William Carlos Williams’ ability both to run a full-time medical practice and also to devote daily time to his writing is one of the things I admire most about him. The other, of course, is the quality of his writing, his ability to see and describe the exquisite details in everyday things. The movements of a bird outside his window, the taste of a sweet plum from the icebox, the clangs, siren, howls and rumbling wheels of a red fire truck. When I read A River of Words, I realized that those two characteristics—his talent for balancing work and creativity, and also for noticing and describing his experience—probably both stem from the many hours he spent walking beside the banks of the Passaic River.
During my first year of teaching elementary school in New York City in the late 1980s, I was shocked to learn about “play dates.” Parents called each other to schedule a “date” for their children to play together. I guess that makes sense, I thought. New York is a big city and you have to plan for transportation, and you certainly have to know where your child is. But I thought of my own carefree afternoons growing up in Dearborn (and later Kalamazoo), Michigan. Our neighborhood was much like the setting in Gran Torino, little lots close together—you could practically call out the window and get a game of kickball together. A bunch of us would walk back from school together at age 6 and 7, maybe stop home to change clothes and grab a snack, but then we’d meet in the front yard with our bikes or bats and balls. The afternoons seemed to stretch delightfully endlessly to dinnertime. There was a spontaneity to our play that seems harder to tap into today.
Many of my friends have preserved that for their children. But they’ve had to work at not scheduling their children's time too tightly, allowing them room to play in the yard or go to the neighborhood park. They’ve had to limit the lessons and practices and time in front of the TV or computer. Even as adults it’s sometimes hard to give ourselves permission to “procrastinate now,” as Ellen DeGeneres advises. My friend Elmera often says, “I constantly have to remind myself that I’m a human being, not a human doing.”
William Carlos Williams, by his example, shows us there’s room for both doing and being.