“Upon reflection, you are genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have become. . .” (Eleanor Lerman)
April 24, 2015 Leave a comment
One of the marvels of being a human being is that other human beings, even if they don’t understand why, can affect others deeply and well. Eleanor Lerman was only 53 when she published her poem, “Starfish.” It seems almost impossible she or anyone else under 70 years of age can understand it.
I am genuinely surprised to find how quiet I have become.
For the first 65 years of my life I thought I was going to do something wonderful for which I would be remembered for the duration of human civilization. A ridiculous thought, but I held onto it. That thought gave me reason to go on in my circumscribed, parochial, mundane little life.
I’ve never been good at “living in the moment.” I don’t have any idea what that means. I’ve thought since I first read Susanne Langer’s Mind: An Essay in Human Feeling (in about 1975) that the two attributes that make humans different from other creatures (different from, not better than) are 1) our ability to live in a world of symbolic processes—language like Eleanor Lerman’s for starters—and 2) our ability to remember the past and project into the future. What any of that has to do with “living in the moment” I cannot guess.
I’ve given up any thought that I will ever do anything that anyone will remember for longer than about a week after I die. Pity. The world would be so much better if I had had my chance to be brilliantly creative.
Oh, you say, I did have the chance, but I blew it? Anyone who believes that most likely also believes that if one is as energetic and clever as Charles and David Koch, one can be a billionaire. But that’s a pile of horse-pucky. Neither their brains nor their hard work made them rich. They were born with a billion dollars in their father’s checking account. Like the myth I’ve always told myself about being brilliant and creative, they have spun a myth about hard work and ingenuity and all of those other things the rich can afford to believe. I have to believe things that aren’t true in order not to be depressed, and they have to make you believe things that aren’t true in order to justify their greed and power.
It’s all done with mirrors and wires and a supreme evolutionary process of fooling ourselves as we try (with greater or lesser degrees of success) to fool others.
I can’t speak from the vantage of having accomplished great things. So perhaps it’s true that had I worked hard and put my mind to good use, I would be leaving some sort of “legacy” behind when I shuffle off this mortal coil.
The other day as I walked to the SMU center for the Athletic Development of Student Athletes I had a little exchange with the two men, one Hispanic and the other African American, not quite my age, but close, who were holding up signs at the corner of Bishop Boulevard and Schlegel Street on the campus of the university. Signs that said simply,
Whenever the Methodist Church on the corner of the campus (the BIIIIGGGG Methodist Church that accompanies Southern Methodist University) has a BIIIIGGGG funeral, these men are paid to hold these signs so people will know whether to park in the church lot or in the lot under the Meadows Museum or on the Boulevard.
Cars. Hundreds of cars. Whoever had died was apparently energetic and clever and brilliant and creative and ingenious and hard-working. The funeral of a personage. My guess is, this being Dallas, it was someone who had made oodles of money and was, therefore, important.
I said to the sign-holders, “Big funeral.” And one replied, “When your time comes, your time comes.” I said, “I guess they’re just as dead as you and I will be.” My other new friend said, “Their money isn’t doing them any good now.” We shook hands, and I went off to tutor university athletes while the cars kept pouring in and the organist was quieting the congregation with lovely improvisations on funeral hymns.
My new friends and I had celebrated about all the funeral the rich man needed. And in the process, we had exchanged authentic communion with each other that the three of us will remember and cherish for a long time to come. And the next time they’re directing traffic and I come hobbling up the street, we will greet each other as friends. Genuine.
That’s a highly romanticized view of the importance of our exchange—I know it. And the deceased may have been one of the humble and meek that will be exalted. And it may be sour grapes on my part because I know no one will have to direct traffic for my funeral. I won’t yet have been organist for a service at the National Cathedral or written the Great American Novel or been Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress.
I was on my way to tutor four university athletes. I have been cheerleader for them for a semester. Their writing has improved (more because they’ve done more of it than because of anything I’ve said), and they have—all of them—come to trust me in the special way a good teacher can be trusted. No judgment, only support and—on good days—some humor and joy in a job well done.
It’s terrifying to know someone trusts me to teach them.
Do I regret that I haven’t reached my “full potential?” Sure. But I don’t know how to verbalize my gratitude. My “legacy” will be that perhaps I helped a bunch of kids figure out how to reach more of their potential than they might have if I hadn’t cared about them, cajoled them, guided them, been vulnerable with them.
Not a bad legacy. In this moment or any other.
“STARFISH,” BY ELEANOR LERMAN
This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman
down beside you at the counter who say, Last night,
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,
is this a message, finally, or just another day?
Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?
There is movement beneath the water, but it
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.
And then life suggests that you remember the
years you ran around, the years you developed
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon,
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have
become. And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.
Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave,
so you’ll have to settle for lucky.) Because you
were born at a good time. Because you were able
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you
stopped when you should have and started again.
So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.