Sunday, June 22, 2008

Diary of Midsummer Day

4:30 am – The sky in the east has barely begun to turn oyster-gray, and the trees are black, lush cutwork before it. Already the robins are singing, that bell-like, lilting trill with which they greet every dawn from March to about mid-July, and every sunset from perhaps mid-April to September. One window, in one house down the street, is a lit gold square. Someone is up.

Around the country, right now, I have thirteen cousins – twelve, if I do not count the one I have never met – some of whom I haven’t seen in a year, or three years, or in thirty – who I suppose must be approaching their new morning’s work right now, as I am doing. Or rather, no. In California it is 2:30 in the morning. Barbara is asleep. So must be Tim and Becky in Oregon. In Florida the dawn must be even closer to breaking, and in Boston it must be full light. And behind me to the west in Iowa, a four hour drive away across the farmlands if I were to start now, the sky is, I suppose, beginning to be almost as oyster-gray as it is now.

My cousins, the children of my parents’ siblings, come in three sets: the five Smiths, the five Joneses, the three Coopers. I think of my small sets of cousins because two of the sets have lost all their parents – my aunts and uncles – in just a few years, and a cousin in the third set has just become a grandfather. One generation passes away, and the next has no pressing reason to keep in touch. To send an annual thank-you for an annual birthday card, or an announcement of the grandchild’s birth, is all that has preserved the illusion that we four families "were always so close" and always "had so much fun." When I hear the robins trill I wonder if robins live there, too, where my cousins live, elsewhere apart from the midwest. If they don’t, I wonder if my cousins have heard them sing since they left. How could you live without robins?

5: 00 a.m. The sky gradually glows into the palest orange tint. Before it the trees are silver-green. Sparrows and blue jays take over singing duties from the robins. Grackles run about the empty street, looking for something. According to the newspaper almanac, the sun will rise at 5:17, but here the suburban houses and trees stand so thick that I will not see it. I look, expecting to see an especially bright center to the amber-pink haze behind the trees, but that’s not it. At about five-thirty or a quarter to six, there is a smudge of yellow glowing on the street, and then in the trees the yellow sparkle of the sun.

It is June 24, Midsummer Day, the dawn after a midsummer night’s dream. (Rather like dutiful Lucy realizing she’s met a novelist in A Room With A View, one feels "one should read" that play now.) This is the day which Cassandra greets with shouted vowels – "Aaeeiioouu" – on a hilltop in the English countryside in Dodie Smith’s delightful novel I Capture the Castle. ("We first held the rites when I was nine – I got the idea from a book on folklore.") Robert Graves, in The Greek Myths, agrees with her. All the thirteen months of the pagan calendar and the four seasons, he says ("implicit in Greek and Latin myth and in the sacral tradition of all Europe"), are associated with the alphabet and with corresponding sacred trees: for June he gives the letter D and the oak, and for the summer solstice, U and heather. His researches appear impeccable: Hyginus, Isidore of Seville, Philostratus, Pliny, Plutarch.

For the modern person, gazing confused at the newspaper pictures of new American "pagans" holding midsummer rituals in their suburban living rooms – a large man wearing a little mask topped with undersized, fake deer antlers holds up a basket of bread toward the ceiling; the other people in the "coven" look on politely – for the modern person, it is a triumph of insight only to realize, groggily, that our remote forebears must have been more literate than we thought. They associated strange things. Trees, and the passing months, and the breaking dawn – and being able to read.

The sacral tradition of all Europe; one ought to read it, if one’s met her. Summer is for me the great time for associations with ghostly and distant Europe. The tales of Robin Hood and Maid Marian always take place in the timeless greenwood of summer. One imagines jousts and tourneys and all their waving pennons, blue skies, and smiling ladies with scarves fluttering from their conical hats, all being held in summer. One imagines princesses making their marriage journeys amid trains of palfreys and laden baggage-carts in summer. One imagines senators in togas, walking about Rome and discussing politics or Greek myth, in the heat and stately marble columns of a Roman summer. Charlemagne’s fantastic horse Bayard, of incredible swiftness, "is still alive and can be heard neighing in the Ardennes on Midsummer Day" (according to Bulfinch’s Mythology).

Somehow it seems all right for our American winters to be full of cars, stores, and bustling people shouldering their way through the wind and snow. It seems all right even for the summers to be association-less, Europe-less, if they are hot and American, chrome shining on baking cars, air conditioning thrumming, swimming pools glinting in the blinding sun, and radios blaring and children shrieking across the water. But today’s midsummer dawn is cool and fresh. No locusts yet buzz. There is, this morning, even the smell of distant things, the smell of cool asphalt and earth on the first day of school. It’s as cool as an eighteenth-century morning in a Georgian country house, the servants up and milady perhaps ready for a breakfast and a morning with Alexander Pope. A hundred years later Florence Nightingale is up and writing letters to government ministers in London, dated "before it is light." On Midsummer Day, here in a vast land where nobody stays home and we imported no rituals from the old world – or at any rate we have forgotten them – in a land whose aboriginal rituals we did not adopt, one greatly misses the most ancient things. One misses what used to be known. Poor modern pagans, do they know that their counterparts thousands of years ago sacrificed boys a few times a year, among other interesting rituals? Of course I don’t want them to do that, but do they know it?
Daisy sighs fecklessly in The Great Gatsby: "Don’t you always wait for the longest day of the year, and then miss it?"

8:30 a.m. – The duties and rituals of a modern household begin, really should have begun quite some time ago. Beds to be made, dishes washed, baking for a party planned, and groceries bought. Milady has no servants. One must look at the garden. Already I have seen a large rabbit ostentatiously eating a large weed beside the garage. He chewed and chewed, and looked at me as if to say, ‘here I am eating this awful-looking thing. I wouldn’t touch your garden.’

9:00 a.m. – If my children were not home on summer vacation and thus receptive to a bad example, I would turn on the television, as I sometimes do at this hour, to see what Oprah’s doing today. She fascinates me because she has made her unfathomable fortune by understanding and feeding the passions of a large and wealthy clientele: the middle-class, young-middle-aged, usually white American woman. Her morning television show is perfect in its weekly balance of tragedy, degradation, humor, moral uplift, celebrity gossip, and fantasy housekeeping, shopping, and personal grooming. One day she interviews a once-beautiful young woman, rendered monstrous by injuries in a car crash. The next day a homeless woman wins the lottery, and the next, a nice married couple have their ugly home redecorated and their ecstatic reaction filmed, and shown, and laughed with.

Milady in her Georgian house on a cool summer morning, or for that matter milady’s servants, up at dawn with their pots and rags, did not have this option with which to fill their time. Would they have availed themselves of it, if they had? We do. Yet there is a nagging feeling that, somewhere in the tangled cross-webbings and ruts and puddles at the beginning of the modern age, human nature changed as it poked across a new landscape. We became, unlike our busy and confident ancestors, the sort of people who would look at television. And we seem to look forward to a day when our descendants will be cured of the habit. How many characters in futuristic science fiction movies and television shows watch television? Few. If anything, they are shown outdoors, or conversing, or even reading. The beautiful young people in the latest Star Wars: Attack of the Clones romp and smile, wearing imperial robes in a grassy, stupendous landscape – Italy gone mad. They talk politics, and morals. We seem to have hope. Perhaps milady in the future will know that this strange entertainment existed, but will wonder What on earth, &c., and thank God her own generation and society have shaken off the peculiar habit. Perhaps she’ll be busy reading Pope.

10:25 am – the full blaze of morning sun, in the robust childhood of the day. A goldfinch sings, tiny and yellow in the mulberry tree. There is an elderly man running a lawnmower down the street, and American flags flying from three or four houses. The patient dog next door, "the golden dog" my children call her, has now been outside and tied up alone for two hours. It will go on for hours more. (Her name is Autumn, as it happens.) These are the neighbors we don’t speak to because of it.

12:30 p.m. – noon in the garden, or near it. Like the Titaness Rhea on Mt. Lycaeum in Arcadia, one casts no shadow (Robert Graves again, in The Greek Myths: "a fire sacrifice was probably offered there, when no creature casts a shadow – that is, at noon on midsummer day").
This is my garden’s third year. I used to call it "my pathetic little garden," while secretly being proud of it. I trusted that this year, when according to the proverb it should "leap," it would be tidy and spectacular. In fact I have learned that what I am doing is not so much gardening, as establishing a perennial garden, which is a different task entirely and will take years of nurturing before the proverbial pattern of "sleep – creep – leap" gets underway.

I have learned from experience not only what plants will not survive a Zone 5 winter (pampas grass will not, neither, evidently, will carnation or delphinium), and what will not survive any season at all in sandy soil (wandflowers and freesia will not), but more importantly I have learned what is too delicious for even the shrewdest rabbits, squirrels, and possibly deer to resist. I have an Asiatic lily, hardy to 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, which is being stripped down to its skeleton by someone. Dense blazing star, a native and wonderful for difficult soils – the same. Coreopsis, yellow and cheerful, the same. Violet foliage, rather too large actually, but at least alive, the same. All that has managed to thrive have been the simplicities of Jacob’s ladder and Shasta daisy, poppy, and – I must admit one triumph – foxglove. Milady in her cool Georgian house, with her gardener to tend the gardens, would not be impressed.

A mass of white cloud, as thick and tattered as winter, approaches from the north and west, shoveling away the blue sky. An ice-cream truck makes the rounds of the silent neighborhood, idiotically playing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." There are no children anywhere in sight, except my own, who make up games, read, listen to music, or play chase all day. Though it is scarcely past noon, I notice how simply planning the day’s work and events can make the day seem shorter: I must do this, and that, and then in a little while it will be time to start dinner. And then evening sets in, and the longest day of the year, almost, will be over.

3 p.m. – A blanket of gray cloud seems to have settled over the world, and it grows continually cooler and quieter. Birds have ceased to sing. A neighborhood that is always peaceful (and one ought to count one’s blessings) seems, this afternoon, positively grim. I know the houses contain two sorts of people: the elderly, with nothing much to do, and no one to talk to since their elderly neighbors have moved away; and the grim young families who have replaced them, and who seem not to emerge from seclusion except to take the children to some lesson or duty, and then grimly return. (And which sort am I?)

There has been a breath of rain. A full and nourishing shower would have been more cheerful. Thou visitest the earth, and waterest it: thou greatly enrichest it with the river of God, which is full of water (Psalm 65:9).

4:30 p.m. And what of the greater world? I have missed the 4:00 news on the radio. I lack the time to sit in front of the television, and have not yet seen the day’s paper, which will only contain yesterday’s news. I know that the South Korean man was beheaded in Iraq the day before yesterday.

