Archive | August, 2013

Small Steps In Large Spaces

23 Aug

It seems strange to be seventy, almost seventy-one, and to realize that, all my life I have, perhaps, thought too highly of the human race–or, perhaps, just far too simply. 

I’m stuck, now, at this moment, in these years, on what I am inclined to call “the problem of empty hearts.” I feel as if I need to invent something on the order of a new language for myself, first, just to find words for what I feel welling up in my consciousness, and then–which seems almost impossible–some way to enable that new language to be understood by others.

Well, I will take a few steps, at least, and see if I can find enough words that fit.

For the most part, I have spent my life, have devoted everything I have and am, to doing my best to be intellectually and emotionally nurturing to people who define themselves, at least temporarily, as students. Some of these have been small children. The youngest was about four. She was failing pre-school. I went to school with her to try to see how it felt to be her there. I saw and felt how alone she was–how she sat at her place in the classroom, in a world of her own, how she took herself out on the playground and wandered around by herself, how she talked to me, but not to other children.  I listened to teachers and administrators talk about her. I watched the other children. I thought about how she was in her own home–so all alone, so longing to be the boss of something, to  insist, to require, to demand: “Do this, be this, now, this minute.” I saw her taking riding lessons, one small child, high up on a horse, sitting quietly, as if it were not really a horse at all, but perhaps a slow-stepping, oblivious elephant. I took pictures of her there, imagined her telling her view of it all. I remember another picture I took, of her with a doll baby, sitting alone with it, feeding it a bottle, talking to it, so peacefully, alone with it in a huge otherwise empty room.

What I am wondering is how these moments shape us. Do others remember what we remember? Do these still photos tug at their hearts–or only mine?

I think of a group of people, chronologically adults, maybe ten or more years younger than I, sneering at me because I had questioned their ethics. “Your job,” one of them said, “Is to do what you’re told and not ask questions.”

How amazing to me that an adult would ever say, or even think, such a thing.

Never, I said, had I ever even imagined an adult who did not question–question everything, including him- or herself.

How do people learn sneering? How do they learn to keep their minds and hearts so dead and so tight?

I am seventy, and I do not know.

What I do know is that I have never sneered, and have always questioned, and hope I continue in this way until the day, the very moment, of my dying.

Sometimes sadness and solitude weigh too much to express.

Today I “pet sat” for neighbors, who have gone off for a few days to fish for salmon in the rain. What is rain to the salmon they will catch? Not what it is to us, not an inconvenience at all, just drops of water without salt. What greater inconvenience could there be–than to be caught, and maybe thrown on ice until the last possible tail wiggle? I take the red leash my own dog used to use, the house key, some plastic bags, and head out into the rain. The dogs hear me, fumbling at the door with the key. Five hours, they’ve been alone in their house, not even eating. Their water dishes are full to the top. I remember the directions: Be liberal with the tiny treats in the bowl by the door. I put one in my left hand, hook the leash, ease the first dog out into the rain, resting my foot between the door and the other dog, who’s not used to waiting, to being left alone in the house. “Don’t worry!” I whisper. “We’ll be back soon. Truly.” I shut the door, and follow the first dog up the steps toward the road.

It’s dusk already. I can barely distinguish the gray ground from the gray sky. “Very nice!” I say to the dog. “Very nice walking!” The dog is chubby and low to the ground, like a furry ottoman with feet. He struts. “Very nice!” He says to himself. “I’m very nice! Ta Ta!” We strut in a large circle, around the parking area, first this way, and then that, forgetting the rain, both of us thinking how nice it is to feel just right. “Here’s a nice treat!” I say. “It is nice!” he says to himself. We head for the house, squeeze ourselves in without letting the other dog out. “How about a big treat, half of one, for striding right into your night cage?” I ask “Fine with me!” He says. When he’s in, I pass the second half of the big treat between the bars. “We’ll be back soon,” I tell him. “Don’t worry.” I understand that he will worry anyway. Of course I do know, at seventy, that you cannot tell people or dogs not to worry and expect such a thing to happen.

The other dog and I head out the door, as the first dog worries. “Good job!” I say, as I close the door behind us. Both of them assume this remark is meant for them. Both feel encouraged, right with the world.

A few minutes later, we’re back in. I divide the next big treat. The second dog speedily joins the first one. I pass the second half through the bars. “Good job!” I say again, and give each of them one more tiny treat from the bowl by the door. “Dessert!” I say. “For being so helpful. Nice job. Very nice.”

I tiptoe out, lock the door behind me, hang up my wet raincoat, and sit down to write. My cat, Rosie, rests her front paws on the arm of the computer chair, the rest of her balanced carefully on the desk. “Sure,” I say. “Hop in.” She jumps into the chair to cuddle up behind me. I sit on the very edge of the chair, as usual. Rosie purrs. “You’re a beautiful little thing,” I say, rubbing her chin, feeling her purr. “It’s nice living here,” she says. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”