It’s Going to Be All Right: Rest In Peace, Grandpa

My grandfather, Albert Russell, passed away yesterday morning at age 83. Grandpa was a protector. He would come to the defense of anyone, not only those whom he knew and loved, but also complete strangers. He didn’t merely understand other people’s pain; he felt it. If you were lonely and lost in life, unsure of where to go or what to do with yourself; if you found yourself in the depths of an existential funk and could see no way out of it; when Grandpa furrowed his brow, grimaced at your words, and let out a quiet sigh, you knew that he suffered with you. And when he squinted his eyes, laid his hand gently on yours, and said, “You know, I think. . .,” you knew that he wanted to help you and that wise words would follow.

Grandpa’s empathy gave him an intimate understanding of the suffering that pervades this world, yet somehow, instead of subtracting from his hope for a better future, where fewer people suffered and more found contentment, his unique insight into the human condition impelled him to make the world better and to believe in the feasibility of the endeavor. 

He once told me that he wished the young understood that things improve, that there’s time for things to get better. So often youth feels like this binary experience of joy or sorrow, love or hate, hope or pessimism, and when we’re young we seem to leap back and forth from state to state. Grandpa was telling me that there were shades in between these states, that usually we would find ourselves in these grey, kinda/sorta regions of emotion and well-being, and that fluctuations were inevitable and natural. He told me that when you’re young, if you can figure out how to be patient, most of what ails you will melt away in time, and that while you have to do your part to press onward, you also have to learn to let the healing process play out on its own, to allow time a chance to flow, for its current to wash away your troubles or lay down new layers of experience on top of old ones. You have to live and have faith in life itself.

Grandpa, everything about you said, “It’s going to be OK.” And you were always right. I say that all the time to my students: “It’s going to be OK. You’re going to be all right.” But I don’t convey the reassurance half as well as you did. My students may be flipping out over losing a pencil, and even in this mild sort of circumstance I sometimes fail to calm them down and convince them that everything is all right; pens work just as well. You didn’t need to say anything at all to make everything seem right with the world. You embodied the message. Everything was all right because you were you.

You knew how to soothe. You knew how to see into a person’s soul and ease her worries, alleviate her fears with the calm tone of your voice and the melodic cadence of your speech, with its thoughtful pauses pregnant with quiet wisdom. You evoked patience in every expression, every gesture; in the way you punctuated sentences with your hands and in the way you raised them and lowered them as if you were synching your words to some beautiful rhythm that pervaded the world and that only you could hear. Maybe that’s why you told such gripping stories. Maybe the world was your metronome, and you set your words to its perfect beat.

We’re told often that we live in an age of decline, in which morals are eroding, families are fracturing, and life is losing meaning and purpose. But how can that be so when people like my grandfather lived, when people like him loved their children, who in turn loved their own children? Can we really credit ourselves now with short-circuiting the transfer of wisdom and love from one generation to the next that has seen us through thousands of years of catastrophes and challenges to our existence? How can we be as lost as we think we are when we descend from people like my grandfather (or your grandfather, your grandmother, your mother or your father), who saw a world war that killed tens of millions, lived through the threat of nuclear annihilation, and fought for racial and gender equality?

I love you, Grandpa.  I miss you.  Thank you for showing me how to be a good, compassionate man, and for raising my wonderful mother with Grandma.  You inherited from your parents and the community that brought you into this world strength, compassion, and kindness.  You carried these gifts with you through life, and with them you brightened the lives of everyone who knew you.  You passed these gifts on to your children, and they to their children, and we, your grandchildren, will strive to do the same.  The world isn’t broken; it’s going to be all right.  You were right, Grandpa.  You would know.

Advertisements

Encounters with Drifters and Prisoners: Thoughts on Manhood

Late one afternoon I was sitting on the curb of Rio Grande Street, near the University of Texas at Austin, waiting for the Number 12 bus to collect me and convey me home.  It was spring, and the purple Texas mountain laurels planted throughout UT’s grounds perfumed the air.  I had just left a Latin American Lit class and was still drunk on discussions of time, infinity, and identity.  A man sat next to me, not a foot away, and asked me for $5.  He told me he was homeless, had recently endured some kind of surgery on his right knee, and pointed to the scar to prove it.  I gave him the money, though it wasn’t mine to give since my parents, loans, and a small scholarship were paying my way through school.  I couldn’t help myself, though.  I’ve always found it difficult to say no to people. 

Once I had given him the $5, he remained seated beside me on the curb.  Everything about him sagged toward the ground.  His body spread over the pavement, his eyes drooped, the corners of his mouth pointed downward as if they were attached to the ground by strings.  Even his words tumbled downward from his lips when he spoke. 

This man told me about an ex-wife and kids whom he never saw and couldn’t support.  He exhorted me to appreciate the quality education I was receiving and to use it to do good things.  Maybe he was lonely.  Maybe he could tell that I was lonely and he derived purpose and satisfaction from keeping me company.  Maybe a man like him, alone, homeless, in his fifties, with bad knees and a broken body, regains some of his youth when he is in the company of the young, to whom men like him are often invisible.  They amble down alley-ways; they sleep in doorways and beneath bridges.  Some of them while away their days in public libraries. Others lie on the green lawns of university campuses and divert foot traffic by their presence.  Do we see them?  Yes.  Do we talk to them?  Do we know them?  No, and so they are invisible in the way plastic bags and newspapers blowing down the street are invisible.  We know they’re there, yet we know nothing of where they come from or where they’re going, of who set them adrift and who forgot about them.