But I am not sure how healthy it is anymore to know all the tragedies and griefs, most of them private, that it is possible to know through the news, or what use it is anymore to contribute, through one’s attention and money, to the clamoring and clacking organs of news that spread before us a salacious banquet made of other people’s suffering. Every moment spent reading a newspaper is not only no use to them, but is also a moment spent away from what might be much more eternal things. Including not just reading Pope, but doing some kind of local good. It’s not that one wants to escape the responsibility of knowing about human trouble; one wants to escape the pornography of knowing it all. So Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (V,i,9): "One sees more devils than vast hell can hold: That is the madman."

But then, without the news, my world might be as pastoral as ------shire in a Jane Austen novel. Which in turn might be fine except that, while the great world carries on with its news as it did then, we lack her people’s habits of local gaiety – imagine adults in America, organizing a dance for themselves – and their ability to write letters out toward the greater world, and inward, to each other. So we have a mental world full of the pornography of too much news, but boasting no local fun. Now I could, for example, write letters to my twelve cousins, who live all over the country, as far as I know without robins. I have done so, once or twice, as a child eager to keep up with adult relatives, and as an adult, rather shyly proud of my own children. They would never dream of writing back, nor have I ever pursued the correspondence beyond one letter. It’s no one’s fault. We simply don’t do that, any of us. It would be so queer and cold, like dancing. The habit of response has been lost. We watch the news.

8:30 p.m. After a gray lowering day, I had an object lesson in keeping up with relatives. I went to a restaurant to buy some pies and was surprised to see my husband’s nephew come out to greet me, a young man whom I might speak to once every two years, at a family gathering, at best. It was kind of him to bother.

The sunset was a clear and fiery pink mist, all over the broad northwest sky. A handful of red geraniums on my neighbor’s porch garden turned a dusky ruby color before it, and before all the dark trees. One mourning dove whistled, and a few robins gave their last, loud chips. It was too cool for crickets to ring, or for fireflies to light up.

My cousins, I suppose, will soon all go to bed, my parents’ siblings’ children of forty and fifty years ago, whose childhood homes in the nearby suburbs I could go and look at in thirty minutes or an hour if I wanted to. Places bound in the warp and woof of their memories, which they have not seen in years. All within the sound of robins. Another day has passed without our seeing each other. It doesn’t matter so much, except when I think with what unbelieving delight and what peculiar ease we would greet each other – family – if a reunion were planned, or a special trip, or something. And how rarely that is done, increasingly rarely in proportion to the speeding years. When they pulled away from the curb in 1974 – or when we did – the barbecue smoke from the food we had eaten still lingering in the summer afternoon air, it seemed plausible that we might "get together" as soon as not. It seemed as likely as that tomorrow would come. After all, here we all were today, right? Soon I had other things to think about, like starting fourth grade. Now my children draw conclusions and ask, "So if your cousins all have kids, then we’ve got second cousins we don’t even know? So, like if we moved there, we could marry our cousins, and not know it?" Yes, in theory you could. "Eee-ew."

How nice if this midsummer day could have been crowned by a full moon, holding the place of the winter sun. Instead the moon was a crescent, hidden behind clouds in the west, and near it lay Jupiter, king of the gods, shining high above the trees, as he has been all spring. In ancient Europe we would have rolled burning wheels down hills tonight, to mimic the beginning of the decline of the sun from its highest point of the year; to remind ourselves of what we know.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Life goes on

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Pearls and Roses -- chapter 3

Pearls and Roses, chapter 2

The rest of that Saturday, Alice tried to go about her business as if she had forgotten the minor events of the morning, as if they were worth only a shrug. It would not have occurred to her to go to a clergyman and ask why people are so awful, but she did run the scene through her mind again and again, and the more she considered it the more she wished that sheer, righteous rage had taken possession of her and made her order the woman from her home. Alice was a great one for tamping down instincts Perhaps that was her strongest instinct – to deny that any reaction to anything is ever valid, because you had to consult the other person’s feelings first. Even in a crisis like this, even while she was being berated in her home, Alice’s first feelings ran toward the other person’s heart, assumed the other person’s delicacy of feeling. She felt, inarticulate, while it was going on: this woman must be mortified at having to berate me in front of my unkempt, bed-smelly son, in my unkempt apartment. She must long to get out of here. I’ll bet she regrets coming. I must be kind.

And she controlled herself and the woman left, and only after that, all day, could Alice begin to think as a normal human being again and not as her own assumption-driven, instinct-tamping self. How free and wonderful it must be to have roaring, rage-filled reactions to immediate events. Trish had them, obviously – she came here, Alice thought – and so did Pat ("quite upset"), and look what power rage gave them. The power to act. Alice didn’t feel rage until it was all hours over, by which time the fact of rage’s delay was itself enraging. She had truthfully been more fascinated by Trish as a specimen, and more concerned with Polly and Jill’s safety, than she was outraged by Trish’s causing the whole situation. And there was shock, undoubtedly. The paralysis of shock. Shock at the effrontery of other people’s rage. Where did they get it?

Well, she couldn’t help what she had done. She told herself that at eleven o’clock that day, and at noon and at one, and two-forty and three, and five-fifteen and midnight and beyond. If she had reacted weakly, strongly, badly, or otherwise, it was over now. Now all that remained was to work with this woman beginning again Tuesday morning, and going on indefinitely. And who knows? Perhaps she had wounded Trish much more than Trish let on. Alice enjoyed that thought, and was troubled by it as well. Was that, then, proper rage?

She told Pam the story of Trish’s morning invasion of her house when Pam came to pick up Jill and Polly, and Pam told her husband, Alice’s brother John, and so the family were all ready to hash it out at their customary New Year’s Eve brunch the next day. For the McNamara family it was a delightful afternoon as usual, everything exactly the same as last year and the year before, which is exactly what the family looked forward to. There was the usual champagne, and the mushrooms and pilaf and the perfect roast, and Nan’s vegetables and Claudia’s eggnog cake and Jason’ s eternal contribution of a box of cashews and another of dark-chocolate buttercreams; and everyone circulated easily and excitedly, picking up, without preliminary, the threads of conversations last dropped perhaps at the summer picnic of half a year before, or maybe of the last New Year’s brunch itself. They were a family neither close nor estranged, but simply normal, as far as Alice was concerned. She had not slept much the night before.

"So what’s this about some awful woman who came to your house to yell at you last week?" Alice’s mother asked – coincidentally named Pamela also, though always Pamela and never Pam – while she and three brothers, two sisters-in-law, and their father all sat around the ancient family table.

"Oh! Yes, this was yesterday," Alice corrected her. "Yes, she came to tell me how awful I am. Right in front of Jilly and Polly and Hunter, of course. He was eating cereal."
"What was this dame’s problem?"
"Oh, she had a bee in her bonnet about this letter I wrote about our company’s excursion to Europe. Remember I told you what a disaster that was?"
"Oh yes, didn’t they tell you never to come back or something?"
"Not quite, but it was quite a fiasco and I had to go and apologize to this bar-owner in France whom I had never met and everything. Thank God he spoke English. But I felt like such an imperialist for that, too."

"Don’t you?" Jason put in parenthetically. "I did too, all the time I was in Italy. Asking directions in English and everything."

"Oh, apologizing, you’d be good at that," Mrs. McNamara said, glancing a little sharply at her daughter out of the corner of her eye. "So she didn’t like you apologizing?"

"I don’t think it was that. I think she would have loved for me to apologize to her yesterday. In fact she demanded it, and I said no. In Europe, it had to be done. No, yesterday – I’m not sure what she didn’t like." Alice’s face turned hot as she felt everyone around the table quieting down and paying attention to her. "I think she felt that I had wounded everyone’s self-esteem by explaining what had happened, and how I thought we might be getting a terrible reputation among professional circles."

"And are you?" Dave asked.
"If we’re not, it’s not through lack of trying."
"She asked you to apologize?" John added, also parenthetically. "And you said no?"
"I said no."
"How bad was this letter?" Claudia asked, and their father said, "That’s what I would want to know. How bad could it have been?"

"Apparently horrible, although I thought I was being the soul of tact," Alice said. "I just wrote that we had really, uh, stubbed our toes in Europe this time around and that maybe we should face up to doing things the way our poor old ancient bylaws say we should. If we had been doing that, we never would have been at a party, we never would have been in Europe, to begin with."
"Oh, really," Dave continued. He lowered his head like a bull and stared at her over his glasses.

"Yes, I heard about this party. Mom was telling us one night. The police were called to some bar?"
"Almost, from what I heard. I wasn’t there." I was at the opera with a distinguished older man, she wanted to say. "One of our employees had gotten a few too many under her belt and decided to, well, shake things up, or have a good time, I guess."
"This self-esteem nonsense is going to be the bane of everybody," Alice’s mother said. Alice felt both relief and disappointment at the evident change of subject. "Look at the schools. It’s ruining the schools."
"Oh, I know, but people are raised on it."

Then John spoke, slowly. "Does this lady have kids?"
"Yeah, she has two."
"Did she bring them with? Yesterday?"
Alice shook her head, majestically. "No."
He stared at her, himself the father of the toddlers Jilly and Polly. "So she left her kids at home – what does her husband do? I assume she’s married."
"Oh yes, she’s married. Her husband’s in construction or heating and air conditioning or something. One of those jobs every guy has now, servicing those huge cardboard houses out in the boondocks that only they can afford to live in. I read somewhere that a housing boom feeds on itself like that."
"Really," Dave began with interest, but John resumed, again slowly: "So she left her kids at home, so – how old are they?"
"I’m not sure. Elementary school, I think."
"She left her kids at home so she could come to your house and berate you while you were watching kids. My kids."
John contemplated this as though it were a deep philosophical problem. He took a breath then and said, "That bites. She’s got a nerve. Were my kids good?"

Everyone laughed. "They were fine. Yes, she’s got nerve. It was hilarious in a way. Hunter had just gotten up, and of course he’s got the bleary eyes and the bed hair and everything." Alice’s mother began to laugh. "Meanwhile Polly and Jill are wandering around tripping over things. This lady’s house is always House Beautiful and of course mine’s a disaster – "

"You’ve been to her house?" John interrupted.
"Oh yeah, for meetings and stuff."
"What’s it like?"
She smirked dismissively. "Huge. Gorgeous. She’s in interior arts consulting, so of course there are white leather sofas and all these bizarre paintings all over the walls."
"Art consulting, what does that mean?"
"She teaches people how to – how to – " Alice groped for words, and turned to her mother and Claudia.
"How to arrange furniture, lighting, paint, interior decorating, that kind of thing, right?" Claudia said.
"Oh, so she’s an interior decorator."
"Well, sort of," Alice said, but then wanting to be fair, she went on. "She also teaches classes in fine art, and the history of packaging, how to combine things so they look nice, I guess. That’s her background, anyway. I swear what it amounts to is that she tells people what to do. In their own homes." She wanted the conversation to resume its light and laughing tone.

