"The Art of the Wasted Day" by Patricia Hampl; Viking (288 pages, $26)
"I loaf and invite my soul," wrote that most American of poets, Walt Whitman. He celebrated his prodigiously gifted, magnanimous, outsized self, and we continue to celebrate him. Yet we modern Americans trot briskly about with our anxieties and our cellphones, busy even in our leisure, "loafing" a vaguely negative concept in our multi-channeled minds.
Patricia Hampl, a St. Paul, Minn., memoirist, poet and professor who is one of Minnesota's most thoughtful writers, transports us far from such glum judgment in her latest memoir, a wise and beautiful ode to the imagination - from a child's daydreams, to the unexpected revelations encountered in solitary travel, meditation and reading, to the flights of creativity taken by writers, artists and philosophers. Time we may regard as "wasted," she asserts, is the most precious of all in shaping our selves. "The job of being human," she writes, "is not figuring things out, but getting lost in thought."
This is not a book about vacation, retirement, going off the grid or the indolence of the rich, whose idleness is made possible by the labor of the working class. Rather, it acknowledges the yearning that many of us, no matter how busy, feel for time to ourselves to imagine, create and simply be - "to float, to depart, to rest," Hampl writes. Paradoxically, she says, such private explorations often help people more readily connect with others.
Hampl's first memoir, "A Romantic Education," took her to her ancestral Prague during the Cold War. "Virgin Time" explored her Catholic heritage. "The Florist's Daughter" was about her Czech-American father and Irish-American mother. St. Paul plays a key role in all, as it does in the new memoir, which explores her life as a writer, and as a widow.
Much of it is addressed to a complex and intriguing "you," clearly her beloved husband, Terrence Williams, who died in 2015 and to whom this book is dedicated. His absence appears to be the catalyst for this lovely, sad book.
Also brought back to vivid life on its pages are literary and historical figures whose devotion to contemplation inspired her, most significantly 16th-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne and the "Ladies of Llangollen," 18th-century "romantic friends" (Hampl argues, against modern interpretation, that there is a form of generally asexual love that celebrates the linked lives of the mind) who devoted themselves to reading, writing and quiet togetherness.
Delightful anecdotes abound, as when a student in one of Hampl's University of Minnesota classes glumly tells her that he has nothing interesting to write about because he's "from Fridley." "I have good news for you," she tells him. "Nobody has told what it's like to grow up in Fridley yet. It's all yours."
But as with any memoir, the main character is Hampl herself. As always, she is on a journey to understand herself, and in doing so, to help us learn how to discover what is most precious and enduring in our own lives. It is an honor to encounter her anew, and to have her gently remind us that sometimes it's wise to put down our to-do lists and to give ourselves over to musing out the window, to remembering that "the imagination is the crucible of freedom."
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