puzzled by fate
VINEGAR AND OIL
by Jane Hirshfield
Wrong solitude vinegars the soul,
right solitude oils it.
How fragile we are, between the few good moments.
Coming and going unfinished,
puzzled by fate,
like the half-carved relief
of a fallen donkey, above a church door in Finland.
* * *
On Monday I drove back to DC from North Carolina. I left at 6:00 am and the trip was pleasant (relatively) and uneventful. The girls were wonderful (for the most part) the entire way and we arrived home in the early afternoon. There was just one odd incident on the return drive that, although it did not involve me directly, was nonetheless strange. I was putting gas in my car at a Shell station on an exit about 100 miles away from Washington, in Virginia, and witnessed a car accident. Happening as if in slow motion, on a pretty spring day, a car slammed on its brakes and skidded for about twenty feet, then banged into the broadside of another car while I stood there watching. Both drivers got out of their car immediately, so it was not that serious, but still it was strange. Suddenly people gathered around, all on their cell phones, as if eager for some drama, any drama. I, on the other hand, quietly returned the gas nozzle to its place, got in my car, where my girls were thankfully totally oblivious to what had taken place, and headed back onto the interstate. I wanted to slip away from the scene and get on with the final stretch of my trip. But as I turned out of the gas station I got behind a car with a bumper sticker that said: “Everything in the universe is changing…and happening right on schedule.” The saying was not attributed to anyone, much less any particular great thinker, and the guy driving the car actually looked a little Virginia-back-woodsy-crazy, so I’m not sure why it should have made any serious impression on me at all, except that I happened to see it immediately after witnessing a strange, slow-motion collision.
There is also just the fact that it is Holy Week. I do find myself looking over my shoulder a little bit during Holy Week, or, so to speak, waiting for the other shoe to drop, so maybe incidents seem a little more ominous to me this week than they would normally.
I have been giving some thought lately to this idea of fate and how life unfolds, and wondering how a person lives in such a way as to not accumulate regrets and resentments. We have been in touch with a realtor in Saint Louis and she has begun emailing us links to houses that fit the criteria we gave her. Unfortunately, the first batch of houses she sent mostly disappointed me. Well, to be more blunt, it depressed me. I know that a handful of houses on the market that I do not like is not a final nail on the coffin, by any means, but already it is prompting an internal dialogue surrounding the tension between hopes and dreams, and what is realistic and reasonable. What is being passive and settling, and what is simply adopting a healthy attitude of acceptance and trust, and willingness to overlook life’s imperfections? I want to believe in the goodness of life. I want to believe that life will open its hand and give me what I need, time and time again, if not always what I want. I want to trust, not fear, life. And yet, it does seem as if buying a house that you come to regret is, on the spectrum of possible mistakes in life, on the more serious end.
While in North Carolina I had the experience of realizing that there are members of my family who have grown old full of regret and resentment for how their lives unfolded. It is difficult to be around such a person, and most definitely makes me feel determined not to become one (as I secretly harbor fear about moving to Saint Louis this summer). Partly, I want to shake them and say: Why didn’t you make different choices, then, or at least have a different attitude? But of course this would be utterly futile.
On the other hand, I had a very opposite sort of encounter–edifying and pleasantly surprising–with another family member who up until now I really haven’t had an opportunity to get to know very well–my mom’s cousin Charlotte. She invited us over because she wanted us to pick out one of her paintings. I realized that sometimes just one significant conversation in life– one single meaningful connection to another human being, and in this case a family member– can by itself be enough to cancel out a lot of negativity and form a bright, redemptive spot that spreads out and colors everything surrounding it. Charlotte, in the span of one morning, made me feel seen, heard, and understood in a way that made up for several days of feeling invisible…that is, when I wasn’t functioning as a moving target for all manner of negative projections.
Charlotte and her husband Calvin built the house they now live in. It is perched high up on a steep slope, full of windows, with a very clear mountain view. I was shocked at how sunny it was inside, because the cabin my grandparents built, which is really only a stone’s throw distance from hers, is shrouded by trees, and and gets very little direct sunlight, as evidenced by all the moss that grows all around it. I didn’t know you could be in a mountain cabin and experience the sun like that. I almost needed to shade my eyes from the glare, just sitting in her living room.
Her paintings were propped up all over the room, and some were spread around on the living room floor. Elsa walked over a few of them several times with her chunky-soled boots, but Charlotte didn’t seem to mind. I don’t know her husband Calvin (pictured above) very well, but he is a sweet man, very much a southern gentleman, discussing the squirrels and bears that have visited their porch, in dulcet Georgian tones. This is her second marriage, as her first husband died several decades ago. Calvin has Parkinson’s Disease and is losing his short term memory. He asked us the age of our girls at least four times while we were there. I remember that they came to my wedding nine years ago, and I remember that as Jeff and I were driving away after the reception, I saw Calvin crossing the street in front of our car at a red light in downtown Chattanooga, and I remember my totally exhausted brain thinking, “Hey, there goes Calvin. He was just at our wedding.” It’s just one of those random memories.
Visiting with Charlotte and Calvin made me think about growing old, but in a good way. I like older people who have a brightness and lightness about them. I feel sure that a person does not become that way in old age by accident. You can tell that an older person who is peaceful and radiant in old age has done some work on themselves somewhere along the way. Spiritual atrophy will not get you there, surely. And at some point during our visit, Charlotte, who really isn’t that overtly religious (or maybe just in comparison to others in my family), as far as I have ever known, said: “We are being taken care of by God. That isn’t wishful thinking; it is a fact.” I found myself easily able to receive that message as valid from someone who has obviously had a lot of life happen to her, who is now almost certainly facing her fair share of uncertainty, and yet seems very calm, sane, and cheerful. Thank God for sane relatives, really.
I love the poem above. It is hard so to be an adult. No matter how old we get, we are still walking around unfinished. I am feeling very raw and unfinished these days, and kind of wondering when and/or if that feeling will ever lessen, or just grow more acute with time. I can perceive that I am just now turning a corner. That is, I am old enough now to have just enough of a past to tempt me to an unhealthy puzzlement over the past, if I let myself go there. But I’ve seen how a personality can be contorted over time by self-pity, regret, and paranoia, and I do not want that for myself. I want to choose faith, hope, and love. I want to discard fear as consciously as I discard the houses in Saint Louis which I know for sure I could not willingly inhabit. Ultimately, I have to inhabit myself for a lifetime. Whatever happens, I want to end up as one of the sane ones.