One odd aspect of writing is that you spend long periods of time just staring. In the old days it was time spent staring at ink on paper, and now it is time spent staring at type on a computer screen, but in both cases it might as well be tea leaves.
Years ago I was a friend with a Navajo who did not learn to write until rather late in life, and he told me that when he was young print reminded him of chicken tracks and scratchings, and confessed that when young he had wondered why people spent so much time looking at such illegible things. I confessed I had been reading since age three, and still I wondered the same thing.
After all, writing doesn’t involve your senses. Music you can hear, and painting you can see, but writing? You are just staring at senselessness.
People make a big deal of the fact Beethoven made supurb music when he couldn’t even hear, but, for writers, a sort of Helen Keller deafness and blindness is their every day fare. Why on earth do writers do it? They could be elsewhere, seeing the green beauty of summer and hearing the symphonies of birdsong, but prefer to basically stare at a blank wall, called paper.
For me paper is a sort of crystal ball. I am never sure what I will see when I look into the whiteness. However I do see things, just as Beethoven heard things. It is a glimpse into a world beyond the physical word, involving a heaven far above my head. It is a world that is engrossing, absorbing, enchanting, and yet you cannot scientifically prove it even exists.
So engrossing is the enchantment that I can forget to eat, and walk about disheveled and distracted, and long periods of time can pass without my noticing it, and I want to ask odd questions, such as, “Did the apples bloom this year?”
In many ways the enchantment resembles the addiction of an addict, however there is no real physical basis for it. In fact, writing often can result in ruined relationships, lost jobs, genuine poverty and all sorts of physical suffering. Therefore you get all the problems of drug addiction without even the satisfaction of a physical buzz.
In conclusion, writers are basically airheads, but that definition always bothered me. I didn’t want to be some sort of pathetic beggar with a tin cup, whining for help, and early on, as a young writer, I became determined that I would never beg. Mooch maybe, but always mooch in a manner where I mowed lawns and did dishes enough to feel I was paying my way, even if I had no money. And now forty years have passed, and I have run the race and the finish line is not so far ahead, and I’ll be darned if I haven’t gone and done what I set out to do. I have proven that just because one is an artist doesn’t mean one is incapable of hard work, and being an airhead doesn’t mean you can’t be a pragmatic airhead.
In fact, to brag a bit, I’d say honest labor makes you a better writer, and being a writer makes the job a lot more fun for the people you are working with, even if you yourself do get fired more often than most, (especially when you are young,) for being a blasted airhead. All in all, I’d recommend pragmatic airheads to bosses, stressing that a pragmatic airhead’s a good thing to have about, because the little you lose, in terms of efficiency, you make up for, in terms of workplace morale.
I assume my wife agrees with me. After all, she did marry a pragmatic airhead, and has stood by me, and seen me work very hard to bring home the bacon. However she does worry, from time to time, that I am missing the green of summer, and the symphony of birdsongs, because I’m off in my clouds of enchantment. (She also worries I might forget to pay the electricity bill.) Therefore she does very nice things, so I won’t miss life, lost in my enchantment.
I can’t say I have always appreciated her concern. After twelve-hour shifts in a nail factory, all I wanted to do was slump and contemplate the crystal ball of a blank sheet of paper. I was not all that interested in the fact the baby had learned to say “goo.” However she insisted I come and see, and the pragmatic side of being a pragmatic airhead forces you to go see. However sometimes the artist in me would stand up and rave, “Woman! Why do you bother me with these pettifogging details!” Usually I’d wind up apologizing, for the pettifogging detail would turn out to be something I had forgotten that was important, like Christmas.
To be frank, if our paths hadn’t crossed I think I would have died young. Lots of my fellow artists did exactly that. I can hardly blame them, for the best things this world has to offer pale in comparison to the other-worldly music physical ears can’t hear, but Beethoven heard clearly. However my wife made this world worth staying in.
Recently she disturbed my idea of a perfect weekend, (sitting around looking at a blank sheet of paper,) by informing me I had agreed to do something I never agreed to. She’s always doing this to me. I say something like “maybe,” or “might be interesting,” or, most often, “ugh,” and it is like I have signed some contract with my blood. No use protesting. Before I know it, I’m heading off to do something other than look at a blank sheet of paper.
This time I had agreed to something absolutely absurd. After a long and hard workweek I had agreed to drive for an hour and a half on a Friday night, to watch people run a marathon, and then drive an hour and a half home. Can you believe it? I mean, running might be fun for the runner, but when it comes to boring sports, anyone who gets excited watching runners should be kept away from watching cricket or baseball, for they would likely have a heart attack.
However it was my daughter-in-law running the marathon, which was amazing, as she only started running four months ago. What could I say? I had to go.
