Of course we should find delight in our lives… and yet consistent enjoyment is perhaps expecting too much of our labors. Rather than focusing on the processes or the products of what we have accomplished, we could instead take note of the transformations in ourselves.
For example, when it comes to mowing the grass, while I feel satisfaction at producing a neat lawn, I also observe the “good-tired” in my muscles.
I learned about “good-tired” from Harry Chapin. During grad school I often listened to his Gold Medal Collection. On one track, the storyteller tells us about his grandfather:
My grandfather was a painter. He died at age eighty-eight; he illustrated Robert Frost’s first two books of poetry. And he was looking at me and he said, Harry, there’s two kinds of tired: there’s good-tired, and there’s bad-tired.
He said, Ironically enough, bad-tired can be a day that you won. But you won other people’s battles, you lived other people’s days, other peoples agendas, other people’s dreams. And when it was all over, there was very little “you” in there — and when you hit the hay at night, somehow you toss and turn, you don’t settle easy.
He said, Good-tired, ironically enough, can be a day that you lost. But you don’t even have to tell yourself, ’cause you knew you fought your battles, you chased your dreams, you lived your days, and when you hit the hay at night, you settle easy. You sleep the sleep of the just, and you can say: “Take me away.”
He said, Harry, all my life I’ve wanted to be a painter, and I’ve painted. God, I would’ve loved to be more successful, but I painted and I painted, and I am good-tired, and they can take me away.
Now, if there is a process in your and my lives, in the insecurity that we have about a prior life or an afterlife (God, I hope there is a God. If He is, if He does exist, He’s got a rather weird sense of humor, however. But let’s just…) — But if there’s a process that will allow us to live our days, that will allow us that degree of equanimity towards the end, looking at that black implacable wall of death, to allow us that degree of peace, that degree of non-fear: I want in.
I remember learning at summer school when Harry Chapin died. The radio stations at the time would have been playing music from Bruce Springsteen, Styx, ELO, Pink Floyd, Rush, REO Speedwagon — songs orchestrated to fill arenas. This was before indie rock and lo-fi — even ballads on albums like Double Fantasy were produced with sheen. Harry Chapin’s songs are better heard in their masterful live versions, raw in their conversational intimacy.
He played his folk songs at benefits for world hunger assistance, starting around the time of George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh and years before the MTV-friendly “We Are The World” and the stadium rock of Live Aid.
The news of his death came as an aftershock, because he was the same age as John Lennon the previous winter.
People say that life is not a dramatic narrative. Yet when Harry Chapin died, he was, of course, driving himself to perform at a free concert.