For I have known them all already, known them all;
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?
Poor J Alfred Prufrock. When I taught this poem to one of my high school English classes, students found it difficult to identify with the balding, socially inept Prufrock and considered him to be pathetic at most. What they could identify with, however, is the idea of symbolically measuring the “worth” of one’s life with a repetitive actions or routine. Actions or routines that help define who we are. A validation, or proof of sorts, that we exist. J. Alfred’s measurement was the endless afternoons he spent alone contemplating his inadequacies over endless cups of tepid sludgy coffee. Sad, but there it is.
I’ve had students state they’re measuring their life out with dance recitals performed, or hockey games played. Proof that some thing had been accomplished. My graduates have been measuring their lives out with papers or midterms written (Facebook statuses read “only 2 more to go until Christmas break! Only 1 more to go!). Proof that learning has occurred (… or in some cases, maybe not!)
I believe our “units” of measurement vary depending on what in time life we happen to be treading. I took the year off work some years ago and I kept track of all the wonderful books I read during that time. THAT’s how I measured my life during my hiatus. And it felt good and full and worthwhile. Proof that I finished a story, a different story every time a new book opened. Stories that contributed to my own.
How do you measure your life? In paychecks earned? Children birthed? Hearts broken? Or do you find a more symbolic value in the little actions that fill your days like smiles performed and good deeds accomplished. Proof that you’ve worked. Proof that you’ve loved. Proof that you exist within someone else’s reality other than your own.
Every year when I teach this poem, I too try to come up with a measurement of my life. Papers to be marked? Hugs to be given? Stories to be written?
Here’s a question to ponder if you’ve got a moment: How do you measure your life? What action or routine is your symbol? And once you’ve figured out what this is, are happy with this revelation? I think what you discover will say a lot about how you perceive yourself at this moment in time. And if you don’t like it? Go out and pick out a better measuring stick.