I’ve had so many encounters like this one.  Once, a man with long red hair and a thick moustache, carrying a guitar and wearing bell-bottom jeans cornered me at the back of the bus (again, the Number 12) and mumbled something about what Austin used to be like in the 80s.  I heard him say something about how back then the police didn’t harass people, and you could sleep where you liked, but in all I understood maybe a quarter of what he said to me over the roar of the bus and the wind howling through the opened windows.  I tried my best to listen, but eventually the man grew angry and told me I hadn’t heard a word he had said and that I must not care. 

On two occasions I talked to just-released prisoners, once while I waited for a Greyhound in Fresno, California, and once on that same Number 12 bus in Austin that so reliably served up interesting conversations.  I remember their joy over finally getting out of prison, their eagerness to get things right this time, to see families in Montana or to pursue a talent for art they had only discovered while they were locked up.  What joy could be more real than that of a man who has served his sentence and has just regained his freedom? 

If they could have seen their own faces, naked with the wonder and hope of children, they may have recoiled from themselves and the unmanliness they beheld.  But they could not see what I saw.  They didn’t know that tears glistened in their eyes.  They didn’t know that they giggled like little boys who had stumbled upon some squirmy creature for the first time and were taken with the novelty of their discovery.  They were lost in themselves, lost in the world that was new to them again, forgetful of the manliness society told them they had to project from a young age.  There’s something wonderful about watching a grown man return to himself, seeing him shake off the costume of masculinity and toughness in which he usually clothes himself, and listening to him as he expresses the complex mixture of hope, confusion, and fear that our culture tells us to suppress.

A Letter to Everyone and No One

Not a day goes by that I don’t think about you and wonder where you are, what you’re doing, if you’ve found happiness and meaning in life, or if in the end you lost the battle.  But it isn’t only you I think about.  Not a day goes by that I don’t worry about every person I’ve ever seen in pain, whether they were a family member, a good friend, or a stranger I saw but once in my life.  Not a day goes by that I don’t worry about all the people I’ve ever cared for, that I don’t fall into a dark pit of despair where light does not reach, where only the putrid smell of death and decay rise up from the rotting ground and echoes of sadness reverberate all around me.  And as I stand there shivering and forsaken, I wonder what possible purpose there can be to this wretched life, to this sorry existence that is punctuated only here and there by moments of joy; when there are pits of oblivion like this one, when every day thousands of children starve to death all around the globe. 

But each time I manage to claw my way back up, slowly, and with great effort, until I glimpse the dim light of the world above piercing the cold darkness that surrounds me.  And once I’ve reached the surface, I fall to the ground, broken, but not defeated, and I look to the blue, cloudless sky and delight once again in the sun’s blinding rays that descend like resplendent shards of glass from the heavens.  And again, as always, I realize that life is not wretched, that there is purpose to this existence.  And I imagine, too, that you’re out there somewhere, happy, living the life you wanted.   

Shards of Light

Amtrak: Everyone’s Here (Boston to Seattle by Rail)

And so they are: professors, vagabonds, business people, teenagers, families with children, the lost, the lonely, the desperate. All of them are here. In one car two academics discuss health care. In another a woman talks software design on her cell phone. In the lounge car a twenty-one year old college student holds forth on everything under the sun–music, guitars, literature– but he is especially keen to describe Florida thunderstorms and hurricanes, and the fact that until this moment in the Montana Rockies he had never seen snow fall, “the act of it,” he says, “I’ve seen it on the ground.” There’s also Courtney, who is returning to Sacramento, CA from Wisconsin after a three-year absence. She’s lonely and lost. She can’t find a job. She misses the friends she left behind three years ago in California, just after graduating high school. Everyone on the train treats her as if she were their daughter.

P1040017_NEW

This good will is the best thing I take away from this one hundred and thirty-hour trip back and forth across the continent’s midsection. Most of these people would never cross paths anywhere else in life–not at work, not aboard an airplane, certainly not sitting in gridlocked rush-hour traffic. Each person normally lives in his or her own separate universe. But on the train universes dance around one another and for the duration of the ride share a continuum. They operate on the same laws. They merge. The journey is cathartic, confessional. People mostly get along.

Still, there remains an exception to all of this goodness and conviviality. In this bizarre multiverse of differing personalities and backgrounds there exist a few heartbreaking cases. There are people, only a few, with nothing and no one, who lack either home or destination. Some of them brood quietly. One man, who sat behind me and happened to stay at my hostel the night before, talked to himself incessantly from Seattle to Spokane. He spun conspiracy theories about the “diabolical people from Seattle”. With every step down the aisle he moaned and whimpered like a wounded bear. He clutched at his hip and grimaced. He shrieked in his sleep and jolted awake as if from a nightmare, only to find that he was still living one. I wish I knew what to say beyond providing a description. I can’t omit this encounter because it was too real.

P1040354_NEW

So to make myself feel better I’m going to imagine that this man will get his life together. He’ll call his brother in California (whom he mentioned in his dialogue with the ether). He’ll get a job, an apartment. He’ll see a doctor and somehow manage to pay for hip surgery. His nights will be restful and he will sleep without pain, without grunting and panting all through the night. I imagine that he’ll wake up early each morning, shower, brush his teeth, dress in dark slacks and a button-up shirt and, with a quick sigh, leave for work. No doubt he’ll complain about work–the monotony of it, the feeling of being a cog in the inscrutable machine–but beneath the surface he’ll like the routine and the meaning it gives to his life. And he won’t worry about diabolical Seattleites, and he won’t rage at the world. He may even come to like it. Or so I imagine.