Gazing From Afar at Wasted Days

HAMPL (1)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....Alec-Smith (2)
Photo: Alec Smith

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, 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 features 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.


Dear Judge Kavanaugh, about my abortion

Dear Judge Kavanaugh,

Like you, I am a parent of two. I saw your wife and daughters at your confirmation hearing, and I thought about my husband and sons.

Sixteen years ago, when our boys were young, I chose to have an abortion, I’m going public about what had been a private family decision because of you.

I’m driven by a sober sense of urgency, fearing that your impending confirmation will tip the Supreme Court and lead to restrictions or a ban on abortion. I worry some states will severely curtail abortion. I’m writing you because I believe every woman, regardless of what state she lives in or how much money she has, should be able to decide whether to continue or end her pregnancy.

Too often, we who choose abortion keep our decision quiet. I want you to hear stories of ordinary women like me who have had abortions. My story isn’t dramatic. I wasn’t at risk of death. I hadn’t been raped. I chose abortion because I didn’t want to have another child.

When I got pregnant at age 41, I knew immediately I would abort. I’d had two miscarriages before our sons were born. I understood pregnancy and parenthood.

For years, I had wanted a bigger family, a daughter. Now, I — the third of five children– didn’t want a third child. I told my husband I wanted an abortion.

He paused. “Are you sure?”

“I’ll support whatever you want to do, and I know it’s your choice, but are you sure?”  he asked.

Even now, sixteen years later, I remember the conversation, the two of us, a stable middle-class, white married couple, getting ready for bed, talking. Our sons asleep in the bedroom next door.

“Yes,” I said, “I’m certain.”

I did not want this fifth pregnancy. My mind flashed through scenes of diapers, high chairs, potty-training, playgrounds, preschool, all the stages we’d walk with another child. I would be 47 years old with a kindergartner; 59 years old at high school graduation. It wasn’t the family I wanted. I knew what being a mother means, and knew I didn’t want to do the work of parenting a third child.

The next day, we booked an appointment at Planned Parenthood.

At our local Saint Paul clinic, by the library we frequented with our sons, my husband and I sat quietly in a modest waiting room. I went through the initial check-up and tests. We scheduled the abortion before we left.

The same month, we went back to the clinic. Men aren’t allowed in the medical rooms, so my husband stayed in the waiting room. I don’t remember the actual abortion. The clinic visit went quickly, smoothly. Afterwards, we spent a peaceful afternoon playing and reading with our sons when they came home from school. I remember looking at our boys, thankful for our family. Two parents, two kids.

Over the years, my husband and I embraced the family we have. We are complete. I began volunteering for Planned Parenthood, outside the clinic where I had my abortion. With fellow volunteers, I greeted and escorted patients, buffering them from protesters, just as others had done for me.

This year, once again I stood outside Planned Parenthood, a more modern facility that replaced the small clinic that helped me. On a brisk winter Saturday, I marched amid hundreds of other pro-choice women, men, and their children, many clad in pink, a cheery and vocal counter to a much smaller, muted anti-abortion protest.

Amid the multitude of pinks, I spotted my 25-year-old niece, smiling and bright-eyed, walking with her boyfriend and other friends. I thought about her, wondering if in a few years, she and other women will still have the right to choose when and whether to have a family.

I don’t know if any of my nieces would ever need or want an abortion. Who knows if someday, someone you know, perhaps even one of your daughters, would need or want an abortion. Will a future Supreme Court prevent women from getting what is now a safe and legal procedure?

Your nomination compels me to speak. I can’t stay silent, just hoping that other women will still be free to choose what happens with their bodies. By going public, I’m exposing myself to potential criticism, and perhaps, worse. At 41, I trusted myself to make the right choice. At 57, I trust myself to share this story, hoping it might help others– my nieces, maybe women my sons will love– to have the choice I had.

Becoming a parent is an immense responsibility, too significant to leave to chance. Parenthood should be an intentional decision. I had a choice. Every woman should have that choice. Abortion is not a political football, it’s a personal decision that women need to be able to make for themselves.

The next time you consider a case involving abortion, perhaps you will think of me, a married mother who loves her children, and chose not to have another.


Kate Havelin

The saddest nine words

Losing Earth is more than a magazine story. It’s our story, the story of what’s happening to our home. We can’t ignore it.

The cover was black, with a barely visible dark gray masthead. All that stood out were nine simple words.

“Thirty years ago, we could have saved the planet.”

That sentence sums up the cover story– the only story– in the August 1st issue of The New York Times Magazine.

I didn’t read Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth when it was first published. I thought I knew about climate change.

Weeks later, on a westbound flight to LA, I started reading. There’s no one shocking revelation; instead, like a thorough detective, Rich spent 18 months doing more than 100 interviews, documenting a worldwide tragedy.

