Dad; there she was, too, thirty-five years later, in a family photo from my brother's wedding.

Technically, this is not one of the photos of my mom
that are visible in my parents house. But I love it.
Here she is with my dad, circa 1962.
That night, those photos no longer looked like milestones along a path that would go on unfolding endlessly, as long as I wanted it to. The photos looked, suddenly, more like relics.

I remember thinking, Is this it? Is it over already? Is this all the time with my mother that we're every going to get?

Though my mother did live -- though she is, thank God, still holding babies and attending weddings and going to her beloved beach -- that week in 2007 when none of us knew whether she would live was the first time I felt the utter finiteness of human life. Why had I thought that my mother's life -- or anyone's -- would go on forever and ever? Against all the hard evidence the world offers us to the contrary, how had I assumed that our time together was boundless?

Time is precious, as one cliché goes. Time is a commodity, goes another. But often in our western culture, such sayings are used as a reason to rush on the next task or event, to move forward, to get on with things.Westward ho! Climb ev'ry mountain! The greener pastures are yet to come.

The more I think about this mentality, the stranger it seems. If this minute right now while I'm writing this -- if the minute right now while you're reading this -- is unrepeatable, is unique: if in fact there'll never be another minute again quite like this one, and we'll never get this minute back, why wish it away? Why burn through it? Rather than valuing the space I'm in here and now, why focus so often on what happens next?

With one part of my now fifty-year-old brain, I do appreciate all this hard-won knowledge about transience and mortality and the beauty of the present moment. I can stomach such knowledge better now, in the middle of middle age, than I could in my thirties, when I first read An American Childhood and that chapter on time broke my heart.

Even so, I'm as guilty as the next person of romanticizing the future. I participate regularly, often unwittingly, in the greener-pastures-are-over-there mentality that American culture seems to propagate. What can I do or achieve, I often wonder, that will make me feel better in the near future? Should I buy a new dress, a new yoga mat? Get a new job, or move to a brand-new locale?

It seems to be part of my nature to ardently look forward to the next thing, the next phase of life -- to think that everything will somehow be better, around the next bend in the road. I did it in high school, wanting the weekend to come. I've done it often since the 2016 U.S. elections. (When, oh when, will it finally be 2020?)

I'm not saying we don't sometimes actually need to make changes -- need them for important physical or emotional or even spiritual reasons. (The need for a change in U.S. leadership is an obvious example. And my last yoga mat, I'm here to tell you, really was a piece of crap.)**

But earlier this week I came face to face with my own impulse to change things as soon as they get slightly unpleasant or difficult -- to submit to the romance of What else? or what next? And that confrontation has made me want to think more deliberately about time and how I live within time.

Earlier this week, I found myself growing restless -- mentally restless. I kept thinking, Am I doing what I should be with my life? Maybe I should start teaching English again. Should I volunteer as a tour guide at Durham Cathedral? Should I become a yoga instructor?

I even felt restless with Durham and England, for the first time since Dave and I made the move. It's been twenty-two months that we've lived here now, so I wondered: Is this super-delayed culture shock?

Finally, two nights ago, I sat down with Dave and told him how I was feeling. I said, "I don't mean that I necessarily will make any one of these changes. But I'm feeling these sudden, kind of strong urges, and I want to tell you about them."

I told him. He listened. Then he said, "Don't you think this is mainly about your novel?"

As some of you know, I've been writing a novel. I've been working on it pretty hard for the past two years. Most of the time I find this work absorbing, even all-consuming, in a deeply enjoyable way. Most of the time, writing the novel has felt to me as violin playing feels to the character in Alice Munro's wonderful story, "My Mother's Dream": "It is a problem that she has to work out strictly and daringly, and that she has taken on as her responsibility in life." For the past two years, as I've sat down at my writing desk day after day, "the problem is still there in its grandeur," as Munro writes.***

Dave Janzen,
who is so marvelously wise
This summer, however, I am closing in on the end of this work. By July or August, my novel will most likely be out of my hands, on its way out into the world.

But what if it never gets very far? What if this novel is in fact not very good? What if, as with my last yoga mat, I'm just thinking or hoping that it will be awesome, but it's really a piece of crap?

I don't normally think this way. (If I did, I probably could not keep writing.) But seeing the finish line approaching this summer has stirred up these fairly rare anxieties. I can think whatever I want to about my work so long as I keep it close to my chest -- so long as I never declare the novel finished and send it out to an agent. But once I do, there comes the real, public test.

My desire to move or to change something, Dave suggested last night, came from such recent anxieties. "You're in a more uncomfortable space with your work now," he said, "and so your mind has started casting around for basically anything else you can do."

Ka-wowza again, I have to say. Dave was right. I knew it as soon as he said it.

"The real challenge," Dave added, "is to stay in this less-than-comfortable space. Stay with the work, stay in the moment. Don't try to jump out of it."

The challenge, in other words, is to be where I am, to do what needs doing in the given day without being too distracted by what comes before this or after. It reminded me of one of the major precepts of yoga -- or the one, at least, which has been coming through to me more clearly and resonantly lately.

Sometimes when we're holding a difficult posture in class, the yoga teacher will say, "Your body will want to move out of this posture. Your brain will come up with all sorts of tricks to get you to move, to change your position. But see if you can breathe through it. Can you breathe into the moment? Can you achieve stillness in any way?"

My writing desk
Stillness in yogic practice isn't really about lack of physical movement, or it's not mainly about that. It's a mental stillness -- an absolute okay-ness with where you are, even if there are unpleasant elements. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't make a change when our context  has become dangerous or damaging. As my yoga teachers also say, in encouraging us to stick with a hard posture, "If you feel sharp shooting pains, then you should move -- you should get out of the posture."

On the other hand, they usually, gently add, if all you're feeling is just some discomfort, try to stay with it. Keep breathing. See what you can learn from this space, from this moment, from being right here, right now.

I'm gonna stay in this saddle, then, despite some nervousness and a few bruises. To put it another way, I'll keep standing under this waterfall, trying to breathe and to love it.

*     From pages 50 to 51 in the 1987 Harper and Row edition. I have compressed from the original.
**   Check out the  helpful review site, The Best Yoga Mat, to make sure you really like your next mat.
*** From pages 318 to 319 in 1998 Vintage International edition. I have compressed from the original.