Living Line by Line
At first, the news was surreal. How could we revert to diapers and strollers and up-all-night-with-a-crying-baby again? How could we manage three kids, when we'd only budgeted for two? The questions were dizzying; yet, as we slowed down, talked with each other, a doctor and trusted friends, our choice became clear.
Our beloved, spunky daughter recently turned three.
"Writing a novel is like driving a car at night in the fog," E.L. Doctorow famously said, "you can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." Writing poems is like that, too; I never know until I get to the end of one line what the next will be. Life is also like that: All we know is the first line of our lives, and the last; birth and death are the beginning and end of everyone's story. As for what comes in-between, we may not be able to anticipate or control the major plot points—conceptions and births, love affairs, accidents and acts of God, gains and losses, illnesses, deaths—but we can choose how we respond to what comes toward us, the paths we take day by day. In this way, we "author" our own lives.
My daughter's surprise appearance has helped me appreciate this: Becoming a mother again, in my mid-40s, has required ingenuity, and stores of energy I never knew I had, but it has turned out to be one of the most meaningful chapters of my life. I'd always wanted a daughter (I'd lost my mother young), and then a daughter appeared. How thrilling to find in midlife that all is not yet played out, that life still has the power to surprise in sublime and joyful ways.
To me, living "line by line" means responding to opportunities as they present themselves, and adapting to the challenges: What do I want from this, my one journey? How will I write the pages and chapters of my own days and months and years? With this in mind, I try to approach life with wisdom and serenity, ready to respond to whatever may come my way.
Try is the operative word here, of course. It isn't always easy. Serenity? Aren't I the same person who called her husband crying at midnight—exhausted, jet-lagged and totally strung-out—having flown to Paris with our newborn daughter for a month's work, only to confess, "I can't do this. I have to come home!"
I didn't have to be there that year. I could have stayed home and taken a break. But I love working abroad—I'm so grateful for the opportunity—and couldn't bear to give it up. I desperately wanted to live out this next chapter in a way that would include both the baby I adored and the job that meant so much to me. So I stuck it out—nursing my daughter all over the city, in parks and cafés, in the ladies room at Le Bon Marché, on the floor at Shakespeare and Company bookshop; lugging baby gear up the stairs to my third-floor apartment; lullabying my wakeful girl to sleep at night; dosing myself on bitter French coffees to make it through each day.
Despite challenges, despite the unpredictable blank-pages-up-ahead-who-knows-what-will-fill-them nature of everything, there must be a way to make something meaningful or beautiful out of any given situation to create the lives we want to live.
Sometimes it feels like this was easier when I was younger. The first time I saw my husband in a bar (we were on spring break) a voice inside me said: "That one." I was only 17 years old, but something in his face compelled me to approach and introduce myself. We got on immediately, talked for hours, said goodbye.
A few days later, he was still on my mind—I'd felt an almost mystical connection, as if I'd known him in my past. I didn't have his number but remembered the name of the hotel he'd mentioned and called, which felt rather brazen at the time (and still amazes me, looking back). He didn't answer, but the front-desk clerk managed to track him down. Long story short: Eight years later, I married him. If I hadn't dared to make that call—if I hadn't taken it upon myself to "write" that next line of our story—I would never have seen him again.
"Forever is composed of nows," Emily Dickinson writes. To live line by line, we must seize each "now"—and swing as far as the leap requires. I'm aware, as I write this, that I'm at risk of making it all sound absurdly easy; "just choose the next line of your life and write it!" the annoying can-do lady says. Point taken. Line by line may be great for tackling projects at work, losing weight, planning a trip, a party, a seduction. It worked for writing this piece, which went through multiple drafts and iterations, but eventually got written, line by line by line. But it's trickier when one finds oneself in the territory of primitive fear and anxiety, mortal panic, amorphous dread.
One may be able to live a pregnancy line by line, for example—there are doctors to visit, procedures to undergo, plans to make and hope, as the necessary engine that drives the whole process along—but enduring a miscarriage line by line is far harder. Years ago, when a doctor told me, then 20 weeks pregnant with my second child, that the baby was not viable, I crumpled up, collapsed and went to bed for a week. When you find yourself on a dark road without Doctorow's said headlights, without a map—or when there is no road and you're cast out into the vast abyss, living line by line is extremely challenging. And the more confounding one's troubles, the more impossible it all seems. Dying line by line? Got me.
But maybe it's especially at these most terrifying and intense life moments when we need the "line by line" approach the most. We can submit and be crushed, or attempt to muddle through as best as we can, struggling to find—or make—our way.
