The Gravity of Falling

Having hurtled through the American century, we are distracted and confused. But can we find our way again?



Except for a train wreck in South Dakota in 1935, when I was two and traveling with my mother in a Pullman berth, and a farmer’s hay wagon carried us from the night derailment to the safety of kerosene lanterns in a section man’s cabin, I was too young to remember a lot of Great Depression stuff. Bread lines outside a parsonage in New York City; my father saying of the stock market, “Hold on through hell or high water”; the poignant voices of men singing for some supper at the bottom of our building’s air shaft, whom I might be allowed to drop a dime down to if I wrapped it in toilet paper, so as not to hurt them. My parents campaigned for Wendell Willkie in 1940, but apart from the slogans my first memory of a really public event is the raid on Pearl Harbor on December 7 a year later, the initial bulletins interrupting Sunday broadcasting on my little radio, as Japanese bombers dived on our Pacific fleet. Perhaps I did fathom the gravity of this event, though I didn’t know, of course, that my mother’s favorite cousin would be captured on Corregidor Island and subjected to the Bataan Death March and that my least favorite teacher would be drafted from school into the infantry while the G.I.s “immortalized” in the cartoons of Bill Mauldin would die wholesale. Just as I did not realize, watching on television the Twin Towers smoke and fall 60 years afterward, that the deaths of 3,000 civilians at the World Trade Center would prompt America to elect to launch two blurry wars lasting twice as long as World War II.

Hiroshima avenged Pearl Harbor, with Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats explicating the interim; and I remember hearing Hitler’s rants, and Churchill too. But in the process of killing thousands of Muslim civilians we are still asking, as a new kind of mantra, “Why do they hate us?” This had never been a question then, with Hitler rolling over all Europe, seeking to conquer the whole of what he considered the civilized world, and Hirohito’s military wreaking much worse havoc on China and Japan’s other Asian neighbors than on us. These Axis powers didn’t give much thought to America as such until we helped both to rebuild their economies and reconstitute their governance after the war, alongside aiding our devastated allies through the Marshall Plan. Children like me who slipped addresses into donated clothing received pen-pal thank-yous from the Netherlands, or wherever. But Truman, Marshall, and Eisenhower didn’t leave it at that. They pressed for decolonization: Britain out of India, the Dutch out of Indonesia, even the Israelis off the Sinai. The American Century was to be liberating, not cynical, anchored in the cheery doughboys’ song from the previous world war:

Over there, over there!
Send the word, send the word, over there—
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming,
The drums rum-tumming everywhere!
So prepare, say a prayer,
Send the word, send the word to beware—
We’ll be over, we’re coming over,
And we won’t come back till it’s over
Over there!

The convulsions of the Depression, too, were past, and soon John Kennedy could cockily assert: “Ich bin ein Berliner!” 

The trouble, of course, was that during the Cold War we fostered monarchies or tyrannies as repressive in miniature scale as what was instituted behind the Iron Curtain. In the glory days of our hegemony, we flubbed major league in dealing with Chile, Guatemala, Vietnam, the Arab societies we successively tromped on, the horrific Cambodian genocide we helped precipitate, the interminable Zairean-Congo tragedy we lengthened and exacerbated, and all the quislings around the world we cultivated for a kaleidoscope of fuzzy purposes. Our record of slaughter in the past 60 years, if the Yanks were “coming,” can’t be topped, not to mention the reintroduction of inquisitorial torture as official Western policy.

The capitalist model we preached, built on moral hazard and handshake trust, also went awry, although not at the same time—the minnows foreclosed upon, the blowfish bailed out. And at the millennium even our vaunted electoral process proved a mess, launching in all probability by its flawed outcome the most ill-conceived war in our history, though our soldiers were told the Iraqis would put flowers in the muzzles of their guns.

Globalized debt and exporting sweatshops abroad didn’t help either. Americans were supposed to continually reinvent themselves, as a kind of self-styled Chosen People, writing constitutions for liberated colonies, defeated foes, or Iron Curtain countries whose Communist rulers had been ground into the mud. Our own ’60s protests had alarmed the establishment yet achieved their goals without ripping the body politic. Divorce and dropout rates subsided again, after they giddily grew, and Jim Crow laws were throttled and glass ceilings broken without untoward outcomes. You could still trust your banker as sound but dull, and the media hadn’t broken its channels into hundreds of runnels at floodwater stage, as we multitask and email and twitter on the wireless social gadgets we find it fun to finger, kids texting each other as if their keyboards were Braille.

