Shortly before I left New Mexico in late September to return home to Spain, a new acquaintance asked me what goals I have for my life. At this point in your life, I thought he meant. Not what goals had I had that I was still working on, but which did I have now. New goals, because, he seemed to assume, goals would evolve as you did. I thought of people who by the time they are my age, and sometimes much earlier, have a bucket list. “What’s that?” asked my mother when I’d mentioned the phrase to her. I explained. “See Naples and die,” could be the last item on the list.
My mother said she didn’t have such a list. And I don’t either. But goals—well, one should always have a set of those, like a compass to pull out and inspect to see if you are on track and to judge your progress along your way.
But I could think of none, either new or long-standing. Be good, be honest, yes, but those aren’t goals so much as givens. Learn something new every day. That is an expectation. Write every day. A habit. Speak Spanish elegantly. An impossible dream. So no, in answer to the question, I could think of no goals that were recent and particular to my age and circumstances. Publish a book, win an award, go on a trip to some place exotic—those might be my goals. But they aren’t. Reduce my teaching load to have more time for writing. That would be nice, but it’s not a thing I am striving to achieve. Meet a nice guy and fall in love. That might have been a goal once, but I couldn’t believe such a meeting was my objective now, at this late stage, an objective every decision was calculated to advance me toward.
If anything, I would like to not care about my social calendar or my hours in the classroom. Or hours at my writing desk. My list of publications. My times in footraces. I would like to achieve an acceptance of my situation, whatever it might be, that allows me to never check the compass. Wherever I am is fine. My boss wants me in the classroom until 9:30 every night? I can do that. The weather means I run for a week in the rain? I can manage. The dogs pull relentlessly on their leash? What are you going to do! In short, immediate, unthinking accommodation, as if every situation were equal, as good as any other, flush with particulars to note and appreciate.
I can think of changes I would like to see. I’d like to gather myself, be more centered and more relaxed both, though for me they tend to be mutually exclusive. And yet, picture a hen with her chicks scurrying about and her following them, herding them, calling them, controlling them. In the end, she simply lowers herself over them, muffling and protecting. The narrator of Alice Munro’s story “Miles City, Montana,” recalling her days as a young mother, says of herself:
In my house, I seemed to be often looking for a place to hide … so that I could get busy at my real work, which was a sort of wooing of distant parts of myself. I lived in a state of siege, always losing just what I wanted to hold on to.
What could it be that she wanted to hang onto but frequently lost? I imagined it was a calmness, a sense of repose.
But on trips there was no difficulty. I could be talking to Andrew, talking to the children and looking at whatever they wanted me to look at … and all the time these bits and pieces would be flying together inside me. The essential composition would be achieved. This made me hopeful and lighthearted. It was being a watcher that did it. A watcher, not a keeper.
On my arrival home after a month away, I sat on my sofa, the gray cat took up her customary place on my lap, the tabby curled up on a pillow close by, and we settled into the old routine. To not struggle is the goal, I might answer if asked again. To float along, to go gentle, perhaps snagging here or there on protuberances, like a stick in a stream, but not mind slowing down, twirling in eddies, or even getting held up. And not to mind splinters breaking off, the big ones or the little ones. To manage that would be to know an essence beyond the ragged, changing edges of abilities or sensibilities. To be myself. That’s my goal: not to woo distant parts as does the Alice Munro character, but to loosen the ties that bind, ties that Bruce Springsteen sings about in his song of that title, “Ties that Bind.” To half-finish the work of letting go. I don’t think it’s so hard, to judge from many older people I’ve observed slipping backward into the stream, carried where they know not, not much fight in them, a touch of surprise on their faces. Not that I want to retire from life. But I want to observe it from the bank. That’s my goal. Just as well I hadn’t the wit to explain it to my new acquaintance. He seems very practical. His goals are the kind you can cross off a list, such as a five-year travel plan to visit all 50 states. Then what? I asked. Then a new plan, he answered, almost jubilantly. He has never been to Spain. Spain? I wonder. Hmm. Wading backward into the water you want not to save or to be saved. Equal footing is the trick. He has never been to Naples, either. Neither have I. This could be an excellent time to test an interesting theory. To be a watcher and a keeper. To be on the bank and in the stream. To feel the loose ties but be ready if they tighten. To accept either gentle, or not so gentle. I’ll ask my friend if Naples appeals. Put that one on your list, I’ll dare him. I will if you will.
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