When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
My reading this week has included two wonderful novels by Nicholson Baker – The Anthologist and The Traveling Sprinkler. The main character in both is a not-so-successful poet (who’s lady friend is named Roz) struggling with writers block and a collapsing life. But in the course of his struggle he reveals a profound understanding of and sensitivity to poetry, rhyme, music and, as the metaphors deepen, a real insight into the basic struggles of life itself. I have not paid as much attention to verse the past few years, but my old interest has been piqued and I will be turning back now.
The lines above from Keats that Baker quoted particularly resonated with me this week as I went about about saying goodbye to my Mother who moved away to assisted living, meeting with Hospice to begin planning for my future care, and thinking about how and when I shall say goodbye. I had not until now really known how to frame that question, but thinking about the Keats lines made me realize that the key test was whether I had more left in my brain to get out. I had been focusing more on the mechanics of communicating as my voice, fingers and other “tools” leave my kit. I was intrigued by all the new technology becoming available.
But I now realize that “what I say” is much more important than “how I say it”.
As I have been thinking about my “mental bucket list” over the last few days, I have begun to better understand what I still have undone or unsaid. I think it will not be a long list, as I have not been shy about sharing up to now. And I hope to not become obsessed with checking people off the list. But even more important, I now realize, is not to become so focused on dredging up old buried thoughts that I lose connection to the present. I want to be fully attentive to what is happening around me, to the dear friends who write and visit, to my family and to my service responsibilities. All these activities take much more energy than before, leaving little time or space for dwelling on or reinventing the past, and not much more than that for usefully writing future scripts.
That is the gift of my disease – it forces me to live in the present.
So, having started this little piece with one English poet, let me end with some lines from another, Philip Larkin. I shared these lines with my friend Willie a year ago as he was struggling through his last days, and he took some sweet pleasure from them.
This poem is titled Days.
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.