I can’t say that I think about Anton Chekhov every single day, but I do think of him most days. More specifically, I think of this passage in my favourite story, “The Lady with a Little Dog,” where he writes about the two lives of his protagonist:
He had two lives: an apparent one, seen and known by all who needed it, filled with conventional truth and conventional deceit, which perfectly resembled the lives of his acquaintances and friends, and another that went on in secret. And by some strange coincidence, perhaps an accidental one, everything that he found important, interesting, necessary, in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, which constituted the core of his life, occurred in secret from others, while everything that made up his lie, his shell, in which he hid in order to conceal the truth — for instance, his work at the bank, his arguments at the club, his “inferior race”, his attending official celebrations with his wife– all this was in full view. And he judged others by himself, did not believe what he saw, and always supposed that every man led his own real and interesting life under the cover of secrecy, as under the cover of night.
And I have started to wonder about my two lives, which I deliberately keep separate. In my non-birding world, which occupies the bulk of my existence, I write, I play the piano sloppily, I lecture to later-life-learners about the Avant-Garde or Russian/Soviet cultural history or Russian music, I talk about Tolstoy and Chekhov and Dostoevsky and any other Russian writer my students want to discuss, occasionally I teach creative writing classes to later-life-learners, and I work with high school students, I cook dinner, I swim slowly, I buy too many books and mugs and shoes and, lately, Vermont-made woollens. I am a thank-you-card writing addict and, most recently, an obsessive aunt. And you see, none of this has anything to do with birds.
Once a week, I morph into a birding maniac. I rise before dawn, tuck my jeans into wool socks, arm myself with Tim Horton’s coffee (which my other self never drinks — she’s all about locally sourced food and shade-grown, ethical beans), and off I go in search of….ANYTHING, really. All week, I look forward to the day I get to whip out my Carl Zeiss binoculars and experience a moment of recognition when I happen upon a bird I know (sometimes I even know the Latin binomial, sometimes I can even visualize the marks on its primaries and secondaries, which I know from the banding station where I’ve likely held the bird in my hand; other times, well, I get everything wrong).
I keep the lives distinct because there is no overlap between the two. And yet. Last Saturday I gave a lecture about Stalinism and Musical Comedy (no, it’s not an oxymoron) and before the lecture started, as I hooked up my computer to the console in the lecture hall, the first image that graced the screen wasn’t my opening slide with a portrait of Stalin, but rather a photo of me holding a BUFFLEHEAD, with a delirious smile on my face.
And just like that, the lives had merged. Who was this crazed happy person holding a duck and how was the audience supposed to reconcile this with the person who was about to give a serious lecture, replete with secondary sources, sophisticated terminology? What could possibly be the relationship between the two?
I usually keep my birdy side of myself a secret, mainly because it doesn’t fit into the larger narrative I’m trying to express. But what if I were to work on blending the two? What if I were to inject some of the enthusiasm and energy from my secret life into my apparent one? I had originally thought that the apparent, more prosaic life would suffer. But now I’m not so sure. You see, when I bird I’m entirely imperfect and I happily accept that limitation. Most of the IDs I make are misguided and just plain wrong. But for every embarrassing, glaring error, I get something right, and that moment of recognition feels infinitely better than any good performance evaluation or award or public recognition I could hope to achieve. When I’m birding I’m not after perfection or after success. Instead, I’m mesmerized by the process.
What if I were to bring more of my birding life into my writing life? What would my “apparent life” life resemble if I let my secret, truer life infiltrate it just slightly?
I think I’m willing to take the risk.