After we’ve had dinner, watched the news, perhaps caught an episode of Mrs. Maisel or Midsomer Murders, Ed and I often read short stories to each other from one of our many anthologies. Several months ago, we shared an extraordinary piece by Willa Cather.
“A Wagner Matinee” tells the story of a woman in her early-to-mid 50s. An educated woman who had traveled to Paris and taught music at the Boston Conservatory in her youth. A woman who has spent the past 30 years living in a “grim wooden fortress” (as the narrator, her nephew Clark, puts it) in the wilds of the Nebraska frontier with her “shiftless” husband who she met on a summer trip to the Green Mountains when they were both quite young. After the wedding, he’d whisked her off to the prairie and she hasn’t been further than 50 miles from their farm in the three decades since, until the death of a relative requires her presence in Boston for a few days.
Clark is shocked by his aunt’s weather-beaten appearance when she steps down from the train, her “semi-somnambulant” state. For reasons Cather doesn’t go into, Clark spent a portion of his boyhood on her Nebraska farm helping his uncle ride herd. He recalls his aunt working from dawn to midnight, cooking for her husband and six children, ironing and mending their clothes, while she listened to him recite his Latin declensions and conjugations. She introduced him to the joys of her former life—Shakespeare and Greek mythology—and taught him scales and exercises on the little parlor piano her husband had bought her after fifteen years of marriage, a span of time “during which she had not so much as seen a musical instrument.” My aunt, he says, was the source of “most of the good that ever came my way in boyhood.” But Clark recalls a darker moment, too, a warning his aunt gave as he was struggling to play a complicated piece: “Don’t love it so well,” she cautioned, “or it may be taken from you.”
Clark has planned a surprise for his aunt—a Wagner program performed by the Boston Symphony—but he now fears she’s too timid to venture out. Her thoughts seem completely consumed by the fear that she’s forgotten to leave instructions about the feeding of a weakling calf or the freshly-opened mackerel in the cellar that will spoil if not quickly used.
As they enter the concert venue, his aunt appears subdued, but when she clutches his sleeve during the Tannhauser overture, he realizes that this music has “broken a silence of 30 years.” And at the “seething turmoil of strings and winds” in the prelude to Tristan and Isolde, he notices her fingers moving, recalling perhaps the piano score she had played long ago. He reflects on the tragic waste of this once lively woman’s life until, suddenly, he hears a gasp as the Prize Song begins and finds his aunt has tears streaming down her cheeks. “It never really died then,” he realizes—”the soul which can suffer so excruciatingly…so interminably, it withers to the outward eye only.”
As the concert ends and the audience leaves, she cries out “I don’t want to go! I don’t want to go!”, and Clark recalls that for her, just beyond the concert hall is a future of “the tall, unpainted house, the cattle-tracked bluffs”, the turkeys picking up refuse outside the kitchen door.
What It Has to Say to Us
Reading Cather’s story, I was reminded of one of the most profound observations I’ve ever encountered, a quote from author Annie Dillard:
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
For Clark’s aunt, the days of a talented musician, a lover of literature and the arts, have been entirely consumed by menial house and farm chores in a life she shares with a man she doesn’t love in a place devoid of everything that had once sustained her soul, everything she truly cherishes. It doesn’t get much grimmer than that.
And yet, how often do we allow the tedium of things we don’t really care about to smother what truly ignites our passions? We promise ourselves we’ll get back on track, back to (fill in the blank with what matters most to you, the things that bring your life joy and give it meaning) once the kids are more independent/things slow down at work/the house is in order/we’re earning more money/we’ve ended an unfulfilling relationship. In view of the Cather story, I’ll call this state of limbo “life in Nebraska” (apologies to any Nebraskans reading this; it’s just a metaphor). Samuel Beckett called it Waiting for Godot. If you don’t know the play, let me give you a hint: Godot never arrives.
In the past two years and counting, for many—maybe most—of us, life has too often felt like it was on hold while we waited for “normalcy” to return. Waited for the life we really wanted to live/meant to live/would enjoy living to resume or at least begin. And while we waited, we filled our anxious days binge-watching the endless stream of series on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime. We posted on Facebook and tweeted on Twitter. This, we could console ourselves, was at least better than getting lost in opioids or drowning in alcohol. Or putting a gun to our head and pulling the trigger. But, really, it was just another version of “living in Nebraska.”
And if we somehow dredged up the energy to do/enjoy what matters most to us, we often found our plans sidetracked, our energy subsumed by untangling the mess the pandemic made of most every interaction with the outside world. Hours spent straightening out health insurance claims, searching for available vaccine appointments, cancelling reservations, making reservations, getting a driver’s license, registering to vote, enrolling in almost anything from college to Medicare. Nothing drains energy so quickly as feeling thwarted at every turn. Like Clark’s aunt, lost to the more robust life we’d once enjoyed, we hunkered down and waited for a better day. Tomorrow, we promised ourselves, tomorrow I will get back on track.
But like Godot, tomorrow never comes. It is always today, always NOW. This is our life. And it’s going by whether we grab it and live it or not. Energy isn’t really about the time we have—we’ve had long stretches of time since the pandemic first hit. It’s about the use we make of those hours and days. Energy breeds energy. Use it or lose it.
I’m not writing of this from some lofty perch. Throughout the pandemic, as the pace of global warming quickened and the threats to democracy here and around the globe increased, I daily talked myself down from the ledge and pushed ceaselessly to get words down on paper. But limbo is a strange place to write from. To live from. Everything was tinged with anxiety, and fighting that anxiety consumed enormous energy. I usually rip through a first draft—just write, write, write. Revision is for improving, polishing, and you can’t revise what you haven’t written. Underneath all this—the biggest stress, I realized—was the sense of my life going, going, and what was I doing with it? In early April, the birthday fairy dropped another one on me and I decided I must simply plow ahead. Just do what I love because I love it. No second-guessing. No worries about the outcome.
So, if any of this sounds familiar to you, I say it’s time we make a pact to get the hell out of “Nebraska” and resume or start the life we mean to be living. Get off the couch, turn off the Facebook/Instagram/Twitter notifications, and as Nike advised: Just do it! So that, at the end of each day, we have the sense we have lived that day. If we can manage that, then according to Dillard’s wise observation, we will spend our lives living.