"So how long did whoo-sie, this dame, stay?" John asked.
"Oh God. Close to an hour."
"Cripes." He looked up at her. "But my kids were good."
"They were fine. They were terrified, but they were fine." Everyone around the table laughed anew. "They ended up crouching behind the TV until she left. I was terrified."
"I think I’d crouch behind the TV, too," Mrs. McNamara said, laughing. "Did you, ah, think of showing this woman the door?"
"I came very close to it."
"I think I would have pointed it out and said, ‘Ah, lady, this works both ways. In and out.’"
"Shoot," Jason spun out carefully, "I would have kicked her down those stairs you’ve got. That’s a good long flight, isn’t it?"

Alice was laughing happily. "Fourteen," she said, "I counted, back when I was carrying a baby up and down them every day."
"Sure. I’d say, ‘Here, bitch, here’s some self-esteem, right here!’" And their mother said, "Oh, Jason!" and everyone laughed. The conversation moved on. No one asked what would happen next. "Anyway. I’m glad you stuck to your guns," Mr. McNamara said privately to Alice later.

The brunch went on until about seven at night, when the family broke up to attend to their various plans for the real, black-and-silver New Year’s Eve. Mr. and Mrs. McNamara looked forward to a safe quiet evening with each other and the television, and savoring the pleasurable memories of the little party just passed. Thank God none of their children had ever yet moved out of town. John and Pam had plans with friends, Jason and Claudia with Claudia’s family. David had a co-worker’s party to go to and even Hunter had somewhere to go. Like her parents, Alice looked forward to the safety and privacy of home. She would relax tonight with her favorite things, a pot of tea, bread and butter, and a fresh book. And her thoughts her own, not Trish’s, she hoped. "Resentment is letting someone you hate live rent-free in your head." She had surely earned better than that.

Pearls and Roses, chapter 4

Pearls and Roses -- chapter 2

Pearls and Roses, chapter 1

Trish was too upset by this interview to try to go on and accomplish the neighborhood errands she had mentioned. She drove towards home, sniffing back the tears – incredible, tears – alone in her car. She did not know who on earth to talk to about this. Of course she could telephone Pat, but they had been through this already, so much, and Trish felt she needed to tell this story fresh, to someone new. Besides, though a good friend, Pat was so much tougher than she was; she really did shrug Alice off. And it was not a Gallic shrug. It was just Pat, big and clanking and right, with tiny brown eyes like spearpoints in barbarian firelight that saw everything and had no doubts, and a big raspy laugh that laughed at everything. Trish could confide in her husband, but he already knew the story, too. He was the one who asked her to leave the computer and come to bed last night. And anyway men were so obtuse about women’s things. They didn’t seem to fight, ever, among themselves. They had no morals about delicate things, and didn’t care.

Trish wanted to speak to someone entirely new. As she waited at the stoplight to turn into her beautiful neighborhood – there was the splendid community center on its hill, where Miranda and Rory had art lessons and she and Dan saw Shakespeare in the theater-in-the-round every spring, and there was their huge church among the oaks, its roof sweeping up to a point like a pair of praying hands – it occurred to her that she would very much like to talk to Father Mike. Suddenly she wanted to talk to a professional with a key to the infinite, to kindness, who would understand petty problems, petty squabbles, and yet be upbeat, holy, and sympathetic about them. She wanted to try to understand the brutality of Alice, and why people are like that and why this was happening to her.

She made her turn when the light went green and then pulled up short right into the church’s parking lot, such an unaccustomed maneuver for her, especially on a Saturday, the day usually given to errands. It was an unaccustomed maneuver for the driver behind her too. He blared his horn at her angrily and then sped on. She became more upset and was astonished to feel herself sweating, she, normally so self-possessed. Perhaps she was being silly in coming here unannounced on a Saturday morning. Perhaps there was a mass going on and Father Mike was not available. What could a priest tell her, what did he know about the world? Maybe he had gone to visit his family for the New Year’s weekend and the place would be locked. In chagrin at her own indecision she almost gunned the engine and sped right on through the parking lot and out to the side street that led to her street by another way. But she remembered the delight and relief she had just felt half a minute before at the idea of confiding in a new person, an eternal person, and with some nervousness she parked the car after all, turned off the ignition, undid her seat belt, and got out. She felt a little giddy. Talking to a clergyman, just for her own reasons? Not to plan a wedding or a communion or something? Who was she trying to kid?

Luckily the glass doors to the foyer were unlocked and she passed in and found Father Mike simply sitting in the secretary’s office as if everything were quite ordinary. How foolish she felt. She was going to have to intrude upon this man’s day and burden him with some overwrought emotional problem, when perhaps he was merely thinking of watching football this afternoon, or expecting her to drop off a little check for the sharing parish and then be on her busy way again. She felt cruel and pointless, she normally so sure of her decency, she whose mother had enrolled her in years of etiquette lessons as a child. She had even learned how to get out of the back seat of a car while wearing a formal gown, and she still got out of her car that way, all the time.

Father looked up and smiled. He was typing on the computer. "Trish! Good morning. Happy New Year."
"Happy New Year, Father," she smiled weakly.
"How are you?"
She blew out a sigh. "Well, not good, actually."
His attention had been half with her but now was fully with her. He looked at her face. "Really, why is that?"
"Have you got a minute to talk? Are you busy?" Exactly what she had asked Alice on the phone. And look how that had turned out. She was frightened.
"Sure, I can talk." He closed out whatever he was doing on the machine and turned to her, complete attention at the ready. "Do you want to go in my office?"
"Oh no, let’s not bother," she answered as she loosened her coat and dropped her bag on the floor beside a chair. Alice was not worth the high seriousness of a priest’s office, with the crucifix and all the books. She sat down. "I won’t keep you only a minute."
"Keep me as long as you like. How is everything? Are the kids all right?"
"Oh, yes, yes, we’re all fine. Believe me, this is nothing serious. I just had this miserable experience this morning, and I want you – well, I want you to explain human nature to me, I guess!" She laughed, as she did so many times each day, that beautiful bell-like laugh which echoed against her straight square teeth and then seemed to double back and double-echo again, that laugh that reminded you of singing, that made you wonder if Trish sang professionally. Surprisingly, it was the one characteristic of hers whose effect she was unaware of.

"Explain human nature," he repeated, "all right, I’ll give you two minutes."
"Thank you so much," she laughed.
"So what happened this morning?"
"Oh, I had an altercation with this woman I work with. She’s extremely difficult, and I just want to know what to think." Father Mike nodded, and Trish went on. She first gathered her thoughts, swallowed, and then laid her small, plump hands, like the small paws of a gentle white dog, a Samoyed, gracefully on the desk in front of her.

"My company took a business trip to France a couple weeks ago. I work for Monique-Boyd, you know, it’s a foundation and a studio that films architectural restoration projects? We’re on public television sometimes."
"Of course, I’m familiar with it. Quite prestigious, isn’t it?"
"Well, rather prestigious, yes," Trish nodded. "And I’d like to keep it that way, as a matter of fact. Anyway we went, about ten of us, to film some work that’s being done on an old medieval abbey in France. Okay, so far so good. Well, this woman I’m talking about, she has had a bee in her bonnet for some time about the way the company operates, its expenses, its bylaws, all this picayune stuff that nobody has thought of in years. The company’s foundress, late foundress, hasn’t thought of it in years, we’re making money, we do wonderful work, we’ve heard through the grapevine that the Peabody Awards people may be interested in us, I mean - we’re doing fine."
"Okay, so back to France. We’re there for only a week, filming this highly important abbey restoration project that Frank – Mr. Boyd, the founder, had arranged for us to do years ago, and a couple things happen. Monique Boyd, Mrs. Boyd, died, so of course we’re pretty upset even though she was eighty – at least, I was upset – and then after I and a couple other staff had left Europe early to attend the wake back here, there’s this little party, on our last night, everybody’s last night there, in a little cafe in the town where we were staying. Where they were still staying. Okay? Do you follow me?" She put her hand on her heart. "I personally was gone."

"All right, so apparently this dinner party got out of hand. I don’t know. There was no reason it should have gotten ‘out of hand,’ whatever that means. We always arrange a little dinner out on the last night of all our field trips because – well, because we work hard and we want to attract good people to our staff and reward them, and it’s never caused a problem before. So there was this little party, something went wrong, two executive board members were not there to deal with this – I mean myself and my vice-president – and the person who does deal with it, she’s the treasurer, is this woman who I then dealt with this morning."

In fact Father Mike was having a hard time following this and Trish sensed she had not really reached him. It was so different with the women who knew the story. By this point in the narration, they were already mesmerized and, very probably, indignant.
"Okay," he said, squinting a little. "Are you sure you don’t need a lawyer instead of me?"

She smiled, again wearily. "No, although I know it sounds like that. No. What this woman did was to go, first of all, and apologize to the bar owner, in France, where things evidently went wrong, which is fine. She was the correct person to have done that and I salute her for it. But then she took it upon herself to write this incredibly nasty letter to the whole staff about how terrible we all are, and we do everything wrong, and we have to change, we personally, you know, like we’re not good enough? Because she thinks so? It was just unbelievable. And without a word of consultation with anyone, just – out it goes. I think she fancies herself way too intellectual for all us little nobodies, and I think she was just waiting for a chance to berate us all. You’re lucky if she speaks two words to you in a year, normally, and then there’s this. I mean she’s totally insufferable. I’m sorry, that’s not nice and it’s Christmastime, but that’s what I think." She paused and waited for him to speak.

"Well," Father Mike began, "all right. We can’t help our experiences. And what we learn from them. I suppose sometimes when our feelings are deeply engaged, we think we have to reach people, shake them up somehow."

Trish did not quite understand, at first, whom he was speaking about, but when she realized he meant Alice she had her opening and went on. "Oh, she succeeded. This shook me up. It shook everyone up. I was so hurt. And I just – I couldn’t let it go. And I have friends, my vice-president, who couldn’t let it go. Don’t you think it’s wrong to let a person just be mean like that? Don’t you think they have to be stood up to?"

