The Strangest Kind of Strangers on a Train

The old tale of complete strangers meeting in transit, discovering they have identical problems, and “solving” the problems by trading crimes to eliminate the people they see as the root of their unhappiness, makes for a striking mystery drama, in fiction. Ask Patricia Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock fans! But I was reminded recently that we give too little credit to our commonalities as a positive solution to our problems, and end up missing crucial opportunities as a result.

The filmic version takes as its thesis that the two strangers who meet can find not other, or at least no better, solution to the problem of having bad relationships with inconveniently incompatible people than to murder them, and by ‘exchanging’ murders with each other they hope to escape detection by each having no apparent connection to, or a motive for killing, the other’s nemesis.

While this makes for startling and even compelling imagined mystery, it’s horrific if imagined in real terms. Yet we do similar things all the time in this world, don’t we? Because I tend to agree with a particular point of view in general, say, a specific philosophy or political party’s policies, or my country’s traditions, does that mean it’s wise or humane or practical or generous to follow along without question, no matter what my group, party or nation says and does? We mortals are remarkably good at noticing and magnifying our differences, as genuine and large as they may be. But we’re frighteningly weak, in opposing measure, when it comes to recognizing, focusing on, and building upon our true kinship. This, I believe, easily outweighs in both quantity and importance, our separating characteristics. Digital illustration from a photo: Opening Doors

The recent train outing in Sweden that reminded me so pointedly of this also confirmed my belief that it’s an area where youth is wiser than experience. In a railcar where a young father, not a local or a native speaker of the language, was keeping his fifteen-month-old daughter occupied and contented during the trip by helping her practice her tipsy walking, she made her way with his help to where another family, also foreign but not of the same culture as father and daughter, was sitting together. That group was of two adult sisters and their four or five school-age children. The toddler was naturally attracted to the friendly and spirited older children, and as soon as they saw her, they too were enchanted. What followed was perhaps twenty minutes of delighted interaction between them all, with occasional balance aid from Papa and photo-taking by the Mamas. And barely a word was spoken, much less understood by any of the participants, during the entire episode.

The greatest among the many beauties of this endearing one-act was that the conversation essentially began, continued and ended with the kids reaching toward one another with open hands, waving and gesturing and generally putting on an elaborate pantomime together, and above all, giggling and chortling with peals and squeals of ecstatic laughter.

Needless to say, all of us adults in the railcar grinned, giggled, chortled and otherwise became happy kids right along with them. Resistance was an impossibility and a pointless attempt, at that. And isn’t that an excellent lesson for all? Adults are too busy being territorial and fearful and downright feral to remember that the open hand of welcome and sharing is as quickly reciprocated as any gesture, and a smile of greeting and acceptance is contagious beyond any language, age, or cultural barriers. We can nurse our terrors of the unknown as supposed adults, or we can choose to laugh together like children.Digital illustration from a photo: As If in a Mirror

Nebulous


Digital illustrationThe mystical beauty of the moon and clouds the other night got me to thinking, as I admittedly do so often, about the ephemeral and ethereal qualities of our species and the strangeness of our even existing. When Space looms so visibly vast over us and insists on reminding me how tiny and potentially insignificant I am, my life is, in the grand scheme of it all, I begin to have exactly the opposite reaction any sensible person might assume I would have. I think that, just possibly, if there can be no logic or extravagant purpose evident for the creation and continuation of our peculiar and oddball race, then we can’t have just appeared at random or even serendipitously–we must really have arrived here with at least some intended point. Being a thoroughly sideways creature myself in so many ways right from the start, I find it comforting to imagine that the very impossibility if explaining my reason for existing seems to argue for some small purpose. Foolish dream or actual conundrum, it makes stargazing that much more attractive on nights like these….Photo

Talking at Cross Purposes

digital illustrationMy spouse and I have an intriguing way of discussing our disagreements, and I gather from what I see, hear and read that this is not such an unusual complication but probably more like the norm. We don’t fight about stuff that matters, remarkably, very often at all, being on the same page in our essential beliefs and concerns; if we differ there, we’re pretty comfortable having a rational conversation or two and agreeing, if necessary, to disagree. But the more inconsequential things are where we excel in having our weirdly, even hilariously, convoluted bouts of stubbornly wordy disagreement.

