I remember my high school chemistry teacher telling me how grateful I should be that water is densest at 4˚ C. If not for that quirk of nature, ice would sink. Streams, lakes, rivers, and ponds would freeze from the bottom up, and, eventually, underwater glaciers might incorporate surface water altogether.
I don’t have time to be scared by hypotheticals. Water isn’t denser at 0˚ C, and, if it were, the world would be on an entirely different track that wouldn’t include Mr. Chadwick explaining why. I am a great worrier, but I don’t worry about oxygen being lethal to humans or what the world might have been like if Eleanor Roosevelt had wings. Some possibilities reside outside the reality we occupy.
As a metaphor, however, underwater ice is powerful.
Ice does accumulate in the bottom of my life. On the surface, I’m the same body of water—sometimes choppy, sometimes serene, sometimes the color of the sky, and sometimes the color of whatever gunk is below, yet I’m roughly the same.
Something does grow down there, however. Molecule by molecule it inches to the surface.
Surface needs come first, and I never reach the bottom of what I want to accomplish. “Put more art on the walls” happens only when the realtor is on the way over, and “Make a will” will wait for my deathbed. Parents out there can identify. When you have small children, you are lucky to reach “Get a haircut.”
We could set a aside a holiday, “National Reckoning Day,” for citizens to write overdue e-mails, clean the bathroom, and send the package you taped and addressed three weeks ago and put in the coat closet…under the boots that were too small for your son two years ago but you meant to give to a colleague’s child when it actually was winter.
The trouble is, give me a holiday, and I’d squander it watching “Groundhog Day” for the twenty-seventh time. You don’t see me donning scuba gear and gathering a chisel and hammer to bust up the deep ice.
In Walden Thoreau asks, “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?…Men say that a stitch in time saves nine, and so they take a thousand stitches today to save nine tomorrow.” He would say I have too much to do and that too many of my goals are meaningless. I know, I know, I know already, I am a German Confederacy. I get it. I should live a more deliberate life, to make my tasks finite, “to front only the essentials of life.”
It’s on my list.
As in most matters, Thoreau is right, but Thoreau would be out of place in my neighborhood, mistaken for homeless and hassled by cops. How can I live by his priorities in Chicago, or anywhere? The trouble is knowing what’s essential. Some seeming unessentials give too much pleasure to be deferred, and some tasks have heads like hydras—chop off one and it grows two more, and so on until it becomes a bouquet of monsters.
Who has time to ferret out how to front what’s essential? That sort of clarity requires more space and occasion than urban—or suburban—life affords. “Simplify, Simplify, Simplify” has slipped to the bottom of my list, adding to the ominous ice down there, another cause to think myself inadequate… hmmmm, I meant to work on that.
School just ended, and I’m looking over all I must do this summer and wondering if I’ll complete half of it. More immediate needs take precedent. The refrigerator is empty. The sink is full of dishes. My daughter has items on her social calendar that may require my monitoring and assistance. While I don’t have to worry about what I’m teaching tomorrow or have the usual stack of papers to grade, I can think of five things I ought to be doing right now.
Plus it’s a beautiful out, which makes matters worse.
Still, here I am, picturing Henry David Thoreau figure skating on Walden Pond, his under-chin beard parting as he turns out of another relaxed toe-loop, smiling all the while. And I’m hating him for it.
Excuse me, I’ve got to do something productive now.