I have thoughts, honest, but can't seem to mashall them - so I'll just share this quotation, which I found in a box downstairs. I put it together with a photo of myself on a bicycle on an off-road trail and kept it on my desk when I was a respectable person with my own office. I can't believe I'd forgotten about it.
"[T]here is no highway from infancy to maturity. It's all country roads with detours, dead ends, even places where we have to scout our own trail across untrodden country. The journey of human life and growth is an adventure, not an easy and predictable commute.
And there are places, of course, where we wander quite off the trail because we aren't paying attention or even run off in pursuit of something that, deep down, we already know is a mistake. The amazing thing is that even those mistakes become part of our path. As we emerge from our floundering in the brush, our wandering in the forest, and find a new sense of direction, we discover that we have not merely left our off-road adventure behind. Instead it has become part of us in unexpected ways. It has given us new insight, new courage, new humility, new life."
Oh how I wish I had written that, but it was L. William Countryman in his book Forgiven and Forgiving. Like any writer I'm tempted to add commentary, but, paraphrasing Teddy Roosevelt, I would only mar it. It speaks for itself.
I'm sort of cheating here. This really ought to -- and probably will -- be posted in the workshop, but I wanted to share it today. A sort of anti-Valentine's Day card (and I do think the day has become a marketing tool and little else). To remind that love is not always easy or forever. It's a draft chapter from my WIP, about a guy who is part of a genetically-mandated group of men allowed (or is it condemned?) to live forever. He's reached a point in his relationship with a woman he loves, a point at which he feels he must make a difficult decision.
JUST AS LONG AS YOU'RE HERE
With nervous fingers I text that I’m downstairs. While waiting for the lock to click open, I distract myself by marveling at how things have changed. Once we knocked; then we rang a bell; then we pushed a button that sounded in the apartment; then we talked into an intercom. Now we text. What next? I’ll find out eventually, since all things come to those who wait. For those who have time. Which I do, in spades.
When I get upstairs she’s standing at the open door, smiling. “This is a surprise. What brings you here?” She steps aside and gestures me into a spotless and perfectly arranged room, white upholstery, black varnished tables, white carpet and a black grand piano. As always I feel awkward, like an extra on the wrong movie set. I remove my shoes and cross to my usual chair. She sits beside me and we exchange pleasantries. Those words run out and silence settles around us. Finally she looks at me through pale blue eyes, framed by black hair and that perfect face I’d never grow tired of, smooth soft skin accented by one perfect little mole. This is going to be so hard.
“What is it?”
“I have something to say, Cassie, something I don’t want to say, but I have to.”
She keeps smiling but now beneath a furrowed brow. “We promised no secrets..”
I take deep breath. I set aside my prepared speech, those gentle lies covering the fact that I’m leaving her now because I will lose her later. Because I’d rather remember who she is now than watch her grow old and die. Selfish or noble, I don’t know, but it’s what I must do.
“I’m afraid I do have a secret, one I cannot reveal.”
I see unshed tears in her eyes, but she is calm, though the smile is gone. She rests her hand on my arm. “And it means you must go far away forever.” Before I can reply she puts her finger to my lips. “I’ve seen this act before. Keep your secret. I don’t want to know it.”
I lean back and sigh. I want to convince her that this is no act, but I can’t break my oath, can’t mention immortality. All I can say is, “I love you Cassie, that’s the truth, and would have done so just as long as you’re here. But I can’t and I can’t say why.”
We stand. A few tears slip down her face. I would like to kiss them away, but I don’t dare. “Just as long as I am here,” she murmurs. “That’s an odd phrasing. Some hint I suppose, but I’m not going to work it out. Just go on your mysterious way, play your noble game. But you should know one thing.”
She brushes aside the tears, at least for now. “I would have loved you forever.”
She means it. But she doesn’t have forever. I do.
While filling the bird feeders in the cold February dawn, I recalled some February mornings more than 40 years ago. I shared the upper half of an old house with two roommates -- a cousin recently discharged from the Marines, and a mutual friend of about our age. I was in college part-time and to support myself found a job in the city's first "self-service" gas station. My job was to sit in a small booth, smoking cigarettes and browsing old Playboys, for 4 hours every weekday morning, and take payments from people who fueled their own cars. (Remember how long ago this was, the idea was radical). The cost was significantly lower than in the full-service stations, and the location was prime, so I was usually busy. The hardest part of the job itself, save for the boredom, was dealing with little old ladies who didn't understand the concept, and would sit blowing their horns for service and tell me off for being lazy when I refused to comply.
But the worst part of that job was knowing that my roommates were inside at home, nice and warm, probably still asleep. My cousin was going to college on the GI Bill, and the other roommate was on long-term disability from his job. So their entire morning obligation was to get up and walk down to the mailbox once a week and pick up their checks, which were considerably larger than mine. Knowing that made those cold February mornings that much colder.
I didn't stay long at that job, and it has faded into welcome obscurity. But it remains in memory as the absolute worst.
My best job, and here I'm talking part-time or temporary jobs as opposed to career or professional, was a six-month stint working in lumberyard. I'd moved to an upper-midwestern city for, what else, a woman, and got the job through a temp agency. I spent my summer, fall, and part of winter there, unloading lumber from boxcars, loading trucks, stacking wood, the perfect physically-absorbing job. I recall the smell of wood and sawdust, the crisp blue skies with white scudding clouds, the clank and rumble of the trains, the conversation with drivers and co-workers, all of it contributing to a restful sense of place. I was a young man, still adrift, with no long-term plans and, as of then, no need to have any. A perfect waystation on my life's journey.
