Friday, May 28, 2010

preposterous enterprise

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.

-- Thoreau, Walden

Eyner iz keyner.

-- Yiddish proverb*

One is none, says the proverb. By yourself you’re nothing. Not the kind of folk wisdom that Americans like to hear. We think we did it all ourselves, by smarts and hard work. We created the new world, and birthed ourselves into it. We pioneers will do just fine, thank you, with the land we took from the people who were here before us, so leave us alone to work our slaves, or to buy the cheap product of their labor. We don’t want your meddling. Except for the fire department. And the police department. And my social security check. Oh, and roads. Oh, and the electric grid, and a cellphone. Oh, and lots of cheap petroleum bought and begged from Oriental despots and banana dictators. Oh, and lots of abominably expensive and marginally effective health care, paid for by somebody or other as long as it isn’t us.

Unitarians, American to the core, don’t like to hear that eyner iz keyner. We think that one person standing alone is everything. Emerson said “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” What would be the point, he asks, of communion with other souls? “Men descend to meet.” We don’t believe in congregating; which is why our congregations are weak, and then we blame that weakness on our ministers. Emerson soon left the ministry, beating his congregation to the punch, and made his name as a solo act. Clever he was.

Trouble is, we are not who we are on our own. Emerson, on his own, needed his audience. He descended to meet them, or at least to meet their money, as an athenaeum star. His audience paid for that haunted house in Concord. It was they who supported the transcendental circle of his less entrepreneurial clients.

And Thoreau was not on his own either. He built a hut by Walden Pond, where his mom would sometimes bring him lunch. And where, in a ten minutes’ walk, he could have the companionship of Lydian Emerson, his second mom. On the other side of the pond was the railroad to Boston, which fascinated him immensely. “I went to the woods to live deliberately.” Yes, and also to tell us about it. He had us in mind from the beginning. He kept account of his expenses because he had something to prove to us. It was important that we be amazed, and scandalized, by his pretty hut.

The one who hears a different drummer is not eyner, not alone. He is with that drummer, no matter how distant, whose authority he accepts, whom he follows and whose approval he seeks.

I am older every minute, more crotchety, more introverted, more jealous of my space and my time. Perhaps because I have not found them yet. When will it be, my time and place? How long, O Lord? Does it come this side of mortality? As the limit takes its contour, color and texture, like the distant mountain approaching over a once endless plain, I scan the horizon for a verdant glen that might belong to me, where I could, as they say, really stretch out. Perhaps it never appears. There are only these compromised places, these opportunities that are already polluted, and must be saved. How long must I wait? No waiting at all, this is the occasion right now, this ridiculous apartment where if I stretch my limbs I strike somebody’s face. My full extent, my personal space, are not to be found on this crowded island, but on the other side of the river. And I don’t mean Jersey.

The blessings are here in our jostled, preposterous enterprise: existence, as the philosophers say, rather than essence. I have been too long from this private dilemma of mine, this prayerful combat, this wrestling with words like Jacob with the messenger. But I am not solitary even here. The words come from somewhere: all night they ascend and descend, and when they touch bottom I must fight with them for blessing. No blessing without injury, no sacred time that is not out of joint. If you have a long reach, there are strangers, sojourners within its span. Their requirements are always a surprise.

On my own, I am not who I am. I am my daughters’ father, my wife’s husband, my dearest friend’s dear friend, my client’s counselor, any American’s fellow citizen. I am the one who loves as I can those who love me, and would love the rest if I knew how. I move among the poses and scripts of love; I learn more and better ones as I grow older. If I could not find these poses, remember the scripts, I would be lost. But in the leaps between them, I might recover my soul.

*Bennett Muraskin, Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore (Farmington Hills, MI: Milan Press, 2001), p. 190.

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