It was thirty degrees at the soccer fields on Saturday morning, and after a couple of hours in the wind, I retreated to the car to wait out the end of the games. I was parked next to an extended passenger van, with three or four kids in it, who had removed their shoes and were doing flips over the seats. They were presided over by a short, freckled fifth grader, whom I’ve seen around town, occasionally with his mother or father and several siblings. I’ve often thought I should make friends with this family, if for no other reason than that their life looks a little bit like mine.
Before long, the dad arrived at the van; he’d apparently been coaching a game. He threw a large mesh bag full of soccer balls into the back of the van, then got into the driver’s seat. He took a swig of coffee from his thermos, blew on his hands, and smiled at the kids as he shivered to get warm.
Still smiling, he threw the van in reverse, and then drove off with the too-short kid in the passenger seat and the shoeless kids still flopping around the back. Dads have such freedom. He probably either didn’t know or didn’t give a damn about car-seat laws in Indiana. Either way the effect was the same. Seat-belts are so un-fun, and that family was smiling in their van.
Sometimes I wonder what dour group of legislators has conspired to rob me of my joie de vivre by forcing me to contemplate my children’s mortality every time I get in the car, ensuring that I never hi-ho happily out the door with my kids, but that I’m always barking orders to buckle, and squeezing into crowded bench seats, urging non-movers to move, and the non-generous to make room–all of which doubles down on my slothful inclination to never go anywhere.
All this anger is because I love you, Children! I’m yelling at you to keep you alive! Now shut-up and buckle-up! (I don’t really say it that way, of course–I yell much more kindly.)
On any given day, man commits thousands of random acts of terror against nature. I see a nest tipped over, probably by one of my children, eggs smashed on the ground, a mother bird, squawking loudly nearby. Feticide. I drop the shovel into the dirt and see the halving of about twenty earthworms. One never knows if you’ve done them a favor by multiplying them, or if various halves will go on living, or if you’ve killed them altogether.
And the weeds in my flower bed–I have no mercy on them. One of the kids even asks why I’m digging up something with flowers on it: “Because nothing grows in my garden without my permission.” Growing up, I never liked cartoons in which flowers were personified–it was too much stress. No running barefoot through the backyard without crushing someone. It made me want to cry.
My oldest son got a bee-sting on the bottom of his foot, running barefoot. He cried too, then was back outside without shoes the very next day.
I heard about the bombing in Boston while eating a Greek Omelette at Grandma’s pancake house with my parents. My dad suggested that the kids sit with their backs to the flatscreen TVs to protect them from news of the bombing. What bombing?
I spent the rest of breakfast and all the next day feeling vaguely victimized while checking the monitors for news and footage.
Three people died in the bombing, many more in an explosion in Texas, but I tended naturally, shamefacedly, towards the news with perpetrators, gunfire, and car-chases.
Intermittently, I read an interview in Poets and Writers with Frank Bidart, an ex-Catholic who now practices poetry rather than religion as a means of satisfying the “urge for the absolute” that he’s been unable to shake, as well as the pain of being between two worlds–neither angel nor beast.
Is there anything worse than being neither good nor bad? Or rather, being both good and bad? I spit you out of my mouth.*
My urge for the absolute grew a little dull, coinciding with an increasing burn on my retinas. The present, the concrete, or rather the trending topics on my computer were too enthralling. My eyes hurt from checking.
See how we love our enemies– captured alive or photographed dead. Can’t take our eyes off them.
In Hans Keilson’s novel Death of the Adversary, there’s a fable about a king who was given a lovely herd of elk. He wanted to keep them safe from predators so he had all the wolves hunted and killed in his lands. Before long, without an enemy, the elk also died, because no one chased them to more fertile grounds. They needed an enemy to remain vital.
On a festive Sunday evening in what should have been Spring (nearly sixty degrees at the zenith and sunny), as neighbors were crossing the road to feed apple cores to the cows, I left our house after dinner for a walk.