I had hitchhiked there from my hometown, a distance of some 200 miles, and that too sparkles in my memory. Back then lots of otherwise-sane young folks did that without fear and drivers were willing to stop. Standing by the road with my thumb out on a nice day was absolutely wonderful -- everything seemed so magnified, and I noticed the little things, like weeds beside the road, the feel of the wind, the whoosh of traffic, trusting in the flow of life, and the kindness of strangers. The drivers who stopped were invariably friendly. The bigger truth of course was different. Even then some drivers were evil, some hikers psychotic, but the balance then was far in favor of the sane and decent. Certainly in my experience.
Which reminds me, excuse the ramble, of one more scene from a couple years later. My then-girlfriend, later my wife and still later ex-wife, and I hitchhiked halfway across the country to visit a spiritual commune. More about that in another post, probably, but the scene I recall arose after we left the commune, when we had gotten dumped by our ride in the middle of a forked freeway bridge near a large city, and trudged across on a narrow shoulder, heavy-backpacked and grungy, dreading the cars that shot by so close, hoping no State Patrol cars were among them. We finally reached the end of the bridge and walked into some sort of truck stop. A middle-aged couple was just paying their tab, and the wife looked at us and said, "how wonderful it must be to be so free." All I felt at that moment was relief at having gotten off the bridge alive, and all I thought was how insane I must have been to undertake the journey.
Now in the cold light of reflection, I am glad I did it. And, I guess I could say that about most of my life thus far, that I've been incredibly lucky to have done those things, sometimes such stupid things, and survived. It's said that God looks out for the young and foolish. I was both. But in a good way. If there is such a thing.
In the preface to his semi-autobiography, My Life and Hard Times, James Thurber writes about being an "aging" writer (though he was actually only in his 40s) and says that he finds himself talking "largely about small matters and smally about great affairs." I think I know what he is talking about. As I consider myself and my writing, I realize that, for better or worse, my strengths are primarily in writing things like this, blogs in the 21st Century, "casuals" when Thurber wrote them in The New Yorker.
My take on things that don't matter much in the larger scheme of things. I'm fascinated by the politics of this era, appalled might be the better word sometimes, but my real interest is in the little things, the way my rabbit friend follows my footsteps through the snow or that he always finds himself to our back door. Or the squabbles between the finches and juncoes. Or the hiss of falling snow, the sudden sharpness of a winter wind, the mud of March, and the flow of melting ice when spring has finally arrived. The towering menace of thunderheads, the pelting of hail, the hot humidity of the Great Plains, the clearness of dry western skies, the smell of sage, the whir of grasshoppers, the screeching of jays. Those things touch me.
What I say or don't say makes very little difference to the larger world. I'm not indifferent, just realistic. Another of my favorite writers, H.H. Munro, a/k/a Saki, wrote a short piece called "The Mappinned Life,"in which an aunt and her niece discuss the Mappin Terraces at the London zoo, and how they give the animal inmates the illusion of freedom and the idea that they control their own destiny. The niece says it reminds her of her uncle, the way he always goes on and on about world affairs but never pays attention to things closer to home. The aunt angrily denies it.
At the end of their discussion, the uncle comes in and starts talking about the situation in Albania and how he has to go to the local tavern and share some new ideas. He can't understand why his wife suddenly bursts into tears. (I recommend reading the story itself, it's only a few pages).
I haven't yet decided what really matters to my writing life. The local paper in the city where I grew up had a human interest columnist (let's call him "Bob" since that was his name) who was very good at what he did, and was very well-read. One of his ongoing themes was that while he was writing his daily column he was also in the process of writing his version of The Great American Novel, and used to tease, and be teased about it, on a regular basis. As he grew older, his column tended toward the sadder side, as he shared his grief first about the passing of the family dog, then his mother-in-law who lived with them and had provided a lot of grist for the column, then the passage of his wife of many years.
After he retired, he kept in touch through his successor columnist ("Mike"). Bob had been a drinker and gustatorily indulgent man, and his health suffered accordingly. When he was hospitalized for what would likely be the last time, he asked Mike (also a good friend) to come see him at the end, so Bob could share what it was like to die.
Mike got the call and came in. The two men looked at each other, then Bob turned his head away, and died. He never got to write that final column.
Nor did he ever write that novel.
I wonder if I will end like that.
Sunday morning awoke to around 4 inches of snow, and temperature of around zero, with a windchill of minus 11. Ordinarily I would wait until around 10 a.m. and get out the snow blower, once I'm sure that the layabeds are awake and the church people are out or on the way. I don't want the whine and grumble and growl of the two-cylinder motor waking anyone.
But this day I decided to go old school and got out the shovel. The snow was light and fluffy, and the wind not that bad. And with the insulated coveralls and hooded sweatshirt, and winter gloves, all seemed manageable. Plus, I've started exercising, so this seemed like a bit of good cardio. The result was I was outside as the sun rose, feeling the burn and enjoying the dim stillness of a cold morning. I walked around back and shoveled a path to the bird feeders and stocked them, as a chickadee or two scolded me from the nearby branches, I presume for being late. Talk about ingratitude, scolding the hands that feed you. But then, what is an indulgence for me is a matter of life-and-death to them.
I had actually forgotten how beautiful a quiet winter morning can be, presuming one is adequately dressed. Or, for the sake of the birds, with adequate down and feathers. I at least have a warm house to retreat to, with hot coffee waiting.
Later that day the snow started up again, another couple inches. Time to clear the drive again. But this time I got out the snow blower. Shoveling is rewarding, but there can be too much of a good thing. And I wanted to watch the birds from my kitchen table, looking out into the cold stark sunshine, without shivering.
Separate names with a comma.