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