Saturday, December 19, 2009

That's Rich

Inside the school doors stands a tree decorated with ribbons and yarn-tied paper ornaments. On the back of each is hand-written a legend: “Girls’ boots size four”; “Boys pants (not jeans) size 10-12”; “Mom: gas card.” I pull the latter off the tree and hustle my son out of the building, and to his puzzled look we explain that for some people, these are things hard to provide. He knows, somewhere in his ten-year-old mind, that out there is want. But he has never experienced it himself. Nor have I. It is almost as brain-bruising for me to realize that this is just one of a vast forest of trees of need, a green spread that would wash beyond the horizon. Even if viewed through professional-grade binoculars.

Another motorcyclist told me he likes Christmas mainly because it yields approximately two weeks of people being nice to one another. Well, we’ll take what we can get.

The white icing on birthday cake; its yellow sugar roses that crunch slightly between the teeth. The effervescent pleasure of the prosecco that washes it down. The gift in the mail, and the friend who thought to buy the perfect gloves and wrap and send them to arrive on the right day. The tree hung with ornaments that each represent a meaning, and a memory. Those are riches. They pile up in a life like presents. Even in the days when my starting salary qualified me for food stamps, I never once feared that I would actually go hungry. Only that I might lose some enthusiasm for Top Ramen.

Almost every day now finds me parked in the lots of the shopping plazas, because every day I realize there are more things to buy. We are drowning in a sea of stuff, but golly, I need to get some more.

I wouldn’t really care if all the stores imploded at once, sending up an obliterating cloud of dust, and then, at last, were no more. What I would care about is losing the thoughts that move silently through the air between friends, binding us as solidly as a single being, and the more occasional and piercing longing for the deeper regard of another. These are the necessary sustenance I could not do without. And that I have never wanted for, either: how many times have I wondered what I did to deserve friends like these, the very force of their affection a powerful wave that carries me forward and up, ever cresting and breaking just beyond. I now even have close friends I have never met, who are right beside me when I need. And when I have no direct need, I laugh with them and their sparkling humor on Facebook. Yes. I mean that.

One of these far-flung friends, who writes long and brilliant letters in an exchange he terms our private blog, just between us, remarked on my wonderment that there is no one, no matter how sick or evil or dull, who lacks friends. The exception, he said, is the schizophrenic. Otherwise, mass murderers and narcissists—they all have their friends. We each even count among our friends people we don’t very much like. What a strange thing is friendship, then.

Well, we’ll take it.

I stopped at the Hess station on the way back from shopping and the motorcyclists dinner (tonight, around twenty-six friends, along with the fried tofu at the Chinese buffet, which I was pleased to make the acquaintance of; I’m in an inclusive mood of late). I thought briefly of the nameless mom who felt the need to ask for a gas card as I put down a twenty for it. My own tank was half full, and I knew there would always be more when I needed it. Until it gives out; that will affect all of us equally. I for one do not view internal combustion as a right, but as a privilege.

Then to home, where there is wood for a fire, cheap white wine in the fridge, and Baroque Christmas music pouring smoothly, endlessly, from the radio. Nelly, too, has eaten well tonight; better than 90 percent of humans on the planet. Though I refuse to apologize for that: feeding her slops is not going to help a single starving youngster in Somalia. Now she sleeps on the beautiful couch that until the advent of dogs in my life—another incalculable source of wealth in life—was a lush piece of SoHo indulgence. That's so rich, I think.


Mark McGlone said...

It seems to me that we spend a lot more than we need to and a lot more than we used to.

When I look at old photos of my family from when I was a kid (early 70s), there's something lacking: stuff. We had one car, one television, one stereo, a smattering of furniture and the usual kitchen appliances. That was it for the big ticket items, but we considered ourselves thoroughly middle class.

Today I'm drowning in stuff. Multiple computers, a car, an expensive motorcycle which I ride just for fun. I'm an amateur musician and I'm not sure how many guitars I own--but I know they were expensive. I have a good job, but I'm not rich. How many people today don't have a television in each room?

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Rather frightening, isn't it, to think of where we'll be in another forty years, if current trends continue. The earth will finally tilt off axis due to the weight of all the stuff. Or we'll be nothing but muffled cries, from the bottom of a massive pile of technocrap. Not that I can live without it, mind you: yes, folks, I'm finally thinking flat-screen TV.

I smell a conspiracy here . . .

Steve said...

I have a wonderful friend that regularly gives me gifts, with no regard to the season or any kind of anniversary or achievement (on my part). I don’t know how I became so fortunate, that part is a bit of a puzzle. But like clockwork the gifts arrive, gifts like none I’ve received before. Ideas, experiences, triumphs and setbacks; soul baring honesty, compassion, sometimes frustration or even indignation. The gifts are thought, perception and observation, and they help me put my world right. I’m sure that they are not regarded of as gifts when they are given, and that speaks to my friend’s generosity.

Probably because of the season when we think about exchanging gifts I am at a loss. Through the gifts my friend has shown me so much from within (while knowing almost nothing about me), and yet I don’t have a clue about what sort of gift I could give. Not that my friend is really expecting anything from me, but I still feel a little selfish for the lopsidedness. All I have to offer is my expression of deepest appreciation for this person’s involvement in my life. I hope to one day have a worthy gift.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Receiving, when done in such a generous spirit as yours, is itself the gift you give back.

Trust me!

ren said...

Melissa is right, Steve. Your acceptance of the things that you think of as gifts is the gift in return. That said, though, that person isn't thinking that what is being expressed to you are gifts; they are expressions of frustration or happiness or whatever it happens to be that day or hour. And you listen or read and that's plenty.

Meanwhile, to Mark: it's a choice that you make to have all the things that you do. I don't have any televisions, for example, but I have a thousand books! And a dozen sewing machines! And enough fabric to fill a room. My choices, they are, because I can have them, and because I use them, and the same is true for all of us who have things. And there is nothing wrong in having your motorcycle and guitars. Having them is not an immorality. Why people think that we shouldn't enjoy our lives is beyond me! Enjoy the fact that you CAN enjoy your life! So there. . .Happy Holidays! :-)

Scott From Devon said...

I do worry about my daughter (4 years old) and the presents she recieves at Christmas, the sheer number of them. I don't wish to sound like one of the Four Yorkshireman from Monty Python, but growing up in the 60s and 70s in Australia I was given 1 "toy" present, and many books, and that was it. I'm not sure Amelie appreciates things the way I do. I still have an old 049 Baby Bee glowplug engine from Cristmas 1976 that when I think of it, gives me great memories - I'll never sell it, or give it away. Its a part of my childhood magical Christmases..

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Ha-ha, Scott! I think we are doomed to annoy our children with the Little Match Girl stories of our youths; my son is forever saying, "I know, I know, Mom: you didn't have *anything* when you were growing up."

I do wish I had saved a little more of that "nothing," though. It would be worth a fortune on the vintage toys market now.