When I was a little girl, I had a copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. I don’t remember how many times I read it, only that I read it enough times it fell apart. The spine disintegrated and the book became a collection of loose, brilliantly colored sheets full of Cronus swallowing his babies and of Demeter reuniting with Persephone as the earth opened up and burst into spring.
As I grew older I would murmur the names of the Olympians like a rosary. Hera, Zeus, Poseidon, Demeter, Hephaestus, Athena, Ares, Artemis, Apollo, Aphrodite, Hermes, Dionysus. There was one goddess who mostly escaped me. I would try to remember her, sitting not on a throne but beside the fires of the Olympian hearth. The others were powerful and monstrous, beautiful and destructive, full of knowledge, lust, jealousy, rage, wisdom, skill, vengeance.
And then I would think of the quiet, steady goddess at the hearth, the first born of the Olympians, and her name would disappear like smoke.
Some lessons you learn by choice, but most you learn when they arrive at your threshold, knocking loudly no matter how quietly you sit in the dark pretending no one is home. I remember once a man I dated told me he refused to call himself my boyfriend — not out of dislike for the word, which neither of us much cared for, but because it symbolized for him the need to always reach a milestone.
“We started dating, and next I’ll be your boyfriend, and then there will be moving in together, and then there will be an engagement and then a marriage and after that a baby. And then what?”
We argued about it. I said he was being unfair, and maybe he was taking his own issues out on me, and anyway was he embarrassed to call himself my boyfriend or perhaps dealing with some sort of commitment problem. He continued to level his milestone theory at me before finally confessing that the last time he’d called someone his girlfriend it had ended very badly and so the word was tainted.
When we broke up some years later, I had forgotten we’d ever had that argument. Plenty more had taken place. I did not remember it for a long time.
First we turn one, then two, then on up until we are double digits, and then 16 and 18 and 21. We graduate high school and college, we get another degree. We get a job, and then we get a new job, a better job, a raise, a relationship, an engagement, a wedding, a home, a child. Perhaps the only one we do not cheer on is our death, and yet there it is, the last of the milestones.
When I thought about all those moments and achievements, the way they form the skeleton of a life, I thought about all the days in between, the days that connect and carry us to these triumphs and congratulations. I thought about building something, tending to it, doing the quiet work of the day-by-day, and how we have betrayed the pleasure in this.
Who will teach us how to make it not to each glorious milestone but to the end of each day, and to the start of the new one? Who will write the ode to the everyday?
The man who would not be my boyfriend wasn’t wrong.
I have never been good at routine, nor have I been a person of much faith. My eye has been drawn to the big events and away from the day to day. I am less apt to tend to a fire each morning and evening, the same fire, letting it neither flare into a blinding flame nor a searing passionate heat, keeping it from smoldering out entirely. I have not paid tribute to this skill, this knowledge, not like I have the search for love or wisdom or pleasure or power. The quiet work of the every day. The unassuming steadiness of a safe harbor and the relinquishing of doubt and skepticism that serve only to roil the waters.
The milestones have served me, and I imagine they always will, just like Selene and Eos, Aridane and Dionysus, or as I grew older The Thriae and Hecate. But there are so many days when there is no glory, when there is only the work and the tending. To the words, to yourself, to each other.