Shall I eat a peach? Just maybe I will, while I sit here still.
5:45 comes to me by way of pre-set coffee calling me out of bed, giving me some moments of solitary quiet before the family clamor, not to mention my own clamor, begins: the clamor for mama, for cereal, for laundry, for bills, for blogs, for groceries, for homework help, for supper, for tomorrow’s lunches, and then finally the calmer clamor of bedtime stories and then, perhaps by a fire, with a glass of wine as the day turns dark.
It’s a time when I stop and think about the day.
Shall I write? Shall I read? Shall I meet? Shall I do that thing, those things, I don’t want to do for any number of really good reasons? Why? What’s going to move me through the day?
At 6:10, my children’s radio goes off, set to Minnesota Classical Radio. I hear the notes, I take my mug, I make my way to Else’s room and guide her gently to Karl’s bed, I tuck her in, and I nestle myself between them both, two sleepy heads on my lap for 10 perfect minutes.
Come 6:15, Garrison Keillor starts our new day with history thanks to his “Writer’s Almanac.”
Usually it’s quite exactly the way to begin, although Stephen King’s birthday the other day was a bit of a grisly way to ease into the morning for two young kids.
For me too, for that matter.
But today I learned that it is the birthday of T.S. Eliot, the author of one of my father’s most beloved poems: the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
Poetic neurosis it is.
T.S. Eliot crafted this tale about a man who may or may not be speaking to another, or perhaps himself; and may or may not have been wandering about town, or perhaps his mind; and yet who definitively never ate that blame peach.
In line after line of constant coming and going and retreating and descending and restlessness, poor J. Alfred asks, “Do I dare?” “Should I presume?” “Should I begin?” “How should I begin?” “Shall I say?” “Should I?” “Would it have been worth it?” “Shall I part my hair behind?”
Oh, one’s heart breaks for the agony of this middle-aged man, repressed in every way, bounded by fear and self-doubt and loneliness.
Women terrify him.
He terrifies him.
I sigh every time I read it.
Maybe because I see a bit of myself.
But Keillor moved me to look at some other Eliot poems, and I discovered this one: Ash Wednesday.
I should say that I re-discovered it. English major though I was, I don’t recall ever reading it in college, but I do recall hearing Karen Armstrong tell of it on this show featured on “Speaking of Faith,” which is now “On Being.”
It’s a poem not of self-doubt but of acceptance, a piece written after Eliot became a Christian, an acknowledgement that he will not–can not–“turn again,” that he is bound by his new-found faith, that there is something to be said of sensual earthiness, and (get this) his conversation partner is a woman. The Holy Spirit, actually.
What a pair of parentheses, these two poems: one demonstrating deep doubt about one’s self and about the world one encounters, a frenetic conversation with the self and no other–certainly no other who could cause one’s heart to flip; and the other a somewhat resigned commitment to throw yourself into it anyway…in perspective. To this woman, this “Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,” he writes, “Teach us to care, and not to care/ Teach us to sit still.”
Frenzied self-mutterings give way to reflectiveness. To just. sitting. still.
There is tension there, discerning when to care, and when not to care. Sometimes it’s awfully hard to tell what matters and what, in the grand scheme, doesn’t.
But it seems to me that in this last poem, Eliot is saying to us this: Go get yourself a peach. Bite into it, and taste how good it is. Feel the juice run into your mouth and down your chin.
And realize that the world is both this moment, and more than this moment.
I think that tomorrow at 5:45, and 6:10, and 6:15, and 6:20, I shall sit still differently.
In addition to the links above, I forgot to note that this site http://www.melicreview.com/archive/iss24/Chaffin%20Eliot%20Essay.htm was a helpful resource for me as I brushed up on my Eliot. I apologize!
Damn, you should write a book.
I’d love to do just that. Thanks for the encouragement!