Losing Earth focuses on a decisive decade, 1979 to 1989, when people could have controlled global warming. It’s a riveting whodunnit, only it’s a who didn’t do it. Who didn’t act to prevent our world from getting too hot. It’s not an expose of one party or one politician. There’s enough blame for all of us.

Presidents as far back as LBJ knew about climate change. Exxon knew. Even four decades ago, the key facts of global warming were out there. We knew that the more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the warmer our planet becomes.

Rich’s narrative reads like a horror story. If it was a movie, we in the audience would shout warnings, “Run, get out of the house, save yourself.”

Scientist James Hansen, one of the people Rich profiles, tried to warn us what climate change could do. He testified to Congress, used simple props to make his case to the public, and advised top government officials about the looming danger. Hansen told us that even a two degree Celsius rise in global temperatures would be a long-term disaster.

Most of us didn’t listen. We didn’t demand our leaders act. The epilogue notes that economics, “prices the future at a discount: the farther out you project, the cheaper the consequences.” Climate change always seemed to be down the road, not right in front of us.

And so it seems like humanity flunked the marshmallow test, the experiment where little kids got to pick whether they wanted one treat right away, or two treats if they could wait, say fifteen minutes. That famous Stanford experiment found that kids who could delay gratification, who could wait 15 minutes for two marshmallows rather than getting one marshmallow right away, tended to had better lives, higher SATs, and education levels, etc.

When it comes to climate change, we humans couldn’t look ahead. We held tight to the one marshmallow we had– our comfortable way of life, filling our cars with gas, heating our homes with coal, instead of being patient and working toward a future with better outcomes– two marshmallows of a livable world in the future.

“Thirty years ago, we could have saved the planet.”

We didn’t act. Now, we are seeing the damage. We’re seeing more extreme weather, more floods, more droughts, more wildfires. George Steinmetz’s Losing Earth photos are disaster panoramas. They could be Exhibit A, documenting the crime scenes of climate change.

A new draft U.N. report suggests that Earth’s temperatures will almost certainly exceed 1.5 Celsius by the 2040s.

It’s hard to ignore the evidence that climate change is here. We can’t escape what’s happening in front of us. Losing Earth is the biography of our home. It’s our story.

A life, in 31 lines

  1. Born around Easter, the baby’s nickname was Bunny.
  2. His parents named him Dudley.
  3. His mom died before he was three.
  4. He stayed at boarding schools until he was nine, when his dad remarried.
  5. Dud saw the sunny side of life, an eternal optimist.
  6. He loved football.
  7. In December 1944, he left high school to become an Army paratrooper.
  8. The first seven times he went up in a plane, he jumped out.
  9. He wrecked his ankle.
  10. He finished high school; a veteran allowed to smoke in the teachers’ lounge.
  11. He re-enlisted, planning to make the Army his career.
  12. He served in Okinawa and Korea, an infantry platoon sergeant.
  13. He loved being a soldier, loved being with his buddies.
  14. Diagnosed with diabetes, he left the Army and worked as a bank teller for $40 a week.
  15. He was the best man in seven weddings.
  16. He met a young widow; their first date was going to her husband’s grave.
  17. To surprise her, he converted to Catholicism.
  18. Four months later, Dud and Marie married.
  19. They had a son, then a daughter, then another, and another, and another.
  20. Dud kept working at the bank, at times, working weekends at a gas station, and the National Guard.
  21. He ate the backs out of all his kids’ Easter bunnies.
  22. He became a bank manager and got to work first, making coffee for the tellers.
  23. He played softball and swam at the pool and Jersey shore.
  24. His tanning regimen started with spring chores, then June, Coppertone; July, Hawaiian Cocoa Butter; and August, baby oil and iodine.
  25. After 22 years with one bank, he was laid off; and soon found another bank job.
  26. His grandaughter called him Papa Bear; she was the only grandchild he met.
  27.  His diabetes worsened; he kept working full-time with just 6 percent kidney function.
  28. He stopped working and started dialysis.
  29.  His kidneys failed. He kept his sense of humor.
  30.  Hospitalized with pneumonia, one foot amputated, he was still joking with the nurses.
  31. June 4th, 1987, thirty-one years ago today, the easiest-going member of the family, Dudley William Havelin, died.



A car-free year

Some people trade in their old cars for the latest model. Last year, I donated my 1993 Honda, swapping it for a new car-free way of life.

Fourteen months later, I’m happy to report that stepping out of the driver’s seat suits me.

The best part of being car-free? I see the Twin Cities as bigger and more diverse. Outside the metal and glass bubble of an automobile, I’m less insulated and more connected. I talk and ride with people from more races, ages and classes.

This summer, as I stopped at a red light on my bike, a young African-American skateboarder rode up and started chatting. We commiserated about the lack of a bike path, and the pros and cons of riding on sidewalk. That pleasant commuter conversation between a 20-something black man and a 56-year-old white woman wouldn’t happen if I was driving solo.

