Old Folks at Home

 Finding the poetry in ordinary life.

My grandparents live in a tidy white house in backcountry Pennsylvania. It’s the same house where they raised my mother, and it sits on the same acre of land, with the same linoleum in the kitchen, and the same green carpet. An hour’s walk along back roads in any direction reveals grim countryside, with little to see besides repair shops and small houses — some clean and some junky — and the occasional muddy farmyard.

Sometime in high school, my sisters and I decided that my grandparents’ lifestyle was hopelessly boring. My grandpa drives disabled folk to work, and my grandma volunteers at a nursing home. In her spare time, my grandma cooks or cleans or reads historical fiction, and my grandpa tends the garden, hammers in his workshop, or snores in his easy chair (he doesn’t care for books). After dinner, they sit together on the porch for an hour or two, and then they watch the evening news and go to bed.

Lately, I have begun to think my grandparents know something I don’t. Simple as they are, they have this on all of us: they are two of the most contented people I have ever known.

Here is the difference between them and me, and plenty of others in my generation. Behind all our striving — our high achieving, our snobbiness and artsiness, and even our good old Netflix shows — aren’t we driven by a kind of boredom?

Maybe we feel rootless, or placeless, or just alone in a world of 9 billion other people, where we must either distinguish ourselves or slip through the cracks. For whatever reason, we feel the need to pin life down, carve it with our hands out of the stretches of chaos. Our quests for an elusive GPA, for identity, for “atmosphere,” and our world travels; these could be our way of strapping on life jackets so as not to be swallowed by the void.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger argued that boredom, the ennui people cover with busyness and entertainment, is the disease of the modern age. According to Heidegger, this kind of boredom is merely a doubting of the sufficiency of present, ordinary life.

During Christmas and spring breaks from my job, when I become a proper stay-at-home-mom, I always have a day or two of existential panic. Few things are more terrifying than the long, empty spaces of an afternoon. And there’s not a chance my two rambunctious preschoolers will let me fill those spaces with my favorite meaningful pursuits. No, it’s cleaning, and playgrounds, and Curious George stories, for hours on end. Suddenly, the placid homeschooling moms I know look like heroes. On the order of Hercules.

But really, those moms have probably learned what my grandparents knew without having to read a treatise by Heidegger. For my grandparents, there is no void to be grappled with. There is no meaning to be shaped from the chaos by Herculean willpower. There is instead the fullness of each day, and their love of the familiar places, things, and tasks that await them: the garden, and the elderly people, and the comfortable easy chair, and meat-and-potatoes, and gossip on the front porch at dusk. There is no fear of wasting time. Because to them, life is not waiting to be created but is already there, in the present moment of whatever they are doing.

It’s not just the young and drifting who suffer boredom with the world. You’ll find artists and academics who envision their job as crafting meaning in a meaningless world. But the best artists are the ones humble enough to see it the other way around. Instead of seeing life as insufficient to art, they assume their art is insufficient to the fullness of life.

In the middle of his most glorious poetry, T.S. Eliot laments the way “Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, / Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, / Will not stay still.” This paradoxical strain runs all through Eliot’s Four Quartets, insisting that the world has a life that poetry is only trying to approximate; and that the present moment is something so real that words may draw us away from it.

Katherine Anne Porter once wrote,

I have never known an uninteresting human being, and I have never known two alike.

To believe this about people, places, and moments is a kind of faith, a kind of joy. Joy is a posture toward the world, just as love is a posture toward people. When you begin calling people and places boring, you probably need to get re-oriented. You might start by visiting some simple old folks at home. Failing that, you could explore some humble (and sublime) writers, like T.S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Annie Dillard. Who else would you recommend?


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