What I Really Want To Do…

Generally I don’t like to quote this much text at once, but the following paragraphs from Michael Dirda are too good to overlook. They get me to thinking about what I really want to do, and really isn’t that what good writing is about (the thinking part, I mean, not necessarily what you want to do)?

For those of us with an inward turn of mind, which is another name for melancholy introspection, the beginning of a new year inevitably leads to thoughts about both the future and the past. My father would often intone on significant birthdays or anniversaries: “That which I did I ought not to have done, that which I did not do I ought to have done.” His pseudo-biblical lament unfortunately reduces the past to one long series of regrets, to the memory of foolish choices and rosy thoughts about what might have been.

That way, I suspect, madness lies. Also, the ire of one’s spouse and children—What about us? they might rightly complain. Are we chopped liver or something? After all, people do make good choices, often very good choices. But in recollection we inevitably tend to think about those mysterious and alluring roads not taken. Could I have become a novelist or a poet? Would I have loved living in New York or San Francisco? Might I have been happier as a small-town librarian—or a plumber? Did I use my small talents in the best possible way? Such dreamy speculations are, happily, of no real consequence. They make us thoughtful for a moment; then we sigh and get on with the day’s work. To those who do what lies within them, according to nominalist theology, God will not deny grace.

Like most people, at the beginning of a new year, I get revved up about what I want to accomplish in the coming 12 months. In 2013 I resolve to go to the gym every other day. I will lose 15 pounds and get back into what a friend used to call, when she was looking for a fresh boyfriend, “fighting trim.” I will write a short story and start a new book. I will travel more and see the world. I will fix up this dilapidated house, or sell it, and make a proper library for myself. I will … I resolve to … I must …

Some of these high-minded resolutions will almost certainly come to pass. (Hmm, I must be channeling my father’s biblical rhetoric.) But what I really want to do, if I were to follow my bliss, as Joseph Campbell used to counsel us, is simultaneously modest and fanciful: to travel around North America in a van visiting second-hand bookstores. During my travels I’d also make occasional detours to spend a day or two with old friends, now too little seen—with my high school buddies who live in Houston and Missouri, my college chums in Maine and Chicago, my former book-collecting partner David Streitfeld, ensconced in the Bay Area, even some folks up in Toronto and British Columbia. Being a hero (and heroine) worshipper, I’d naturally take the time to genuflect at the final resting places of writers I admire. (Even now, two of my favorite photographs depict a reverent me at the tomb of Stendhal in Paris and the grave of Eudora Welty in Jackson, Mississippi.) Come lunchtime I would obviously eat in diners and always order pie for dessert, sometimes à la mode. During the evenings, sipping a local beer in some one-night cheap motel, I would examine the purchases of the day and fall asleep reading shabby, half-forgotten books.

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