I'm Goin' Down In It Three Times, But Lord I'm Only Comin' Up Twice
I find things. These are not commonly the things I am looking for or the things I have lost. Many hours I have engaged over the decades searching for the plane I moments ago set down amid the clutter of the workplace and which then no longer was visible to me. Frequently during such frustrating hunts I have accused my partner of having stolen the tool. Occasionally I might have blamed a customer. In every instance it has appeared in the spot I set it. Just a few weeks ago I bought a new nail set to replace the one I could not find, the original surfacing some days later in the left, rather than the accustomed right pocket of my tool belt.
My whole life I have sought deep enduring love. This expedition has suffered some derailments. I have tried to secure variously from several sources understanding, operating room, forgiveness, affection, relief, or assistance. As I suspect with most persons in most lives, I have found some of these some of the time. I have not discovered financial security and see no evidence that this sad series of surreal essays is advancing me toward that goal.
One of the inestimable, astonishing pleasures of being part of a family is having someone to take each discovery to and by sharing it amplify its pleasures. Often did I run from some pruning or planting job in the pasture to pull my wife from her scullery duties into the light and air, thus to see a great flock of snow buntings operating over our land or a moose ambling up the driveway or a row of bluebirds arrived on our wire. I introduced my son to ancient Limulus polyphemus, the horseshoe crab.
Once I opened my hands to reveal a scarlet tanager momentarily dazed by its collision with the hard sky of our dining room window (the more miraculous, considering the usual filthiness of our glass, that it could even manage a reflection). "How did you get it?" my daughter asked. "I snatched it lightly from the bright sky," I lied, the bird and the experience no less marvelous for my transparent subterfuge.
Last weekend I took my grandson to see his first movie, a disappointment for me, but for him one in a continuing series of new experiences. Hollywood cannot and never has improved upon any book. It can only reduce, cheapen, distort or commercialize, no less the works of Dr. Seuss than any author. But as I arrived home and stepped out of the truck my life crossed the path of the first woolly bear caterpillar of 2008 as it humped across the damp driveway gravel of a chilly Maine evening. It instantly reminded me of the innumerable numbers of its species I had encountered crossing the warmed surface of Route Twenty, the Cherry Valley Turnpike, on the twenty-first of September, 1968, as I hitch-hiked from Albany to Cortland to be for a weekend in the company of the young woman who, all these years later, would find herself grandmother of the toddler home with tales of theater seats that he was too light to hold down.
I find writers and songwriters whose works do not make bestseller or top forty lists and are not championed by Oprah Winfree or talked over in community book circles. These books and records accumulate in my mind and heart as surely as on my shelves. I find them again and again as a line or a lyric surges to the conscious level to illuminate the experience of daily life, to give me support as I throw a couplet toward a bored town meeting (last week I gave them Warren Zevon-"Mr. Bad Example"), or to annoy my wife or children as I took time from the behavior correction they were trying to implant in me to offer them Blind Willie McTell or Black 47 or Van Morrison, "making love in the green grass behind the stadium", his "inarticulate speech of the heart" having amplified the beat of my own.
So let me today present to those who have ridden with me over so many miles and through so many convoluted turns and across so many painful pointless metaphors this thing I found last week, I remember not where. I might have read it; I might have heard it on the radio. It says exactly what I have been trying to synthesize out of the triumph and ruin of my own life as I have put my thoughts before you here for these ten years. You will feel when you read this one sentence how far short of its pellucid perfection all this prologue has fallen. Read this, on life and life only, from the great playwright Tennessee Williams:
A high station in life is earned by the gallantry with which appalling experiences are survived with grace.
Just so: one sentence, eighteen words. Write it on an index card and tape it to your computer or your refrigerator door. Keep a copy in your wallet. Send it to everyone on your E-mail list. Paint it on a slate or shingle and hang it in the garden. Somebody turn on Oprah and Doctor Phil and Charlie Rose to this sentence, this idea, this revelation. All we need to know about living the good life is contained herein.
Barack Obama, the radio interpreter tells me, says there is one America; Hillary Clinton says there are many Americas. He is a uniter; she caters to the needs and wants of several fragmented constituencies. John McCain says there is the United States of America and there are its enemies. You doubtless have your own system for ordering humanity. There is us and them, the familiar and the other. Black and white, rich and poor, ambitious and lazy, sane and crazy, saved and sinner. We hang together or we hang separately. The web of life; the chain of being. Great themes and small, noble and petty, every scheme suffices for those who find comfort or confirmation in their positions on the balance.
But here's what I like about this simple statement from old gay, depressed, drunken, dead Thomas Lanier Williams III. It establishes no simple dichotomy, no either-or. One is not boy or man, sheep or goat, winner or loser, great or small. Four criteria must be met to achieve high station, to be worthy of the respect we accord only great human beings. There is no roadmap to success, no do this and this will happen. And no sane person would likely choose the life described.
First, you must be subjected to appalling experiences. These may one supposes be physical or mental. They may occur naturally but are more often, I suspect, imposed or exacerbated by other, lesser members of our own species.
Then, you must survive these circumstances. There is implicit, I think, the understanding that you are complicit in your own survival, that it is not enough to lie passively waiting for a savior to rise from the streets, but I could be wrong about that. Quite possibly, when the horror of a life is total and unrelenting we have no burden other than to not die, not succumb.
You must survive with grace. You must do so gallantly. How archaic these terms seem to us in our modern world. There is little grace or gallantry in commerce or politics and not much in art.
I know some persons who meet these criteria. Only a few. They have endured that which you have not, will not, could not. But many have endured much and been spurred on only to getting back, getting even, getting ahead. To survive poverty only to become wealthy is no evidence of character. To endure a beating and then to become strong enough to beat down one's former oppressor is understandable but not noble behavior. We have more than enough billionaires and strongmen; we do not need to recruit more from the ranks of the poor and oppressed.
But if you can live through what the fortunate consider unendurable or unthinkable, come out of it intact, human, humane, empathic, and understanding and forgiving of yourself, your fellow sufferers and to some degree even those failed human beings who held you down or savaged your body or soul, you may earn that higher station.
We fret and agitate ourselves about "the terrorists" of our world. We should look to our neighbors and our friends and our nation and our nation's allies, any number of whom have suffered great wrongs. Most will have survived. But how many of us and of them came through intact, whole, decent? When they break up a dog fighting ring, most of the animals are so emotionally ruined they must be laid away. It is a rare dog that comes through all the terrible days and worse nights of his savage life without turning irrevocably mean.
I don't wish any man or woman a hard life. But every person needs enough hard-earned wisdom to inform and infuse his journey: A high station in life is earned by the gallantry with which appalling experiences are survived with grace.
Some will argue that Mr. Cooper is himself an appalling experience. Whatever station he has earned or might yet attain, everything he brings to his readers he has found as he has lurched and stumbled through his own life. He will be gratified if some scraps of this lore, some of these objects, a few insights hard earned may help illuminate or elevate the paths of some others. The last of the snow is finally fading from the Alna, Maine landscape, and not wishing to be disturbed as he takes again to his woods and fields he will not give you his cell phone number, but you may reach him in the dark of night at firstname.lastname@example.org. He assures readers he studies and appreciates every message he receives, and apologizes that he often falls asleep at his desk at the end of a hard-earned day before answering all.
This article was originally published in The Wiscasset Newspaper (Wiscasset, Maine)