Our house is one hundred and fifty years old. It needs work at all times. It’s made of orange clay brick with limey mortar, white gingerbread cut-outs on the gables, and rotting soffits and sills. About a mile down the road is another house similar to ours, built in the same era, a former school house. I saw a lady there about my mother’s age mowing her lawn. I’ve always wanted to talk to her, to tell her that I love her gardens and also to ask about her contractor. There are areas where her brick has been repaired, and in the back she recently put on a new addition, matched to the old with the utmost care.
The inside of her house was an accumulation of late attic/early thrift furniture, lots of dusty velvet, oriental rugs, an assortment of strange little figurines, and dark wood moulding. All the external objects surrounding this woman from the brick house, to the Russian sage and hemlock in her garden, the way she did her hair and make-up (lipgloss, blush, and a swipe of mascara on her upper lashes only) revealed that this was a person who likes all the things I like, indeed a person very much like me.
We talked for forty-five minutes before I thought to tell her my name. She told me hers as well. She expressed an interest to see some of the projects we have going on at our house, and we tentatively made plans to have coffee one morning. I gave her my phone number. She did not offer hers I noticed, and I wondered if she was pulling the “don’t call me–I’ll call you” maneuver I’ve used rather often myself. Even as I handed her my number, I felt an undercurrent of apprehension at the thought that she might actually call.
What if the relationship moves too quickly from casual acquaintance to a friendship with requirements?
I should not have worried. I haven’t heard from her.
I have close friends, distant friends, friends who live too close, and a few faraway friends as well.
I recently imagined a gathering of friends who live too far away to be as close as I’d like them to be, at my parents’ farm. Yes there would be beds for most people if they’d like to stay awhile. Weather permitting, some might prefer to camp out. We could rotate cooking assignments and clean up, or roast weenies over the fire.
The only hardship might be on the plumbing, and the embarrassment of having to explain that guests should go to the upstairs bathroom to let gravity work on heavier loads. This is one of the quirks of living in the county. In other country bathrooms I’ve known, people have put up signs over the toilet paper roll: “Have mercy on our country plumbing! Our pipes rebel at (all the likely suspects in a pipe rebellion).”
I long for friends who are thousands of miles away with whom to spend evenings one-upping each other over our tastes in whisky and novels. I’m reticent about friends next door, the difficult ones with whom I might find myself in a protracted game of Chickenfoot on the dominos. Either way, I can’t seem to contemplate friendship without also imagining the sh*t that comes with it.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Sinners do as much. Love your enemies, do good to them. Then your reward will be great.**
So if you have mostly imaginary friends, as well as imaginary enemies, do you really love anyone? Both my friends and my enemies are too far away to cause me much discomfort.
And what if the ones who love you, and the ones you say you love, are the ones who tend to get the worst of you?
And what if you find yourself avoiding people, like your son’s teacher at school who has sent two emails this week informing you of his bad behavior since you stopped giving him medicine, and like the other mom on the soccer team who just called to tell you that your daughter borrowed her son’s sock for the game last week, and would she please bring it back because he needs that sock (and you now have no idea where the sock is, nor where your own socks are)?
What if most the people you encounter are neither friend nor enemy but people who seem, inexplicably, a tiny bit hostile to your plans? If they are adversaries, urging you to move on to different, more verdant pastures, what then, if you are incapable of complying? Do you just sit around dying?
“Love hinders death,” writes Tolstoy in War and Peace.
Anytime the soul chooses to isolate itself rather than to embrace others, the ego is getting its way. The further you go into yourself, the less you are actually living.
I want to question Frank Bidart: I don’t believe in the redeeming value of poetry, because “the urge for the absolute,” I believe, is about being in relationship with God and through him, with others. Is it really better to create something beautiful than it is to occasionally have to do really ugly things (like cleaning pooh) out of love for other people?
In which case, one must reconcile with the turds. Seek them out even. The enemy is isolation. Do good to those who impair my desire to isolate myself.