Wednesday, November 18, 2009
"Look," said Coach, "you don't have to do anything to make people like you. If you do your level best all the time and keep plugging and just grin if you get razzed, pretty soon you'll be something. Maybe not a hero, but good enough to get by."
from Spin and Marty, by Lawrence Edward Watkin (pg 111)
Sunday, November 15, 2009
"Yeeeeaaaaaahhhh!" He runs past us with an insane smile, his arms waving over his head.
"I suppose he's our new neighbor," I say to Janet, feeling suddenly dubious about our new home. This is our first visit to the house, and before we have left the yard, he has violently hugged me, roughly pulled at Janet's sleeves, and tried to sell us a handful of rotting plums. He is no more than five years old.
On our next visit to our new neighborhood we don't get out of the car, but see him again, playing with his father. The man has long reddish hair and a wild beard. He wears black jeans, a white T-shirt, and heavy black boots.
After moving in, it becomes apparent that this boy, Mitchell, comes and goes as he pleases, from first thing in the morning until nine or ten at night. We do not see his mother for the first few months, and then just once, when she hurls open a upstairs window and shouts his name furiously. She leans out the window, her limp hair blowing across her face, and the shrillness of her voice makes her seem wild, uncontrolled.
Mitchell hardly seems to live indoors. He wraps himself in an old blanket and lies on his driveway like an accident victim. Once we go outdoors he is ever-present. He reminds me of those waifs who appear in public parks just as you open the picnic
basket. They stand in dirty t-shirts and sneakers, breathing through their mouths and watching your every move, like hungry dogs with no better hope for dinner. You cannot enjoy any of the things you have brought to eat, but must try to not be overtly
hostile to them, as that would not be the right thing to do. Ignored, they do not leave, give them attention and they settle in, and there you are.
Little Mitchell is not easy on the eyes, either. He wears the worn-out and ill-fitting clothes of other children. His footwear is remarkable in its scope. In the course of a single day, you will see him wear soiled runners, women's summer sandals of cheap vinyl, winter boots, black dance pumps, one with a broken heel. His hair pokes at his eyes and his face is alway dirty. Grit lies under every fingernail.
And then there are the things he does.
He turns on the garden hose and floods his back yard, laughing.
He rides his bike carelessly across lawns, driveways and the lane, never looking for traffic. Sometimes he does this with an old blanket dragging behind him, like a pauper prince.
His toys lie like dead insects all over his yard, and too often, they litter ours as well.
And he always asks why.
"Why are you getting in your car?"
"We're going to the store."
"Because there are some things we need to buy."
"Because we ran out and we need more."
One day Mitchell is visiting at our house and finds Janet cleaning the bathroom. He stands, mesmerized.
"What are you doing?"
"Cleaning the bathroom, Mitchell."
"Because we like it to be clean."
"Don't you like your house to be clean?"
Mitchell ponders this.
We learn that Mitchell's dad is actually his step-dad, and that his mother does not feel able to get out of bed for lengthy periods of time. His intelligence may also have suffered because he has had a brain tumor, which had to be removed.
Our patience redoubles.
"Mitchell, please don't tell Emily to play with you in the front yard," Janet asks for the umpteenth time with extraordinary calmness.
"Because our kids aren't allowed to play on their own in the front yard."
"Because we don't want them near the busy street."
"Because I don't want them hurt. I love them."
"My mom doesn't love me."
"I'm sure she does."
"No. She says if she had money, she'd just go - phhht! - like that."
And then he's off, wailing like a Banshee, or murderous commando, or ape, if apes wear women's shoes and torn winter jackets.
"Poor Mitchell," Janet says one afternoon as she watches him from the kitchen window.
"An infernal pest, that's what he is," I say. But that feeling comes over me, like I'm being watched at a picnic.
On a warm Saturday, we are enjoying a cup of tea after putting the kids down for a nap. I hear a meowing sound, no - a moan.
I look outside. Mitchell is lying face down in the lane, his legs tangled in his fallen bike.
He doesn't move.
We're down the stairs and at his side in seconds. His eyes are half-open, unseeing, and spittle drips from his mouth to the pavement. As I start to pick him up, my heart skips a beat. There is blood welling from a scraped lip and worse, a bad patch
at his right temple where his head has struck the pavement. I pick him up and he hangs limp in my arms, still moaning. He is wearing his father's enormous rubber boots, one of which has beencaught in the bike chain. As I lift him, the boot falls off his dangling leg. Janet picks it up. We leave his bike in the lane and carry him to his house.
Janet knocks at the door. The sun shines down, a bird sings, Mitchell's body is hot against me. We wait a full minute. Janet knocks again, more insistently. Mitchell continues to moan.
The door opens. It's Mitchell's stepfather.
"Mitchell has fallen," I say.
"Thank you," he says, and takes him from me. "Thank you so much." His eyes are the picture of tenderness, and I realize I've never been close enough to really see him.