We’re rattled—our Treasury experts, mainstream churches, and politics verging at the edges upon the harebrained, without the clarion aims inspired leaders enunciated 40 or 50 years ago. From surgery to lingerie to Ponce de León geriatrics, solutions are proffered to postpone death, yet as we stretch our life spans, we still don’t know what to believe about the scaffolding of integrity and family and the rat-tat of success. Megawealth, megachurches, megamagazines in our Glocks don’t salve our solitude or the mercuriality of democracy. What was the shelf life of the Statue of Liberty? How ruthless can the mercenary fervor of the rich be permitted to be?

For a hundred years, since Reconstruction, we’d thought we knew how to do things better than other people. At manufacturing, engineering, finance, medicine, advertising, unionization, and military demolition we were the best, yet also flexible and generous, with a Peace Corps and now an African-American president. Then the Swiss-cheese aspects of our infrastructure came to light—the liar loans, sports heroes pharmaceutically enhanced, foundering pensions, job deficits, oil spills, mine and bridge collapses, yet no one held accountable at least as Lyndon Johnson was. Even Richard Nixon had had to resign, although the nation was less marbled with cynicism than during the junior Bush’s time. Do we believe our Wall Street seers, hoodwinked journalists, corporate chieftains, defense secretaries, and televangelists now?

I remember Colin Kelly, the first publicized American hero of World War II, who, only three days after Pearl Harbor, was reported to have deliberately aimed his damaged warplane to crash into the smokestack of the Japanese battleship Haruna in order to take “them” with him too. Much hype and hoopla—resembling the falsified Pat Tillman story in Afghanistan—until the Japanese themselves began employing kamikaze pilots against our ships and such acts of suicidal bravery were deemed perversely primitive, a quasi-religious demonstration of racial/spiritual/cultural inferiority, like what the 9/11 hijackers pulled off. The Colin Kelly narrative was revised to say he’d been the opposite of suicidal, that he died while nursing his crippled Flying Fortress back toward Clark Field in the Philippines to save his crew, who’d safely bailed out. The original pumped-up version might have sounded un-Christian, and I doubt, for instance, that we would have inflicted a Hiroshima and a Nagasaki in quick succession upon a European population. Can you imagine Naples or Cologne incinerated by this new science-fiction technology without even a prior, public demonstration of its horrific power on a less peopled site? A Christian, round-eyed populace would have been regarded as too godly for guinea pig status. The firebombing of Dresden was an old-hat sort of terrorism, by comparison, like the London Blitz, where Spitfires dueled with Messerschmitts, as Japanese Zeros had shot up Colin Kelly.

We launched Lindbergh, cherished Einstein, made the Beatles world famous, and then moonwalked. Stardom was what America was for, where Norma Jean could become Marilyn Monroe, as we listened to Walter Cronkite, Johnny Carson, Elvis, and the roar of NASCAR, the Super Bowl, and the Kentucky Derby. We were chesty and smug, unable to absorb the hurtling technologies that began to overarch our concepts of information, friendship, travel, investment, entertainment, labor, and human nature. Loyalty grew from hometown schools, churches, ball fields, garage sales, libraries, soda fountains, the newspaper, and the cemetery; from kidding the grocer and barber and postman and bank teller; from impromptu snowstorms or the like, and knowing who’d helped you when you skidded off the road. Now money is automated, intimacy digitized, reading diced up. We employ our technologies for trivia while surrendering the pleasures of adventitiousness: the weather, the day’s snail mail, who might show up for coffee at your favorite greasy spoon, what land-line phone calls you’d happen to catch or miss.

We were as acquisitive as the British—whose diminishment parallels our own (though the imperial arsenal had been quite different, involving railroads across India or Kenya, steamship lines and highways, under the Union Jack). For the American dream, the bottom line topped conquest. Movers and shakers such as Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, John Jacob Astor, John D. Rockefeller, Edward H. Harriman, and Bill Gates, though never shrinking violets, were salesmen and builders, not in the mold of William Tecumseh Sherman. Money they were after, not to sail the seas or color the world’s maps red. The dollar was to be almighty, through assembly and marketing efficiencies, not redcoat conquest: with free expression, of course, another watchword. Diversity of opinion, yes, is a founding principle, but hardly on a par with acquisitiveness because what do you really want to hear or say? A man I know once tried to throw Robert McNamara off a Martha’s Vineyard ferryboat, which is illegal, but perhaps my voicing subsequent approval is not.

