Archived from April 13, 2006 

The Undertaking
Louise Gluck

The darkness lifts, imagine, in your lifetime
There you are – cased in clean bark you drift
through weaving rushes, fields flooded with cotton.
You are free. The river films with lilies
shrubs appear, shoots thicken into palm. And now
all fear gives way: the light
looks after you, you feel the waves’ goodwill
as arms widen over the water; Love,

the key is turned. Extend yourself –
it is the Nile, the sun is shining
everywhere you turn is luck.

In fourth grade, the school district mandated swimming lessons for all the children. It was an announcement met with glee by most of my classmates — the ones who spent their summers turning into raisins at the pool — but one I met with abject fear. I spent my summers doing nerdy math assignments and learning how to type. I helped my mom out at the house, and had summer reading to complete. I wasn’t so much of a natural swimmer.

Being more of a natural anchor, I soon found myself in the shallow end of the pool, or latched permanently to the side. For a precocious child more used to gold stars, this was a jolt and a definite blow to the ego. The tears and legitimate thoughts of my own watery demise soon snowballed into a stomach-churning dread that surfaced every night before swim lessons.

Even as a grade-schooler, there was only one flawless way to calm my escalating fears. I needed to lay in bed, and imagine the relief I’d feel one day looking back on it all. The relief that would be so evident once I just got out of the pool, grew up (maybe learned to swim at all). I imagined my 25-year-old self communing with my 9-year-old self reassuringly. It helped me realize, I suppose, “this too shall pass” in my own little meta fourth-grade way.

This coping mechanism evolved, eventually, and has remained my own life preserver since then. Imagining the future, when I’d be thinking on the past with confidence. Which might explain my general obsession with the past.

Some time in high school, some ridiculous biology teacher introduced us to the concept of “homeostasis.” When all things are content and in equilibrium. I remember lusting after that sensation – following it and waiting for it upon completion of difficult tasks and courses. I had in my mind the idea that happiness meant homeostasis. Which meant total and utter calm everywhere you looked. Without problems on the wide-reaching horizon.


It was at Pitt that I first read Louise Gluck’s The Undertaking. Forced to guess, I’d say I was probably a freshman, sitting on the top floor of the Cathedral in Poetry Reading. Location notwithstanding, I do have a clear recollection of the relief it conjured. I was likely waxing melodramatic about the enormous sense of contentment I expected to overwhelm me upon finishing my last final of that fall term and heading home toward Philadelphia. I liked invoking moods then (and I still do it every so often now). It was later that year that I immediately turned on Rusted Root’s “Martyr” upon exiting the Cathedral after my last freshman year final.

I hung that poem up over my desk every year of college. It meshed well with my homeostasis concept, and I took to it as a sort of goal; I’d read the poem when I had, at whatever improbable and fleeting moment, found a moment of abject happiness. Of course, wwimming lessons had grown into research papers and exams, and these encumberments eventually extended to boys and breaking up, an underage drinking citation, double dongs in The Pitt News, and post-collegiate job worries. And as most of us find upon college graduation, encumberments only become more engrossing, more far-reaching and more permanent with age.


I woke up this morning and remembered a new bio term that hadn’t crossed my mind in some time: dichotomy. An equal division. Because there was happiness, and there was the reality of the day before me and all the days behind me. But the happiness was so sharp that all I could hear was Louise, and everywhere I turned, all I could see was luck.

Dichotomy trumps homeostasis, at last.


One response to “Homeostasis

  1. Pingback: Trying very hard, because I promised to. « Better read than heard.

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