This morning I got up at 5 as usual, even though it’s Saturday. The days don’t open out wide like they used to, so if I want to write I have to get up early every day and get to it. But the baby was crying and his mother had been up most of the night with him. I took him with me so she could get a little sleep. I played with him, jiggled him, rocked him in his rocker while I shoveled down some oatmeal. After a while, he started rubbing his eyes, his sign that he’s getting tired, and I started rocking and shushing him back toward sleep. It took a while. Soon enough I was sweating. It’s work. But the whole process is most difficult at its gentlest moment, when I try to lay him back down in the little swing he sleeps in. You have to lay him down tenderly, let go tenderly. No straining effort, no clumsiness, no tricks. No spin. Release him to float on breezes. Do it wrong, he wakes.
You spend your whole life waking. As a kid I woke to baseball and to stories and to hopes. I woke to Dewey and Jim Ed and Yaz. Years went by. I woke to a dream of being a writer, and soon after that I started waking to what work is.
I’m thinking specifically of 1992, when I was waking to the failure of my first novel to be sold, waking to the impossibility that it would deliver me somehow to a realm where writing could be my work. That year I started working steadily at a liquor store on 8th Street in Manhattan. You want to eat you got to work, one way or another. I put in the hours. Save for the occasional scary moments when teams of teenage shoplifters wilded through the aisles, it wasn’t a bad job, and there were good people there, but all in all it wasn’t exactly a life of leaping from glory to glory. There were long slow moments of nothing at all, a lot of them. I read the box scores when there were no customers. I began to notice a rookie from nowhere on a roll. And he was a knuckleballer! The idea of it was like a message from my childhood, off in the distance, a little Fidrychian birdcall.
It seemed this knuckleballer in Pittsburgh disappeared as quickly as he’d arrived. I kept working at the store for years until one day when a particularly confrontational shoplifting incident made me feel like some vital plug inside me had been pulled. The next day I talked to my boss, Morty
“I can’t do this anymore,” I told him.
“You’re going to have a tough life, Joshua,” he said, gently. “Backing down when things are tough. It’s no good.”
Morty knew what work is. He’d been in combat in World War II. He’d seen a handbag manufacturing business his father had built and passed on to him sputter due to government regulations; he’d then started up another business, a liquor store, only to have it burn down; he’d started again, with the store we were sitting in the back of. He’d seen things get tough and had hung in there.
I don’t think I said anything in response to his advice. The conversation kept playing in my mind long beyond that moment, however, and I began to revise my own part in it.
“But this is not my fight, Morty,” I replied to him in the revised version of the conversation. “Getting shot by fucking teenagers over a bottle of Alizé?”
“Well, then,” Morty would say. “What is your fight?”
This conversation played most frequently in my mind the summer after it actually happened. It was the summer of 1995, and after quitting my job I’d gone back to Vermont to try to write another novel. This is my fight, I kept trying to tell myself. This is what work is, I kept saying. But the internal monologue soon became strained and hysterical. I was gripping the ball way too tightly. Every day I went to a nearby college library and stared at my notebook until I wanted to take my pen and stab my eyes out. I still have the notebook from that summer and it will be exhibit A in the defense’s insanity plea case whenever I finally snap. After failing to write anything in the notebook except dire raging threats against myself, I would then move to the part of the library where they kept the newspapers on those long paper rods. There is something oddly humiliating about reading a newspaper on one of those rods. Really it was during those rod-paper moments when I came to realize that I hadn’t yet come close to waking to what work is.
I also noticed while flipping the pages of the rod-gripped news that the former rookie sensation from 1992 had resurfaced, and not only that but had reappeared on my favorite team, and he was doing well, his improbable comeback the key to the Red Sox division title that year. By the time the Red Sox were quickly bounced out of the playoffs I was back in New York and back at work at the liquor store. The years went on. The liquor store job gave way to other jobs. You spend your whole life waking, but you also spend your whole life drifting into various kinds of sleeps. The main goal of my life was to write, to make that my work, and in some ways I did, producing nonfiction books for young readers that amounted to the equivalent of a few weeks of salary at the liquor store. But all along I had this sense that real work was not getting done, that I hadn’t yet quite woken to it.
Tim Wakefield traveled along with me through those years. I liked that my team had a knuckleballer, but the player who would gradually become an all-time personal favorite to rival my childhood idol, Yaz, did so out of a kind of barely noticed constancy. He was always there. I began noticing that more often than was likely he’d be the starting pitcher whenever I’d make it to the game. He even followed me around the country. In 1999, I caught a game in Oakland, and there was Wake. In 2003, I caught an interleague game in Milwaukee, and there was Wake. Wake’s knuckler was flat and hittable that day, and the roof was closed, and the Brewers hit so many home runs in quick succession that a haze of gun smoke from the home run fireworks hung over the field. Bernie Brewer may have had a heart attack that day from hurrying so many times back to the top of his spiral slide, but he was saved when Wakefield, taking a turn at bat, was drilled in the ankle and had to be transported off the field on a golf cart. He sat upright on the back of the cart, his legs dangling, which seemed sort of humiliating somehow, as if he were being taken to a windowless room under the stadium where he’d be forced to read newspapers attached to long library rods. Wake recovered from the injury and later in the season pitched brilliantly in the playoffs all the way up until the last batter. I turned off the television the moment the ball struck by that last batter cleared the fence and I have tried, haplessly, to not give it a moment’s thought ever since.
A few months after Wake walked off the field as sadness personified at the center of raucous celebration, my girlfriend and I moved to Chicago. I got work. That was about eight years ago, 2004. I’m still waking to what work is. Work is paying bills and health insurance for my wife and kid. It’s showing up. It’s a long fucking bus ride to and from every day. It’s watching the cubicle next to you empty out during layoffs and saying a prayer of thanks it wasn’t you. It’s trying to do a good job. It’s doing a half-assed job. And it’s getting through those moments, those days, those weeks, those years, of doing something that doesn’t have anything to do with what you thought and hoped you might become. And it’s none of those things, too. It has nothing to do with real work.
Anyway, this morning I failed to lay the baby down the right way and he woke.
“Goddamn,” I muttered. I grabbed him back up to start all over with the shushing and jiggling and sweating and work.
“Hand him over,” my wife said. Sometimes I refuse this offer, but this morning I lateraled the boy to my wife as if to avoid a Lawrence Taylor sack. I went to my writing desk to do some work. I set this Tim Wakefield card on my desk. I thought about how long he’d been with me and how he was no longer going to be there, not in any rod-locked newspapers or on the field or in a baseball card. This is it. One last look.
Maybe because I couldn’t bear to take that last look, I procrastinated and, thinking about the idea of work, I located Philip Levine’s classic poem “What Work Is.” I read it and then listened to it being read by the author. It’s about work and about art and about love. It’s about that slow painful waking called life.
So finally then one last look. Wake at work. He is relaxed and focused. He is holding the ball lightly, tenderly. He is about to let go with a tenderness you may never see the likes of again. What happens next, after he lets go? With this pitch you can’t know what will happen next. My baby is awake. I can hear him. What will happen? You can’t ever know. The hard work, the real work, awaits.