The Siren Call of Easier
Remember this scene from Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? The Sirens? So pretty. So ready to "love 'em up" - so ready to delay and stop and drink and slow and distract ... their calls are oh, so attractive - so hard to resist.
The guys were trying to get somewhere. They had stuff to do. They had a treasure to get to before the flood came and swept it away forever. And along the way, they heard the Sirens.
I hear them too.
I think I passed the place where two roads diverge in a yellow wood. I think that fork in the road was several miles back, and I'm already on the road less traveled by.
I decided to go to school, for one thing. And then I decided to create an interdisciplinary degree instead of staying within a discipline. I decided to go back to work - but not because we needed the money (we did - we do). I wanted to work at the library again. I have let everyone know I'm doing it, and I have recruited cohorts to help, and instead of keeping or using the curriculum available now (which is seriously inadequate for the current situations), I have decided to design and write a three, morphing into nine, morphing into 12-year religious education curriculum that I hope will be useful long after my body has returned to dust. The road more traveled by? I can't even remember where the turn-off was.
Last week, when Mary Catherine Bateson was speaking at her Marylhurst stop on the tour, I watched her and listened to the main points - but I also heard her humor and I heard her being a good sport about the stuff we can all complain about.
An aging body does have limits, after all. The woman's not delusional. She's aware that, at seventy, she cannot stand for very long at a time, for instance. So ... what did she do about it? She perched like a 20-year-old college student, and sat on a table! She's not tall. Her feet didn't touch the floor while she sat there - but she did swing them back and forth a bit. Bateson is not young - but she's not "old" either. Her road has been one of the less-traveled-by roads, that's for sure. And today I wonder what her Sirens have sung to her during her life. I wonder if she can still hear them, and if she would sometimes rather have a less profound life. I wonder if she still wonders if easier would have been nicer.
I've been listening to the people my age and older, and I've been hearing something lately. There are two kinds of people after awhile, and they get more and more obvious. There's the more usual type - the type that always seems to be looking for something that's not this. The good old days or the way things used to be or the way (they thought) things were when they were growing up.
And then there's the type that does life the Bateson way, pursuing meaning and depth and conscious understanding and deliberate choices. This type is honest about challenges, but seems almost never to be ready to complain or whine or doom-say or fuss at life. This type finds things to smile about and approve of everywhere they go. They talk about what they enjoy. They laugh easily. They work hard to make things better, but they don't stop for very long to discuss how they, personally, feel about it all. They just get on with the work - and they know the old days were not something to romanticize and long for. More tolerant of ambivalence. More ready to work for the parts of life that matter.
My Sirens go mute when the voice of people like Bateson is in my ear. This morning, I wonder if she was ever tempted to stay home and watch Masterpiece Mystery instead of getting her books and working on her projects. I wonder if she kept her house better than I do, or if she was as distracted about it as I am. My Sirens are the voices of my peers from days gone by, and they have learned to harmonize with the voices in my present life, and the whole crooning chorus sings as I pass by the water. "Why must you do it the hard way? Why not rest? Why not stop? Be contented. Stay at home. Nest. You love to nest. Nest and write and calm down and stop working so hard. Just nest. Rest. Nest. Rest."
You know what irritates me about the really dangerous Sirens? They tell the truth. I do love to nest. In my own good old days, when the kids were small, we all cleaned up around here together. I taught math, and dictation, and history, and nesting. They can cook, and they can clean (when they want to), and they know how to do their laundry, and they like the Christmas decorations to go up. And now - now that they're off in their own lives and I need not be teaching math or nesting - if I were a person to do it, nesting and hostessing and staying home to write would be my best path. It's a true path for me. The Sirens know their music well.
But I can hear Bateson's voice, and it's getting stronger in my head. "More tolerant of ambivalence." "I'm still me - I am who I've been becoming my whole life." "Experience is the best teacher - but only if you do your homework." "Advocates for the future." We have longer, healthier, more active lives than ever before in human history, and the question before us is this: what are we going to do about it? With it? With this opportunity?
It feels like unnecessary difficulty in a lot of ways, but I will block my ears to the Sirens, and I will keep going. I turned fifty this year. That's how old Bateson was when she wrote Composing a Life. Now she's seventy, and she's written Composing a Further Life, to answer the questions. No ... to think about the questions. To posit some answers. To have the discussion. To wonder - in the deepest and wisest parts of our beings - what are we to do with this long life we're given? Evolution has granted our species a longer and longer period of time for reaching adulthood; active adulthood is so active that there is nearly no time for reflection, but we must make the time so that when we reach the second half of adulthood we are ready for it; and now we are being granted elder years like never before.
My sirens want me to want an olden days that, in truth, I always found slightly constraining. For a couple of decades I could see this freedom up ahead, and I tried to get ready for it. And now it is time. This is the year I begin composing a further life. Rest, in full measure. Reflection, in abundance. Activity to its fullest potential. Expansion beyond my expectations. It's not time yet for Easier.