Your mom told me, before you and I had met, that she thought we’d get along. I was never sure what she expected, so I can’t know if she got what she was expecting by introducing us to each other. These days, don’t ask me why, I wonder if it mattered more to me how your mom felt about us getting along than it mattered to you.
I remember when I first showed up in our village. I knew you lived here, thanks to your mom, so I introduced myself on one of my first days—I think I was the new guy with lots of energy and enthusiasm, open to the world and eager to embrace opportunities, less protective than I have become. I remember we got along fine, maybe better than fine, right from the beginning. Maybe you liked my young naïve energy. Maybe you felt like I expressed a kind of energy and openness that you felt missing in your own life. I should have asked, at some point before now, what you think makes us more open or more protective at different points in our lives. Is it simply our age, and the accumulated pain of years of unmet expectations that makes us, as we get older, build a protective shell around ourselves? Is it a natural response to being poked, wounded, scarred, after presenting our vulnerable selves to the world, so that over time, inevitably, we seal ourselves off a little bit, climb inside our shells, move to a small village where we think there will be community but where, after years of lived experience, we end up closing the shutters more and more often, turning the lights off so that others don’t look in, so that we ourselves don’t look in? Why didn’t we ever talk about this, Sara?
I wonder how you would describe those days when we first met.
It was just before that beautiful spring, my first spring in our village, that I started scroll-sawing in your basement (that’s a relic of the past, eh?). I expressed interest in your tools, you said they were going unused, you invited me to come use them anytime, and I think I thought, “yes, this is what living in a close-knit community is going to be like, sharing your life with your neighbors.” But I think we both knew even then that it wasn’t just that. Your kindness to me as a stranger, essentially, a new resident in our village, was proof to my naïve young mind that my life was on track, that somehow I had landed in my dream-world made real, and I nurtured that warm glowing ember of love and community, that small yet lovely burning truth of the goodness of life that you offered, by taking you up on your offer, by using the scroll saw in your basement almost every night, for months. I wanted that feeling of community and creativity to be my reality, so I embraced it somewhat obsessively. I think I convinced myself I was making something for my dad with your tools (does that match your memory?), but it was really your promise of selflessness, of communal sharing… it was your love, Sara, your honest and unassuming and undemanding love, and, I can now admit, your neediness, too, that brought me to your basement where our relationship was forged. I needed to be needed, too. We should not be ashamed of that. At the time I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I don’t know if that would have changed things. If I’d have known myself any better, would our story have been any different?
May 21, 2017
When the rain pours, like today, I try to remind myself of what my brother used to say: rain brings new life. My Pollyanna little brother and his faith in life-giving rain. I don’t think you’ve met him, but I do think you’d like him; most people do. He’s a lot more social than I am. He’s a lot more optimistic. He’s a lot more fun to be around than I am.
Oh, Roger, my thoughts often lean in this direction: toward the depressing. It is better that you know this sooner rather than later. There have been times in my life, Roger, believe me, when I have attempted to hide my personality for too long. Too long. Until it’s too late.
I am older than you are; I know you know that, but do you know what it means? Do you know that those extra years mean extra experiences and extra baggage?
Today is my birthday, Roger, and I am now 33 years old. I don’t know even know if that seems old to you, but it feels old to me. Other people don’t seem to experience life this way, but I’ve always felt a little different from other people. For others, old age is a constantly receding horizon, as if we’re sailing on open ocean, and it’s only the ships that set sail before us that are ever in the realm of “old.” Seems naïve to me. Most of us will reach the land of old age: broken bodies, regrets, death. “Old” only stays on the horizon if you lay anchor and stop sailing. But that’s death, too. So which way do they want it: old age, or an early death? I warned you that I tend toward depression.
I’m even depressed, or maybe anxious, or maybe just ponderous, today, on my 33rd birthday. After all, what do I have to show for my 33 years?
There’s a song by Peter Mulvey; I’m sure you’re too young to know it:
“Don’t the years go rolling
It is time for the cross
Time for the Bodhi Tree
But still you’d like to cry
Every time you skin your knee
Because it’s hard.”
Life is hard. I guess that’s what I believe. I haven’t been crucified like Christ, and I certainly haven’t been enlightened like the Buddha, but I’ve had my time wandering in the desert, or the forest, whatever the case may be, even wandering around our village. Maybe I’m still there, wandering, and I don’t feel like I have much to show for it, and yet somehow I want to believe, today at least, that I’m on the cusp of something: something besides just decrepitude and death is on the horizon. I guess that’s what I want to say to you with this letter. I hear you in the basement, Roger. I listen between the moments the scroll saw is running. I listen for your movements around the basement, your coming and going. You enter my house quietly, gently. I imagine what you do down there. I imagine that we’re creating something.
