Sunday, June 25, 2017

It All Depends

We all have them. We all have those infinitesimal moments when if the event had gone another way, everything in our life — and that means everything — would be different. In his poem “The Red Wheelbarrow,” William Carlos Williams uses the phrase “so much depends.” Although as an English major I had undoubtedly studied the poem, it took on new meaning for me when a friend used the phrase “so much depends.” Her cancer was in remission at the time, or at least was manageable. I had asked her, “Are you in pain?” She answered, “No. So much depends…” and went on to recite the poem word for word. Her point was: whether I am in pain or not matters. So much depends on that. She added that one reading of the poem suggested that it refers to a child hovering between life and death. The poet was a doctor.

So much depends between this and that, between being here or somewhere else, between saying one thing or another, between seeing that oncoming truck before you turn or not.

The King James Version has it as “in the twinkling of an eye.”

So I never forgot my dear friend’s lesson, even though we went our separate ways.

I can readily draw up my own list of personal turning points balanced on the edge of a razor blade. I am told I started life that way, as a preemie. (Today, with advances in medicine and technology my entry into the world would be unremarkable.)

Family lore has me being nearly run over by my father in the backyard when I was five or six. Unbeknownst to my dad as he was backing up, I decided to bolt out of the car. Where did I go? Why? We will never know. My dad assumed the worst. My brother ran up the steps to tell Mom, “Dad ran over Paul!”

I was fine.


Whenever the story was retold at the dinner table, Dad would say, “Took ten years off my life.”

And who is to say otherwise?

Some moments get lost in the tides of time, as if they are less significant with the passage of days, months, and years.

The concussive wind of a Manhattan taxicab zooming by as I daydreamed and nearly drifted off the curb.  

Falling asleep at the wheel only to be awakened by the tires rumbling on a rough surface.

Decades ago, driving drunk and not remembering it.

Which illustrates the interactive nature of this utter powerlessness. In other words, others are inescapably involved in our seemingly random, remote choices.

Turning blue, choking on meat, only to find the Heimlich maneuver my wife of that time employed didn’t work — until she said “stop fighting me.”

In a blog post years ago, I coined an amusing term for this phenomenon:

or - chasm - n. The immeasurable distance between one choice and another.

I labeled it a noun, but these infinite moments fraught with fruition or finality have their own grammar. They are gerunds and participles and most of all infinitives.

They bear the indelible signature of choice and mystery.

These moments are the “Either/Or” of Soren Kierkegaard, "The Road Not Taken" of Robert Frost.

Name these nano-pinpricks as you see fit: choice, destiny, fate, will, coincidence, providence, or Providence.

You have yours; I have mine.

Attention must be paid.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Reading Second Skins

We sat in tiny chairs at tables made for kids. In the school library, the tops of tables and the seats of chairs were closer to the floor than what adults typically experience. We paired off, a dozen adults and a dozen first and second graders. We were reading. We read to each other. The adult would say a word that the child stumbled upon. The child would repeat it.

Some children wrote letters on erasable white boards. One could hear the mysterious soundings-out of letters and their combinations, the gentle coaxings and coachings that shed light and pattern. Sight words, flash cards, stapled pages we called books. Voices blending. Encouragement. Ears yearning.

One boy, an eight-year-old second grader, reached out to touch my gray hair, grown over the ears in wintertime, straight and thinning. The boy, polite and energetic and eager, seemed baffled and amazed at my hair's texture, its novelty. Then he looked at my hand. This was not our first encounter in the school library; this was after a few months or more of reading sessions that were not quite reading yet but were tilled soil for later bloom. He observed the veins in my aging hand, noticing the blue riverine pattern on these hands holding the stapled pamphlets we use as books.

"My hand is a different color," the young fellow stated matter-of-factly.

The way he said those words, their surprise and frankness and tenderness, caught me off-guard. It arrested me. For a few beats, I didn’t know how to respond but feared no response would be a missed opportunity — for what I was not sure.

"Yes, I see that. Isn't it wonderful?" I quickly managed with a blend of his matter-of-factness and my mildly suppressed enthusiasm. We then turned to tackle another pamphlet, a level C or D “book.” The chorus of learning filled the room.

Upon much later reflection, I was grateful to my young reading partner for his honesty, authenticity, and directness. I recalled a moment decades ago in high school. Our teacher, a Catholic priest of the most progressive leanings, was commenting on Jesus’ oft quoted, “Suffer (allow) little children to come unto me and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” The only lesson I can summon some fifty years later is that Father Giuliani underscored and celebrated two qualities of children: simple and direct.   

Simple and direct. Yes indeed.

“My hand is a different color.”

A child’s uncomplicated observation of fact laden with a history unknown to me, just as mine was unknown to him.

Had I missed a deeper and more cogent opportunity? I knew the two of us were not about to engage in a candid discussion of Race in America. And I sought to avoid either preachiness or stilted speech. (Truth be told, I thought none of this. I had no time. Such considerations — and zillions more — rocketed through my brain before I uttered words.)

Those who parse such encounters might take me to task for these musings; they might posit a racial construct in my very questions.

So be it.

It’s what I had at that moment. In a country whose citizens rarely converse across racial lines, one to one, over bread or coffee or wine, it’s all we had.

The poet W.H. Auden wrote, “Love your crooked neighbor with all your crooked heart.”

It’s all we’ve got.