John Lennon said that life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. My carefully drawn plan for a Spring program had life happen to it, so now, I need to find twice as many hours in a day. The question isn’t really “can I do it.” I can. I could fit every bit of that work into every day of that three weeks. I could. But that isn’t the whole of it. When we get stretched like that, something suffers.
Even if we don’t like to admit it, that’s the truth. Maybe it’s the quality of the work that suffers. Or the overall atmosphere in the office or house or group. Patience snaps. Tempers flare. Quality drops. Other people are affected. There’s a lot of writing and reading and thinking and listening to get done in that three weeks. There’s a limit to how much we can listen in a day, and I don’t want merely to look like I’m listening. I want to be listening. I want to be thinking. Maybe I should change my plan. And that’s a hard thing to do–let go of something that looks so good, in theory. It doesn’t matter how good it looks, if I can’t execute.
Lots of us overbook our time, and it’s just plain unhealthy and inefficient. Today, I am going to appear extremely inefficient because I am going to be staring into space, thinking. Occasionally, I’ll scribble something. Then, I’ll stare at that, and maybe I’ll scribble over it. Acts of creation are not impressive to watch. The act of creation is the idea, the plan. It takes a great deal of energy, and if it isn’t a solid plan, the reality won’t be solid, either. I can think on my feet, but I don’t want to spend three weeks juggling flaming sticks, especially if I’m tired. No good can come from that.
I think I was born knowing how to read. I don’t remember learning. Our house was full of books–mysteries, encyclopedias, anthologies, novels. We were farm kids, and there was plenty of reading time. Where were we going to go? In books, we could go anywhere. I got Maud Montgomery’s Rainbow Valley from a friend for my tenth birthday, and I still have it. I read Gone with the Wind when I was young enough to play it in my imagination and old enough to fall in love with Ashley Wilkes. I have about three hundred hardcover detective novels that belonged to my mother. Reading is one of the great pleasures of life. Having to part with books, when the shelves get too crowded, is hard on my heart. The occasional cull is necessary because I can’t stop acquiring books.
What I’ve learned, over the departure of thousands of books to libraries and charity sales, is what matters most to me. Aside from the delicious compendium Critical Theory Since Plato, all of the academic discussions of literature and film are gone. Those critical ideas in Plato are beautifully fresh, creative things. Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, E.M. Forster, and the Bronte sisters are safe and secure, everything they wrote. I have a complete Chaucer and a complete Shakespeare. I have poems by Pasternak, Ginsberg, Neruda, Sexton, Akhmatova, Nowlan, Cohen, Szymborska. Sometimes, I think about my top ten list, and I hesitate to fill all the spots. The thought makes me nervous because I don’t want to confine myself. Books aren’t like that. I can say that A Prayer for Owen Meany, A Star Called Henry, Chatterton, A Long, Long Way and Rainbow Valley would be on the list. That’s half way. I’ve read and re-read them. They can take it. That’s the secret. Keep books that can stand up to the scrutiny, that offer new things with each reading, that surprise all over with a beautiful phrase.