And the vast majority of the time, it’s because of the language barrier. We’re both native speakers-of-English, but it seems we are perfectly capable of saying virtually the same thing to each other in such different ways that each of us hears the other saying essentially the polar opposite. It’s quite miraculous, really. Two seemingly cogent adults, people who know each other rather well after being together for eighteen years and who both know inside that we share the deep core values that make eighteen years together possible, not to mention that we share so many experiences and tastes and interests—and we can’t reason our way out of a paper bag when one thinks the other is remembering something incorrectly or a question has been raised about some puzzling matter of fact.

Of course, I don’t think this is specific to being male-female, age-related, or any other such thing, this is a characteristic of our whole species. It’s a perfect example of how humans talk to each other a whole lot of the time. We think we’re having an epic battle over right and wrong, and both sides of the argument are  looking and hoping for exactly the same outcome, but each of us simply thinks we have put the correct names on the problems and resolutions and the other party is clearly an idiot or heretic until he/she/they will acquiesce and let us superior beings fix everything according to our righteous rightness. Happens in politics and religion and academia and relationships just about equally often. Whether weapons are involved has the most influence over how epic these battles really become, but the basis is hardly all that different.

My beloved and I get in the same ridiculous rut of circular conversation often enough, though neither of us takes it particularly personally or even necessarily sees it as a true argument let alone a danger to our relationship, and it’s easy enough to laugh it off when one or the other of us finally realizes that We’re Doing It Again. But it’s strange that we don’t spot the next episode from afar and simply have a straightforward, rational talk. If the goal or solution is nearly always identical or close enough to it, why do we have to wrestle around so determinedly before coming to that natural conclusion? I can’t guess why we mortal mugs are so quick to waste our energy and peace on pointless posturing, but it’s certainly a collective talent of ours.

I guess I’ll just have to take this opportunity to apologize to my partner for my part in the muddle, and hope I learn to listen—and hear—better. And if anyone with any power or aspirations to power (political, religious, academic, or other) happens to be reading this, would you do me a favor and do the same?digital illustration (B&W)

It’s Still Life

Little is as desirable in day-to-day life as peace and quiet. Rest, respite, calm–I crave them. There’s so much invitation and welcome in the sweet marvels of time off, time out and down time that I never feel I have too much of, well, not-too-much.

But busyness is ever so much more common in our everyday existence in this century, certainly in this household. It’s no still life, to be sure; any silence found in this way of living is more of the deafening sort. But yes, it’s still life.

So I have to manufacture or steal my moments of rest and relaxation. Isn’t that how most of us end up finding our tiny increments of space and time and sanity anyway? I have to learn how to tune out the white noise, hide from the constant demands and burrow into hidden corners when and wherever I can, to choose deliberately to decompress and unwind. If I don’t make room for my own peace of mind, who’s going to give it to me? The world may rattle on around me at a furious and eardrum-shattering rate and all I know may change in the ten minutes I’ve stolen to renew myself, but I will return to those realities soon enough, and hadn’t I better do so in a fortified state than otherwise?

Better to sit down and tell myself soothing tales undergirded with lullabies, to draw myself a little old-fashioned still life arrangement in the calm unruffled grey of graphite, and breathe deeply without regard for the bustle and bash of the universe, if only for a moment or two.graphite drawing

Memento Quod Vivitis

The longtime artistic tradition of the ‘memento mori‘ has always appealed to me. I think it’s valuable to recognize our mortality and the limitations of our time on this plane to devote to earthly enjoyments, the better to value them fully. Not to mention that I love skeletons and a lot of that stuff so often used symbolically in these works. I’m not disheartened, horrified, or unsettled by death and the subjects surrounding it, under everyday circumstances, in the way that some people are.digital illustration from a photoThe main thing is, I think it’s even more important to (as my guesswork-Latin post title suggests) remember that you’re alive. It’s not enough motivation to live a full, meaningful, rich, purposeful life just to know that you’re going to kick the bucket one day; everybody knows that, and it’s probably not even a majority of our kind that actually give serious thought to being fully present in their lives and making the most of their life spans. I know for certain that I haven’t always been especially good at such things.photoSo I’m rather happy to have an eye-opening, soul-tweaking glimpse of my little collection of death-defying totems, kept in view around my home and work spaces, at any moment when they happen to some into my field of vision. Not a bad way to refocus me and make me feel especially alive.

