Tuesday, October 29, 2013
The usually mindless twenty–five minute commute to the office has required a little more attention the past few mornings. Crews of men in hard hats and florescent-trimmed vests have been supervising the cutting down of some rather large pine trees along the apron of 301 South and a little farther down another group has been digging troughs for, I assume, the long line of pale aqua pipe pieces that have been littering the ditch like massive tubes of penne. I suspect all of this is in preparation for the extension of utilities to property that borders the interstate.
It’s probably about nine miles from the city limits of Statesboro to the interstate. Nine miles is a long way to send water or electricity or the digital signals that enable us to buy merchandise with the swipe of a plastic card. So now I’m thinking about how far we are willing to go for something we want, how far I’m willing to go for something I want. How far is too far.
It is suggested that we reach for the stars and that a man’s – or a woman’s – reach should exceed his grasp. The motto for the Olympic Games is “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” Latin for "Faster, Higher, Stronger," a declaration that the athlete and, therefore, mankind for whom the athlete is the idealized symbol, must be incessantly stretching and straining the limits of what is possible, never content with what is.
At the same time, though, we are admonished to live simply and modestly. There is a pair of ruby slippers in the Smithsonian, our national repository of culture, that reminds us that the means to obtaining our hearts’ desires lie, not in some far away land, but within ourselves and that there is no place like home.
Can the dichotomy of the two positions be reconciled? Can both be true?
I confess to not remembering much from the two semesters of economics I took in college. Adam Smith. Opportunity cost. Guns and butter. What I do remember clearly, probably because it had immediate applicability to my life in answering the question of whether I should keep studying or get some sleep, is the concept of the point of diminishing return, the idea that at some specific moment, location, or cost the benefit of continuing in the same direction will be reduced. The problem back then, with the study or sleep conundrum, and now is always determining where, exactly, is that point?
I suspect that the men in the suits who hired the men in the hard hats have reams of data, stacks of printouts with colorful pie charts and lots of decimal points, confirming that their point is somewhere beyond nine miles, that the cost of installing all that giant pasta under the edge of a four-lane highway will be less than the eventual benefit of having jobs and a tax base that far from town.
I’m not that lucky. I don’t have models and projections and pie charts available each time I’m trying to decide whether nine miles is the point at which I stop reaching and start grasping. There is no way to label the pros and cons of the various choices as constants, coefficients, and variables and then solve for x.
Most of the big decisions of my life have already been made. Some of them turned out to be excellent choices, some not so good. What they all have in common is this: Each one involved both reaching and grasping, not one or the other. Using my eyes to look as far ahead as I possibly could and using my heart to hold on to everything I knew to be good and true. Having vision and trusting experience. Not exactly a reconciliation of the dichotomy. Maybe something more like detente – an acceptance of difference and an easing of tensions followed by an acknowledgment of the equal possibility of both contentment and regret.
Perhaps that is the best one can hope for, along with the worst that one should expect, which is the reality that, continuing to reach or pausing to grasp, one can never ever ever be absolutely sure.
Monday, October 14, 2013
I crossed the room to say my goodbyes. The eulogies had been poignant and funny. The burial site, under a moss-covered live oak, was beautiful. The visit with the family was warm and uplifting. It was time for me to leave them in a tight knot of each other.
“Don’t get up,” I offered as I reached down to take his hand.
“No, no,” he said, releasing me from a grip still strong. With one hand on the edge of the table and the other on the back of his chair, he began pushing himself up. “I want to tell you a story.”
I had just been looking at a photo on the mantel, a black and white wedding portrait of him and his bride, handsome boy and beautiful girl. They were together for sixty-three years. Five children and fourteen grandchildren crowded the photo albums. There were lots of stories, but he wanted to tell me only one.
He turned from the table, curved his arm around my back and moved the two of us away from the voices that rose from the table, overlapped each other, and drifted out the doors toward the ocean. Propping his elbows on a high counter, he leaned forward and I leaned in, not wanting to miss a single word.
“Emily Dickinson wrote a poem about a hummingbird,” he began. I nodded, more out of respect and encouragement than actual knowledge. “It goes: ‘A route of evanescence/With a revolving wheel;/A resonance of emerald,/A rush of cochineal;/And every blossom on the bush/Adjusts its tumbled head, –/The mail from Tunis, probably,/An easy morning's ride.”
The words rolled out with the ease of the oft-recited. I could imagine him standing in front of his classroom of undergraduates, Philistines all, incapable of grasping the power in the spare words. He took a shallow breath.
“I put a hummingbird feeder outside Mary’s window and one day while the young woman who came in to help us,” he paused and raised his eyebrows questioningly. I nodded, this time with actual knowledge, to let him know I was aware of the role the young woman. He offered parenthetically, “She was a life-saver. We couldn’t have done it without her,” before continuing, “one day while she was there I looked out the window and saw a hummingbird at the feeder. I watched it for a moment and then said, ‘The mail from Tunis, probably, an easy morning’s ride.” He was staring into the distance now. Watching his profile I could see the tears begin to rise in his eyes, hovering just behind the lashes, not falling.
He turned then and looked at me straight on. Wherever he had been just a second before, he had returned to the present. “The young woman, the one that helped us, she heard me and said, ‘What’d you say?’” His cheeks rose up to meet his eyes and he chuckled.
I laughed. I could just see the quizzical look on the nurse’s aide’s face, the lack of comprehension, the wondering of what a hummingbird had to do with the mail. And I could also feel his sadness that, by then, the Mary who had understood his fondness for Emily Dickinson and who would have enjoyed the moment was lost, vanished somewhere inside the body that still required the care of this kind and tender woman.
I have seen love before. Never before have I seen it more quietly, yet eloquently expressed.
The leaves are turning and the days are getting shorter. It will be months before the hummingbirds return, but I am certain that the first one I see will be bringing the mail from Tunis, a love letter from Mary to Hollis, sealed with a kiss.