Things Remain Undone


On the way to meet my son Chad for lunch, I caught the last of an interview with Ian McEwan on the occasion of his new book, Solar, and heard Mr. McEwan read this snippet:

“He’d been deluded. He’d always assumed that a time would come in adulthood—a kind of plateau—when he would have learned all the tricks of managing, of simply being. All mails and emails answered, all papers in order, books alphabetically on the shelves. Clothes and shoes in good repair in the wardrobes and all his stuff where he could find it. . . the private life settled and serene. In all these years, this settlement, the calm plateau had never appeared. And yet he had continued to assume, without reflecting on the matter, that it was just around the next turn, that he would exert himself and reach it. . . . [About the time his daughter was born] he thought he saw for the first time that on the day he died he would be wearing unmatching socks, there would be unanswered emails, and [at home] there would still be shirts missing cuff buttons, a malfunctioning light in the hall, unpaid bills, uncleared attics, dead flies, friends waiting for a reply. . .

So Mr. McEwan finally captures the frantic race we all feel to Get Stuff Done, but we rarely achieve that “settlement, that calm plateau” he writes about. That would explain the mess in my study. That would explain why the cracked tiles in my bathroom have not been replaced in three years. That would explain the general overwhelmingness that visits me for for sometimes very lengthy intervals, riding around on my shoulder, a little chirpy voice whispering in my ear while the pen scratches out on paper a list of things that need to be done, no, must be done.

I’ve always had this belief that I can get caught up, and in some places there is a division of labor in my life: the grading will finish, the students will no longer show up in class, the fences will be built, the house will get painted. And then I start believing that this finality will gradually appear in other areas of my life: the quilts all sewn, the closets cleaned out, the floor mopped, the laundry completed.

Obviously, it’s not a belief. It’s a fantasy.