Half a century ago, I served two years in the Army as a good soldier, certainly prepared to kill whoever might be pointed out to me. I have voted, paid taxes, been law abiding for 60 years, and remember the horrific epidemic of assassinations that racked us in the 1960s, not just obliterating a promising president and his potential successor but also two transformative civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. It was worse than wondering why other people hated us; this was self-hatred; these were seizures in the gut.

We’ve gone gimpy from policing the world, and since Hitler and Stalin, seldom primarily for the world’s benefit. But economic imperialism can kneecap your own economy if enforced by “shock and awe” because shock and awe can cost an arm and a leg, plus uniformed casualties. Having abolished indentured servitude within our borders, we never considered peonage a problem elsewhere: didn’t just consider it a cultural phenomenon but rooted for, paid for, connived for it abroad, as fruit boats docked like clockwork from various banana republics, and tankers filled our refineries with oil from assorted monarchies, kleptocracies, and hard-heeled police states. Tea, coffee, avocados, Brazil nuts, rubber, tapioca, gemstones, or what-have-you—we wanted it from “stable” sultanates or caudillo-fisted client states, to whom we shipped tear gas and riot ammo in return.

At home, too, our democracy was partly predicated on the stoop labor of “wetbacks” who picked apples, dug potatoes, and harvested the green groceries we ate—then were supposed to head back where they’d come from. But class resentment can be bred even among citizens, because in a system where you climb a ladder there will always be fingers on the rungs below, because in order to accomplish much of anything beyond shingling or bulldozering, you seem to need a few letters after your name, and it’s sometimes galling for a blue-collar guy with divorce problems or chest pains to have to go hat in hand to individuals who’d merely stayed in school a little longer, people with McMansions and sports cars and hideaway second homes who drive pickup trucks on weekends as an affectation rather than a necessity.

With artists, too, what price do they command? Wealth of nearly any stripe has become separated from implications of integrity. In the old days paintings or books supposedly sold best after their authors suffered some neglect, and the local moneybags who lived in a gabled house on the hill might have seemed a tightwad in dickering with employees at his mill, but his word was known to be his bond and he had probably employed your father, paid his hospital bills before the government required him to, punctually responded to charitable appeals, and judged others at first by the feel of their handshake because a handshake could wind up like a signature. Education conveyed a different traction as well, thought not merely to purchase a future income stream but through its liberal arts and scientific inquiry to enrich the core of life itself. A stock trader’s nimble ruthlessness wasn’t necessarily more admired than a lifetime devoted to the study of history or mastering a craft like seamanship or engineering. Farmers and jacks-of-all-trades savored the seasons and were modest and community minded. We were homestead oriented from sod-busting days or linked to a concern for freedom of conscience because exile may have been our own family’s earlier fate in fleeing Europe to this rainbow land.

We were born of revolution and know that anger has its uses. Ours rises and abates in waves, from the Tea Party to the Tea Party, with John Wilkes Booth’s succinctly tragic fury in between. I remember how mad construction workers once were at long-haired college students over “patriotism”—my country right or wrong—not to mention civil rights, women’s rights. As late as the 1970s I was told to get my Vermont license plates out of Louisiana towns by nightfall or face the consequences; the bumper stickers after the petroleum cutoff from the Middle East read, “Let the Bastards Freeze in the Dark,” meaning New England, which lacked oil wells of its own. In 2001 inchoate anger arose in our national gorge again at flaming evidence that others could harbor a grudge against a beacon of liberty like us. As it happened, these figures we had originally armed to fight the Soviets weren’t folks who wanted free speech.

Gross complacency has striped our assumptions about so much of the world: that strongmen maintained in power would ensure that for minuscule bucks camel boys would continue to show us the Sphinx, and beach boys would put up our cabanas in the Caribbean (or if they didn’t, we’d invade, as in Grenada). If Franco’s fearsome Civil Guard kept order while we visited the Alhambra, so what? If you were “free, white, and 21,” in the familiar phrase, and American, the world was your oyster. Friends of mine, leaving Harvard in the 1950s, amused themselves by visiting King Idris of Libya and even Farouk of Egypt or contracting for a bit of undercover CIA work helping the shah ferret out dissidents for torture in Iran.

