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The muse of failure

The muse of failure

by Wolf Pascoe on August 13, 2011

Duffy's farm

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

James Wright, “Lying in a Hammock at Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”

Years upon years ago, I lived across the hall from an old man who quarreled with his wife. I could hear raised voices through the thin walls.

Things may be said of the long-married, of course. But it’s the man I want to tell about. I’ve forgotten his name, if I ever knew it. He was about as nondescript a man as can be, although I remember a shock of white hair, never combed, that jutted up and up in bizarre patches, imitating a crown.

At the time, my whole adult life lay before me. His was behind him.

In the weedy backyard of our fourplex stood a shed to which the man repaired each noon. He stayed behind the closed door until the sun went down. Except for a pane of whitewashed glass above the knob, it had no windows. For six months I regarded the place. One Saturday day I asked him:

“What is it you do in there?”

He led me inside and closed the door behind. The room–closet, really–had no ventilation, no electricity, no running water. It sweltered in the day’s heat. The sun through the whitewash bathed everything in the color of old newspapers. There was a wheeled, wooden office chair and a wood counter with shelving. A thick smell of mold.

He sat in the chair and propelled himself along the uneven floor.

“Perfume,” he said.

bottlesA vast pharmacopeia of liquid-filled bottles populated the shelves. Glass of every age and shape. Blue, green, red, orange. If you squinted and blurred your sight, it looked like the futuristic cityscape of the planet Krypton.

Removing the stoppers, he decanted a few drops from one bottle into another.

“That should do it,” he said.

He sniffed and offered the result to me.

“Careful. Don’t drop it.”

I inhaled. A sickly, oily odor, hard to breathe.

“Aha,” I said.

“They don’t know how to make perfume now,” he said. “When the formula’s ready, it’ll knock ’em on their asses.”

Alone that night, I had a vision of chemists with white coats and French names in gleaming, modern laboratories. Air-conditioned laboratories with centrifuges and spectroscopes and clean rooms. I thought of my hopes and ambitions and tried to imagine ahead fifty years. I kept seeing the man with his pitiful bottles. I swore:

I will not turn into you. Whatever happens, I will not turn into you.

I think of him every so often. He comes to mind when I try to reinvent myself, about every ten years. I relax toward the image of the bottles on the shelves as it beckons. And I regret what I swore that day I went in the shed. I regret it because it laughs at me now and says:

What you resist, you become.



You can’t help but read a lot of advice about failure nowadays, which is pretty much what you’d expect in an age of too-big-to-fail. But the people I read are so young, and haven’t failed much, or tried very long.

ashesI read that the thing to do with failure is to learn from it, which is good and right. But there’s something missing from this upwardly mobile idea, some distinctly un-American step involving grief and regret and time and emptiness and pain and death and ashes. And the swallowing of ashes. We postpone that part here, we kick our debts down the road. We tuck the ashes away in a shed with no windows, or deposit them in a hammock on Duffy’s farm.

Once, I heard the poet Robert Bly recite “Duffy’s Farm” to a roomful of men. When he was done there was a long silence. The sound of weight shifting in chairs.

A man spoke. “Maybe,” he said, “Maybe it’s healing for the poet. Redeeming for him to–”

Bly cut him off.

“Don’t ever do that,” he said. “There’s no redemption in this poem. There’s ashes in this poem. They have to be swallowed. It’s not for you to erase them.”



Number my days



Failure to Thrive — Big Little Wolf on a very big failure

The Music of Failure — Written by Bill Holm twenty-five years ago, this is one of the great essays in American letters. The link is to the Kindle edition ($9.99) which is the easiest way to read it. Now that there is the Kindle Cloud Reader, you don’t even need a mobile device.

Down and Out in Paris and London — George Orwell’s first work, about grinding poverty.

Poetry Credit: James Wright, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose. Copyright 1990 by James Wright. Wesleyan University Press.


I wonder if this post will speak more to men than to women. Do women experience achievement in the way that men do? Do their wounds over failure reside in the same place? I encourage, invite, bestir, charge, and exhort you to add your comment below. I always respond here. This just in: you can be notified of responses to you by clicking “Replies to my comments” in the drop down menu under your remarks.


Three things you can do if you love this blog.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Alameda August 13, 2011 at 11:43 am

Of course there is failure in life!
One needs to define that failure: was it because of our actions or was it inflicted? However, at the end of the day one has to be content with whatever part of a life’s goal one has been able to achieve. Along the way enjoy the positive no matter how small as we all know how much negative circles around us. Is failure or the fear of failing motivational?