Several days pass, and Mitchell and his step-father come to our door. Mitchell is not himself - he stands to one side, not making eye contact. His father is ill at ease as well, as if he owes us an explanation.
"Mitchell's getting better now. He just hit his head where they operated before, and that made him get a seizure. So we took him in to Children's Hospital for a night. They know him there. We got him Smarties, right Mitchell?"
Mitchell looks at us blankly.
"He'll be back to normal soon," says his dad.
I ponder the many implications of this. Mitchell is back in true form in a few days.
"Mitchell, that is not yours."
"Mitchell, please don't teach Emily to scream like that."
"Mitchell, please, please, move your bike so I can park my car."
Oh the wisdom we can learn from annoyances. One day as I dig out a garden hose, I work at getting wisdom, seeing how Mitchell has already provided the annoyance. Why does this kid get to me? Perhaps his presence in my life is like the hubris of old heroes, I think. Hubris, that one character flaw in an otherwise noble man. The small character trait that provides the fulcrum for great tragedies. Maybe that's it, just as Mitchell fell and struck himself directly at his point of his weakness, he does the
same to me just by annoying me. On the other hand, maybe I'm just trying to give a noble appearance to my fallen nature.
I'm starting to get somewhere, both with my philosophical musings and my tugs on the garden hose, when Mitchell appears.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm taking out a garden hose."
"Because I want to wash my car."
"Don't you ever wash your car?"
Mitchell cannot be persuaded to move from the driveway. I only barely resist the temptation to let the stream of water wander momentarily in his direction. This seems to me to be quite a moral act in itself, until God begins to speak to me.
"Who is that over there?" he asks.
"Oh, you know him," I answer. "That's Mitchell, my little hubris."
"No, he's not that."
"Okay, he just activates my hubris."
"Who is he, then?" God asks.
I mull that as I scrub my car.
"I haven't figured that out yet," I mutter.
God moves in close. I can feel him. The sun shines down, like it did the day I carried Mitchell home. Cold water runs over the pavement. The neighborhood kids are jumping over the stream, and Mitchell is trying to keep up with them.
"I'll tell you who he is," God says confidentially. "He's my child."
Contact me to get in touch with the author. Image: "Where The Wild Things Are"
As a young boy, one of the first jobs I remember helping my father with, and actually being able to contribute, was building a fence. Neighbours who we hardly knew at all agreed to work on it together, and it became quite a community event. As the saying goes, good fences make good neighbours, or at least improve the ones you've got.
I believe that this was the first time I hammered a nail all the way into a board successfully. While this didn't do much to improve the overall statistics on my hammering, I considered that moment when that nail head sat flush with the mangled surface of the wood nothing less than a rite of passage.
We built a fence this past week. We built it first to separate ourselves from our neighbors to the east, and a dog to the west. But strangely, the same sort of things happened as when I was a kid, working on my first fence.
The rotten kid next door whose only developed skill is annoying people discovered he could pound nails straight. No one minded him helping, and he hardly offended us at all. His sister, the one with no friends, was a willing and able helper, whose work was just fine.
As to the dog, he was quite startled to see all this activity in his domain. One should understand first that this dog has
considered the area of half of our back yard his domain, and yaps his little head off whenever we do something that strikes him as threatening, like parking the car. He then raises his leg over various sections of our lawn as a gesture of triumph. After two days of digging and pounding, he's hemmed into a space four feet across from the fence to his house. He's noticeably quieter, although I suspect he'll start raising his leg on our fence as an expression of defiance.
But mostly this week, I rehearsed that old script that men follow when they're doing man's work.
Men working together on backyard projects understand what I'm talking about. My brother-in-law and I worked into a familiar pattern with one another, getting progressively more efficient. At post number one you're tentative, questioning each measurement four times over. You keep asking, Is that straight? When you get to post twelve you're an expert. When you stop for a lemonade, your upper lip curls like a gunslinger's.
I ponder on the insufficiency of the metric system. Not, of course, in terms of accuracy, but rather in the whole culture of the North American male. "Move the board 8mm" does not have one tenth the feeling of crisp, comradely competence of"Give me 5/16ths." The whole process of doing the math in feet and inches is a bonding experience for men. Metric is too easy to bother cooperating.
Put a group of men of widely varying backgrounds and levels of education together on the same project and you'll find they soon all speak in the same idiomatic way. They say things like "move that sucker out of the way for a minute." Sucker? When do I ever use that word?
I defy you to find me a man who has never tested a wall or a footing for strength and said, "That's not goin' anywhere."
Words like rip, mitre, bevel, countersink, butt joint, toenail, buttress, gusset. Words that bring together brute force and the terse lexicon of the rational mind. It occurs to me that in his workshop, each man is Rational Man writ small. Against the forces of chaos that threaten the order of his household possessions, Suburban Man applies the principles of science.
And I realize suddenly that in building this fence I'm re-enacting, in a small way, the great lies of mankind.