He leaned back in the chair and looked out the window, puffing out his cheeks with breath. "Well ... if you’re talking about absolute injustice, yes."
"Well, to me, this was. You’re right. Absolute injustice. That’s a good way of putting it." Father Mike drew a breath to intervene but she rushed forward. "So, I went to this woman’s house this morning. I tried to talk to her. I called her first to ask if I could come. I tried to be positive. I brought her a little pamphlet which I made on the spot last night, on the computer, detailing all the history of the company, all the places we’ve been, our work, our awards, our growth. I tried to talk to her about people skills. And I didn’t even use that expression, so I wouldn’t offend her. To me, I don’t know where she was raised, but she is an absolute retard about people skills. I mean, no sympathy at all, just in her own world, totally cold. I felt she owed everyone an apology, and she refused it. I felt she should at least acknowledge she had made a mistake, even just to me, and she refused that. What kind of person doesn’t understand that when you do something wrong, when you hurt people, you apologize? What kind of person is like that?"

And with that, Trish had abruptly finished. Father Mike missed a beat while this sunk in.
After a moment of thought he said, "I suppose she simply doesn’t think she has hurt anyone."
"How could she not? That’s what I’m asking. How could you not know?" Trish’s nervousness had vanished and she was feeling better and better. She loved Father Mike.

"Motivation, intent, is a mysterious thing," he answered. "That’s why it’s taken into account both in terms of sin and in law, I believe. If she meant well, or at least meant no harm ...." He knew that he was approaching taking the other woman’s side and that Trish had not come here for that. She wanted counseling, and that does not always mean the truth, or even a search for truth.

"If her motivation was genuine meanness, however, then – I mean if she has not committed an actual crime and is not a threat to anyone, in which case you would need to contact other authorities – if she overreacted and her motive was meanness, then you have probably a damaged, unhappy character on your hands and I’m not sure what else there is to do except perhaps have pity and stay out of her way. There are always people in this world who are hurt and unhappy, you know. We see them all the time. That’s why the saying goes that the church is a hospital for the sick, not a choir for the anointed."

Trish looked grim. "Well. I don’t doubt she’s damaged and unhappy. My problem is just...I don’t know." She reached down for her bag.
"Can you avoid her?"
She speculated a minute, and then broke into her bell-like laugh. "Not as much as I need to. She’s, well, I suppose evil is too strong a word, but she’s so weird and tense and masculine and out of control." Trish had never before paused to analyze another person’s character, and the words that spilled out now struck her as alien and sophisticated at once. She was startled, yet impressed with herself. She went on.

"If I really wanted to avoid her, and I really think I may need to, I would have to quit my job. That’s what it amounts to and it infuriates me. I hate her having that kind of power. Over all of us. I’m sure I’m not the only one. That’s not right. That’s why I went to speak to her this morning. She cannot have that kind of power, to drive good people away and ruin something nice. Something functioning. It’s unjust."

"Well. I doubt she can actually ruin a corporation, a business, on her own authority. That’s another thing lawyers are for," he smiled. "To prevent that kind of thing, to – to protect ...." He looked at her, hedging, and then decided to take a chance. "Unless you think she has actually hit a nerve and has uncovered some issue that is vital. Could that be what hurts so much?" Trish shook her head.

"Even if she had," she answered quietly, "she’s so scary no one would listen to her. No one is listening to her now, so the story is already over. Whatever she wants to do is already impossible. That’s what’s so ironic. All she can do is be mean. No. All she’ll do is drive people away who were doing a good job and who have no reason to be bogged down in scary stuff that would prevent them doing a good job." Her bell-like laugh returned. "Prevent them solving any problems. It’s really twisted. No."

He remembered he was her pastor. "Did you get the impression you affected her at all? Was she open to criticism, constructive criticism I mean, was she reasonably pleasant? Human?"
"No. Absolutely not. She was horrible. I felt like I was in a dragon’s den. It was almost surreal, like talking to a robot. Her place was a mess, kids all over. I was crying in the car on the way here, afterwards. I don’t cry easily. That’s why I stopped in here." She paused. "Why are people like that?" she pleaded. "What do I do? I feel I have no purpose. That’s it. I couldn’t reach this woman, and I have to work with her, and all she can do is harm. I feel I have no purpose."

Father Mike was looking at her with his face propped up on his knuckles. "It’s a quandary," he said, typically. "Would it help if I talked to her?"
"She would never come near you," Trish said, inwardly surprised at how quickly this answer had surged into her. "She would never come near anyone who offered help. And I wouldn’t even want you to have to meet her. There’s no need to burden you with that." Father Mike was on the point of making another suggestion when Trish sighed and continued, "Well, okay. You’re right. She is a damaged character and the answer for the moment is just to stay out of her way. I mean who knows, maybe she’ll quit."
He laughed. "That’s possible."
"That would be a godsend. Can you pray for that, or is that, like, rude or something?" And she laughed.
"I don’t know if we should pray for other people to act a certain way, to do a specific thing." ("For our benefit," he almost added, but did not.) "You can certainly pray for strength and wisdom to solve your problems, or to cope with problems that are insoluble. You know, like the Serenity prayer?"
She nodded, sniffing. "I know it. It’s beautiful."
"I’m sure God understands the heart, even when we’re not feeling sacred and angelic. Especially then. You could even pray for her."
"Oh, no." Trish looked up quickly, and they both laughed. "No, I’m not ready for that yet."
"Okay. Well, this helped. Thank you for letting me vent for a while." Trish rose, smiled rather tightly, shook hands with him, and left.

Pearls and Roses -- Chapter 3

Sunday, June 1, 2008

When I was St. George

What do you think of as you lay in bed at night, you who have not even the rudimentary possessions and proofs of living – man, baby, dirt and food and exhaustion yes, but proof among the rumpled sheets that you have gone out into the world, have lived? What replaces the breath and blood of family beating in the next room, when your own childhood-ness, the waiting time, fades decades into the background, when you haven’t seen childhood cousins in twenty-five years and it begins to look as though the waiting was all for nothing?

My sister ekes out her hardworking smiling solitude with hobbies, concerts, cats, and friends, but surely that was not all she had wanted. Surely, an endless smiling attendance at her pretty nieces’ weddings was less than she had wanted.

And yet look at other people’s stories, look at the Sunday paper. Look at the Sunday paper often enough and Elizabeth’s life, any life, will begin to seem suspiciously, unrighteously quiet. For one thing there are plenty of young women, "contributors," with their pictures at the back of the magazine, all teeth and curls, already finished interviewing prime ministers. Then there are the local women in the newspapers’ society pages, all teeth and curls, who evidently sketched a more compelling pattern of living twenty years ago, and are pearled and prominent now. It’s not that I envy them. It is not enough that Elizabeth has never seen Venice (neither have I yet), and has no family.

No, read beyond the society pages and get to the meat of the thing and it will seem that not only is her life serenely closed, sheltered, it is also unjustly, inhumanly clean and untroubled. Genuinely good people suffer. How many strong women in the newspaper human-interest pages (on the front pages, for God’s sake), have survived disease, drug addictions, and the death of children? How many foreign women in the paper have lived through war, bombs, starvation, agitation, finally to be interviewed in bright patterned cottons, a soft nobility of expression in their faces, finally to speak of closure, humor, and renewal? Suffering and great goodness bestow maturity and decency, and more goodness, and therefore the right to be happy. Women open halfway houses for the battered homeless, using personal funds more modest than my sister’s own. Women are sometimes vivacious, cancer-stricken, sincerely loved local actresses or wine importers, and joyfully get married on their deathbeds and then are laid to rest a week after with three devoted ex-fiances and the new widower as pallbearers. I won’t have three ex-fiances at my funeral. Neither will she.

What great, great stories. It seems hardly fair that the humble, dull, and good – the mistaken, the waiting – should not get what they probably wanted, and then age, and run all the usual human risks, all the while not earning nearly the attention that the paper heroines do. All their potty adventures scream little but ego anyhow. Yes, she wanted the morphine, but she wanted to marry him first. If I were in that hospital room witnessing that, I would have either burst out laughing or stormed out in disgust. Of course I probably wouldn’t have been a friend of such a grand person to begin with. How horrible I, we both, must be.

Naturally you put yourself into stories. Sometimes they are all over in a moment’s thought. You attend elegant parties in black and pearls, black pearls, while the black city glitters below, outside large plate glass windows. There was once a pair of earrings for sale in the Metropolitan Museum of Art catalog, one black drop pearl and one white drop pearl, modeled on a pair worn by a Rubens Venus. You imagine wearing them, and someone complimenting you on them. You say arch things to prominent men, preside over meetings and deliver charming, mannerly rebukes to rising politicians. You have reason and income to see Paris, Rome, Jerusalem. Somehow good things, perhaps including a good man, come to you in mysterious compliment to your youth, as they seem to do to other women. You leap one night, overnight, into a world of Titans, and there is no point making any real plans until that happens and you know where you are.

Until you know where you are. Elizabeth works at the same company as our maiden great-aunt of sixty years ago, who also had her own house full of pretty things. One day I stopped in the middle of dishwashing to realize that my grandmother also married a mechanic whom she met at a church social, and had four children. Are women – and men – allowed their own lives, or do two or three patterns only exist, and taking up a pattern is part of the dignity of human experience? Then what of the noble women in the Lifestyles section? Perhaps they do know something different. Elizabeth’s friend Jane has a child with a hole in his heart. Thanks to several babyhood surgeries he has survived to the age of nine (but wait, it’s been years since I’ve seen her – he’s fourteen, no, nineteen), but Jane lives every day with the knowledge that he might have a heart attack at any moment. She and her husband vacation in Mexico every year.

If I could I’d call in the devil.
"Elizabeth" would give, not her soul, but her bodily favors to the handsome devil in exchange for the right to meet historic ghosts and eat fine meals and see beautiful jewels in compensation for the unbidden dullness of her "narrow, deep little life." She would talk with all her favorite medieval queens, and eat a clambake right in her own living room amid roils of steam, and have beautiful furniture of cherrywood inlaid with tiny hand-painted Italian tiles. She would wear oxblood-velvet gowns and green capes with yellow silk lining and have pots upon pots of yellow roses and bird of paradise in her bedroom every day. And the devil would appear dressed in evening clothes, a burly, graying figure, clean-shaven with warm brown eyes and heavy arched brows. He would appear suddenly, an immense rush of black. His beautiful voice would lie full and high in the back of his throat, sounding like liquor poured in a glass.

In the midst of all this, really, my sister’s company offered her a temporary position in Paris. She accepted it, thrilled. Perky, virginal Elizabeth was thrilled to go. I was terrified for her, but was busy anyway with a fifth baby.

