Plato is credited with saying something to the effect, "Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a great battle." Then again, I think he's also the guy that wrote, "Rinse. Shampoo. Repeat." So what does he know?
Nonetheless, there's a truth there, in the former I mean.
Angie and I have been on the hunt lately for the 'perfect' bookshelves. We have a ton of books packed away here and there and a large, lonely, spare wall that needs filling. We've been looking everywhere. We may have found them, however. Two nice, wide, wooden and fairly plain bookshelves from IKEA. They fit our taste well. I suspect we'll go ahead and get them today.
We've gone to great lengths to make our small but comfortable bungalow here in Burbank as cozy and artificially distressed as possible. We both very much like the 'lived in' look. My ideal of a perfect living space was long ago influenced by Salinger's description of the Glass Family apartment in his books 'Franny and Zooey' and 'Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenter.' Neither Angie or I like anything remotely sleek or modern looking. We like heavy stuff, leather and wood, earth colors, rooms curtained and filled with character. Permanent feeling things. Lamps giving off faint light with old, khaki shades. Our front room is filled with the feeling of age and pragmatism. If we could've found a wooden computer, we probably would have gotten it. Our sklylit extra room off the dining room is a study in wicker and aged, tan leather. So, these floor to ceiling bookshelves are going to be a welcome addition.
We were in the midst of discussing all of this decor yesterday, planning and visualizing, when I received stunning news from a dear friend about some health issues in his family that will change his life forever. After our relatively brief conversation, I tried to get back to work, sitting at my computer shaping and editing and rewriting a new piece I've been commissioned to write, Angie occasionally chiming in with a new idea for our re fittings. But it was all just clattering noise in the background. My mind was three thousand miles and twenty three years away.
Sometimes I find myself looking at photographs of people and idly wondering about their state of mind, their short-lived naivety in the frozen moment captured. I'm re-reading some of Truman Capote's work, a white hot talent that burned for only a decade or so and then ceased to function. Capote could have been the greatest writer of his generation, I think. It was all there. Blazing intelligence, an unsullied and spotless memory, and most important, an ability to put a sentence together that could awe the reader. He wrote the best sentences in the business. Only Fitzgerald came close. His short novel, 'Other Voices, Other Rooms,' written when he was nineteen, is so good in places it's sort of divine. And then with 'In Cold Blood' he let us see the whole parade, the size and magnitude of his talent. In it there are a number of photographs of 'The Clutter Family,' the victims of a brutal and senseless murder in the late fifties in the state of Kansas about which the book was written. There, captured for posterity, are pictures of the family; Christmas morning, relaxing in the back yard, standing on the porch, eating dinner, making faces for the camera in grade school. And we, the recipients of a later understanding, peek at them, feeling a twinge of guilt, turning the page a little too soon because we've been given a providential glance into their future, doomed and tossed and brutalized.
I don't know why bad things happen to good people. I wish I did. But sometimes, in the quick superficiality of my life, laughing at a stupid moment on television, eating a fussed over meal, watering my carefully planned garden, staring at the white, thoughtless computer monitor, willing myself to dream, I am anchored with sadness. 'Everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.'
Twenty three years ago, three thousand miles away, in the chaos of New York City, when the great plague of the century was snuffing friends and acquaintances faster than I could make them, I was too blinded by the vapidity of youth to spend too much time in mourning. Instead I soldiered on with the help of a handful of friends so pure as to be family, crashing through our lives, day to day, working, laughing so hard at times as to be immobile, convinced that those times would last forever and we would always be the same people in the still photographs I now have in a yellowed envelope in a shoebox in my closet.
The passing of the years brings a lot of small adventures, good and bad, sometimes caught in a picture, more often in our memories. The hellish knowledge as I wonder over the poor Clutter Family in Capote's nightmarish novel, the pictures of my own friends, now decades old, as I sit untroubled in my carefully planned, artificially distressed living room, wishing I could reach through the static images on the Polaroid paper in front of me and warn them. Raise the alarm. Give them a sign, yes, even give myself a sign in the same photos, that rough waters are ahead. Implore them to take roads less traveled. Make us all aware, caught in an open-mouthed guffaw on film, of the monstrosities ahead.
I'd shout into the sepia photos, 'People die, friends die, they get sick, fate happens, plans unravel, paths get lost and weeded over in the middle of the wood, we get lost, we get old, we have to plan for it, right now, stop laughing, take cover.' Utter nonsense, of course. Because the other thing the passing of the years bring is an understanding and acceptance of just how fleeting it all is. And how perfectly impossible it is to make it all stop and unfold as we want.
I turned fifty this year. Certainly not old by any stretch of the imagination, not in this day and age, anyway. And the idea of being wiser or more prepared for life is, if possible, even a sillier notion than it was when I was twenty five. No, the best I can do these days it seems, is to enjoy the small favors of picking a new book case or relishing the comfort hard work brings. And go to bed at night and hold my wife close and listen to her breathe.
It's probably best to be kind to people, strangers, old friends, new friends, trifling and chance meetings with nameless people passed quickly as we get older. There is, almost certainly, a canyon of grief or regret or unfulfillment within them all, somewhere, unseen, maybe in their old photographs in their shoe boxes in their closets and in their memories. They, too, have a thousand pent up shouts of warning to the people in their faded instamatic images.
See you tomorrow.