First the lie of division, that this place is mine and not yours, and the whole picture of distrust that fences create for us. We prefer the positive way of expressing it, by talking about security, but really fences are about minimizing danger, minimizing exposure, minimizing the others around us.
And fences are in their great national versions, a statement of permanence against all the dangers presented by our neighbours. So each of us in our homely little way plays Hadrian. We scoff at the Berlin Wall, but North Americans are as bad or worse than any of them. If all the brickwork in those new exclusive townhome developments were put together, I suspect it would dwarf the Great Wall of China.
And even deeper, there is the vague feeling of self-satisfaction one gets in building things. The sense of closure that comes with finishing the job, the seductive illusion of self-sufficiency that comes with a full tool box, sharp blades, and an assortment of hardware. It's the illusion of the centuries, that lie of the controlled environment, with us as its master. Two hundred and some feet of fence across a denuded landscape and I feel like I've subjugated the wilderness. But like all our rationality, my work is a closing off, a shutting out, not conquering at all. The smaller we focus, the larger we feel.
I remember what Lewis said about our delusions of human independence and self-sufficiency. Paper screens, he called them. Paper screens we put up to hold back the universe, to hide from ourselves.
Still, I must admit that I'm satisfied. I've used my mind and my body, I'm tired, and it feels good. I bring up the topic of my fence with anybody who'll listen. It's my glory and it's my shame, and two thousand pounds of concrete say this fence isn't goin' anywhere.
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At Crosswicks Cottage, in Connecticut, we have been surrounded by the green folds of the Litchfield Hills. We've made excursions to buy corn at the local farm stand, or to go to the Congregational church on Sunday, or simply to buy groceries, or take mail to the post office, driving along the winding country roads.
Very often our companion along the way, following the turns in the road as we drove, was a hand-built, low stone wall of the kind common in New England, erected as much to get the stones out of the fields as to keep the cattle from straying. It struck me today that a wall like this is a metaphor of friendship. There's some time-consuming skill involved in putting it together without cement or mortar of any kind. There's nothing artificial binding the individual pieces of rock together; they stay in place simply because they fit, the convexity of one stone nestled in the concavity of its neighbor. Even the gritty texture of the granite stones has value, preventing them from slipping apart, keeping their surfaces in touch.
When well built, these walls last for generations. They are not only useful, they are ornamental, an integral part of the landscape. Like the stones in the wall, we see the skillful hand of God at work, using even our rough, gritty surfaces, fitting us together in love, in friendship – companions along the way.
from "Friends for the Journey" by Madeleine L'Engle & Luci Shaw, 1997
Wall by Andy Goldsworthy
Saturday, November 14, 2009
When either Affection or Eros is one's theme, one finds a prepared audience. The importance and beauty of both have been stressed and almost exaggerated again and again. But very few modern people think Friendship a love of comparable value or even a love at all.
To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all the loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it. It is something quite marginal; not a main course in life's banquet; a diversion; something that fills up the chinks of one's time. How has this come about?
The first and most obvious answer is that few value it because few experience it. And the possibility of going through life without the experience is rooted in that fact which separates Friendship so sharply from both the other loves. Friendship is the least natural of the loves; the least instinctive, organic, biological, gregarious and necessary. Without Eros none of us would have been begotten and without Affection none of us would have been reared; but we can live and breed without Friendship. The species, biologically considered, has no need of it.
This (so to call it) 'non-natural' quality in Friendship goes far to explain why it was exalted in ancient and medieval times and has come to be made light of in our own. The deepest and most permanent thought of those ages was ascetic and world-renouncing. Affection and Eros were too obviously connected with our nerves, too obviously shared with the brutes. You could feel these tugging at your guts and fluttering in your diaphragm. But in Friendship – in that luminous, tranquil, rational world of relationships freely chosen – you got away from all that. This alone, of all the loves, seemed to raise you to the level of gods or angels.
We can have erotic love and friendship for the same person. Yet, in some ways, nothing is less like a Friendship than a love-affair. Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; Friends hardly ever about their Friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.
Above all, Eros (while it lasts) is necessarily between two only. But two, far from being the necessary number for Friendship, is not even the best. And the reason for this is important.
In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald's reaction to a specifically Caroline joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him 'to myself' now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves. Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth, if only the newcomer is qualified to become a real friend. They can then say, as the blessed souls say in Dante, 'Here comes one who will augment our loves.'
We possess each friend not less but more as the number of those with whom we share him increases. In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious 'nearness by resemblance' to Heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah's vision are crying 'Holy, Holy, Holy' to one another (Isaiah 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall all have.
I have no duty to be anyone's Friend and no man in the world has a duty to be mine. No claims, no shadow of necessity. Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.
It seems no wonder if our ancestors regarded Friendship as something that raised us almost above humanity. This love, free from instinct, free from all duties but those which love has freely assumed, almost wholly free from jealousy, and free without qualification from the need to be needed, is eminently spiritual. It is the sort of love one can imagine between angels.
edited from Chapter 4 of "The Four Loves," C.S. Lewis, 1960