She lived and worked there for two years. I read as many books describing France, and Parisians in particular, as I had time for. The French live for their marvelous food ... no, they scour their supermarkets for American maple syrup, and think chocolate chip cookies (with raisins) the height of chic. They luxuriate in fragrant baths, and consider the quick shower uncivilized ... no, they take very quick showers because water is so expensive. They drink gallons of water for their complexions, they drink very little because they hate the indiscipline of needing to find a bathroom away from home. They are insanely cruel, they will smirk "How spiffy!" at you if your clothes look too new ... no, they are kind and even-tempered. Their favorite response to any mistake is "de rien," it’s nothing. No matter, all of it. How would Elizabeth survive alone?

Survive she did, speaking only English and getting things done for her company. American business practices have so far permeated the world, as she explained when she got home, that even the cultured, leisured Europeans have to do things like staff their offices overnight, to accommodate the calls and faxes that hard-working Americans make whenever they want, time zones and ancient local customs of gracious living be damned. Tiny French code-slights intended to rough up visiting rubes, if they are even done, will not matter much longer compared to that. So she was in her element, and besides was not a rube. Paris had to work around her. The men especially tended to be very kind to her. She found everything delightful.

That made for a new story. I love the stories in the paper, I’m sucked into them as we are meant to be, but afterward I have hated them and their heroines on her behalf, and almost hated myself. I was St. George, Elizabeth the princess in pink damask robes and a silver crown. The dragons were the heroines who led better lives than either of us do. Heroines, almost always heroines. Who decides who gets interviewed, and what is important? There is praise and glory everywhere. But the time has passed ferociously, and now she’s been to Paris, I really don’t care what makes her tick anymore.

Besides, didn’t medieval queens have interesting lives, and didn’t that undermine my point? A woman asked this. And then that insufferable Roger folded his arms and said in his usual slurry monotone, "I don’t know that we’re going to get anywhere, deigning to speculate how unhappy our fellow human beings are." Well, what on earth was I to say to that? His diction was professorial, perfect. The scents of coffee and pastries wafted across the store. I left, and joined a poetry workshop elsewhere.

Shining Path

There was a photograph buried in his father’s dresser drawer, a photograph of his father standing, in uniform, on a beach with a strange woman. They did not stand as a couple. Their bodies did not even touch, but from his father’s familiar hunched posture, from the look of his hands resting easily in his pockets and his easy smile and the defiant, slight tilt of his head – against the wind, perhaps? – the picture made clear that something powerful and pathetic and haughty bound the man to this scene, this sand, this woman. There were palm trees in the background, the only honest note of romance and of wind; later, from what little he learned from Jack’s, reticent Jack’s stories, Tom gathered this must be Ceylon. They had heard some of his stories, Tom and his sisters. The stories always conjured up the same image, of a man in uniform alone in the jungle, glimpsed as if by the gods through the shifting clouds on an Oriental scroll-painting. And then gone. The woman for her part was very pretty, though not as at ease as the man, with her dark hair and her scowl, and her big smile showing odd long teeth.

Tom always imagined himself asking his father about it, someday. Someday when the time was perfect, when they were alone, when a spell of sweetness and quiet had fallen upon them, as it sometimes can among people who love each other: a kind of evening hush to the emotions, to one’s whole character, when not a wind stirs, and old bubbles come to the surface and one wants to confess – a soup correctly, barely simmering in a pot is said to "smile" – and everything seems possible. Jack had almost seized such moments himself, once or twice, to tell Elspeth everything. Mercifully he never had.

Only the time had never yet come for their son either. Tom had grown up and gone off to his own war. When he returned, having seen and especially done things he still could not grasp were real, his reticent father strode forward from the crowd and locked him in a shocking, breathtaking embrace. In his daze Tom almost said, "Gee, I didn’t know I was that important." More important than any cause, evidently. What a strange thought. But they hugged him, everyone, on his return, as if it were true. And if his survival was that blessed, why had he gone at all? Each dazed thought limped along after the other. He was thinking in language again, for the first time in a long time. Was it the same at his father’s homecoming? Jack had merely returned a married man as usual and got on with earning his living, professor of Oriental languages and history, unroller of cloud-filled scrolls. Maybe long waits and ocean voyages home have something to do with calmer receptions, or maybe it was just the reality of victory. Tom went back to school too, not to resume teaching already mastered things, but only to begin to learn how to earn his living.

He sat down tremulously to the feast, and here is where his entire personality was emptied out, stirred around, and put back in, far more potent stuff than it had been before. He was more important than any cause, certainly, except this one – teaching – because in this one he became himself. It was a simple enough matter. What he learned, what attracted him to more learning, was basically an emotional postscript to his powerful father’s hug at the airport. That was why the lessons all resonated so. Everything he had known up to now was corrupt and a lie. That explained the hug. Even people, even heroes like Jack who pretend to have served goodness secretly just want their own sons to survive; nothing is more valuable than you – than me, Tom, and what I will begin to understand now, from new men, not my father. Tom was a good person, and no one who was not an ogre or stupid could fail to be moved, to have his interior stirred, by this new information.

Dear God, but there’s no tonic like a liberal university education. The specifics, about coffee and banana growers in league with the CIA or the misfortune of Lenin gutting Marx of his humanism, were only details. At the very first he was furious about those details, true. It was sickening to hear put into words, words and words and thousands of words, crazy angry things that could not be contested because there they were, in books and, worse, in films. Girls in class burst out sobbing in the flashing blue darkness. They saw soldiers invading a university, bodies in the street. It was hard to have flayed all sorts of simple assumptions he had not even realized were assumptions. His professors hated assumptions. Only children had them. "Common sense?" they roared angrily.

But Tom was good. He changed. Even his mother’s Bible instruction came back to him. "He that hateth reproof is brutish." And his father had hugged him when he returned, like any father. All people are the same, just people. The struggling human family must win through to peace on its own terms. No outsider has the right to judge. Better professors than Jack said to him, "We grow." Growth is painful. True. More importantly, it also guides us past and explains other pains.
An English comic novelist, and one of his father’s favorites at that, summed it up as "’Pessimism, etc.,’" but Tom never read that. It would have been too late anyway. What he learned was shaming and intoxicating and it cleared the daze. He learned a perspective, a way of looking at things from a kind of majestic trained underview, always perfect, seamless, brave, noble, dignified, true – in short, revolutionary. It amounted to a kind of victory after all, only better than his father’s because it was not tethered to a particular place or cause outside himself. Nor to a land. It was interior and perpetual and, most beautifully of all, political, so it could change, sharpen its sights at any time with the best of political truths. Provided it kept to the trained underview, of course, but what intelligent person, past his first pains, would not do that? Only a child would not. You could always spot the children by their stature.

When it was all over and he was a "Doctor" himself he went to a secondhand bookstore and bought a poster photograph of a lush jungle scene with an Oriental woman in the foreground wearing a conical straw hat. He put it up on his apartment wall to remind himself of everything he now was.


Naturally his ambition in life became to clear the daze for everyone, for the young, for all time. He became another Professor Howard, and a superb one. He also married and had a son of his own, and then got divorced. It was his duty and joy to settle down, right in his hometown, to bequeath to others all that he had won through the painful instruction of extraordinary men. They were great men, his second and real fathers, real veterans – the information they had at their fingertips! Where had they come from? Who had been the first to understand? – men wildly different from his father. He approached the gleaming glass and silver doors of the college that first August morning only hoping he could do half what they had done.

He could not. For twenty years he tried to whip up enthusiasms about politics and "shining paths" among nice kids who mostly kept strictly silent. Once every year or two someone would look back at him with his own eyes, when young, but to Tom that didn’t seem enough. He wanted disciples in the thousands. Most of them looked at him politely, as if they were all locked together in a dull zoo. They took notes. The young men had big biceps. Sometimes one of the eager girls telephoned the White House for information that would have been easily available at the dumpy little public library, but that too was rare. What was happening? How had it been so different before?

In his courage at least he was his father’s son, but finally even he got sick of it. He felt a failure, peerless in a pejorative sense – having no peers. Part of his trouble was that the world had changed (who could have imagined the wrong flag flying over the Kremlin?) but surely the world never changes as much as all that. His own teachers represented a long tradition and they had taught and thought through many changes and gotten stronger for them. The point was to go on applying the majestic trained underview to something, anything, but somehow teaching was no longer its venue. Not for him.

His new fiancee Paula, thirty-three and a former student, God help him, sloe-eyed, two curtains of brown hair like satin framing her face, wanted him to move away with her and take the journalism job she had unearthed for him. He told his ex-wife about it over the phone and she was delighted for him. "Go for it," she said. "I can’t believe you’ve stood it this long. No one we ever knew is still teaching." He felt like the stupid husband, ever the last to know.

"What’s happened?" he asked, and she said, "You’re in the boondocks, that’s what happened. You need to be in a big university or else researching. Closer to civilization, they’re a little more on the ball."
"This newspaper is out in the boondocks."
"That’s different."
Maybe. What should he do? Dad, what would you do? I cannot believe it of myself – Professor Howard, leaving teaching. Who was that woman on the beach? Did you ever do anything wrong, anything you would change if you could, do you have any regrets? What should I do? What can I best do?


He walked up the shady front walk to his parents’ house, the old homestead, the house of his and his sisters’ childhood. His father and mother had aged from thirty-eight to seventy-eight and beyond here. Only forty years, or a little more now. He remembered the night his father had delivered the youngest, his little sister Norah, himself. Tom had peeked into his parents’ bedroom and had seen the open suitcase and the unmade bed. Jack had gotten Elspeth on her feet and was slowly supporting her, waddling, toward the door when she paused and held her breath and crumpled very still against him. In a minute she fumbled back, sweating, to the bed, and then Tom’s father caught sight of him and shouted "Go to bed!" and kicked the door shut.

Forty years ago. Norah was forty. Tom had not been afraid that night. He understood his mother was going to have the baby right now and that his father was going to bring it. Everything would be fine. And it was. The next Monday Jack returned to his classroom and to his colleagues’ congratulations and hearty smacks on the back. Young women looked on eavesdropping, wondering if the very private Professor Howard could possibly be more devastating.
Tom always associated Norah with the picture hidden in the dresser drawer, too, but really that made no sense. Surely he hadn’t been snooping that young. There was a treacly poem in the McGuffey Readers, wasn’t there, "Forty Years Ago," addressed to a "Tom." ("But the master sleeps upon the hill, Which, coated o’er with snow, Afforded us a sliding place ....") He had come back here after his war and his divorce and now he came back for – what, advice? He could not imagine his parents going back home, hat in hand, at fifty. They had taken in their own parents to live with them and all the kids by that age.

