A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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Watching the national party conventions, my thoughts drift to my father, who followed politics as avidly as sports, probably for the same reason: the excitement of the contest.
Once, during a World Series, he and his friend Murray, common-sense men who scorned psychic powers, sat in front of the television with their heads touching, rooting fervently for the Yankees.
He’d remind me that winning wasn’t important, but in many ways he didn’t believe it. A liberal Democrat, he showed genuine compassion for the dispossessed, but judged himself harshly as a failure, in business, and in life.
I don’t follow politics or sports closely. I care about social justice, and I admire physical agility and grace, but the mock battles of the politicians and the personality cults of the sports world for the most part bore me.
Does that mean I’m less concerned than my father was about winning and losing? I don’t know. I may be more at peace than he was, but I fight border skirmishes all day — did I work hard enough? did I say the right thing? — and at night, I drift into sleep like a guerilla slipping into the mountains.
I used to think I was more enlightened than my parents, and my friends held similar views. The battle between generations became yet another contest to win — like the battle for grades, popularity, sex. For first place. For heaven itself. Like others, I learned the contemporary vocabularies (indeed, I learned a little about love, yet still confuse it with passion and need, as I confuse my spiritual ambitions with who I am). I’m glad I learned the words; they’re a map to inner geographies, but just a map. “Sharing” isn’t the same as changing, or growing, which is the hard work of a traveler on his own, driven by pain and longing, at war with himself, and unashamed to admit it. (My annoyance with New Age gospel is that it glosses over the difficulties; the path is arduous and often lonely, and nothing can change that).
How little I understand about the world around and within me — the body of my hopes and fears, the mystery I call nature. I learn from those who know, and delight in, their ignorance. They hold no one above or beneath them, and thus they’re free to be themselves. Recently, I came across these lines by Galway Kinnell in a poem called “The River That Is East”: “A man stands on the pier./He has long since stopped wishing his heart were full/Or his life dear to him./He watches the snowfall hitting the dirty water./He thinks: Beautiful. Beautiful. If I were a gull I would be one with white wings,/I would fly out over the water, explode, and/Be beautiful snow hitting the dirty water.” These words touch me where no politician or athlete can, where I myself — with all my words! — can’t go, except as snow.