Have you ever wanted to help someone and not been able to? Sometimes they need money you don't have. Or connections you don't have. Sometimes you don't know what they need. Those are the tough ones.
Let's say your mom's hands shake too much to pay her bills. That's the kind of problem I like. I can write her checks for her to sign. Problem solved. But what if she's lonely and bored. Maybe dying. Not dying tomorrow or next week, or even next month, just gradually slipping away. You can't be there three times a day to help her with her eye drops. You can't come over at three in the morning to search her blankets for the little portable radio she keeps in her bed, near her hand, so she can listen to NPR in those long dark hours when she can't sleep. And when she does slip away, you don't tell yourself you did everything anyone could, you only remember the times she was frightened and you weren't there.
Or maybe it's your grown child who has hit a rough spot. When she fell from the monkey bars and gashed her chin, you rushed her in for stitches. Problem solved. There's nothing like the way a child's cuts heal. Fast. Scars so faint they're almost attractive, like badges of a brave and adventurous spirit. But what about when that brave and adventurous spirit gets driven off, frightened away by demons you can't see and, even when they're described to you, you have trouble understanding. These are not the sharp objects and traffic-filled streets you spent your life protecting her from. These are daggers of the mind that cut away emotional defenses and resilience and open the way for fear and doubt.
Like your mother in her last years, your adult child has good days and bad days. On good ones, she's her old self: bright, talented, perceptive, amazing. You think: She's fine. She's going to be fine. Then the clouds come. The days of not leaving home, of crying. The irrational fears. Wounds that can't be stitched up, that need help you can't provide. All you can do is hope for the good days to return; and hope nothing disastrous happens before they do. This person is not a child. You can't cosset her in her childhood bedroom. It won't do any good to sit on her doorstep. She doesn't want you there. It's not as simple as finding her radio for her in the night, and even that wasn't so simple.
When you're thinking about people you love who are suffering, people you are accustomed to helping, people whose problems, some of them anyway, you've been able in the past to fix, doing nothing is almost unbearable. Even though you know these are problems you can't solve, you can't shake the notion that you should be trying harder, that you should be rushing to the rescue, not going to a movie or sitting in a park somewhere in a faraway city while she can't leave her apartment.
On your own bad days, your desire to fix the problem, and your inability to do so, sucks the life out of you. You feel guilty for your own good fortune. You would gladly give up your health or sanity so that she may have hers. But it doesn't work that way. And it leaves you feeling a little like you imagine she does: hollowed out.
Perhaps there is some awful comfort in that. Some feeling that by your own pain you may somehow share her burden. Some hope that by confronting your own guilt and doubt you may find within yourself something that will help you both.
Saturday, March 8, 2014
Fiction writers are “what-iffers." What if the hero falls into a pit of despair. What if he falls in love? What if he falls and breaks a leg? You come to a place in a story where you're stuck about what should happen next and the what-iffing begins. When a story is boring, it’s usually because there hasn't been enough what-iffing.
So also a life. When you don't know how to get out of a rut, that's the time for some what-iffing. What if I go somewhere where no one knows me? What if I ask his name? What if I sell everything, grab a backpack and hit the road.
When we’re very young, we have powerful imaginations. I remember a recurring dream in which I could fly. For a long time, I thought maybe I really could. Flying becomes winning at some sport or getting into the college you want, maybe landing a particular job. I'm not saying those aren't good things hope for, but they're a long way from flying. Over time, life coaxes us off that childhood height where we stood with our arms spread to the wind and, as Louise put it to Thelma, we get what we settle for.
Meg (one of my dreams that did come true) particularly likes a bit of writing advice the novelist Tim O’Brien gave her: “Have people behave in extraordinary ways to illuminate ordinary emotions.” When you come down to it, most of what we want is pretty ordinary. How bold we are in pursuing it is what makes the difference.
We are, each of us, the authors of our own stories. When we feel the plot dragging, it may be time step back and ask "what if.” There are reasons to be reticent about taking some daring leap in life—money, time, other commitments—but often as not, if our lives are boring, our biggest failure may be one of imagination.
Thursday, March 6, 2014
I was eating a burrito at a restaurant patio table on beautiful day when I decided to let go. Of my money. Some of it. A dollar. There was a modest older man at a nearby table who was politely asking passersby if they could spare a little change so he could get something to eat. I was writing, sort of, mostly letting my mind float free, and his quiet and respectful request floated in and out of my thoughts and eventually took hold of them. I went back into the restaurant, broke the twenty in my wallet and took him a dollar. I said it didn't look like he was having much luck. He said he was mighty hungry. He wasn’t thin or scruffy. His clothes were worn but he wore them carefully. His mustache was neatly trimmed. He didn’t look like a drunk. In that moment, I didn’t care whether he was. I didn’t care what he did with the dollar, I just wanted to give it to him.
I've seen a lot of homeless people over the years. I wrote here about one who became a family friend, a chess-playing street musician in Santa Barbara named Mason B. Mason. Mason was in and out of jail, but he played chess with my sons Chris and Nick and we all liked him and were sad when he died of cancer unexpectedly. There was a woman in our local park in Palo Alto who I saw so often I always spoke to her. She never replied, but that was okay. She died a few weeks ago of hypothermia. Her middle-aged daughter had been trying for years to get her off the street. She'd been a good mother when she was younger, her daughter said.
Most of the homeless people I see are anonymous. Sometimes I give them a little something, but I don't carry small bills, so I rarely reach into my pocket for someone I pass on a sidewalk.
I see them, though. I see them watch me as I say, "Sorry man," or as I just look the other way, pretending not to notice them. I feel ashamed when I do that. They'll just buy booze with it, I might think, to make myself feel better. Or I remind myself that Meg and I give money to Second Harvest, which feeds the homeless, and to homeless shelters like The Opportunity Center, which offers housing and life and job counseling. They're on the street because they want to be. You hear that so often you begin to believe it. Or you want to believe it. If it's their choice, it's not your fault.
I suppose some of my rationalizations are rooted in truth, but I don't like myself for thinking about people that way. I want to let go of that habit, that reflex. I want to let go of the cliches and stereotypes. I want to let go of my need to shape my worldview to accommodate my desire not to have small change jangling in my pocket. What do I know about those people? One of them might be another Mason B. Mason, a friend to my sons. One of them might have been a good mother to her daughter when she was young, a daughter who cannot understand what happened to her mother, why she sits all day on her bench saying hardly a word.
Homelessness is a dreadful state of existence. It is also a terrifying mirror held up to us, reflecting our inability to help one another sometimes, even our indifference to their suffering. When I gave a dollar to that man on the restaurant patio, I resolved from then on to carry a pocketful of dollars to give to others like him. Without judgement. Without fear. I don't know what they’ll do with the money. When you make a gift it’s no longer yours to control. A dollar isn't going to change anyone's life, but perhaps the daily giving will change mine. All I know for sure is that I can no longer look away.
When he was ready to leave, the man I'd given the dollar folded his newspaper, slipped on his jacket and stood and smoothed his clothes. He came over to me and said thanks again. He walked away a few steps and turned back to me, glanced up at the sky, where clouds were gathering, and said, "Stay dry."