I’ve been inspired by José Saramago’s extraordinary blogs, which he posted when he was 85 and 86 years old. They were published this year in English as The Notebook. I read them with amazement and delight.
I never wanted to blog before. I’ve never liked the word blog — I suppose it is meant to stand for bio-log or something like that, but it sounds like a sodden tree-trunk in a bog, or maybe an obstruction in the nasal passage (oh, she talks that way because she has such terrible blogs in her nose). I was also put off by the idea that a blog ought to be “interactive,” that the blogger is expected to read people’s comments in order to reply to them and carry on a limitless conversation with strangers. I am much too introverted to want to do that at all. I am happy with strangers only if I can write a story or a poem and hide from them behind it, letting it speak for me.
So, though I have contributed a few blog-like objects to Book View Café, I never enjoyed them. After all, despite the new name, they were just opinion pieces or essays, and writing essays has always been tough work for me and only occasionally rewarding.
But seeing what Saramago did with the form was a revelation.
Oh! I get it! I see! Can I try too?
My trials/attempts/efforts (that’s what “essays” means) so far have very much less political and moral weight than Saramago’s and are more trivially personal. Maybe that will change as I practice the form, maybe not. Maybe I’ll soon find it isn’t for me after all, and stop. That’s to be seen. What I like at the moment is the sense of freedom.
Saramago didn’t interact directly with his readers (except once.) That freedom, also, I’m borrowing from him.
19 October 2010
In Your Spare Time
I got a questionnaire from Harvard for the sixtieth reunion of the Harvard graduating class of 1951. Of course my college was Radcliffe, which at that time was affiliated with but wasn’t considered to be Harvard, due to a difference in gender; but Harvard often overlooks such details from the lofty eminence where it can consider all sorts of things beneath its notice. Anyhow, the questionnaire is anonymous, therefore presumably gender-free; and it is interesting.
The people who are expected to fill it out are, or would be, almost all in their eighties; and sixty years is time enough for all kinds of things to have happened to a bright-eyed young graduate. So there’s a polite invitation to widows or widowers to answer for the deceased. And Question 1c, “If divorced,” gives an interesting set of little boxes to check: Once, Twice, Three times, Four or more times, Currently remarried, Currently living with a partner, None of the above. This last option is a poser. I’m trying to think how you could be divorced and still none of the above. In any case, it seems unlikely that any of those boxes would have been on a reunion questionnaire in 1951. You’ve come a long way, baby! as the cigarette ad with the bimbo on it used to say.
Question 12: “In general, given your expectations, how have your grandchildren done in life?” The youngest of my grandchildren just turned four. How has he done in life? Well, very well, on the whole. I wonder what kind of expectations you should have for a four-year-old. That he’ll go on being a nice little boy, and learn pretty soon to read and write, is all that comes to my mind. I suppose I’m supposed to expect him to go to Harvard, or at least to Columbia like his father and grandfather. But being nice and learning to read and write seems quite enough for now.
Actually, I don’t exactly have expectations. I have hopes, and fears. Mostly the fears predominate, these days. When my kids were young I could still hope we might not totally screw up the environment for them, but now that we’ve done so, and are more deeply sold out than ever to profiteering industrialism with its future-horizon of a few months, any hope I have that coming generations may have ease and peace in life has become very tenuous, and has to reach far, far forward into the dark.
Question 13: “What will improve the quality of life for the future generations of your family?” — with boxes to rank importance from 1 to 10. The first choice is “Improved educational opportunities,” — fair enough, Harvard being in the education business. I gave it a 10. The second is “Economic stability and growth for the US.” That stymied me totally. What a marvelous example of capitalist thinking, or nonthinking: to consider growth and stability as the same thing! I finally wrote in the margin, “You can’t have both,” and didn’t check a box.
The rest of the choices are: Reduction of the US debt, Reduced dependence on foreign energy, Improved health care quality and cost, Elimination of terrorism, Implementation of an effective immigration policy, Improved bipartisanship in US politics, Export democracy.
