Tabs Open #32: One Does Not Go To Bed With The Chickens On A Winter’s Night

There’s a short story that I make my students read every year that feels especially relevant to our current season. We read it in summer quarter, when the class size shrinks considerably—most students either graduate at the end of spring or go away on vacation or just generally can’t be bothered to sit in my three-hour class when the weather is so good—but it is a fall story, make no mistake.

It’s called “Yours,” by Mary Robison, and while the whole thing can be read in about two minutes, there’s a bit toward the end that sticks with you a long time after you put it down. It reads:

At the telephone, Clark had a clear view out back and down to the porch. He wanted to get drunk with his wife once more. He wanted to tell her, from the greater perspective he had, that to own only a little talent, like his, was an awful, plaguing thing; that being only a little special meant you expected too much, most of the time, and liked yourself too little. He wanted to assure her that she had missed nothing.

I will not comment on my own position on the axis of artistic mediocrity because any definitive statement would either sound like bragging or fishing. I can say that I relate to what Clark feels in the long hours of the night looking out into his backyard.

But I am also making a conscious effort not to see things that way, easy as it is to get swept up in a vague artistic sort of melancholy. Earlier in the story, we are told that Clark “had been a doctor, an internist, but also a Sunday watercolorist.” It’s a juxtaposition I draw my students’ attention to because I think it’s a beautiful way to work a deep and meaningful bit of characterization into a very short, spare story. It also serves—in reflection, if not in the story itself—as something almost triumphant.

Because I don’t think it matters that Clark thinks he only has a little talent. I think it’s a triumph that he found the time and energy and inspiration to paint at all, given what the rest of his life must have been like. To write off that purely artistic pursuit because it didn’t result in mastery or fame or acclaim is to miss the point of making things entirely.

Kurt Vonnegut had something to say about this idea, you might not be surprised to hear. He theorized that moderately talented people get depressed about it because the world has flattened to such a degree that they find themselves in competition with the “world’s champions” instead of the two dozen other people in their village, none of whom can do what they do.

I think that could go back to the time when people had to live in small groups of relatives – maybe fifty or a hundred people at the most. And evolution or God or whatever arranged things genetically to keep the little families going, to cheer them up, so that they could all have somebody to tell stories around the campfire at night, and somebody else to paint pictures on the walls of the caves, and somebody else who wasn’t afraid of anything and so on.

That’s what I think. And of course a scheme like that doesn’t make sense anymore, because simply moderate giftedness has been made worthless by the printing press and radio and television and satellites and all that. A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but the world’s champions.

So I am doing my best not to compare myself to the planet’s best union organizers or community college instructors or newsletter writers. My friend Ben—also building off the work of Vonnegut—suggests that the best way to live a more satisfactory life, instead of one of constant competition with people who will never know you exist, might be to settle into a more natural rhythm of “small seasons” that better reflect what the world is like in any given month. Less relentless drive, world without end, forever and ever amen; more willingness to put things away and go to bed with the sun when the nights creep in earlier and colder.

Ben builds this idea off of one from writer Matt Thomas, whose own thoughts on the matter of rearranging our lives to better suit the true passage of time come in part from Lewis Mumford, and goddamn if we don’t have ourselves a nice little Matryoshka doll of thought here. (It’s a worthwhile experience to trace ideas back to their source, I find.) I quite like the bit from Mumford that Thomas links to:

When one thinks of the day as an abstract span of time, one does not go to bed with the chickens on a winter’s night: one invents wicks, chimneys, lamps, gaslights, electric lamps, so as to use all the hours belonging to the day. When one thinks of time, not as a sequence of experiences, but as a collection of hours, minutes, and seconds, the habits of adding time and saving time come into existence.

It’s nice to think about how our lives might be if we viewed time as a collection of experiences rather than a resource to be added and saved and spent and therefore able to be wasted, pejoratively speaking. It might make us less frustrated with the fact that we are putting ourselves into competition with the World’s Champions at whatever little thing we like to do for fun but will never be one of the greats at. Maybe we’d start to see those pursuits a little more for what they are, which is to say that we might begin to appreciate the soul work that is its own kind of necessary labor.

On that note I want to make a quick plug for an essay that my friend Tim’s mom wrote last week. I had no idea she kept a blog until he sent me the piece; it strikes me as just the kind of thing I’m talking about, that soul work, the stuff you might never get famous doing but it’s just good for you to do it. Which is not to say that Tim’s mom is untalented: the essay is breathtaking in its honesty and its thoughtfulness, and she explains the central conceit—our healthcare system is byzantine and unfair and stacked against those without means—with more clarity and purpose than just about anyone tasked with fixing it seems able to.

Anyway I’d love to see it if you do things like that, if you’ve got a soul project or whatever that makes you happy even as you stress about how it stacks up to other people who are well-regarded for doing that same thing.

Talk to you next week.