An ironic, forlorn voice, a twist on Edna St. Vincent Millay’s, floats through my head suddenly tonight: Oh my foes, and oh my friends, oh, I am so afraid.
Fear is not a characteristic note for me, in anything I say or write — and not only because I try to keep the darkest things (and a lot of other personal things), out of this blog, where I write what I believe and try, always, to keep uppermost in my mind and voice the hope that does live here. My readers and friends are busy people, too, with fears of their own. Nobody wants false optimism. But nobody wants nihilism, either. As we have been discussing in my classes this semester — already we’re in deep, and it’s not even October! — there’s a riddly difference between the sober, merciful, searching gaze of she who bears witness and the gaze into the abyss, where you’re drawn in, where you drown. Honest art is continuing to walk along that line, and stay on the living side.
Fifty dollars to my name. Payday is two more weeks. Another big bill I did not expect — incurred by someone else’s honest mistake, but due to me to pay — arrived today. And, then, shame. I have so much compared to so many. I work hard and have not been spendthrifty or wasteful. I am not sending money to car loans or credit cards anymore. And yet, here I am. Again. How does this happen? Keep happening? My 403(b) account has lost $4,000 in one month alone. Will I be old and lonely and crazy and poor, strapped to a stretcher and wheeled by a bored aide into the office of the last doctor in town willing to take a shred of Medicare, or nothing, for payment? I’ve seen this woman: shriveled ninety-odd-year-old husk, mind gone, mouth open and howling on unimaginable dark. The doctor is my father. The shreds of Medicare, or nothing, are his.
It is these small realities — the bill, the balance, the envelope with the accountant’s return address — that open the door on randomness, on darkness and fear. Not helped by the New Yorker cartoon of a mother and baby polar bear on a shrunken ice floe, the baby asking, “Mama, does Rick Perry exist?” (Oh, those shrunken floes…) Not helped by reading — as sober, compelling, and well-written as it is — George Packer’s outline of the history of the decade since 9/11, what has not changed in particular. Bitter lines flood my brain: Politicians competing for the attention span of a public rotted by TV. People hunkering down, confusing their own corner of the world with all of reality. Taking refuge from their own fear in loud, angry certainty. And I’m no better, aren’t I.
And then I realize what I am doing at that moment: pushing loaves of warm bread, right out of the oven, out of the way so I can keep reading the Packer article open on the counter, now dusted with flour, thinking less about being grateful for their innocent crusty roundness, the food right in front of me, than about remembering to take this loaf for this friend, say this, bring that, still reading about laid-off, desperate workers in Mt. Airy…. A few minutes later I’m absentmindedly blocking, with my laptop, the hopeful circling of my eleven-year-old polydactyl cat. And then I realize what I’m doing. The quiet pleasures of this moment for the doom of another one, far away. We make everything worse by not paying attention. I push the laptop away and make a spot on my hip for the cat to tuck in and close his eyes and purr and drool, just a little, as he always does when he’s happy.
One by one, I put into a bowl fall pears from a dear friend who called me up a couple days ago just to say, because she was thinking it, how much she had been changed by my writing class, how much it opened up the world to her. She teared up, and it was OK. These pears are from her trees, left in a box on my porch today, with a note in her generous hand on a card with a mandala of flowers. Enjoy the big ones right away. Let the little ones soften up a bit.
My first-year students’ eyes got wide today, after I shared with them this editorial from today’s New York Times and asked them: what is moral decision-making, to you? How do you decide what’s right and wrong? And how will your education, here, help you with that? They plunged into a discussion, passionate, respectful, something in their faces opening. The class ended, and twenty minutes later they were still sitting there, talking. I’ll stay here as long as y’all want, I said. This is important.
The voice still floats in my head, the line twisting. Oh my foes and oh my friends, my friends. We’re all still here. If we can only stay, and look, and try not to be afraid.