Since we’re supposed to be considering the life of future generations, it seems a strange list, limited to quite immediate concerns and filtered through such current rightwing obsessions as “terrorism,” “effective” immigration policy, and the “exportation” of “democracy” (which I assume is a euphemism for our policy of invading countries we don’t like and trying to destroy their society, culture, and religion.) Nine choices, but nothing about climate destabilization, nothing about international politics, nothing about population growth, nothing about industrial pollution, nothing about the control of government by corporations, nothing about human rights or injustice or poverty…
Question 14: “Are you living your secret desires?” Floored again. I finally didn’t check Yes, Somewhat, or No, but wrote in “I have none, my desires are flagrant.”
But it was Question 18 that really got me down. “In your spare time, what do you do? (check all that apply) And the list begins: “Golf…”
Seventh in the list of 27 occupations, after “Racquet sports” but before “Shopping,” “TV,” and “Bridge,” comes “Creative activities (paint, write, photograph, etc.)”
Here I stopped reading and sat and thought for quite a while.
The key words are “spare time.” What do they mean?
To a working person, supermarket checker, lawyer, highway crewman, housewife, cellist, computer repairer, teacher, waitress, spare time is the time not spent at your job or at otherwise keeping yourself alive, cooking, keeping clean, getting the car fixed, getting the kids to school. To people in the midst of life, spare time is free time, and valued as such.
But to people in their eighties? What do retired people have but “spare” time?
I am not exactly retired, because I never had a job to retire from. I still work, though not as hard as I did. I have always been proud to consider myself a working woman. But to the Questioners of Harvard my lifework has been a “Creative Activity,” a hobby, something you do to fill up spare time. Perhaps if they knew I’d made a living out of it they’d move it to a more respectable category; but I rather doubt it.
The question remains: When all the time you have is spare, is free, what do you make of it?
And what’s the difference, really, between that and the time you used to have when you were fifty, or thirty, or fifteen?
Kids used to have a whole lot of spare time, middle-class kids anyhow. Outside of school and if they weren’t into a sport, most of their time was spare, and they figured out more or less successfully what to do with it. I had whole spare summers when I was a teenager. Three spare months. No stated occupation whatsoever. Much of after-school was spare time too. I read, I wrote, I hung out with Jean and Shirley, I moseyed around having thoughts and feelings, oh, lord, deep thoughts, deep feelings. . . . I hope some kids still have time like that. The ones I know seem to be on a treadmill of programming, rushing on without pause to the next event on their schedule, the soccer practice the playdate the whatever. I hope they find interstices and wriggle into them. Sometimes I notice that a teenager in the family group is present in body — smiling, polite, apparently attentive — but absent. I think, I hope she has found an interstice, made herself some spare time, wriggled into it and is alone there, deep down there, thinking, feeling.
The opposite of spare time is, I guess, occupied time. In my case I still don’t know what spare time is because all my time is occupied. It always has been and it is now. It’s occupied by living.
An increasing part of living, at my age, is mere bodily maintenance, which is tiresome. But I cannot find anywhere in my life a time, or a kind of time, that is unoccupied. I am free, but my time is not. My time is fully and vitally occupied with sleep, with daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading, with writing poetry, with writing prose, with thinking, with forgetting, with embroidering, with cooking and eating a meal and cleaning up the kitchen, with construing Vergil, with meeting friends, with talking with my husband, with going out to shop for groceries, with walking if I can walk and traveling if we are traveling, with sitting vipassana sometimes, with watching a movie sometimes, with doing the Eight Precious Chinese exercises when I can, with lying down for an afternoon rest with a volume of Krazy Kat to read and my own slightly crazy cat occupying the region between my upper thighs and mid-calves, where he arranges himself and goes instantly and deeply to sleep. None of this is spare time. I can’t spare it. What is Harvard thinking of? I am going to be eighty-one tomorrow. I have no time to spare.
20 October 2010
Ursula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her most recent book is Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country, co-authored with photographer Roger Dorband.