The October afternoon was splendid, but hardly seemed conducive to revelations and secrets anyway. The wind blew strong and the sun slanted up low under the blue sky, through the canopy of vivid green and yellow trees. Cars tooled along the busy street as usual, and radios played. Some girls rode by on their bikes. It was paradise, far more so than any place with sand and palms, but a businesslike, everyday paradise. And there was nothing simmering, or confessional, or twilight-ish to be felt.

"Hello?" he called, and let himself in the front door. Jack sat in a chair in a sunny window beside a potted palm, reading. He looked up and focused. "Tom!" he said. He rose stiffly from his chair and came and held on to his son’s forearms. "Tom. Sit down, sit down. How are you?"
"I’m fine."
"Your mother’s out shopping." Jack eased himself back into his chair at the sunny window.

That was either too bad, as it would make mere banter more difficult – there was no one like Elspeth to keep a conversation moving – or else it was a stroke of luck. What woman, even at eighty, wants to sit and talk about a photograph of an eternally young and mysterious creature at a beach with her soldier-husband fifty and more years ago? If his mother stayed away long enough Tom dared to think that perhaps the confessional, twilight mood he was after was his for the making. But then Jack spoke. You never knew, with him. Sometimes it seemed he had been dipped in manners at about age three and had never broken out of their hard golden amber. Sometimes he skipped all form, took advantage of the absence of female fluttering, and came straight to the point.

"So. Your mother says the teaching career is, uh ... has kind of hit a rough spot."
"What? Oh. Yes, I think so," Tom answered, plunging into it. He rubbed his beard. "I don’t know. It’s been over twenty years. Maybe I’m just burnt out, although I hate that jargon. Didn’t you get tired of it?"
"I had an easier subject to teach. It was a skill, nouns and verbs. Characters and radicals. It’s awfully hard to teach politics. I think it was Aristotle who said you shouldn’t. Not to the young."

That’s why I wanted to do it, Tom felt a bit of the old gorge rising. But for the first time in a long time he looked at his father instead, and considered him as he must have been, one professional to another, considered him as if he himself were an incoming, ignorant student, anxious to learn Siamese or something. Oh yes, he had heard about Dad, when he got older and entered the professional pipeline too. The famed Professor Howard. He was burly and handsome then, quite like the soldier – the officer, don’t forget – in the photograph. Young women made fools of themselves over him, no matter how many children they knew he had. They called Oriental consulates for him and told him so, when all they need have done was study their verbs. He remained always the soul of decency. He loved his wife, and looked the young women kindly in the eyes and explained what the assignment had really been. (Actually what he wanted to do was to wring their fathers’ necks and only then ask them how long they thought these little jenny-wrens could survive in the East.)

Circumspection with young wrens was a knack Tom did not learn as readily. He smiled too much. Forty years ago, Tom and Norah and all the other sisters stood in awe of Dad, of his big jutting features and the gravelled voice that lent authority to every look. They knew they were loved and stood in awe of that, too. Jack didn’t embrace children much then. For them he was a mysterious, pharaonic profile against a sheet of Oriental calligraphy on a wall. With their mother it was different. Tom remembered the way his father’s face corrugated up when he took their mother in his arms and kissed her. And she would tell her friends about him. She would say with exasperated pride that she had taken him shopping and he had picked out all her clothes, and they all suited her better than her own choices. What a joy it was to be married to a man who gave commands, not often but when they were needed, who watched to see when he could be of service to a woman.

Tom thought all marriages were like that. It wasn’t like in stupid modern movies – he watched them with Daniel, watched Daniel’s face as he watched them – when a man and woman laugh and have fun together and that’s supposed to be all of love. No. Don’t lift that, Elspeth. I’ll do that. It’s time – no, it’s too late? I’ll deliver the baby. You’re safe. That was love.

He recalled himself to the sunlit October room and the presence of his father, eighty, in the easy chair. "I wouldn’t have thought you can’t teach politics, teach the truth, but I suppose that could be it. I just don’t feel that I’m reaching anybody. Haven’t for a long time. These kids need credit hours. Is that all they wanted with you? I mean the successful teachers around me are the ones preaching to the choir now. God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world. Those of us who still want to get them to think, to have an open mind, are ...well. Maybe we don’t belong in the boondocks, that’s all."

Jack nodded, and as a teacher picked out the one question in his son’s speech. "I don’t know. All those years ago I can’t recall anybody talking about credit hours much. I suppose that may have been all they wanted. I was teaching a skill. It wasn’t open to discussion. Thank God. Whatever else they believed in didn’t interest me. They weren’t my possession." He paused, noting the scolding tone that had crept into his voice. "It may be changing times, too. I think the worm is turning." He meant to express a thought that had come to him like a purr as he put down the newspaper this morning and gazed off, past his coffee mug, into the middle distance. Three separate headlines that day advised him that the topsy-turvy habit which had, to his mind, remorselessly and without his leave transformed his own father’s civilized world into his children’s barbarous one, was perhaps being outgrown. A court decision here, a referendum there, an opinion column elsewhere: it seemed people were at last trying to find their footing again. Thank God he had lived to see hope.

But they both grew embarrassed at speaking as it were past each other, in metaphors and quotations that may have made sense in their own private thoughts but did not adduce to conversation. What choir? What worm? What do you mean, possessions? I don’t consider my students mine. I teach them how to think, not what. Here between them also was the distressing memory, inevitable, of the time Jack had come to meet his son for lunch and had paced for a while outside the younger Professor Howard’s classroom, smoking, listening with pride, at first, to Tom’s lecture. This was more than twenty years ago. Jack was burly and grizzled. Tom, already an enthusiastic, arm-waving classroom performer, happened in the middle of his florid talk to glance out the door and see his father stop pacing abruptly, turn, slowly crush out his cigarette, and look daggers, like a basilisk, right at him. One professional to another. What had he done? His father went and leaned against a pillar, motionless but still in view, until class was over and the students streamed out. The two men ate lunch in silence, the pale blond son getting madder and madder and the dark father looming massively over his coffee.

Well, that was years ago. "Just let them learn," Jack had said then, spitting the words out with effort. "I know, Dad," Tom had answered, puzzled. They both knew it was not an answer. In the pause now, nevertheless, Tom, the former teacher, the father and provider of grandsons, felt love for his father well up like sugar in the blood.

"Dad. This is apropos of nothing, but. When I – when I was little I have to admit I went rummaging through you and Mom’s – through your and Mom’s drawers occasionally. I know I should have been thrashed for it. But I used to find this old photograph that fascinated me. It was of you on a beach with this woman."

Now that he had said it, he felt as terrified as if he were six and had been caught. Maybe Professor Howard would still thrash him. He looked up. Jack was smiling slowly, right at him. The basilisk smiled. "Yes, I know it."
"Did you know I had seen it?" Tom grinned.
"Where was it taken? Ceylon?"
"Before or after the bridge?"
"I’m not sure. Either way, maybe."

Either way. Tom was free to imagine Jack and the woman in some sort of bungalow the night before, she weeping, desperate, he grim but loving; or afterward, months afterward perhaps. Perhaps he strode up to her on the beach, limping, with the sun blindingly behind him so she did not recognize him. He knelt quickly, splashing sand on her thighs, and kissed her with all his force. She tried to speak but only gasped, laughing, and he shut his eyes at the sound of her voice. In a few minutes they got up, packed her things away, and retreated to privacy. Tom could hear the ocean outside.

"Who was she?"
Jack had a vision of her face the day before he left for good. It seemed to float in the surf, in waves caught in his memory, in the memory of an angle of sunlight unchanged in half a century, her face a mask of tragedy and anger. It floated there like a discarded native mask on the beach. Shame pricked him again, a cold little pin-prick in the gut.

"A friend. A very kind lady." Shame. Shame. Stop thinking about it. He had almost told Tom years ago, that day at lunch. He was so angry that day. You think you’ve turned over every rock there is, he wanted to say then. You think you’ve discovered pessimism. And growth is painful. Listen to this.
"Did Mom ever know?"
Tom leaned forward. "Don’t you think in the last fifty-odd years she’s found that picture?"
"I don’t think so. Married people have privacy."
I never did, Tom almost blurted out. "Oh. Well. Anyway, it’s none of my business."
Jack smiled. There was an uncomfortable pause. Then he said, "So, if you don’t teach, what will you do?"
"Paula has a job all lined up for me, actually. At an independent newspaper that’s doing quite well. It looks like I may be a journalist. Of course, it means moving."
"Moving. Where?"
"Just downstate. Not far. We’re looking at houses about an hour away."
"Well, thank God. Your mother will be glad to hear that. We’d hate to have you go any farther away than you are now. All you kids."
"I would never have moved too far from Daniel."
"Yes, that’s true. Well, thank God." He shifted a little in the chair. "A journalist! That’s wonderful. Wonderful. You’ll like the writing part." Jack was so relieved at not losing his son to the threat of relocation that the gorge that had risen, a little, just about evaporated. It looks like I might be a journalist, Tom had said, and Jack’s first thought, not a purr, reeled off unbidden in his head as if somebody else, not an aged father, had spoken it there. Oh my dear boy, always and everlastingly the search for power. Always and everlastingly teaching "how to think." People know how. Where did language come from?

"Yes, that and not grading other people’s writing and other people’s exams. These kids .... It’s not what I ever expected to do with my life, but I think it’s the right thing, now." He almost used the phrase "I’m in a place in my life where" but he caught himself, knowing Jack, the linguist, would hate it.

But Jack was moving restlessly in his chair and that made Tom nervous. It was silly to be morbid but he always felt, with old people, that any second might be the last. Jack tapped his fingers on the arm of the chair and then got up with surprising strength. "Just a minute," he said, and walked off down the hall to his bedroom. Tom looked out the window. Sun and sky and all the commonplace things that had been in the world half an hour ago were still there. A neighbor two doors down was still waxing his car.

In a few minutes his father returned with a parcel wrapped in brown paper. He handed it to Tom. "Talking of Daniel reminded me. I’ve got a few things he may be interested in. Both of you, I mean. You can keep them, or give them to him."
Tom took the package and began to open it while his father sat down again. Inside there was a uniform, well folded, a ring, a medal, a picture of Jack when young – yes, he had forgotten he looked like that – and a few letters. Oh my God, Tom thought, smiling a frozen smile as he rifled the package, the photograph is in here. He’s stashed it here and he’s going to give it to me. I don’t want it.

