“If having come so far we shall have
Let it be small enough.”
I roll over into morning, grab my notebook, and write “to drop the self in a dream of water”–a line I woke to when my youngest knocked on my door. I tell him to give me a minute and I’ll be downstairs. And begin reading a passage about boats in Meaning: A Life, by Mary Oppen
George and I spent hundreds of days on the water in boats…our world at times a twenty-foot enclosure of fog in which we are complete in ourselves, is a repeated experience from which we absorb meaning. We have spent hours silently returning from these absences refreshed and knowing ourselves and each other more deeply. This experience is one which holds our world together for us. (104-105)
Often, this book has me longing for a simpler time and possibilities I lost because I couldn’t see them when I was eighteen or nineteen or twenty. I watch the longing until it passes and the irritation too that rises when, every so often, Mary dismisses conventional lives as meaningless. My life is conventional.
I wake to my ten-year-old’s knock at the door each morning. He is lonely and misses the pre-covid world. He wants me to fill in the gaps. I can’t. I’m too tired. These months with no sustained break from my four kids and Jon have been difficult. Covid blew through our house in April and stayed through June. The constant managing of our collective drift toward the distraction and escapism of screens is exhausting. Not to mention trying to continue reading and writing while managing virtual school, the general stress of political unrest, and a global pandemic. All of which I do in the safety of relative privilege.
Still, I love, am in love with, the Oppens–the adventure, the shared dedication to simple living, to rejecting social expectations, and consciously constructing their life together, as they would a poem or painting. I’m also mature enough at forty-eight to watch and let go of my own defensive reaction to Mary’s dismissiveness. It’s the dogma she and George needed to construct their own way against overwhelming cultural currents. Something Jon and I are continually trying to swim out of–if too late for ourselves–at least for our kids. I know there is no single or right way to live or create art. I know my life is as full of meaning as the Oppens, but with more laundry, more staying in one place, and less outward movement. Inwardly, I never stop reframing, reimagining, wondering about the world and my tiny place in it.
And when I read that quote about boats I thought, “Oh! Our house might be a boat! In these Covid times our house might be “an enclosure in which we are complete in ourselves…a repeated experience from which we absorb meaning.” Here we are sequestered together in our conventional life, so often, wrapped in fog. Can we consciously pull ourselves and our four kids away from the lure of screens, of numbing entertainment, of the outrage loop? Can we direct our attention in this temporary space we’re in together and meet each other here in silence? Maybe this is a chance to think about how we want to engage differently when we sail back to shore and reenter the world, as we welcome the outside world into our home again. Maybe this is also time to tell our kids about the Oppens and the other many different shapes a life can take.
Mary Oppen’s autobiography has helped me see my own life from a new angle, one of the gifts of conversation with a good book. I’ve realized that, for me, a meaningful life is less dependent on creating extraordinary circumstance than it is on how I can continually reimagine, reshape, and act consciously within my life as it exists now. That is my dogma–the story I tell myself and try to make true–a story that is, I hope, friendly to shifts in perspective.
And so, for now, our house is a boat.