I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.
Richard II, Act V, scene 5
Do you ever get the urge in the middle of the night to dig up a copy of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land because you are haunted by a phrase that you just can’t quite remember?
No, not really?
Okay. Maybe you can’t understand why, at 3:00 a.m., I suddenly woke up and felt compelled to know what the rest of the opening line of that poem is—a line that, not long ago, I could not imagine not knowing. Surely, you don’t care that this urgency seemed to have something to do with this being the month of April and that famous first line notes that “April is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of a dead land.” Indisputably, you are indifferent to my realization that this line had probably leapt to the forefront of my consciousness as I slept because, the night before, I had watched a DVR-ed segment of the terrific remake of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, starting Neil deGrasse Tyson, which included a scene depicting a boy picking lilacs. Despite this indifference I share with you the line that I could not conjure up on my own last night:
April is the cruellest month, breedingSpecifically, it was that bit about “stirring dull roots with spring rain” that I could not remember. Ugh.
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Interestingly—at least to me—this memory failure (with respect to a line about memory) reminded me of yet another famous literary line. In Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, “Irina,” the youngest of the three Sergeyevich-Prozorov sisters, weeps over her inability to remember “the Italian word for window or ceiling.” This failure symbolizes how time is slipping away from these gals who have spent much of their days convinced that life will really get started for them once they finally relocate to Moscow.
This panic over losing trivial bits of knowledge is a proxy for the much bigger things we lose—our youth, our optimism, our sense that we have time-a-plenty to accomplish all that we hoped to accomplish in this life. You’d think that all lawyers of a certain age could relate to that phenomenon if not to its specific manifestation in my lost grip on the opening line of The Waste Land or how my panic was underscored by how aptly it resonated with Irina’s panic in The Three Sisters. But perhaps all of those years I squandered reading things like Modernist Poetry and acting in plays like The Three Sisters are worth something after all. Because, unlike those type-A, straight-A folks who muscled there way straight from pre-K through law school and right into law practice without ever pausing to catch their breath, I at least still command a decent arsenal of literary allusions to lend color and context to moments of existential despair. “Here’s my comfort,” as Stephano in Shakespeare’s The Tempest would say. The “comfort” to which he refers is actually a sack of wine but nevertheless. . . . Having once known stuff that allows a person to know that her angst over what she no longer knows or has failed yet to do is at least a reminder that all is never lost; we are connected to a larger narrative involving rather “old verities” that at least feel less common when rendered in evocative, poetic language. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” as Mr. Eliot concluded.
I fear that I have come to see this blog as one of those things that keeps me from writing other things that I have long intended to write. Then again, the writer-qua-lawyer’s life is a constant struggle to make time for writing (or other pleasures) above and beyond the writing (and other work) that a law job demands. Learning to persevere in the face of this persistent anxiety may be a blog’s principal value. In any case, I again thank Mr. Andy for his lyrical, cyber suggestion that all is not wasted. Shantih shantih shantih.