But it wasn’t there. In his relief, his smile faded. One of the letters, though, on big thick paper and very official-looking, almost nineteenth-century-looking, was just the one Dad had been rumored to have all these years. Who first told him she had seen it, Linda, or Pam? One of the sisters who had ended up marrying cops. How had he missed it in his own snooping? There was the famed enormous signature above phrases like "ambush" and "grievously wounded." "Your valour." Tom looked up.

"Well. All right. This is amazing. Didn’t you want anyone to know?"
"Your mother knows. So did my parents and my superiors. That was enough."
"I guess it would be." Tom stopped and handled everything slowly, one by one. "You’re sure I can have these?"
"You’re more than welcome to them. Hang them on the wall beside your own." This last came gently.

"Oh no. What, for some great victory? Killing people? Mine are in a drawer, too. I don’t know why I haven’t thrown them out."
Jack did want to thrash him. He kept silent for a minute. "Does Daniel know?"
"I don’t know." They looked at each other, both exhausted, but smiled wanly. "Probably."

Later that afternoon, after his mother had returned and they had visited for a while, Tom said goodbye, having forgotten all about asking advice, and went back to his own house and his sorting and packing in preparation for his move – and for a wedding, soon. "Oh, you’re finally giving away your old stuff, are you?" Elspeth had remarked to her husband, glancing at and instantly recognizing the brown paper parcel in Tom’s hands. "Is the ring in there? That was pretty valuable, wasn’t it?"

"Yes, it’s in there," Jack answered. "I thought it was high time somebody had those things. Maybe Daniel might like to look at them. They’re no use to me."
"Good," Elspeth said, and that was the end of it. She had gone on chatting and putting away groceries. Tom watched her. She was an unknowable lady in many ways, as reticent as Jack, and well matched to him despite their periodic, fiery quarrels. The "brainwashing" of her generation had been one of her most frequent conversational themes at the dinner table during Tom’s childhood, yet when her own children, unbrainwashed, free, got their share of divorces she snorted with private contempt. What she still called Women’s Lib had delighted her at the beginning; now she snorted at her young women neighbors who put two children in day care ("I raised eight!") and did not cook. Her brother retired from a job he loved and moved to Texas, and she treated this as a grievous moral mystery. "Things just got so different for him," she said, "new people coming on the job ...." She shuddered, a moral shudder, not a bigoted one. "It’s different for you young people, you’ve grown up with this. But people our age – it’s just too difficult to adjust. He had to get out." And that, too, was the end of that.

Tom watched her and chatted with them both and went on holding the parcel, another moral mystery. He felt he was holding the sound of the ocean in his hands, holding his father’s youth, and a bomb all in one. Holding also some woman whose fate and memories God alone knew. She stood eternally on that beach, young, pretty, and scowling, a passion untouched. It was impossible to imagine her, eighty years old herself. How ironic that Ceylon was a new country now, with its own separatist movement. He almost felt he had been there.


Yes, but whom would he ever teach about it? Alone in his house that night he straightened up, abandoned his packing and went back to the parcel of his father’s things not once but several times. He opened it and took out the big, nineteenth-century- looking letter. It was not that Sri Lanka was not important. It was. How often had he bullied and mocked and prodded his students into revealing what little they knew of foreign affairs? He wanted them to care about something outside themselves. He wanted to give them the majestic trained underview – it was so simple – because he loved them. If he couldn’t do it anymore, who would? The idea of the world no longer being important enough to teach about ate at him; it was that, not unlike a cold pin-prick of shame in the gut, that he had to combat.

He concentrated on the paper. He might have been praying. I’m the son of a man who got a letter like this, he thought. The paper was so thick and had been folded so long that it seemed to hold itself up delicately and strongly in his hands, like an animal. After a few minutes he actually nodded at it. If change is needed, I can change. He once thought he could teach forever because he possessed the master key to political truths and teaching only meant infinitely copying the key. Now he knew otherwise. This was humility. He would accept his shortcomings, and take himself off to a different task in life. After folding the letter again – it closed in upon itself obediently, like an animal going into a shell – he put it back in its envelope and then back into the parcel. He packed it in a box of clothes intended for one of his dresser drawers, too.

When Paula learned he had made up his mind, she was thrilled. Looking forward to an engagement ring shortly, she went out and bought him a book of inspirational quotations, and laid a new bookmark in a page bearing a line which seemed blessedly appropriate. It was something about the folly of not changing when failure made change necessary, and it was a quote from the very same person who had signed his father’s letter. "When a cherished scheme has failed," he read. Tom was the opposite of superstitious, but he read the quote silently three times in Paula’s presence, laughed, then drew her face to his and kissed her deeply.


They married, and bought a house an hour away, as he had assured his father. Tom saw a lot, more than ever, of Daniel, growing up so handsome. He saw more of his parents too. There was so much to do and so many distractions in his new job and life that after all he scarcely had time to miss the routine of teaching. On a practical level, he had first to grow accustomed, as Paula warned him, to a woman boss, Renee, a red-headed education major not much older than Paula. Tom was old enough and had been established enough in his previous profession to have never known a woman superior before. More humility. But at growth he was a past master, and he had chosen a good home for it. It was a going concern, this newspaper. Its circulation, thanks to a respected parent, climbed sturdily and it was well thought of. Thanks to Paula’s influence Renee started him with what he surmised were the more glamorous assignments. At any rate they interested him very much. He investigated the fate of a small independent radio station being hounded off the air in California, ostensibly because of federal tax irregularities but much more probably because of its coverage of industrial pollution and migrant workers’ problems. This was exactly what he wanted, exactly where he could make a difference.

After the radio station piece (the station stayed on the air longer than it might have) he started a series about wrongfully convicted prison inmates. He walked into a prison for the first time. There was no smell like it. Several men he wrote about had their convictions overturned and were released to freedom and their families. What else was he doing, really, than just pointing to a map and asking people to get outside themselves, to think about "foreign" affairs – it was the title of his column – to think about evil, to do something about evil, just as he always had? Only now, among grown people, he got results. He sincerely hoped the college kids were being taught adequately about Sri Lanka and so on, but for himself, he needed results. He had been baying at the moon for twenty years. Enough. His writing earned praise, and a following.

He was happy. Paula had twin girls, so beautiful, so beautiful. Some of the causes that Paula also wanted him to get involved with on his days off were, he had to admit, a bit dreary. Left to himself he would have thought the change he had made, the new work he was doing so well, was about as much as could be asked of him. He had ceased baying at the moon, he had ceased, so to speak, effetely opening locks with his master key, and now she wanted him to scrub the barn floor and water the animals as well. He was growing older, had long since reached the stage where, as the book of pertinent quotations said, "one wants to live as one pleases." When were you allowed merely to be human, when were you allowed pleasure, not occasionally (because you had to remember some people were suffering) but all the time? But he compelled himself. He accepted his limitations and strove to overcome them, and help her in homeless shelters and soup kitchens because it was right, not because he actually preferred it to sitting on his front porch with a drink and a book about painting. (Humility. But he did have some leisure and for it he found new leisure interests. Art turned out to be one. He loved Titian’s women, loved their sweet lordly faces amid russet draperies and silver-green landscapes. Sometimes his attention strayed even from his art books. He thought about wine, rocked his baby daughters’ double buggy, watched birds in the summer foliage. Good Lord, he thought. I’m becoming a naturalist.)

Occasionally a former student looked him up and wrote him, asking for a reference to apply for a scholarship or graduate school. He always wrote glowingly, gladly, whoever they were. Sometimes ex-prisoners wrote him, and at the sight of the smudged envelopes he felt a pin-prick of unease in the gut.

Tom was still young, just beginning a second life, and a new parent of young children. He could not help smirking at the descriptions of the great ports he read about in his wine books, "superb in the bottle now, but with fifty years of life ahead." And Jack was never any more forthcoming, nor any more judgmental, with his son than he had ever been. "You’ll find your niche," he had always said. That was his idea of advice, perhaps that was his generation’s idea of advice. Much good it does, to be descended from the strong, silent types. A strong silent embrace at the airport can send a son spinning into another world.

The next time they met they talked about the weather for quite a while. Comically enough, as time passed they both, like men, forgot Tom’s visit to the house that October day, and its purport. They would have found their own forgetfulness extraordinary if they had been reminded of it, and would then never have forgotten the subject again – the way re-reading an old diary can plant things in the mind that are never again uprooted, however trivial they were.

This was not so trivial. But they simply forgot about it. The photograph of the woman and handsome Jack stayed buried in a drawer. Years later when the time came to sell the old house and divvy up Jack and Elspeth’s things, it was accidentally, blindly, and forever thrown out.

Out of Sight

Anna came for two weeks in a row. She was a fine looking woman, a few years older than me, too tense and hunched to be pretty, but still fetching. She had thick black hair pinned up in a bun, and wide brown eyes and dark reddened lips, and above all the alert, staring look of a Greek statue come to life. In fact she was of Greek Orthodox background. In those days I still asked newcomers the ‘what made you decide to think about this’ question, because it seemed so cold not to ask. After all, there they were. Now I no longer ask, reasoning that it is not my business and that if they are the type to stay, they’ll stay, and eventually I’ll find out.

But I asked her, and that is how I learned. She fished about in her purse, seeming to lose track of what we were talking about. I thought perhaps I had embarrassed her. But she found what she was looking for and then raised her head and met my eye, as bright and confident as ever. "I have to take some pills," she said. "Is there a kitchen, or someplace I could get a big glass of water?"

"Sure," I said, and she settled her big black purse over her shoulder and we got up from the table where we had been eating sweets and drinking coffee after the service. I took her to the huge kitchen, and she got a glass of water, all the time happily talking.
"I had a liver transplant," she explained. "Two of them."
"My God."
"No, it’s okay." She poured a handful of pills from a plastic bottle into her hand and then counted them silently. I think I saw at least ten, all of different sizes and colors. Some of them were as big as the giant orange and yellow tetracycline capsules I used to take for acne when I was a teenager. It used to take me dozens of gulps of water to get them down, one at a time, and before I was done, I’d be in tears.

Anna gave her pills one final count and then threw them all in her mouth and knocked them back with one swallow. "Those are mostly for rejection," she gasped, the echo of water still her throat. Then she went companionably on.

"I was raised Greek Orthodox, but I haven’t been to church in nine months. Too busy with all this stuff, partly," and she smiled and waved the empty pill bottle before putting it back into her purse. We walked back out into the cavernous, yellow-lit social hall, with its sprinkling of people chatting about the perimeter.

