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Choices, Regrets, and Wild Wild Lives by Joe Mills

Joe Mills / String Figures

In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, a man who has lived 15,000 years gets crushed by a building, and he tells Death that he did pretty good – 15,000 years! Death responds, “You got what everyone gets – a lifetime.” However long we live, the question, is, as the poet Mary Oliver asks, what will we do with our “one wild and precious life”?

This is the question at the center of the Buddhist film Groundhog’s Day as Bill Murray repeats a day over and over. How does he finally end up spending his time? In acts of service and learning piano.

My wife and I, in assessing our life choices, often ask ourselves the question, “When we get to the end, what will we think of this decision?” Will we be proud if we kept the house clean and tidy instead of doing other things? Probably not. Will I feel good about grading papers rather than going to my son’s soccer game? No. Of course, it’s not quite that simple. After all, will I be glad that I did my job well and supported my family? I suspect so.

A study that surveyed people about regrets found a clear difference in terms of age. Those who were younger regretted things they had done. Those who were older regretted things they hadn’t done.

I’m not close to the end yet (I hope) so it’s too soon to tell, but so far I’ve never regretted taking a walk, traveling, writing, playing with my children, or playing the piano (or any musical instrument). Gloria Steinem said, “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else”; I feel the same about all these activities.

And yet, I do recognize my piano playing is not always unambiguously positive. I sometimes sit at the keyboard when I’m annoyed, for example, when I’m waiting for the family to get ready to go somewhere. I used to mistakenly think that when I asked, “Ready?” and my children said, “Yes,” that actually meant they were, in fact, ready. Finally I realized this was more of a statement of hope or an intention or something they had learned that Daddy wanted them to say rather than a fact. They will say, “Ready,” if they are sitting in their pajamas eating cereal in the kitchen. So, instead of standing by the door, not-so-quietly fuming, I sit and play a few songs. This may sound fun – Hey a family soundtrack! – but it’s not. Each note is a plank in a wall I build around me. A containment facility.

I recognize there is a danger in turning to music – playing or listening — to shut people out. The same thing can happen with hiking, working, reading, TV watching, or a number of activities. And, sometimes I fear that in the future, when my children hear a piano poorly played, it will trigger memories of an impatient, irritated father.

On the other hand, the piano provides a valuable outlet. It’s a release. It gives me something to do with my annoyance, my hands, my waiting time. (Piano: a fidget spinner costing thousands of dollars.) It gives me a psychological place to go in our relatively small house that gets smaller the more the children grow. Will I regret plinking out a simplified version of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Waltz rather than yelling at the kids “Come on! Let’s go already!” Probably not.

I recognize that mine, at the moment, is not much of a wild life – consisting mainly of teaching, writing, and chauffeuring my kids around  —  but it is a precious one. I am trying as Thoreau said to live deliberately. And yeah, “regrets, I’ve had a few,” but sitting down to play piano is never one of them.


Joe Mills

A professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills holds an endowed chair, the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published six collections of poetry, including This Miraculous Turning and Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers (2nd edition), and most recently Exit, Pursued By a Bear. Although he has achieved awards and acclaim for his work, no one, not even the most sympathetic and pitying, would praise the way he blunders through “Amazing Grace” or rudimentary piano pieces. Nonetheless, in his middle age, he has decided to learn piano, and he suspects that it has begun to change his life in unanticipated ways.

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