It was great going back up to Arcata last week, seeing people whom we dearly love and seldom see. We have some other friends wandering up from Topanga Canyon shortly who will stay over with us a night, and that will be great. We have a daughter who lives in Italy, and in September we spent our annual week with her and her beloved, and that was manna from heaven. We’ll see Eli and Meg at Thanksgiving for a feast of love. But what about all those other beloveds who are part of our web, who are scattered across the face of this dear Earth, and whom we seldom see?
Normally, my annual visit to Europe has had two other essential visits, one to Theo in Amsterdam and one to Peter in Zurich. Not so this September, because of a lurch in time and money. Now what? These aren’t casual stitches in a random sock that can be left to ravel. But I don’t have a clear idea of what comes next.
I think about the web of love. Thinking about Flora in Milwaukee is something that floods my minds with a glorious tapestry of colors and memories, and I really feel the closeness, but unless Flora has amazing powers of ESP, she doesn’t feel it. My own feeling is an illusion until I complete the circuit.
Once upon a time, I wrote actual letters, with pen on paper. Later, they were typewritten. Much later, they became email. Flora still writes on paper, in her unique and graceful hand, and I hold the paper and feel her warmth. Our friend Joyce sends holiday greetings inscribed in an equally elegant hand, and the envelopes are ornately decorated. When one comes in the mail, the very touch is warming and ignites a spray of memories.
When you get pregnant, your body is the container and the relationship with your future child waxes on its own. Later, you have to do something to keep that going. When loves and friendships are strong, you’re tricked into thinking that they maintain their vividness and strength on their own. From your own perspective, yes, but not in the dynamic of the webwork. Visits, phone calls, letters, gifts, hugs, facebook photos, they’re all food without which something starves.
When Conrad and I were younger, it was an absolute ritual to call his mom every Sunday, for us to chat and then put the kids on the line. With our own kids, we try, but the frequency isn’t locked into the DNA, and I miss that.
Few of us have a village life any more, where the web is renewed and mended on a regular basis. We have to extend our consciousness worldwide and send our loving “phone calls” out regularly, in whatever form.
Think about this, and after you’ve finished reading, make a phone call or send an e-mail or write a postcard, or, if you’re lucky, reach out your arms and hug.
I’ve realized that I know very little about myself. I know what I do, and I know what comes forth in my writing, and for me that’s really what matters. But neither of those are necessarily indicative of the true me. Neither would get me into a Heaven where you have to take a lie detector test.
As I’ve said, I have a self-image as an enormously selfish, egocentric person, but I work to act the opposite, and usually succeed. And if the writing reflects my authentic self, then my authentic self is radically self-divided, swinging between pathos and irony, hope and despair. There are times when our audiences don’t know what carnival ride they just got on and hope they can get off in time.
But that’s maybe what moves me to create characters who are themselves self-divided, whose greatest struggles are against themselves. Nothing new: that’s Lear and that’s Prospero and that’s Leontes. And that’s what, when it comes to politics, makes me despair.
Right now I’m plowing through a very long book on the history of the Middle Ages, from roughly the 4th Century to the 15th. The need for power, security, stability or spiritual enlightenment leading to murder, war, plague. Decade after decade, century after century, from Mesoamerica through Europe to Japan. All that’s changed is the caliber of our weapons.
There have been small spans of radical change. Most of us don’t see mass starvation as a judgment of God, and though slavery exists we don’t approve it. Women, at least more so than before, aren’t treated as cattle. We do, by fits and starts, evolve.
But I feel, even with my progressive friends, that we lack the empathy that comes from knowing a person is many people, and trying to speak to the one who can listen. We can’t change the world—either our harassing asshole boss or the dictator of North Korea—by punishment. We might get his attention, yes, like whacking a mule that just won’t tune in, but we won’t make a change. That will come only by an almost impossible empathy with the people we despise.