"It started out with me just really liking this idea of ‘finding the sacred in the everyday,’" she went on. "I think that’s so meaningful – "
"Especially after what you’ve been through," I put in.

"You’re not kidding. Although with that, I had help. My doctor has just been great. I can’t say enough about him. We’ve really become friends. After my first surgery, he called me every day, just to see how I was, and said I could call him, and I did – whenever, if I had a problem, or if I just wanted to talk. And then after my second surgery, it was the same. For months. He’s only just stopped calling me in the last couple weeks, actually, and I still call him. I can visit him anytime I want, he said don’t worry about an appointment, just come in. He’s been great. I try to do little things for him, you know?"

"Little things?"

We sat down again at our table. "Oh, I’ve brought him books, and boxes of Jaffa oranges, and I’ve given him bottles of kosher wine for holidays. And then I got him those certificates, you know, about buying trees in Israel?"
"Oh, yeah. That’s such a nice program."
"It’s beautiful. And it’s the sacred in the everyday, you know? And I love how Judaism doesn’t believe that if you’re different, you’re going to hell. I never could deal with that. I mean, how dare anyone say such a thing?"
"It doesn’t seem to make much sense," I answered. "That’s an awful lot of people in hell."
"Exactly." She took a sip of her cold coffee, and then grimaced. "Of course, I’m having a hard time explaining that to my father."
"Oh, dear. Is he – concerned?"
"Oh, yeah. This is right up there with liver failure, as far as he’s concerned. I told him the story about all the souls standing at Sinai and hearing revelation, and about how I must have been there. But I don’t think he bought it."

We sat quietly for a minute, and then a kind old gentleman came up to our table to make conversation. We chatted with him awhile, and then with his wife; then Anna and I exchanged addresses and phone numbers, and shortly afterward, she went home, and so did I.

The next week she came back, and we sat together during prayers and then again during the oneg shabbat. "Oneg, it means joy, right?" she asked, and I said, "Yes." She was dressed exactly the same way she had been the previous week: black hair in a perfect, pinned bun – a style you don’t see much – dark, dressy suit, white blouse, black chunky shoes. I noticed again the pleasant raspiness of her voice, which I had attributed to a cold. Now it made me think of the tubes put down the patient’s throat during surgery. Or maybe she was just born with it.

And then, in the third week, she didn’t come back. I think I can guess what happened.
She went too far with her doctor. He chastised her – gently, ever so decently, perhaps after some really exorbitant gift, leaning against his desk with his arms folded and waiting to speak until his receptionist softly closed the door on the two of them. Or perhaps it was the next day after another late-night phone call, and that blazing look in his wife’s eye as she handed him the phone across the bed. Or perhaps he merely said something completely sympathetic and completely devastating: "Whatever you choose to do, do it because you need to, not because of me." Or, even worse: "I’d like to set you up with another, very excellent practice. It’s much closer to your house and they’re not nearly as close to early retirement as I am."

The mask of eager adoration on her face would dissolve, terribly, and in the blink of his eye, her coat would swing before him, and the door would laze back on its hinges. And she would be gone.

I never saw her again. If she is present among all the souls at Sinai, receiving revelation that day amid the heat and the rocks and the blaring trumpets – while no ox lows and the sea does not roar – this must be just the point when she shimmers, curiously, out of sight.

Our Hurricane

(September, 2005)

Eventually the story of hurricane Katrina is going to be reduced to a simple affair. Taking the long view – looking back, say, from two or three hundred years – I think the first thing historians will say about it is that there is no shame in a nation being hit by a hurricane. They will say that no nation, no city, recovers from one in four days, or in three. The first issue of the Economist, afterward, pointed out that the storm wreaked havoc over an area the size of Britain: have we forgotten what foreign-born historians tend to say about the sweep of American history very early on in their accounts, namely that for us, things tend to begin and end with this vicious climate?

Historians two or three hundred years from now will no doubt make good use of all our primary sources and they will note the things that today’s observers are beginning to note. New Orleans is built in a soup bowl. The levees might have been expected to break – the levees did break. The hardest-hit areas were populated by the poorest people, those least able to get out before disaster. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was swallowed up by the new Homeland Security Department shortly after September 11, 2001, and its employees and its tasks became, as a result, confused about what to do during an emergency that was obviously not a terrorist attack on the homeland. New Orleans’ mayor refused federal requests that he evacuate the city; even better, the whole political climate of New Orleans and Louisiana has been a mess since the days of Huey Long. (Ask anyone under sixty who on earth Huey Long was. Most of us will think of one of Donald Duck’s nephews, and anyone under twenty-five may not think of that.)

Future historians will take note of other ideas, other complaints. There were not enough National Guard troops on hand to help maintain order because they were all (pointlessly or not, depending on the historian’s view) in Iraq. Years of stopping the Mississippi from flooding and naturally creating the islands and sand bars that it should, and which used to help protect the coast from Gulf storms, will be noted as blamable as well. Two hundred years from now, historians will have to decide whether or not George Bush was responsible for it all. Who knows? They may believe he was, or they may stand with some bewilderment before the notion that it was even thought of. They may face, with a similar bewilderment, the contemporary idea that Katrina was the first racist weather system in history.

But above all, they will see this: that for most of the United States, and for all the world, the hurricane was a two-dimensional affair. The first pictures were the fun ones, as usual. Palm trees bent double, a man in a raincoat leaning against the wind. Here in my suburb of Chicago, it did produce something tangible. It produced a cool summer evening of strangely wintry-looking, torn and low-lying, but blue-gray and beautiful, scudding clouds. They streamed over us from the north, which seemed strange. Perhaps my memory is faulty. It has already been nearly two weeks.

Apart from that, it was a two-dimensional, television and newspaper experience. And there is our problem. There is the source of the screaming headlines about shame and shock and slow response. Future historians will say that, above all, the pictures of the hurricane’s aftermath presented the American public, and especially presented the journalists looking through the cameras’ eyes, with a story they found psychologically unacceptable. The pictures looked like they must tell a story of (mostly) black Americans’ helplessness, not in the face of disaster, but in the face of survival. The woman shouting in the corridor of the Superdome, on the first day or maybe the second at most: "Get us out of here!" The refrain spoken so often: "They’re not doing anything for us." By the third or fourth day, stories of beatings and rapes inside the Superdome, stories of shots fired at rescue helicopters; people inside the dome banding together to keep policemen out.

We can’t have this. That the human personality should, after a poleaxing, unravel in four days is no doubt not at all unprecedented. It's not inevitable, but it's not unprecedented. But that it should take place on camera among a population mostly of American blacks is unacceptable. It cannot be. The story must be something else. It must be made to be something else. The Chicago Tribune printed a letter to the editor on Thursday the 1st, in which a reader scolded "media outlets" about the need to be careful about printing stories and pictures of black looters.

That same week, the front page carried the first headline – below the fold, to be sure – charging racism in the lack of aid to New Orleans. If whites were drowning, so the claim went, the nation would care, and more would have already have been done. I doubt it, and I think future historians will doubt it. Explain how it would have been possible to ship, at a minimum and just for a start, a gallon of clean water a day to 10,000 people in the Superdome? Immediately, on the first day? Through the "few open roads"? And then more water on the second, when there were (so we were told) 20,000 people there? And the third, when the number was (perhaps?) 30,000?

No. The story has had to become one of "class," or the "shockingly slow" response, or Bush’s incompetence, or FEMA’s incompetence, or "America’s deep racial divide," because the story as we all first experienced it looked so appallingly unlike the creed we’ve memorized about the way things are supposed to be. Everybody is supposed to be equal, not only in the way they are treated, but in the way they behave. No one group is supposed to have a monopoly on dependency and confusion. (Of course, people who have already decided that the new story, about incompetence, is much more to their liking, will laugh at that and roar, "No kidding! Poor Bush!") Young black men are already unfairly stereotyped as trouble – they were not supposed to turn on each other, or on women, or turn weapons on rescue workers in the early days, long before panic or maniac thirst could be alleged as the cause of their behavior.

I have no doubt that many, many of the people who were poleaxed by surviving this tragedy were indeed helpless for reasons that would have made anybody helpless, black or white. Illness, lack of a car, lack of money, age – even dumb human "it won’t be that bad" hope, or good old human "I ain’t leavin’" hubris, and then shock and heat and hunger and fear – would have worked deadly effect in me too. But the pictures that seemed to show people reacting to survival as if they had never known anything but waiting endlessly for services due, and being waited on, are what we, the outsiders, experienced of the hurricane. The stories of stereotypical violence, of pure evil, were what we experienced. The stories cannot be true.

Refashioning, revisionism, is under way, and its speed, the ferocity of its completeness, are good indications of how devastating the pictures were to our carefully fashioned national identity – or at least, to the identity of the good people who help fashion the identity through taking pictures. (Just think how young many of those camera-toters must have been. They have been raised on school-tales of slavery, Harriet Tubman, and freedom marches, and coping and triumphing and happy endings, no matter what your color but especially if you're black. What were they supposed to think? That human beings tend to be distinctly unheroic, quite a lot of the time? That sometimes natural disasters are so bad, there’s nothing anyone can do right away?)

Were the pictures themselves lies, unthinkingly selected racist exaggerations? I don’t think so. The young people behind the cameras have been too well-trained in sensitivity for that. (If they are not leading the volte-face charge to reinterpretation, they are certainly happy to push it along.) We didn’t see too much of black Americans coping quietly with disaster, true. That is the lack that the Tribune’s letter-writer scolded "media outlets" about. That may only have been because chaos makes better news than calm. But the alarming pictures’ having been proofs of deep-seated, bred-in-the-bone malice now seems to have become a part of the new story anyway. Where does the loop of re-interpretation end?

At some point the loop will be cut, but probably not until the distant future. I give it two or three hundred years. Only then will historians be calm enough to look back at this disaster and see some things clearly. A city with a population two-thirds black suffered a terrible storm. Many people were killed, many more survived, or were rescued, or had gotten out beforehand. Things were not back to normal within four days. Worse, there were pictures of the aftermath, and the pictures seemed to tell a story that the nation – or at least its official storytellers – had long since discarded. Displeased and upset, the nation, or at least its storytellers, turned about and created a new story, a familiar moral tale of the humble classes’ blamelessness and want, of the terrible legacy of prejudice, and of typical kingly shirking and coldness. Of things that could have been prevented if only there was no hate. If in the meantime the nation got around to the task of living, spending, and rebuilding after all, that was not something the storytellers felt forced to stop and notice with nearly as much enthusiasm.