Sunday, June 16, 2013

Hitting the reset button: being where you are

 During my last couple of days in Paris, Rilke's puzzling close to his poem, "Archaic Torso of Apollo," "You must change your life," came back to me again and again.  It became almost an ear worm, one of those phrases of music, usually banal and repetitive,  you can't get out of your head.  But one can't think of Rilke as a mere ear worm, so I kept querying the phrase.  I had learned a couple of things from the French--or at least I thought I had, which comes to the same thing.  They seemed not to scurry frantically, the way we do.  (They don't even text as they walk down the street, for example:  too many unpredictable tourists or a more reasonable philosophy of life?--you choose.)  A little searching on Google told me that they have a 35-hour work week, yet that French workers are among the most productive in the world.  They also seemed to find space in their lives for pleasure.  I began to wonder whether the lousy work-life balance in North America actually makes us less productive because we spend far too much time worrying about or complaining about how busy we are.  Perhaps in the world of work less might sometimes be more.

"You must change your life" seemed to me to point to my need to get back to my work on the Woolf book, but this has been frustrated this week by two things.  One is that I'm on the department's hiring committee for a replacement of Heather Meek--as if Heather could be replaced!  Hence large parts of Monday, Wednesday, and Friday involved meeting candidates, lunching with them, and even showing them around Regina and the university.  Large parts of Monday and Tuesday were also taken up with administrivia, while on Thursday I supposedly learned how to become the graduate chair.  I did read some criticism on Three Guineas, but for the most part thinking about Woolf was sequestered in small corners of time.  I wasn't entirely frustrated.  For one thing, all our candidates were excellent, so learning what they were working on was a pleasure and showing one easterner around U of R and Regina made me see the city and the university anew.  The candidates were all great company.  But more than that, when they asked about like in the Department, I was reminded how much affection and respect I have for my colleagues, which is not a bad way to begin one's last year of work.  Besides, for a whole host of reasons, I found myself relaxing into being satisfied with whatever experience I was having at the time.

I've been working at being satisfied with where I am for quite a long time.  Katherine Arbuthnott taught me several years ago that human beings don't multi-task very well, and I realized that trying to accomplish things while you're worrying about what you aren't getting done is, in effect, multi-tasking.  So for the most part, I can now make a list, take a few extra minutes to ensure I've got my priorities straight, and then just proceed.  This strategy makes me more efficient and less frustrated, but not satisfied exactly.  Then I learned another lesson about a year ago in the bra department of Sears--a banal place to learn a lesson.  It was early on a Sunday and the single clerk was helping someone else.  I was looking for a strapless bra and not finding anything, so I simply waited patiently.  When my turn came, the clerk apologized profusely for not getting to me earlier.  "That's okay.  I'm not the only person on the planet," I assured her.  I suddenly realized, perhaps counter-intuitively, that I didn't have time to spend being impatient.  Or to put it another way that makes more sense, having my mortality made so clear by the deaths of my parents and friends made me realize that time is too short to be inside a mood that's unpleasant and inside a situation you can do nothing about except to shape your reactions.

My body has also conspired.  Last weekend that hot poker under my shoulder blades I wrote about a couple of months ago came again, this time pinching a nerve in my left arm.  There's suddenly a lot I can't do without a considerable amount of pain, though I found this morning that I could stay quite still with an ice pack on my shoulder blade and read pages and pages of Carol Shields's The Stone Diaries, which I'm teaching in the fall.  Sitting quietly, which is the best thing for preventing pain, gave me time to think about my classes next year.  There has to be something either perverse or typical or inspired about the fact that in my final year of teaching I have two new classes and that I am seeing their structure more clearly than I usually do in June.

What do I want to do most of all right now?  I want to concentrate, focus, not flit from thing to thing the way I'm forced to do when I'm teaching.  Even the idea of reaching some kind of goal--two more chapters for the book on Virginia Woolf's aesthetics should be my summer goal, but I'm just going to put that by the side right now--is beside the point.  Be inside your moment, with as little pain as possible.

And of course, the French, with their glorious joie de vivre, have helped.  Oddly enough, they make hard work seem decadent, if you can just spin a little bit of a French accent around spending a rainy Sunday reading exquisite, humane prose and thinking about the structures and ideas of the novel that lie behind its witty surface.

The photograph above was taken in Saint-Germaine-des-Pres; it's a room off the main part of the cathedral and looked like the perfect space for reflection.

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