The River Is Just This (Or, Reflecting on Lives I Could Have Lived)

I’m sitting in 14F on a Southwest flight to Tampa. I usually prefer the left side of planes and busses, but today there is space overhead for my bag, wheels in, and an empty spot at the window, so that’s where I land.

Listening to “Scare Aware the Dark” by Passenger through earbuds, trying to drown out the safety instructions. “You should sing, sing at the top of your voice….feel, feel like you still have a choice…if we all light up, we can scare away the dark.”

The flight attendant rattles on a few minutes too long. I want to shout at her, “When are you going to be quiet?” Finally, she shuts up.

“We should run through the forest, we should swim in the streams, we should laugh, we should cry, we should love, we should dream…”

It’s early, I’m on my way to a conference where it’s 60 degrees warmer than it is at home. I have flip flops and my bathing suit in my bag, leaving giant drifts of February snow behind. Another 10-14 inches is going to accumulate while I am gone.

I pull out a copy of Poetry magazine. My best friend gave me a subscription for Christmas. I felt like a little kid when I got the postcard in the mail, “Poetry is on its way to you!”

At nine, I was sitting on giant rocks in my backyard, pondering the meaning of life and writing cheesy poems in a journal. I was a poet before I was much else. I’d write verse on napkins in restaurants, on scrap paper in front of the TV. My first poem was published when I was 10 in Children’s Digest magazine. I’ve published 15 or 20 more since then—but I only spend about half of a percent of my time on it. Who has time to write poems, or submit them to be published? Plus, there are only a few thousand people who read poetry anyway.

The February issueof Poetry had been sitting on my coffee table in the living room for just a week. At the last minute, I stuck it in my backpack, just in case I ran out of patience for the in-flight magazine.

So here I am, centered over the silver wing of the plane, cracking open the issue. It’s printed on thick ivory paper—oh, it feels so good to hold a book sometimes! My fingers forget what high quality vellum feels like—they are spoiled by 20 lb. copy paper, the swyping of keys on a phone, the exact trail of dialing the conference call number and code that I use for work. I can barely write in longhand anymore.

The opening poem of the issue, “Steady Digression on a Fixed Point” by Elizabeth Willis, is seven pages long.

Whoa. A poem more than two pages long is overwhelming—I usually skip over those to something sound-bite attention can sink into. But I read the opening line: A rose can’t change the world. It can only open or close.

Suddenly, I feel a tiny bit sad. I keep reading.

It’s not easy to write a poem with the word rose in it, just like it’s hard to write using the words love or death. You end up soundingsentimental. And yet her poem captivates me: “The body is a formal constraint. It has this one life with which to make eternity.”

There’s a girl sitting next to me in 14E, highlighting a textbook. The chapter she is reading is called “The Future of Crime.” She drops her pen cap at my feet, and I retrieve it.

I think about the lives I could have lived. The one where I’m the law student, reading about criminal justice, dropping my pen cap at someone’s feet. Or, the one where I’m a social worker, helping those starfish one at a time, wearing infinity scarves and hoop earrings. The life where I’m a stay-at-home mom, have three kids, and I plan out Campbell’s soup casseroles for the week like my mother did.

This is a poem about the star system and its ancient astronomer. About a poet of the outer boroughs, looking up. An image thrown into the sky like a searchlight.

Of course, there’s that coveted life where I’m a writer in some dark corner of New York, drinking hibiscus tea in coffee shops, clapping politely at poetry readings. At 22, I got a call to interview at The New Yorker as a copyeditor—I often imagine what path my life would have taken if I had gone on that interview, rather than spending that summer working in Michigan with friends.

This is a poem about searching for light behind the deep purple gel of the jungle. A poem about the deep.

I do like the life I’m in. It’s challenging, inspiring, full of great work, much abundance, good friends. I went to graduate school for poetry, and I have made time to study with leading-edge poets (I’d like to point out that my instructor last year at the Fine Arts Work Center, award-winning Terrence Hayes, was also recently named Sexiest Writer by People Magazine.)

It’s just not the life I imagined exactly. I didn’t know that at 45 both my parents would be gone, that I’d be floating about untethered with a thin structure of a family left. That I’d be dreading my one child heading off to college—anxious about who I’d be once he was gone. That I’d be feeling my joints starting to age and be struggling with lower back issues. That I’d be wishing I had written more words over these 45 years, and worked a bit less.

But, no one’s life looks exactly how we imagined. There’s always something else to be striving for—that’s part of what it means to be human. Even if you love your real job, it’s probably normal and healthy to periodically wonder what could have been. What you might have done instead. What your other real job was.

And meanwhile, that universal clock is ticking. Lines of Willis’ poem describes this indefatigable feeling well: The present is full of sound. Time presses against us from every side….When the light is turned on, you will forget you ever saw me. All of this will disappear.

One of my favorite lines comes near the end of her poem. It is: The mind is drifting down a river like there’s something to fish for. But the river is just this.