Nevertheless, in those days we did seem to value merit for more than its contribution to the bottom line. We believed in swinging for the fences, but there was heft to the concept of virtue at the same time, an intrinsic worth to a reputation of integrity that we’ve shed lately in the velocity of technological change. Relativism or improvisation rules, and many of the brood hens employed to keep our nest eggs warm turned out, in 2008, to be less than competent or honest as the checks and balances underpinning our economy failed. The loss of trust in brokers and bankers ramified alongside the glibly fabricated anonymity of the Internet—the fun of inventing personae and blarney like a spider weaving a web to snare new friends. The very term friend, like financial advisor, acquired contexts void of permanence, while the concepts of self-sacrifice, pro bono work, devotion to an ideal—religious or otherwise but perhaps involving a spell of voluntary poverty—and life as spontaneity twinned with generosity or marbled with contemplation went out the window.

We believed the sky was the limit for a straight shooter, with maybe a rabbit’s foot in his pocket. If you didn’t strike pay dirt, you hit the road, another metaphor, leaving your main street with its comfy general store and barber’s pole, catching “The Hound,” a Greyhound, for the bright lights of a big city. From youngsters heading off for a fresh beginning to oldsters rolling down the highway in an RV after retiring from a treadmill job, we’ve romanticized the open road, even maintaining a soft spot for the proverbial snake-oil salesman, bilking the rubes as he unpacks his sample case in town after town. The bindlestiffs of the Great Depression, though less flamboyant, were more simpatico, bumming for a piece of pie at your kitchen door, a glass of milk, after chopping kindling for the stove or adding to the woodpile, a bit loosey-goosey yet in whom we might have glimpsed the antsy backpacker in ourselves, if we’ve ever edged toward cutting ties to a safe harbor and becoming a rolling stone.

The prairie schooners did that, after the Civil War—my great-grandfather’s among them. He helped found the settlement of Hutchinson, Kansas, and his wife left a candle burning in the window of their sod house for subsequent pioneers who’d lost the trail. He had fought slavery at Shiloh and, being no pacifist, I am in favor of him without perceiving a clear distinction between Slobodan Milosevic and George W. Bush as death dealers fit for The Hague. We pendulum as Americans, of course, between isolationism and bellicosity, much as we see going for broke or out on strike as inalienable rights

Our labor movement has withered in the Information Age, as has the entrepreneurial fever that coincided with it. Work not digitized now seems menial, but even scholarship has lost status. Microsoft and Facebook, after all, were germinated not by Harvard graduates but by Harvard dropouts, and Googling has facilitated the retrieval of information to such a degree that where’s the glamour in years of huffing and puffing in obscurity to add to some corner of human knowledge? People don’t quit their jobs in a snit in a downturn, or protest a 10-year war as angrily. Possibly in Europe, yes, because structures there are more static. But here our farmers’ sons will often go to work for IBM, and their sons start a garage band, in the American template of “from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.” If your parents, like mine, were New York social climbers, you don’t need to be. Or if they were workaholics, miserly, or ostentatiously parvenu, you can skip all that and raise sheep for feta cheese, stain cabinet wood, and jockey a potter’s wheel. Family businesses or professional dynasties tend to dissolve, once the old crock croaks and kids cash out to blaze trails for themselves.

This scenario, with the attendant splintering of family real estate, remains almost axiomatic, but what’s lain dormant as an alternative for a long while is the moral high ground, so to speak, with its perils of ridicule, ostracism, or penury. The principle most of us espouse is do no harm, leave the world no worse than you found it. Ecologically, that’s become impossible, but we do try not to beggar our neighbors or break up households, controlling our greed and our libidos, and maybe volunteer to peel potatoes at community suppers, teach English as a second language in a church basement, train with the town fire department, or even build houses for Habitat for Humanity. If we’re very lucky, we’ve experienced moments of collective elation like the March on Washington in 1963, the breaching of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, or the Arab Spring in Cairo’s Tahrir Square more recently. Even Occupy Wall Street makes me nostalgic.

My memories of selfless idealism are magnetized by two or three African trips where I saw, for instance, a Norwegian couple, doctor and nurse, building a small hospital from scratch, brick by brick, in the village of Chukudum in the Didinga Hills of the southern Sudan during the long civil war there. A bomber from Khartoum circled over nearly every day searching for rebel targets to hit. Earlier, I’d watched another Norwegian couple bravely manning a comparably front-line hospital, starved of supplies, near the village of Loa in the foothills of the Imatong Mountains and on the Nile, about 10 days’ walk west of Chukudum. They lacked food, antibiotics, anesthetics, or enough beds for the battlefield casualties who arrived by truck or wheelbarrow daily for surgery, sometimes performed by flashlight. In each case, the previous medical care had been provided by paired American Maryknoll nuns in two outpatient clinics nearby, who continued civilian treatment and observed the bomber’s regular swing-by, as it occasionally emitted ordnance, with the waves of fleeing refugees, gauntly, fitfully besieging them for food or medicines they didn’t have. The nuns were close to a guerrilla base, where they were subjected to the anguishing clamor and rifle cracks of a firing squad as the two tribes, Dinka and Nuer, who were the backbone of the revolution, began an intramural fight.

