WBR: Life Work
This week’s book is Life Work, by Donald Hall. When I agreed to review The Ten Year Nap, the blog tour organizers sent me links to some resources, including a review that said: "In fact, the novel, like poet Donald Hall’s memoir "Life Work," is a
passionate paean to the redeeming power of purposeful occupation." This sent me off looking for Hall’s book.
Life Work is a short book, really just an extended essay. In unfussy but eloquent prose, Hall writes about his daily routine, and connects it to the lives of his ancestors, in particular his maternal grandfather, in whose house he lives. For him, contentment is "work so engrossing that you do not know you are working," what others might call "flow." He writes about waking up in the morning, wondering if it’s close enough to 5 am that he can reasonably get up and start working on his poems. He criticizes the idea that only what is paid should be considered valuable.
Hall writes with love about his ancestors, and their work, especially his grandparents who were farmers in a time and place where farmers could still do a bit of everything — raise cows for dairy, chickens for pullets and eggs, maple syrup, enough vegetables to eat year round. Except for buying store-bought cloth, their lives were closer to the prototype of the Ingalls family than to modern farmers. And he contrasts them with his father, who spent his life doing the books for his family’s dairy business, and hating every minute of it.
I still can’t decide whether I believe that Hall’s grandparents were as content with their lives of unremitting labor as he makes them out to be. He writes that his grandmother had planned to be a medical missionary until her mother died, and then she set all those plans aside to keep house for her father and later her husband and children, without a word of complaint. I think there’s a difference between being not unhappy and being happy, and it’s hard to know where they would have fallen. And for all of Hall’s romanticization of his grandparents’ lives, he doesn’t have any interest in taking up farming himself, unlike his friend Wendell Berry.
In any case, it’s a lovely little book, filled with Hall’s love for his work, his wife, and his family.