2004 by Clay Chesney
The toilet had overflowed and soaked the carpet in the hall. I greeted this emergency with unbridled distaste and a trace of anger. My life had come to be taken over by my responsibilities, to my job, to the family, and ultimately to the home improvements that had once been my joy and inspiration. I had fallen far behind, chronically behind, both in my professional and personal life, and the prospect of a new task seemed unfair. Sue's breezy evaluation of the problem only made my mood darker.
"It won't take us long to clean it up if we get a water vac," she proclaimed as she went off toward the telephone while I struggled feebly over the sopping carpet with our hand-held vacuum. I knew what "us" meant.
Sue returned shortly, having located an acquaintance from the baby-sitting co-op who had a water vac, and I was soon on my way the few blocks to his house. The neighborhood was new, lately sprung from the grassland prairie on the edge of the suburbs, and was friendly with the easy relations developed among immigrants finding themselves thrown together in a new world they want to share. It was in the days when we still had neighborhood parties. I knew Dan and Wendy only vaguely from a few co-op parties where we had passed a few words. He projected a solid middle class burgher stability and she was an attractive but bland type whom I always remembered first noticing when she appeared dressed as Peter Pan at the co-op Halloween costume party. Somehow the costume seemed to fit very well.
When I arrived, Dan was at his open garage door, gathering the attachments to the vac in a businesslike way, dressed in shorts, some splotchy bug bites showing on his white legs. His garage contained a car and an all-terrain vehicle. The narrow space left over beside the vehicles was entirely bare and clean. A few essential garden tools hung neatly on the wall in well-spaced racks. I looked at this in awe, thinking of my own garage which was a profusion of tools, wood, furniture, boxes and odds and ends from old projects.
He was pleasant. "Keep it as long as you need to." He looked out from thick glasses under a head of short-cropped curly hair.
It was the first time I had talked to him personally, in any way that was not framed by a social event and the conventions they require. He was appealing in some way I couldn’t quite identify, but I knew we would never come together except at one of the local gatherings or standing by his garage in front of a borrowed machine.
Back home I labored, dragging the vacuum across the carpet for nearly an hour, thinking of stoop labor and penal servitude. Dan's vacuum was a monument to the technology of sucking devices. It grasped the carpet so firmly in its vacuum grip that I was obliged to drop to my knees to brace myself and use both hands to push the attachment.
This kind of work moves the mind toward a narrow darkness. Thoughts of unfinished business and unmet potentials rose up as I concentrated on the patch of carpet that stubbornly yielded its declining moisture.
Having the children had been wonderful. Seeing childhood, I found my own again and began to see myself as younger and more creative. And moving to a new place and a new job filled my days with purpose and importance. My life had improved considerably in the last few years, it was true, but there are other needs for someone whose eyes are set on the far hills. At work I was faced with a system that demanded quantity; my reports were good but I was told bluntly that quality was not as important. At home, ideas for a dozen interesting projects and my elaborate plans for remodeling the house with architectural accents moved agonizingly slowly under the strain of commitments to family and the normal round of maintenance. But worst of all was the realization that the real reason I accomplished so little was my own inefficiency. I always dreamed big and moved slowly. Over time, the things I meant to do began to accumulate, and one day I realized with a jolt that some of them had been on my mind for years. Not big things, but ones that took a little more time than I could manage. The list grew longer until eventually it began to sink in that I would not, could not, do them all. My imagination had outpaced my ability to bring my visions into the world. I found, finally, that those visions which brought such joy to create had become a source of continual frustration, and that I saw each new task that kept me from them as an irritating imposition.
At length, I finished the vacuuming and carted the machine back. The door on the perfect garage was still open so I unloaded the vacuum and set it inside. Dan came out and we talked for a while in the warm, humid twilight of that spring day. A different world was revealed to me in that short space of time. We talked about our lawns, about the field of weeds next to his house that threatened to invade his yard every spring. We talked about the co-op party that would soon be held on the stretch of empty street leading from his house into the field where the developer had pulled out and the houses would never be completed. I looked down the street and saw it through his eyes.
He worked as a supervisor at a meat packing plant. He had graduated from college with a degree in "meat" and now he had a "kid" who worked under him along with a few others. It seemed that he had made it; not big, not important, but solid. I saw no hint of a shining brass ring in his future.
He had to be at work at 5:30 in the morning. "Whenever you're in the meat business you have to get out there early. I don't know why they have to start any earlier than any other business." He worked ten hours a lot of days, twelve hours sometimes.
Dan’s gaze drifted up to the fading colors in the evening sky. "Those sixty hour weeks get to be too much."
I looked back at his garage and thought, "This is it, this is his life. Neat, orderly, his days and events hung out in rows." Mostly work, and like so many of the people in my neighborhood, not much time left over. His ambitions were all within reach, things that could be done in a few days at most. Life was the present and it was all hung out in plain sight. I admired the order of his world, and saw it set against my own. It told a story of accomplishment, the kind that is beyond the reach of a mind that spends its days in the slow drift of extravagant visions.
I drove home uneasily, turning the thought that I had seen a different life and it could be mine, that my problems could be banished if I would face about and take up a new ethic. Were the projects that I thought so important worth the price I paid?
At home, I wandered restlessly. There was an issue to be resolved but I didn't know how. Finally, I went to the garage where I looked on my latest project, some ornamental fluting I had crafted from modeling clay and attached to a corner intersection of two panel moldings. I was immediately struck by how good it looked. From a distance all the little imperfections were invisible. It didn't bother me that it was unfinished and that I couldn't look too closely at the roughly made surface. For the moment it didn't bother me that even when it was finished it would represent only a small piece of a much larger ambition to turn this craft into a business; an ambition that, even in the unlikely event it was realized, would involve a considerable amount of effort stretching into an unforeseeable future.
It represented a flight of fancy, like so many in my life. Most of them unrealistic, but not all, and I have a few exquisite items to show for them; a classical guitar composition that I still treasure, a published article on aesthetics, a model ship that should become a family heirloom, a set of dinosaur skull bones that are the final fruit of missionary hours in dusty canyons throughout the Southwest. All of them reaching for something, trying to pull an ideal into reality. All of them accomplished without outside encouragement and sometimes against the opposition of people or circumstances. But most importantly, all of them driven on by the joy of their own moment and the certainty, while I was doing them, that they were important.
I took a last appraising glance at my work and, seeing that my interest was still fresh and that I looked forward to working on it later, I went to bed. The issue had been resolved.
It wasn't until much later that I looked back on my conversation with Dan and realized that he had been complaining about his life, too.
Writing numerous memos for the government, as I do,
will at least make you familiar with composition, but it might make you
long for a little imaginative prose. I have written many essays just for
myself because they had to be said, even if to no one. I thank my friends
for encouragement, and especially my Muse, who has lead me back into print
with encouragement and fine example.
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