I’d like to get away from earth awhile.
—Robert Frost, “Birches”
The only thing I knew how to do was to keep on keeping on.
—Bob Dylan, “Tangled Up in Blue”
Thursday, December 1. Today is the day my wife returns home from a six-week artist residency in New Hampshire. During those weeks, through Halloween and Thanksgiving, I’ve been a single parent, which has been fun, mostly. It was also a bit of a slog. The almost daily forays to the grocery store. The carting of teenage daughters to and from. Making lunches at 5:45 AM, five days a week. Oh, and that laundry thing, too. I must also mention the dog, who has a tendency to physically tear the house apart—and is generally very weird—if he doesn’t get copious amounts of daily attention. (In all my years, I’ve only seen two dogs hop the fence at our local community dog park. One of them is Gallivant, the furriest member of our family.)
But it’s okay, I can handle it! I can! I have handled it! (Pats self on back.)
How’d I do it, you ask? Simple. I’ve read a lot.
Reading gives me wisdom without the actual travails of experience, which has then prepared me for related real-life experiences. Like being a single parent during a forever-seeming stretch of time. (Ever read Richard Ford’s Independence Day?)
I have found deep comfort in certain phrases from books, and these short visions of brilliance have tended to stay with me. They become life markers, and their meaning is always a comfort. They work best when this meaning—their truth, if you will—changes over time. In this way, they keep feeding me, and are perennial.
If there is any commonality to these phrases and lines, if they have any connection to one another—and to me—they tend to be about one thing: survival.
Often, they’re two sides of a coin—on one side they suggest a desire to stay protected, to hide away from the loud, raucous world of people and their wants, fears, and anger. On the other side, there’s this voice they create in my head, saying this is your life, this is the miraculous ride you’re on. Dive in, experience fully. Trust you’ll figure out a way to survive if (when?) things get difficult.
Of course, as I say this, the gloomier side of me thinks: eventually none of us survive. I recall Hamlet, gazing upon the skull in his hand: “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio.”
* * *
The forgiveness of sins is perpetual.
—Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King
…. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
—Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art”
If all these favorite quotes of mine are literary lessons about survival, they beg a few questions: Survive what? Survive how?
Well, the answer to the first is obvious, right? To survive loss. And if the quotes encourage me to stand tall in the face of loss, the means by which one accomplishes this is perhaps the singular theme of almost all my writing: to endure.
I’ve written a 200-something-page coming-of-age memoir, as yet unpublished, that is primarily a depiction of how my younger self learned to endure. How I first encountered this truth—Hemingway and Catcher in the Rye certainly had something to do with it—and then how I ignored it, how I struggled to incorporate it into my life, how it finally wove itself into my DNA.
Perhaps survival is the basis of all stories. The hero overcomes obstacles by merely not giving up. I also wonder if there’s a kind of logical, chain-of-being formula here:
- Read deep truths.
- Live them out, incorporate them into one’s life.
- Write about them in order to share these truths with others.
- Others then read these deep truths
- They live them out, incorporate them into their lives
- And so on.
Which reminds me: one of the most important aspects of the hero’s journey is that, when their adventure is complete, they must return to home to tell the story of how they survived.
* * *
Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
—Robert Frost, “Birches”
Then again, maybe 1. and 2. are reversible. You have the experience first, and then it’s confirmed by reading.
My earliest real-life lesson in endurance: I’m eight years old, awakened at 4 AM. My father is in my room, standing in front of our shared closet. He pulls the chain for the bulb and the small space, filled with our clothes, is suddenly illuminated in gold and shadow. Slowly, quietly, he dresses. Putting on his Post Office uniform, the dusty blue pants with the satiny stripe down the side, the powder-blue shirt. Then, another chain is threaded through a belt loop. It jingles softly, pleasantly, as I drift back toward the shores of sleep. The light goes out, and all is quiet again. My father has gone to work on yet another cold, dark, rainy morning. To deliver the mail, the news of the day, the correspondence of the world. Day after day he performs this ritual in the dark of my room, and I am his only, barely cognizant, witness.
* * *
You make the thing because you love the thing
and you love the thing because someone else loved it
enough to make you love it.
And with that your heart like a tent peg pounded
toward the earth’s core.
And with that your heart on a beam burns
through the ionosphere.
And with that you go to work.
—Thomas Lux, “An Horatian Notion”
Running a race is easy: you go out fast,
pick it up in the middle, then kick it in.
—Coach Tim Hale, University of Rochester
In my youth, I was a runner. In the only physical sport I was good at, I practiced the lesson of endurance almost every day—following the example of my father, I now realize. It is perhaps the truest story of my life. But I never would have learned this lesson if it weren’t for literature, for all these phrases and lines that have accrued to my being, to my heart.
In this reading process, I learn the lesson anew. Which is strange, alchemical. How can you learn something you already know? I don’t quite forget the idea of enduring in the face of loss; I know it intimately. And yet, when I come across it yet one more time, it surprises me and reconfirms itself.
Perhaps I must keep relearning it because my life is no different from anyone else’s: loss and difficulty happen to each of us, over and over. And we might want to quit. We might want to drop out of the race. But the idea keeps telling us we must—we must!—continue with living, and the work we must do.
Reading is just one of the most important steps.
This post is part of our annual Lit Counts series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop—is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day, happening all day today. Click here to donate now. Thank you!
Michael Henry is the executive director and co-founder of Lighthouse Writers Workshop, where he also teaches poetry and memoir and essay workshops. He was recently named a 2017 Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Livingston Fellow.