Wolf Pascoe August 13, 2011 at 5:07 pm

One of the many things I love about Bill Holm’s The Music of Failure is his definition of success: A thing succeeds when it is itself.


David August 13, 2011 at 9:10 pm

This moves deeply in me. Thank you.


Wolf Pascoe August 14, 2011 at 1:30 am

All blessings, my friend.


Pamela August 15, 2011 at 5:53 am

I really needed to hear this. I am very good at piling ashes into a moldy shed. Lately, I have been peeking in the windows. Looking at what was lost. I love the imagery of “swallowing the ashes.” That is exactly what it is.

Your writing has a way of allowing the sand to settle and the water to clear. Sometimes when you swallow the ashes, you can let the thing be what it is, and that is a success of its own, even if it is just the success of grief or regret.

This is wonderful!


Wolf Pascoe August 15, 2011 at 6:53 am

I love this idea of letting the sand settle. It takes time, our most precious resource. In the end it saves time, but, of course, it’s hard to see that.


Kristen @ Motherese August 15, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Your neighbor’s shed reminds me of a shed belonging to a teacher I had in grad school. He rigged it up with electricity, lined it with books, and used it as his writing space. We have a shed in our backyard that houses nothing but a few dilapidated shovels and sand toys. My husband and I both eye it occasionally with great plans for what it might become. (Perfume laboratory has never been on my list, but you never know. Have you read Das Parfum by Patrick Suskind? The protagonist is the kind of guy who definitely has a perfume laboratory in a backyard shed.)

Do women think about achievement in the same way as men? Great question. I’m not sure, but I know that my husband seems to feel a lot more pressure than I do to “succeed” and to “provide.” I don’t really give either much thought. But maybe that’s because he’s doing it for me?


Wolf Pascoe August 16, 2011 at 1:18 am

My perfume guy was out of Studs Terkel rather than a literary novel. I’ll put Parfum on my list.

I know women have their own worries, but what a blessing not to feel pressure to succeed.


Charlie August 15, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Ash eating isn’t nourishing. I don’t recommend it. Ordering young men to eat ashes in any context rubs me the wrong way. As to that thought of despair in the hammock, compared to the farm animals I guess we all may seem a bit wasted.


Wolf Pascoe August 15, 2011 at 7:53 pm

Hmm… not sure what crop you’re growing on your farm.


ChopperPapa August 16, 2011 at 9:41 am

Brilliant post. I’ve written much on this idea of failure and even amidst the multitude of gains I’ve made in my own journey, there always seems to be just behind me that nagging sense of “you’re not there yet”. That I have something else to do and prove.

I can trace much of this to our cultural notion of what success is. In an age when twenty-somethings become millionaires overnight and retire into obscurity or athletes receive awards and attention due to their God given talents, it causes me to pause and look at my a life that pales in comparison and because so a failed one.

It’s an area of growth that I continue to work on.


Wolf Pascoe August 16, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Comparisons are so dangerous, and I do it all the time. Not to get all allegorical, but I love this story:

The great Rabbi Susna was on his deathbed, surrounded by his disciples. He became very sad.

One disciple said, “Rabbi, why are you sad? When you get to heaven, the Ancient of Days will proclaim you second only to Moses!”

“I’m sad because when I get to heaven,” the rabbi said, “The Ancient of Days will not ask me, ‘Susna, why were you not Moses?’ He will ask, ‘Susna, why were you not Susna?'”


Luke August 17, 2011 at 1:36 pm

Failure is part of the process. It is inevitable. We must simply accept its existence. The important part is to learn from it, take the error into account and not repeat it in future.


Wolf Pascoe August 17, 2011 at 6:34 pm

A tall order!


Barbara S. August 22, 2011 at 7:32 pm

How did I miss this post? Glad I came across it in my Reader. I agree that the ashes of our failures shouldn’t be set aside or hidden, but used to fertilize whatever comes next. They’re valuable in their own right. (And, alas, despite being a woman, I do feel pressure to succeed! The challenge is defining success, and it seems to change within me every day.)


Wolf Pascoe August 22, 2011 at 8:32 pm

Fertilizer, yes. That’s how we swallow ashes.

Worth repeating Bill Holm: A thing succeeds when it is itself.


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