Sitting on an East Side bus bench, the woman next to me drinking a midday malt beverage chatted me up. “Baby Girl,” she said, “I like your hat.” We talked a bit and she patted my hand, then leaned in closer, to exchange an air kiss. When her friend arrived, she invited me to join them for a drink. I demurred, and they wandered off.

For years, I’ve dreamed of living in New York. I crave the big city. This year of car-less commuting shows me that the Twin Cities are more urban than I had appreciated.

I’ve ridden crosstown busses packed with people speaking Spanish, Somali, and languages I don’t recognize. I hear what’s on the minds of more Minnesotans, not just what’s on MPR.

Walt Whitman exalted, “I Hear America singing… the strong, melodious sounds.” I hear America on the bus: Other people’s music, singing, chatting, laughing, muttering and fighting. I hear an irate man yell at a young mother to get her stroller out of the bus aisle or he’ll report her. I hear small civilities—the chorus of riders calling in unison alerting the bus driver to stop so some frantic latecomer can board, the passenger who digs for change to pay another rider’s fare. I hear– and am part of– city life.
Continue reading “A car-free year”

Thank you, Mrs. Larzelere

A belated thank-you to teachers

In the shadow of downtown, as I walked toward an urban park, a Great Blue Heron flew past me. I stopped on the sidewalk overpass, mesmerized. Once again, I had seen a big gray bird, the talisman I’ve looked up to for most of my life.

I thank Mrs. Judy Larzelere for that. Every heron I see carries me back to junior high.

IMG_20170607_101249During a unit of regional New England writers, Mrs. Larzelere assigned our eighth grade American Studies class The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories, by Sarah Orne Jewett. We read bigger names, including Thoreau, yet it’s Jewett’s modest characters that have stayed with me for decades. In “The White Heron,” a 10-page story, I met Sylvia, a shy girl who safeguards a heron’s nest, forgoing a bounty that would have benefited her poor family. Every heron reminds me of that lonely country child and the teacher who introduced us.

In this season of high school graduations, with Pomp and Circumstance wafting through the air, I figure it’s time to say a proper thank you to Mrs. Larzelere and the many the teachers whose lessons I carry.

Teachers teach and sometimes, students learn, yet neither teachers nor students can know which lessons will take hold, shaping lives. Sometimes, the lessons sink in long after the final grades are entered, the graduation robes returned.

It’s been forty-three years since I sat in Mrs. Larzelere’s Haverford Junior High class, reading regional New England writers, stories that seemed a world apart from my suburban Philadelphia life. Yet Mrs. Larzelere and Sylvia made me want to see the herons in this world. Continue reading “Thank you, Mrs. Larzelere”

Guns, violence, and hope

We live with guns and violence and we can live with hope.

I have hope that we can change attitudes about gun violence, just as public health advocates have changed attitudes about smoking. Now we have fewer tobacco deaths. In time, if we change attitudes and laws, we can have fewer gun deaths.

I have hope because groups like Protect Minnesota are working to change attitudes and laws.

I see hope in the dimpled smile of Protect Minnesota’s new director Rev. Nancy Nord Bence. Energetic and upbeat, Nancy knows preventing gun violence isn’t quick work, it’s necessary work. She’s organizing groups of Minnesotans who want to make us safer: The Interfaith Alliance on Gun Safety, Health Care Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, Teachers United for Gun Reform, Minnesotans OUT for Gun Safety, Coalition for Workplace Safety and Responsible Gun Owners of Minnesota.

The more Minnesotans who stand together, with neighbors, friends and colleagues, the more attitudes, and in time, laws, will change.

The first step in changing attitudes is understanding the facts about guns and violence.

The fact is, we have 90 gun deaths a day in America. 90. 90 deaths, every single day. Shooting deaths are so common that it takes an odd detail to make us pay attention. A mother pushing a baby stroller is shot. Her death makes national news, because she is the cousin of someone famous, a basketball star.

We pay attention to mass shootings and a few unusual everyday shootings, but often we hear nothing at all about the most common kind of gun death in America.

The fact is, most gun deaths are suicides. The fact is, suicides account for more than half the gun deaths in America. The fact is,  more than 80 percent of gun deaths in Minnesota.

The numbers are numbing, but please stay with me here.

We live with guns and violence and we can live with hope. We can do something about gun violence. We—meaning me and you and many others. We can do something, together.

ATTEND a September 15th fundraiser for Protect Minnesota at my house.

HEAR The Concert Across America to End Gun Violence. The Minneapolis concert at International Market Square is one of dozens scheduled nationwide for September 25th, a day to hear music and ideas of how to make communities safer. I’m happy to pay $15 for an afternoon of hope. Buy $15 tickets