(our village 54)
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.
our village (55)
May 23, 2017
I want to tell you about myself, but I’m not ready, so this is my practice.
When I was a child—you make me think of children, Roger, is that silly? It’s not that you make me want to have children, nothing as saccharine as that; it’s actually your childlike nature that makes me think about children, not that I’m saying you’re like a child—God! You see, Roger, this is why I could never say these things to you; this is why I don’t talk to many people at all: there are too many complications. Anyway, when I was a child my mom let me have one expensive toy. It was a Pound Puppy, this stupid floppy dog that was the central character of my play world. These dogs were supposed to be rescued from the pound, saved by loving little children. I think that’s the only reason my mom couldn’t refuse me one: because even though she claimed to be morally opposed to pet ownership—you know my mom; do you know my mom? I mean, do we know the same person? Did she teach the same way she mothered, with a pretend appreciation for questions but a real dogmatic certainty to her convictions, like the immorality of pet ownership, for example? Anyway, she couldn’t deny her daughter’s selfless savior sentiment—of course I was never selfless, nor ever very sentimental, and I’m sure I wasn’t so interested in rescuing a plush puppy as I was in capturing and, truthfully, caging that animal for myself. I caught my mom at a moment of weakness when she didn’t have the will to argue with me, to discuss capitalism and feminism and all of her brilliant ideas for which you probably loved her as a teacher, and for which I hated her as a mother. She was right, but I was a child, and I won that round.
My Pound Puppy came in its own dog kennel, and it stayed there most of the time, and that was only the beginning of its hardships.
I want to tell you that I see, now, that I have been the creator of hardships in my life, and in seeing it, finally, I want to be done with it. That’s why I came to our village in the first place, although I didn’t know it at the time: to get away from the difficulties I was imposing on my own life. Again, there were too many complications; there are too many complications, and I want things to be simpler, to be kinder. To be quieter.
I was maybe 7 years old when I got the Pound Puppy, “rescued” from the store and subsequently subsumed into my dark play world of toy stories: lost parents, dead siblings, broken bones, broken dreams. When my mom gave me a microscope—expensive educational tools were not prohibited—I promptly pricked the paw of that puppy to draw pretend blood and discover, with microscope-enhanced certainty, that my Pound Puppy had a horrible disease.
Why did I tell myself such tales? That is a harder question to answer than why I won’t tell you—or anyone—such tales from my past. I want to be done with them.
I started this letter wanting to practice telling you about myself, but I see now that it is best if I stay silent.
our village (56)
I was with my nephew today. You’d love this kid, I think. I guess I say that because I can’t see how anybody wouldn’t love this kid. He’s got fat cheeks and a toothy grin, and he’s so damn earnest it makes me want to cry. He says things like, “Uncle Roger, do you think kids are smarter now than they were when you were a kid?”
I never had kids of my own, Sara. Sometimes I wonder if it’s because you didn’t have kids. It’s not a secret to say that I looked up to you—I loved you, yes, but I also looked up to you, and that’s different. I respected your decision not to have children, trusted it, and probably adopted that decision for myself without thinking through it the way I trusted that you had thought through it. Now I’m 40, and maybe it’s too late for me to think about kids, although I can’t help but think about it a little bit when I hang out with Justin. He’s got an old man’s temperament, which suits me well; the two of us get along just fine, as he’s still too young to be caught up in too many of the entrapments of the modern age that I don’t particularly keep up with, yet he acts old enough for us to have conversations, like about whether or not today’s kids are smarter than we were when you and I were kids.
I wonder what you would say to a kid like Justin.
I told him it’s not a matter of smarter or stupider. I even told him—just to see if it made any sense to him—that I didn’t think it was a matter of more or less informed, or more or less ignorant. He asked me what “ignorant” meant—you gotta love a kid who asks questions, and that’s something I could have told him I thought was way too rare these days—and the concept of ignorance didn’t make immediate sense to him, given our access to limitless information, so I had to talk about it another way. So there we were, me and my 7-year old nephew, talking about common sense. And when I realized I was talking too much, and asked him if he knew what I was talking about, he said they had time at school every day when they let their personal devices “take a nap”—that’s what he said, so I guess it must be what the teachers say—and that was kind of like practicing common sense. I’m sure they don’t let the Eye take a nap, but I won’t bore you by getting on my soapbox, and I didn’t bring it up with Justin, either.
Oh my little Justin. If he could have seen the way kids played in our village, unplugged, untethered, untamed. I wanted to take the little boy back in time and wake him up out of a dreaming boy’s sleep in the middle of a moonless night for a walk around the lake to see what magic he could find in the real world. Imagine what we could have shared with a kid like Justin. That certainly would have changed things, Sara.
With love and with some regret,
our village (57)
May 27, 2017
For the record, whatever I’m recording this for, today was one of those days: unexpectedly beautiful. I anticipated gray skies and a cold spring drizzle, and I was rewarded, we were all rewarded, for whatever reason, with sunshine, cool temps, and still not enough bugs to be too bothersome. That’s why I live in our village, on this lake: to sink into days like this.
On days like this it doesn’t matter if it’s going to rain tomorrow. On days like this it’s enough to be here, right here, right now. On days like this the wrens get along with the robins, the robins get along with the ravens, and the ravens get along with the raptors. On days like this there’s a section of lake shoreline for the tadpoles, and the fish leave them alone to guard their own strings of eggs, and nobody bothers them. The heron flies in to roost, and croaks to no one in particular, for no reason in particular, just to be alive. The beaver patrols the lake, and doesn’t even bother to slap the water at me, because we’re all out enjoying this glorious day.
I ran into two neighbors on my rare walk along the lake today. Needless to tell you, you weren’t one of them. I didn’t know what to say to them, to Mr. Bellis—always so introspective yet so proper—and to Marquetta Mason—that crazy doddering old woman you’ve probably seen sticking her nose in other people’s business. Again, needless to say—although I’d never have the courage to actually say it—I’m more attracted to younger folks like you than I am to people a little older than I am.
And now you’ve come over: the perfect ending to the perfect day. Nearly perfect.