Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The World is Not Enough

The baby on the airplane is crying again. This time, it's a deep, anguished, guttural cry--part gurgle, part scream--and I can tell it's not going to go away any time soon. My immediate thoughts are: 1) selfish (so much for getting any sleep on this flight), and 2) self-righteous (don't you have a pacifier for the damn kid? A bottle? anything? What were you THINKING?). Other thoughts come later.

It's a full day later now, and sitting, alone, at dinner, I think back to that baby--or, rather, my experience of that baby--and my new thoughts are: this is an experience that doesn't really exist.

Which is nonsense. It happened, and it was experienced by a couple hundred very annoyed people...not to mention the baby itself. But here's the thing: I don't know those people. I will never see those people again. Even if I did, I wouldn't recognize them enough to say, "Hey, you were on that flight with the screaming baby..."

No. As far as I am concerned (and let's face it, reality comes down to nothing more than those things about which you are concerned), I'm the only one who experienced it. I can tell people about it (look--I just did), but I can't share recollection of it with anyone, because no one within the limited orbit of my life shared that experience.

And so the event stays inside my head, and if I want or need to think about it, I can pull it up, look at it, mull it over, and put it away in memory. But it never leaves my head, and it doesn't exist for anyone else that I know or care about. It is completely internal to me. And as such, it is a very lonely thing.

I was thinking about this at dinner tonight, a full day later, because at dinner--at the close of a long and hectic day of professional development and all the attendant hassles--I was alone again. Usually when I travel for work, I am traveling to a place where colleagues are already in place, and I have people with whom I can have a drink, eat dinner, and so on. Not this time. Although I am in a beautiful, some would say magical place on this trip, it is still quite lonely at the end of the day. Where I go, I go alone. Where I sit, I sit alone.

And the beautiful, magical nature of the place makes it even worse, because there is no one with whom to share it. What a waste of a sunset, I think, when there's no one I care for close at hand, to whom I can say, "Look at that sunset!"

Not that I don't appreciate and enjoy the sunset, or the waves, or the mountains, or any such lovely things, when I'm in their midst, even alone. I absolutely do. And there have been times in my life when I have deliberately set out to be in the midst of such places, very much alone, because that's what I wanted or needed.

But I'm an old, married guy now. I'm used to being part of two. Or, really, four--because I miss my boys, too--even after taking care of them solo for nine crazy days, I don't say to myself, "Thank God I'm away from that!" but, instead, "The boys would love this."

Maybe that's why I wrote plays, when I wrote plays--to share, if not autobiographical experiences, at least ideas and emotions. And perhaps the absence of that outlet makes this occasional isolation more intense. I don't know.

Annie Dillard talks about locating the meaning of life, such as it is, in the witnessing of the beauty of the world--because what point is there in God's beauty if there is no one there to appreciate it? And perhaps, as a corollary, one could add that there is no point in appreciating the beauty of the world if you cannot share it, and your feelings about it, with your fellow creatures, and add it to your stock of memories, metaphors, shared experiences, shared language, and history. Perhaps the beginning of civilization is really just the ability to say, "Remember that time...?"

My grandmother, who was a great lady but who could also be bitter and spiteful and petty when the mood hit her--or when such behaviors could produce Massive Jewish Guilt in her offspring--used to complain that when she visited our family, she felt alienated by the shorthand with which we spoke to each other--the deep, broad, and complex web of shared associations and memories and jokes that bound us together as a family. It was not the DNA; it was not the house; it was the day to day life we lived together that drew a line around us and defined who was In and who was Out. And my grandmother could feel--viscerally--that she was out. And she hated it. She tried to buy her way in with gifts, and cajole her way in with guilt, but it wasn't a favor to be dispensed or withheld. You had to be present for it, and present continually, day after day. There was no other way to obtain it.

And isn't that what we pine for in relationships, and mourn the most when they dissolve? Isn't the hardest thing about dating again, after a long-term relationship dies, the re-building of that web, and that pain you feel when you realize that the other person doesn't yet get your jokes?

We always say--to the point of cliche--that what we're looking for is someone who knows us. But what that really turns into is a laundry list of traits and facts and preferences. Here--memorize this. There will be a test. But I think what we're really looking for--which we simply can't get ahead of time, or guaranteed, or in any other way but by putting in massive time together--is someone who knows where we've been, because they've been there with us. That's who our true friends are. That's who our life partners are.

It's not just "I am yours and you are mine," or even "what's mine is yours, and what's yours is mine." It's, "The world is not the world without you."

1 comment:

Heather said...

You have penned a gentler and more beautiful corollary to Mdme. Tolstoy. See: NPR 16 Oct 2007
Yer Wife