One of the books I got over the holidays, which I have opened ahead of all the others, is Karen McCosker and Nicholas Albery’s “A Poem a Day”. As promised, there is an entry for every day of the year. The selections have a randomness that I appreciate; there is no attempt to match the poem to the imagined significance of any given day.
Before me, as I write this column, is the poem for January 2, the second day of the year. It has the intriguing title “Bloody men” by Wendy Cope. I quote it here in full, as a tribute to Richard Rorty’s insight that life is really just a matter of description and re-description, and that it has no meaning apart from the metaphors we happen to be using at any given time.
Bloody men are like bloody buses –
You wait for about a year
And as soon as one approaches your stop
Two or three others appear
You look at them flashing their indicators,
Offering you a ride.
You’re trying to read the destinations,
You haven’t much time to decide.
If you make a mistake, there is no turning back.
Jump off, and you’ll stand there and gaze
While the cars and the taxis and lorries go by
And the minutes, the hours, the days.
When Wendy Cope wrote this poem, says the footnote, she was a bit short-sighted. She realized she needed glasses. In a flash of poetic imagination, she saw her luck with men as being precisely summarized by the unreadable signs and the chanciness of bloody buses.
You can let the buses pass you by, thinking they are not headed your way. Some buses offer destinations unknown, and you begin to consider the possibility that where you wish to go might well be on their route. Some come more often than others, and you take your chance with one of them. You are certain they are not going your way, but you just want to go somewhere because it’s getting late.
The metaphor of life as a journey is of course an almost banal one.
But it is the new twists that endow it with a richness worth pondering. In her book “Composing a Life”, Mary Catherine Bateson thinks of the conventional pursuit of a career as every bit like driving on a freeway.
Once you decide the route, the trip can be pretty boring and predictable. From the highway, you don’t get to see the countryside, the coastline or the charming villages that lie beyond. It is as if your senses are on indefinite suspension until you get to your final destination.
Against this metaphor of linearity, Bateson offers a view of life as “a work in progress”, as the product of endless detours and improvisations. From her perspective, the detours, the interruptions, and even the occasional misdirection can often be more valuable than the original destination. Nothing is ever wasted as far as she is concerned, for every experience is material for the self that is constantly being invented.
We can also think of life, she says – offering yet another metaphor — as making a meal for unexpected guests. “A good meal, like a poem or a life, has a certain balance and diversity, a certain coherence and fit. As one learns to cope in the kitchen, one no longer duplicates whole meals but rather manipulates components and the way they are put together. The improvised meal will be different from the planned meal, and certainly riskier, but rich with the possibility of delicious surprise…. Sometimes a pattern chosen by default can become a path of preference.”
Bateson’s book is about the improvisations that shaped the lives of five women, including her own. It was written primarily for today’s women who find that “the materials and skills from which a life is composed are no longer clear.” Previous generations had had their lives carefully outlined for them. It took a certain boldness, like that exemplified by the anthropologist Margaret Mead, Bateson’s famous mother, to deviate from these set patterns. Today however, it has become almost a matter of survival to be boldly inventive about one’s life.
“This is true,” Bateson says, “for both men and women, but it is especially true for women, whose whole lives no longer need be dominated by the rhythms of procreation and the dependencies that these created, but who still must live with the discontinuities of female biology and still must balance conflicting demands. Our lives not only take new directions; they are subject to repeated redirection, partly because of the extension of our years of health and productivity.”
When I was a child, I had a quick answer to anyone who would ask “what would you want to be when you grow up?” Almost mechanically, I said — a lawyer, like my father. Everything that I did, all the books that I read, and all the courses that I took until my senior year at UP were all focused on this ambition. On my last semester, I took an elective in sociology and never looked back. I never became a lawyer. I don’t ask my children this silly question anymore, for as Bateson says, “the landscape through which we move is in constant flux”; we must leave them to their own improvisations.
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