I’m glad you’ve come to our village, Roger. I don’t know what my mother might have told you about me; I’m afraid to know; I’m afraid to ask.
Thirty-three years old, sitting at my window, watching the life-giving rain knock the fruit-tree blossoms to the ground. And there they lie, like tea leaves waiting to be interpreted. What are we to make of them? I can’t decide if this scene is beautiful or ugly, hopeful or depressing. Is this a scene of fertility, fecundity, the promise of spring? Or is it destructive destiny, the entropy of the universe as seen outside my window? Where do I fit in this world of gray skies and rain-battered fading blossoms? Where do you fit, Roger?
If I knew this was love then I’d say it, at least in a letter like this that I’ll never share with you, but in 33 years I cannot be sure that I have learned what love is,
I miss you, and that, I think, is why I write these letters. I miss the casual familiarity we shared. It seems that we established, right from the beginning, an acceptance of each other. In the very beginning I simply let myself in. I remember the freedom with which I felt I could explore your basement and experiment with your tools while you, for the most part, were upstairs. As I approached your house I would often see you framed in the upstairs window, knitting, I remember, in a rocking chair, like an old maid. Maybe that’s how you thought of yourself, but I could see when we interacted, when you fidgeted with a tea cup or showed me where the paint supplies were, and I could see it in your eyes, too, your youthful energy, hiding just beneath the surface, beneath the quiet voice, beneath the propriety of New England hospitality toward your mother’s student, and beneath, I sometimes imagined in those early days, beneath the long skirts you wore, beneath the flannel pajamas and the corduroy shirts, I imagined your youthful energy and, I admit, your youthful body. I wonder if you knew what I was imagining…. But we didn’t ask things of each other then. Not then and not ever, really. We accepted each other. But there are so many things I should have asked when we had the time. Like what brought you to our village? Embarrassingly, I don’t know. I was too young, too selfish, perhaps not uniquely so, but selfish nonetheless. Twenty-one years old and fresh out of college. I spent far more time thinking about me than about you, of course. I don’t really blame myself for that, that characteristic of youth, or humanity, I don’t know. I was used to being the focus of attention, the recipient of good will, and I accepted your graciousness without question, and I even wanted more, as I think you saw eventually, if not immediately, I was greedy for more.
I remember, again, when you showed me your paint supplies. There was a casualness to your explanation, a feigned disinterest in the materials that you had so meticulously collected and organized even if, in the end, you ignored them in a corner of the basement. The gallons of unfinished house paints were displayed in a single row on a shallow shelf appropriate to their height, their labels facing forward and a dab of paint on the outside of each can to reveal the colors inside: cantaloupe, sea foam…. The brushes were standing up in tin cans on another shelf, perhaps a dozen cans, each with brushes of a particular size, the brushes clean and with trim edges, such that I couldn’t tell if they’d ever been used unless I saw some paint on their handles when I took them out to handle them, to pretend to be an artist. But you were the artist, Sara. Your long-fingered hands lingered on the drawers that you pulled out to display neat rows of oil paint tubes, rainbows and color wheels of tubes, organized by brand, I think, as pretty as a painting there in each drawer. I picture you showing me all of this nonchalantly, and I can’t remember what I would have been thinking at the time, but I must have sensed the conflict inside you: a passion for art and creativity, but the tubes of oil paint were capped, the painter’s palette hanging on its hook was bare, the easels were folded and tucked away, and all I could see of your inner artist was your collection of curated supplies waiting under your long-fingered lingering hands, and your eyes looking at mine, waiting for me to inquire, perhaps waiting for me to inspire.
Now I have missed the opportunity to ask you the questions you might have wanted me to ask. That ship has sailed, and I am looking back 19 years to that shoreline of our past, when the world seemed so full of promise, when I was new in our village, when we were new to each other, when it was spring-time and the colors of your curated paint collection couldn’t compete with the natural colors of spring blossoms, and that in turn could not compete with the fantastic colors of my imagination. We were painting the world anew, Sara, and I didn’t know how to process that. I’ve never been a painter. I’d never been a lover. And your palette was bare, your brushes clean, and you left me alone in the basement while you went upstairs alone, alone with your thoughts, which you must have knit back and forth with as much quiet determination as you knit those clothes for your niece and nephew. Perhaps because I already had enough colors in my imagination, I didn’t touch your paints. Instead I turned on the scroll saw and started cutting away, trying to get at something beneath the surface of the wood.
I wish I could see you now, to tell you goodnight, to tell you all sorts of things that I have since discovered.