August 24, 2014:
My wise daughter used to tell me that it's wasn't lack of talent or ambition that would defeat me. It was living--daily life and its demands. Since my beloved wife, Lorraine, had ankle replacement surgery a couple of weeks ago and I became her chief caretaker, I've gained a new understanding of what my daughter meant. Because the business of caring for someone is nothing but daily life, multiplied by a factor of two. The two of us, Lorraine and I, generally carve up the requirements of living--shopping, doing the laundry, mowing the lawn, preparing meals, and all the rest of it--in a loosely efficient manner. She is a writer, she, too, has a career and is totally committed to it, so we share, divide the labor, and only get cranky about it when the work pressure is severe. She likes things neater and cleaner than I care about, while I think when she's cooking she shouldn't try to do two or three things at once, which often doesn't work. Etc. Typical married stuff. We both manage in the end to have large blocs of time free for the reading, correspondence, and actual writing that goes into our working lives.
But now? Now she's walking around on crutches. Or upstairs, when she manages to get upstairs, pushing herself upstairs backwards on her butt, she uses a walker. Now, when she wants to go outside and sit on the deck and read, she can't do it on her own. Taking a shower means she has to get a plastic sleeve over the cast on her leg, which she can't do without help; she can't do the laundry; she can't drive a car; she can't shop; she can't retrieve things, and every life involves things you regularly have to retrieve, shampoo, books, eye glasses, you name it. And it therefore involves me. So, in order to make time for the book proposal I'm trying to finish in order to get it to my editor before he's swamped with them after Labor Day, I have stopped reading the daily paper. If the Friday or Saturday crossword puzzle is just too challenging to finish quickly I abandon it, and the endless distraction of Facebook is something I'm trying to wean myself from. Even so, it's hard to concentrate. I have to shop for food, do the laundry, hang it on the line, renew the bird seed, mow and water the lawn in this drought, water the plants, weed them, climb the stairs to retrieve something she needs or walk downstairs to do the same. Daily life. Is it worth it? Do we have a choice? It's why, I suppose, people go to artist's colonies--something I always thought was a bit unreal, that disconnect from the way things actually are, not to mention hard on marriages. But I begin to see the point. It's a short period of time where you can enjoy the privilege of the rich without being rich, i.e. have other people take care of your daily life, and you can work free.
Well, I don't really mind all that much. It won't last, and besides, I love her and want to help and besides that, she's my wife, it's my job, and she's doing her best not to be too demanding. Plus friends are bringing us lots of food, making me feel grateful and humbled by the attention to our needs. It's a lesson in patience. I have no genuine complaints. But I have to say, this past week I went through a bottle of vodka faster than I ever have before. And I've run out.
Daily life: the poet Yeats said we have to choose between perfection of the life, or of the work. I've generally chosen the latter but sometimes, like now, life simply overwhelms you, and you no longer have a choice. I think that's true for most poor people, that they lack the means to put daily life in its proper place. When I wrote my book about the mental health system I spent eleven days in a mental hospital, faking my way in as if I were crazy, and noticed most of all about the other people there that they couldn't figure out daily life, didn't know how to live it. True, there were some deeply disturbed people on my ward, but for most of them, it was living day by day, in a routine, doing even menial work, that baffled them.
Virginia Woolf wanted a room of her own. I think most of us need not just a room, but time of our own, down time, time to think, to work, to be alone with our minds. I know I need a lot of it. Now it's gone, through nobody's fault, certainly not Lorraine's. It's only temporary, and I don't mind all that much, because in the end she'll be walking without pain for the first time in years and both of our lives are going to be much improved. But it's still hard. And a lesson to me. Simplify.