My mother did it well, considering her choices. When she was told, at 53, that she had perhaps at most a year to live, she grieved, but somehow managed not to give in entirely to abject despair. Instead, she gathered her strength and embraced life as best she could until the very end. She loved her work at the university and continued to do it. She flew to visit me in California just weeks before she died, and (though she couldn't walk far) managed to perch on a trail near my house with her book, meditating upon the expansive view. She seemed so stoic and serene. How do you do it? I remember asking her, marveling at her forbearance. "What choice do I have?" She replied.
I want to be careful not to be hazy or glib about this. No matter how well she tried to manage in the face of her illness, when the end came it was awfully hard. I was surprised by how alone she seemed, lying in her hospital bed that final day. I was shocked and devastated by her fear. "How did we get here so fast?" she asked.
Does it always feel that way when the last moment arrives? I wish she hadn't been so scared. I wish she hadn't been in pain. I wish there were midwives to help us navigate our deaths, as there are to help us navigate birth. There are some things so hard and scary it seems impossible to line-by-line them away. During the most difficult times—when life is mystifying and I'm lost on its dark roads—I often think of the poet John Keats.
Keats, who'd had the misfortune of watching both his mother and younger brother die of tuberculosis, reasoned that one must think of the world not as a "vale of tears" but rather as a "vale of soul-making." Only by enduring life's trials do we become fully ourselves. "Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and Troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?" he asked. Keats believed in the importance of embracing "uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."
I've returned to these lines again and again in my life—as a woman, as a writer, as a mother, daughter and friend. We don't know, and often can't control, what the future holds. Yet this uncertainty can foster not only fear but also fearlessness. If the future is uncertain why not act boldly? This is our one and only chance. We are writing our own lives.
"Happiness, knowledge, not in another place but this place, not for another hour, but this hour," Walt Whitman instructs. I may not be able to live in perfect serenity. But I can ask the question: What will I, what will you, make of the gift of this hour, this day? How will we write the next lines of our lives?
That summer there was no girl left in me.
It gradually became clear.
It suddenly became.
In the pool, I was more heavy than light.
Pockmarked and flabby in a floppy hat.
What will my body be
when parked all night in the earth?
Midsummer. Breathe in. Breathe out.
I am not on the oxygen tank.
Twice a week we have sex.
The lithe girls poolside I see them
at their weddings I see them with babies their hips
thickening I see them middle-aged.
I can’t see past the point where I am.
Like you, I’m just passing through.
I want to hold on awhile.
Don’t want to naught
or forsake, don’t want
to be laid gently or racked raw.
If I retinol. If I marathon.
If I Vitamin C. If I crimson
my lips and streakish my hair.
If I wax. Exfoliate. Copulate
beside the fish-slicked sea.
Fill me I’m cold. Fill me I’m halfway gone.
Would you crush me in the stairwell?
Could we just lie down?
If the brakes don’t work.
If the pesticides won’t wash off.
If the seventh floor pushes a brick
out the window and it lands on my head.
If a tremor, menopause. Cancer. ALS.
These are the ABCs of my fear.
The doctor says
I don’t have a pill for that, dear.
Well, what would be a cure-all, ladies,
gin-and-tonics on a summer night?
See you in the immortalities! O blurred.
O tumble-rush of days we cannot catch.
— Deborah Landau
At night, down the hall into the bedroom we go.
In the morning we enter the kitchen.
Places, please. On like this,
without alarm. I am the talker and taker
he is the giver and the bedroom man.
We are out of order but not broken.
He says, let’s make this one short.
She says, what do you mean?
We set out and got nearer.
Along the way some loved ones died.
Whole summers ruined that way.
Take me to the door, take me in your arms.
Mother’s been dead a decade
but her voice comes back to me now and often.
Life accumulates, a series of commas,
first this, then that, then him, then here.
A clump of matter (paragraph)
and here we are: minutes, years.
Wait, I am trying to establish
something with these people.
Him, her, him. We make a little pantomime.
Family, I say, wake up. The sentences
one then another one, in a line. And then
we go on like that, for a long time.
— Deborah Landau
Before you have kids,
you get a dog.
Then when you get a baby,
you wait for the dog to die.
When the dog dies,
it’s a relief.
When your babies aren’t babies,
you want a dog again.
The uses of the body,
you see where they end.
But we are only in the middle,
The organs growing older in their plush pockets
ticking toward the wearing out.
We are here and soon won’t be
(despite the cozy bed stuffed dog pillows books clock).
The boy with his socks on and pajamas.
A series of accidental collisions.
Pressure in the chest. Everyone breathing
for now, in and out, all night.
These sad things, they have to be.
I go into the kitchen thinking to sweeten myself.
Boiled eggs won’t do a thing.
Oysters. Lysol. Peanut butter. Gin.
Big babyface, getting fed.
I am twenty. I am thirty. I am forty years old.
A friend said Listen,
you have to try to calm down.
— Deborah Landau