Gazing From Afar at Wasted Days

by Kate Havelin

Patricia Hampl’s latest book, The Art of the Wasted Day, carries readers aloft on a tranquil travelogue, packed with side trips, vignettes and what Hampl calls the divine details.

Along with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hampl shines as Saint Paul’s literary royalty, artfully chronicling her travels, from smoky Czech cafes to a quirky Welsh vale and blissful houseboat cruise along the Mississippi.

The meandering pilgrimages follow the Roman idea of honorable leisure. Hampl doesn’t rush her journeys, choosing instead to pace her trips and this book’s flow with fine meals and many reflections.. By book’s end, she illuminates what she’s learned, sharing the brilliant whys and ways of wasting one’s days. This is a journey worth taking, a book worth reading.

I confess, though, at times I struggled to stay with Wasted Days. It should have been easy to glide along with Hampl’s fine words. I can hear her cool smooth voice flowing across the page. Reading this amid the overheated cacophony of impending elections, I felt like a rebellious high schooler, challenging the teacher about whether this book was relevant. Do wasted days and leisurely dinners matter when pipe bombs keep popping up in politicians’ mailboxes?  The potential dangers of these elections loom over me, like a horror movie.  How can I think about leisure?

Hampl admits she also struggles between leisurely solitude and daily busyness. She writes of her ‘skittery mind” wandering on a meditative retreat. She owns up to her endless to-do lists and compunction to be the dutiful girl, the writer who completes every task. She trudges through a blizzard to her university office so she won’t miss office hours. Arriving to find that’s school’s been closed, she stays, and wonder of wonders, a student shows up. He’s relieved she can help him with the essay he can’t write. He confesses that nothing has happened in his life, growing up in Fridley. He has nothing to write about. Hampl reassures him that she wants to read about his Fridley life.

Ordinary life, in Fridley, in flyover land, in Iron Curtain countries, matters, Hampl writes. The little events, daydreams, loves and excursions, the conversations around the kitchen tables, they matter. The small stuff defines our lives. This luminous writer persuades readers that we don’t waste our lives taking time to daydream along the river, to look at a butterfly, or sit at the kitchen table, talking until the coffee grows cold. Instead, we waste our lives by rushing, by always doing doing, never beginning to slow. Never reaching solitude.

Her Paris Review essay, I Have Wasted My Life, offers a concise version of the book’s central theme. The essay’s title comes from James Wright’s poem, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.”  Decades ago, Hampl thought the poet meant he wasted his life focusing on the little details of butterflies, horse turds and cowbells. Later, she re-considers, deciding that Wright is laughing at the worker bees, those of us who clog our lives with endless scurrying and skittering, to-do lists and worries (those elections…).

After the death of her husband, whose presence drifts through this book like silvery fog, his details intentionally indistinct, her grief achingly clear, Hampl sees the poem in a new light. She understands that it’s only when the poet rests in the hammock, in solitude, his mind “rinsed of ambition,” that he is able to take in life’s fine details. Only then, does Wright realize he was wasting his life by not seeing the life around him fully. Once he opens himself to the butterfly, the horse turds, the cow bells, the poet can exult in his joyful wasted life.

I begin to let Hampl’s words and meaning wash over me. I reread descriptive passages, beginning to slow down. I think about the graceful meals, the transcendent trip down the Mississippi. My eyes and mind roam the pages, content to visit a quieter place, a place I often gaze at from afar.

This reflective book offers a peek through velvet curtains to an intentional life, distinct from the madding swirl. I can see Hampl, sitting quietly at her yellow kitchen table, the coffee going cold, her mind lost in thought, open to the world.

By book’s end, Hampl’s travelogue transported me to her calmer place. I see that the vignettes, the little episodes of a life that may seem like throwaways, are worth attention. Really, they are the stuff of life.

As Hampl notes, “The history of whole countries, of an entire era and even lost populations, depends sometimes on a little girl faithfully keeping her diary.” The diaries and divine details matter. Hampl’s pilgrimages matter. Just as the places where stories and books live matter.  Places such as the East Side Freedom Library, the home of community histories, cultures and people, Karen weavers and African drummers, Hmong Archives, union members and environmentalists, this common ground gathering spot, this library matters.

This Tuesday, Patricia Hampl, artist of the wasted day, will talk about the importance of stories and place at East Side Freedom Library’s Fourth Anniversary Benefit Celebration Tuesday, October 30, 2018, 6:30 – 8:30 PM, East Side Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier Street, Saint Paul 55106  Tickets are tax-deductible. Please register in advance.

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