I often say that I am confused by life, and by that I don't mean stymied, as by GRE vocabulary. I mean that I "go after my life with a a broad-axe," which is what Annie Dillard says writers must do to themselves.
By tender-hearted people in aloof moments, I am asked why I do that, because doesn't it hurt?, and I wish I could explain in words, but answering that would be like defining love, or questioning a tower about gravity as it falls.
Then something happens viscerally and I know exactly how to answer.
Last night I came back from a Saturday and Sunday of camping, biking, and barbecues, after a Friday of passing out food and hygiene products to the chronically homeless, ended with a night of salsa dancing. I was tired, swollen with the pendulum of things. My eyes were red and my mind damp.
It was 10:30pm when I pulled in front of our corner house and heard our early-20-something neighbors on the porch. I've noticed them often. I'm a little older, but I find them attractive, in a distant way. They smoke and drink an array throughout the day. After work and school, they play drums and guitar late into the night, then finish their waking hours with thin women, Nintendo Wii, and revelry on the porch. They laugh a lot, and talk philosophy. I don't much like their smell. I do like their spirit.
They're at it again, and power to them, I thought, and began emptying camping gear from my car. The temptation of bed, of turning everything off, doubled the weight of the task. Then I heard the rumbling of a shopping cart turn onto our avenue. We live on the corner of a busy street on the edge of northern Portland, a highly gentrified zone where vegan cafes and social services agencies are equally myriad. We live two blocks from The Salvation Army.
Black face, black hat, black coat, black night. Cart full of blankets and plastic. She hummed as she passed my house, and I caught myself wondering if she were high or mentally ill. "Hello," I said. The word came out bubbly, earnestly. "Hello," she replied, with equal legitimacy.
She kept walking, so I kept living. She turned her cart up the cement walkway of the house next door. Avoiding blatant gawking, I saw her rummage through the bins below the white party porch, searching for bottles to turn in for refunds at Fred Meyer.
Above her, they were as gloriously high as she might have been. No one acknowledged her.
The rummaging through their glass beer bottles lasted two minutes, I counted, accompanied by persistent humming by a black woman in a black hat and black coat, below a white porch of white people in white light. The confluence was plangent enough in my head and in the air to wake the baby two houses down. But the philosophical murmurings on the porch next door never ended. The thin women and young man with a brew never turned around to see her. He finished his beer and put the empty bottle on the porch, awaiting the moment when he could chuck it over the bannister into the bin below, without hitting a woman in the nose.
They never turned around to see her.
Our culture is vague perplexing, our language perhaps more so. What is meant by "see"? Had they defied all societal boundaries by making their way down the porch steps, complimenting her on her glorious humming, offering her the last of their expensive beer bottles with a humble apology, along with a joint to numb her reality alongside theirs, a plate of food, a shower, and then progressing with their God-given prerogatives, would that count, as seeing? Or perhaps seeing means "going after your life with a broad-axe," and once seeing her, they'd never be able to play Wii (the same way?) again.
The woman didn't much seem to notice their neglect. I did. "Hey, do you see what's going on? Can you do something about this?" Said the voice in my conscience, to their souls, silently. But I stayed quiet. I carried my guitar and tent into my basement room, and I began to write this. I hope it counts.