As usually happens when my wife talks me into incredibly boring events, I wasn’t bored. Sometimes it is my fault the event isn’t boring, but it wasn’t my fault this time. I didn’t have to lift a finger to make things interesting.
First, a strange weather pattern has tropical proto-hurricane blobs zooming up the east coast, even as cold air sets records in Ohio. Therefore as we drove we moved from a sunny late afternoon towards a looming purple wall of coastal clouds. Just before we arrived at the site of the marathon, by Lake Quannapowitt in Wakefield, Massachusetts, fat raindrops came plunking down. As I got out of the vehicle, and my eldest son greeted me, I told him the end of the rain was near, as roads were dry two miles away. He told me the roads had been dry two miles away all day, but the clearing only tantalized and never inched any closer, and the rain kept falling. Then he handed me an umbrella. I thought to myself, “I could be dry and warm at home, looking at a most enchanting blank sheet of paper,” but instead I bit my tongue, and attended to my son as he explained his plan.
The route of the Marathon was eight circuits of Lake Quannapowitt, a circuit being roughly 3.2 miles. My son’s plan was that, each time my daughter-in-law passed, a different and larger crowd would cheer her on. What a good guy! However this happened to mean I had to hide, at first. Rather than cheering her, (or staying warm at home, looking at a blank sheet of paper, plotting the Great American Novel,) I had to hide from my own daughter-in-law, under an umbrella in platting rain, by a huge pond with the bizarre name of Quannapowitt. I shot my wife an accusatory glance, as this was not my idea of whooping-it-up on a Friday night.
But I got over it. It occurred to me that people who run marathons are doing something that makes little sense, much like writers staring at the white wall of a sheet of paper. Perhaps they make even less sense, for a writer at least has a slight chance of producing a decent ditty, but all a marathon runner gets is: A way of walking funny, for a week afterwards. As incredible as it sounds, they make even less sense than writers do!
They are cousins to writers because, as they run by, they are looking at a wall others cannot see.
As the runners finished the first 3 miles the sun sank in the west, and peeked out from under the skirts of the purple cloud, sending amber beams into the silver rain, and slowly a majestic rainbow arose against the deep purple cloud bank to the east. Because the sun was so low, the rainbow towered, and then a second, dimmer rainbow appeared above the first, and grew as bright than the first had been, as the first grew amazingly brilliant.
The runners heading away from the rainbow looked over their shoulders from time to time, but the others looked giddy and euphoric, for either they ran with a rainbow moving stride for stride beside them, or they ran towards it, as if they could run under a most beautiful arch.
The rainbow shone brilliantly in the east for an amazing hour, as the sun slowly set and created a spectacular sunset to the west. I’ve never seen a rainbow last so long. It stood like a monument to the east, only lifting and fading as the sun set. You hardly knew which way to look, unless, like me, you were most interested in the beauty of the idiots running a marathon.
It is seldom a writer can observe anyone more impractical and airheaded than the face he faces in the mirror each morning, and therefore I found solace in the spectacle of marathon runners. Furthermore, because the circuit took them around and around the lake, I did not see them pass once, but over and over.
I was, of course, most interested in my daughter-in-law, and was somewhat startled by how changed she was, each time she passed. Each time she was a different daughter. At first she was awed, fearful of the twenty-three miles that still lay ahead. Then she was hopeful. Then she was cramped yet determined. Then she was manic and euphoric. Then she was grim and so focused on the road ahead she could hardly be bothered recognize anyone.
Then it was late, and I left. It was dark, and the rainbow seemed a mere dream. My wife and I had a 90 minute drive, even to lie down at midnight. So I left the final nine miles for my good son to oversee, in the deep dark of night.
My wife was glancing around with an odd look, as we walked beneath the streetlights to the car, trying to avoid the runners coming the other way. When a train passed, and the gate came down on a side street, with red lights flashing and the ding-ding-ding sound, it was a very evocative experience, for she had spent her earliest childhood in a house only five blocks away. In a way Lake Quannapowitt was where she began the marathon called life.
My daughter-in-law kept going. Even after my wife and I had driven home and collapsed into bed, our daughter was fighting her way ahead to the finish.
She finished so weary she was walking, around 1:00 AM.
I haven’t finished my own marathon, as a writer, yet. In my own way, I likely will be walking, in the dark after midnight, when I see the finish line of mine. However I will hopefully have the class of those who finish more worldly marathons.
Strangely, I think all people know life itself is a sort of marathon, even if they don’t write. And even if they don’t run. It is something we all know from the starting line. How else could I have written this couplet, back when I was only nineteen?
“The last mile is hardest,” said the delta to the sea. “The last mile is hardest,” said the marathon to me.
If heaven existed on earth, we might have it easier as we get older, however as things stand, Bette Davis was right, and “Old Age ain’t no place for sissies.”
And Yogi Berra was right, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”