Messengers

I admire real journalists and documentarians. Now, I do think that they are a very rare breed among news-people, the rest of whom are too driven by their corporate sponsors’ and their own biases by a long shot, no matter where on the spectrum of politics, religion, personal philosophy or other conviction they fall, but there are those honest characters who, if they do consistently let their beliefs steer their messages, at least recognize those prejudices and are quite open about them and still manage to give air time to opposing or differing points of view.

Still, the ones I really find compelling are a different sort of message bearers. They are harder to recognize, because they can be quite ordinary seeming mortals or wholly incorporeal, quotidian or fantastical, intentional or entirely, serendipitously accidental in their delivery of important news in our lives. Are they strangers we meet by happenstance and happy crossing of paths, like the townspeople in Germany who saw my older sister and me debarking a train after dark and looking around to orient ourselves? The kind couple approached us, told us that Celle (however lovely) was a very small town indeed and that there were few places for visitors to stop overnight but they’d help us find one, gave us directions and set us on the path to a very cozy little bed and breakfast before disappearing into the dark like a mist.

Are the messengers those outstanding teachers who have acted not only as educators in our lives but also as inspiration, as mentors, counselors, guides and friends? Mrs. Willis, Mr. Cunningham, Prof. Keyes: I salute you! Teachers have done as much to bring light to my life as to the dim corners of my mind over the years, and I am grateful for the news and stories and messages they bring. Are there other beings among us able to protect and direct us without our even being aware of it? Of course there are. Some of them are simply gracious fellow humans whose good deeds and kindness will never be seen or fully known and recognized in our lifetimes, either because we are too dim-witted and self-involved to notice as we should or because they merely do their mitzvahs without fanfare, without expecting or needing any recognition and recompense. These we should imitate and their message should be spread further by our going out in turn to do kindnesses for others and requiring no attention or glory.

And I think that–given how beautiful and rich life can be when we do pay attention–there must be others in our midst too; angels or aliens, I don’t much care what we name them, but there must be Love looking out for us to make even the tiniest good possible, let alone the many graces that fill our days if we only look. Their message, I suspect, is nothing more or less than that we are being well looked after, and our little lives recorded no matter how small they may seem to us.pen and ink

Neither Truth nor Consequence

digital collageTo capture the kind of innocence that little ones have would be a scientific coup beyond what even our best magicians could hope to conjure. How is it that such jaded minds and dedicated tragedians as adults can be made from the raw childhood materials of clear-eyed honesty and untouched truth and light? As an artist and writer, even simply as a grownup who believes that honesty and reality have far more forms than the dull quotidian ones in which we grownups generally clothe them to fit our fusty adult needs for blandness to feel safe, I search the boundaries between worlds endlessly in hope.

Sometimes I wonder if I have been cheating when I don’t follow precisely that stern old caveat that warns me to always Write about What You Know—that I should stay fixed in the firmament of my own particular universe, my peculiar range and realm of reality. Of course, I know that no beautiful fantasy and very little romance would ever get written by anyone if this rule were strictly adhered to in every way; what’s more, I remind myself as I write that every word I put down on the page is true, just not always for me and my own experience: perhaps it’s something I’ve known of believed or felt, translated into another person’s events, and sometimes it is perhaps best described as true of (or for) another person who herself or himself is not known on this modest three-dimensional earthly and human plane. Anyway, I am reassured that I bend the Rule a little but I never wholly break it; I tend to wander further from the truth only when I must–in order to make the truth of the matter most apparent.digital collage