‘Tis the season of back-to-school, back-to-work; back to various labors of love and life. In that vein, I recommend two books, in two Parts, on the subject of work – literary, intellectual, manual. Today, Part 1, I give you former Poet Laureate Donald Hall’s Life Work.
Life Work has been a beacon for me since my early days of writerdom. I came to the writer’s vocation late and from off-the-map, which has contributed to a general awkwardness around the word “work” – a word reserved, in my experience, for that which involves antagonism, obligation, and toil; and which generally refers to a physical destination as opposed to an activity. (Syntax is everything in the statement, “I am going to work.” Is the second part a verb infinitive or an adverbial prepositional phrase?) “Ok, off to the gulag,” my partner jokes wryly as he heads to his downtown office. Surely, he is going to work; what the hell will I be doing all day?
“Once, in a headlong sentence I clearly intended to say ‘life,’” Hall writes of a therapy session during dark years of marital meltdown and alcoholism, “but by mistake…said ‘work’ instead.” This recollection illuminates the theme of Hall’s beautifully crafted meditation cum memoir: the lost sense of work as integral, devotional, absorbing; distinct from labor, including but not limited to “what we do to feed ourselves and keep ourselves warm,” and, if not nobler than the toilsome sufferings of humankind through the ages – Hall cites, for example, Mexican farm laborers, 19th century merchant sailors, black American slaves – then indeed no less.
Work. I make my living at it. Almost 20 years ago I quit teaching – giving up tenure, health insurance, and annual raises […] I worked like crazy to pay tuitions and mortgages – but because I loved my work it was as if I did not work at all.
There are jobs, there are chores, and there is work.
Life Work takes the form of life (and work) in real time: “Today makes a week of Life Work.” Hall pulls back the curtain on his daily regime, his “best day”: up at 4:30, coffee, dress, drive out for the paper (this is rural New Hampshire), breakfast, then at the desk until “I feel the poetry juices drying out.” A household chore, more coffee, and on to prose. By 11am, the writing work is done; now lunch, then a short nap, after which he and his (second) wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, “know what we will do next. How nice to be old enough, living together and alone, to make love in daylight…”
If all this makes ye industrious urbanites want to retch, Hall anticipates your repulsion:
I worry that my enthusiasm over work, over the best day […] will seem to a saturnine or grumpy reader the ultimate in complacency […] Why is happiness unforgivable? […] I make for myself a golden age.
Only depressives make a golden age; or maniacs create a golden age because their dark brother lurks behind the barn.
But he does not anticipate what comes next: Part I of Life Work ends in early April; 10 days later he begins Part II, having been diagnosed, in the interim, with liver cancer.
The book shifts markedly in tone henceforth, and yet an even deeper fidelity to inquiries regarding work takes hold. “I realized I had always worked in defiance of death.” We learn of family histories (generational transitions from manual, to white-collar, to creative work), the sculptor Henry Moore’s model of work, and Hall’s journey in Christian faith (the work of the spirit). The book ends three months after it began, with Hall about to start chemotherapy: we are suspended in uncertainty with him, as he works on short projects “which absorb me as much as any work can.”
Seventeen years after publication, we know “the ending.” Hall survives cancer, but it’s his beloved wife Jane, 20-some years his junior, who dies of leukemia two years later. How profoundly prescient was Hall’s understanding of “work” as the avatar for “life,” as the two of them confront ruthless mortality together. He writes: “There is only one long-term project.”
Coming up: Part 2, in which a philosopher-motorcycle mechanic makes the case for the cognitive riches of manual work, for living concretely in an abstract world.