It was a mishmash of shrapnel and famine 80 miles or so south of the battle lines at Juba, and two Irish priests had also stationed themselves at Loa, in the rectory of a handsome abandoned old Italian mission church. They mostly performed last rites—the footpaths were lined with mounded child-sized graves marked namelessly with scraps of toys or clothes for tiny lives famished from the start—but frequently risked mine blasts by driving out to hamlets cut off by the war, where people needed christening, marriage, burial, or just the sight of a man of God. The refugees, like the rebels, were Dinkas forced out of their homeland by Khartoum’s army and Arab militias and into the territory of the Acholis at Loa, the Didingas at Chukudum, and other easily brutalized tribes like the Azande. So the local settlements, as well as the desperate refugee camps, were very sad places, pillaged of crops, the women raped. In fact, the central reason for the haggard hunger overhanging the 100,000 Dinka civilians gathered in the vicinity of Loa was that the United Nations had halted emergency deliveries after three of its aid workers and a Norwegian journalist had been murdered by Dinka shooters in an ambush and its aftermath.

I met Protestant missionaries and secular German, French, and Irish personnel in the region trying to save lives among the tide trekking south. A pet monkey might offer some solace, harnessed outdoors to a tree, and the almost obligatory orphan scooped up, crying at the side of a road for rescue from the furnace of war—the one child, clinging to your hip, you could certainly save, with powdered milk, powdered eggs, epilepsy pills, or whatever, even spiriting him or her out at least to Nairobi when your stint was up and the Cessna came to extract you. But if the Arab tanks at Juba broke the rebel defensive line and blasted south, the flood of panicked tribesfolk might become a spear-waving tsunami seizing rations, clothes, Jeeps, and any other means of survival an expatriate do-gooder possessed. I was just flitting through as a journalist, yet the strain of idealism represented by these Maryknolls, Norwegian socialists, Irish priests seems so marginalized lately as to be off the screen, if therefore possibly ripe for a generational revival. Imagine a college kid telling his parents and career counselor he wants to fight poverty and help the underdog. Well, okay, a master’s degree in social work carries a salary and a retirement plan, but in a dog-eat-dog democracy, who roots, except in sports, for the disadvantaged? Losers, our culture says, have mainly themselves to blame. Why didn’t they plan and save, obtain licensing in a trade or corporate employment, “hitching their wagon to a star,” in the American phrase?

Old mainstream titans like Earl Warren did assist in turning the nation around, which was important because we are thin-skinned about reform, lest our peccadilloes get broadcast or, like toes, stepped on. We want to wait until a figure such as Nelson Mandela is finally released from Robben Island before granting him international recognition as a hero, while we keep chiseling on our taxes and brusquely passing bag ladies by. “Holier than thou” or “causey” are the epithets we’re likely to load onto idealists who appear unsettlingly serious about a cause. Even “activist” can be a disparaging term, we feel so leery or skittish about moralism at the moment, when the mantra instead from countless podiums is “moving on.” Don’t bully bankers, prosecute torturers, or turn the clock back to examine how an elective war could sprout from falsehoods and metastasize. Let bygones be bygones, it may never happen again, we say, though tacitly hoping a David Halberstam or Seymour Hersh will hold somebody accountable in print.

In the era of hometowns and stable neighborhoods people used to refer to what they called character, and a person either possessed that scaffolding or didn’t. Rascals started small, tying tin cans to cats’ tails before they graduated to getting high school girls in trouble. Lazy was as lazy did, and sharpsters didn’t change their spots, so you could forecast how somebody was going to pan out, whereas anyone you meet now is virtually a blank slate. Mark Twain and Charles Dickens prove we have no monopoly on scoundrels in public office or wearing bespoke suits; it’s just that ours must deal with a warped jet stream, an acidifying ocean, and the skinning of the planet, not to mention nuclear stuff. No more serious than 10-year-old pickpockets being hanged on Tyburn Hill, but less fathomable and reversible; and in any case in peacetime we don’t do “serious” well. I’m astonished that only a tenth as many lions survive in Africa as when I first went there, and only a tenth as many tigers as lions in the wild. Every spring I hear fewer bird species and individuals sing, but the pennies I mail to conservation organizations are squashed under the steamroller of development.

