It’s 2020, and time for a New Year’s post, a post from Vienna where the sun has been shining and the air has been crisp and cold. As I wait here in the Vienna airport, I’m reflecting on the year ahead, specifically on my writing, which has faltered for the past few years while I’ve been living and working in Shanghai, China. I could say that the demands of the job at my highly selective private school keep me from writing, and there may be some small truth in that, but the reality is that to write so is an excuse.
And making excuses about not writing reminds of Elizabeth Cooper, a wonderful former Johns Hopkins instructor of mine who gave all of her students a parting gift — mine was a book — Sonnets edited by William Baer — and she inscribed it with “Just do it!” making it clear to me that she was sick of my excuses about how busy I was teaching, rearing children, etc. I think of that gift now while waiting here, having just learned that several days ago, our family drove right by the summer home of Auden without even knowing it.
Time. Not enough of it. Never enough of it.
There was a time in my life when I would have known about Auden’s summer home far in advance, a time I would have made a literary pilgrimage a mandatory waypoint on my journey. It’s an hour to the west of where we are right now, and with my flight out of Austria looming, I won’t make it there this trip.
These days, I often feel that there is so much of Life and so little of Time, and as I sit here recalling how often I have been listening to the bells of Viennese churches ring in the New Year, I can’t help but remember the lines from Auden’s poem “As I Walked Out One Evening,”:
“But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.”
However, instead of depressing me, the recollection of these words helps me reflect on the year that was and the year yet to unfold. The poem is a reminder to me that there is an ending to all of this, even if I often don’t realize it or worse, if I choose not to realize it.
It might seem kind of strange, but Auden’s poem also brings to mind a 1996 song, “Pepper” by the band The Butthole Surfers from their album Electriclarryland. If you haven’t heard the full song, you can check out the video after the excerpt below:
“They were all in love with dyin’/
They were drinking from a fountain/
That was pouring like an avalanche/
Coming down the mountain./”
Now, the song itself and the Auden’s poem don’t necessarily mesh well overall. However, there is a relationship for me in those lines, an echo that seems relevant as I look backward and forward at the same time. Life often seems as though it is “pouring like an avalanche coming down the mountain” with far too much to take in and far too little Time to do so. At least for me it does… While Auden’s lovers are certainly not the ones “in love with dyin'” per se (or are they?), I think that the two works when recalled here in Austria act as a sort of memento mori for me. The cemeteries and churches
and the poetry of Auden and the lyrics of The Butthole Surfers remind me that Death is always so close and that each moment should be lived in mindful present awareness. We are each always doing “the work” of our Living, whatever “work” that may be. And doing the work of the Living, even when it is hard or unpleasant or sad or unbearable, is still Joy.
“Joy & Woe are woven fine/
A Clothing for the soul divine/
Under every grief & pine/
Runs a joy with silken twine/”
To put it another way, the artist Passenger sings in “Life’s for the Living”:
“Don’t you cry for the lost/
Smile for the living/
Get what you need and give what you’re given/
Life’s for the living so live it/
Or you’re better off dead/”
For me, Joy and Living are about poetry and writing and teaching and exercising and parenting and striving to be a better partner every day. These are most likely different for you. Or maybe not. Whatever your Joy is, keep doing it, whatever your Living entails, keep dedicating yourself to it and to kindness and to gratitude and to making the world a better place in 2020 and beyond.
May you be well,