Huck’s disillusion with slavery, like Scrooge’s with capitalism, didn’t change anything; it took wars, sedition, revolutionary leadership, strikes, rough protest to moderate catastrophic conditions, and will again. Blushing, our spy and diplomatic corps, as puppet masters in the Middle East and North Africa, were caught aghast at the effusions of freedom in public squares, where a whole raft of generalissimos, sultans, and emirs had kept their populations muzzled for us for 60 years. (Jordan’s present King Abdullah was shipped over to be educated in pliancy at my own stuffy Deerfield, Massachusetts, prep school. God forbid that Muslims should not remain quiescent.) The alteration in attitude necessitated by the Arab Spring, not to mention other bursts of progress in the so-called developing world, will be hard to manage at this dicey juncture, when we scarcely know what to make of ourselves.

Stability was the watchword near where oil came from, but at the same time we joined our Israeli allies, “the only democracy in the Middle East,” in jeering at all Arabs and Muslims as primitives incapable of governing themselves free of sheikhs. If an elected reformer, like Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran, did appear, we overthrew him, as an appetizer for killing Patrice Lumumba in Congo and Salvatore Allende in Chile, overthrowing Árbenz Guzmán in Guatemala, and so on. Blundering around in our sphere of influence, we’ve been anti-Jeffersonian except as a cover story, tolerating butcheries, oligarchies, and smothering self-determination.

Did our postwar presidents—from Missouri, Kansas, Michigan, Arkansas, and Georgia, plus two Texans, two Californians, a Cape Codder, and Bush 41—elevated to a post of planetary significance, consummate achievements to write home about? They deflated the Soviet empire without escalating Korea or Vietnam to Armageddon and, mostly likable souls, kept the economy and domestic social programs pretty much afloat. However, we have reached the “first responder” and “homeland security” stage in foreign policy if landmarks fall. Like the figures prancing on the flickering walls of Plato’s cave, on-screen simulacra have elbowed aside our flesh-and-oxygenated relationships, when instantaneous, endlessly retrievable, selective electronic imaging is more fun than the bumpy, happenstance, windblown experiences real life holds. The dimensions of boredom and our tolerance for it are also strikingly different now that so many gizmos are at hand to divert us from mere rumination. We’ve long since forgotten that sauntering used to be a font of insight and intuition, allowing us to spot beauty or anomalies in ideas. Staring into a river or at a merry-go-round, gardening, or whatever floated your boat, as a slow-paced metaphor used to put it. Now we twitch amid the spinning news cycle, a loop of cherry-picked personal musical tidbits from all ages, e- and voicemail, twittered rants and afterthoughts, and archival movie snippets. Head cocked, eyes squinting just a little, we used to acquire information by thumbing books or wearing down shoe leather, out-of-doors occasionally in scenery better than a screen saver.

Memories fork and splinter, as jobs, family, and friends jostle for revision. I was at neither of my parents’ deathbeds: that is, I mean the day of death, having lingered around each departure lounge a good deal, so that perhaps nothing essential was left unsaid. But was that cowardice on my part, and did they separately miss me? Sure it was; and probably. Much is not said at deathbeds at best, anyway, the hurtful, confusing, argumentative, or self-serving. Hands-on silent love, with a few supportive recollections, is the potion. God knows what my own daughter will say at crunch time—play a Mozart disc on the bedside table, as she did when her mother died (I was there), and figure out what she thinks of me later on. My tenderness and respect for my father and mother continue to fluctuate and no doubt will until I’m on a gurney myself. Memories, self-censored, weakly lit, diffuse, and abbreviated, are indeed like Plato’s cave, and since we seldom realize when we are at our happiest, we don’t gorge on those moments, thinking they were going to last in a cascade of delights. Moonlight in Rome; glaciers in Alaska; the queen in her carriage opening Parliament; a river ferry on the Brahmaputra in Assam. Did you snowshoe in the Rockies and swim in the Rio Grande? See Joe DiMaggio in New York and visit Mother Teresa’s orphanage and hospice in Calcutta? Did you avoid hurting anybody irreparably who’d loved you, so that they or you wear telltale crimps in your smile, and are your dreams at night still energetic like when you were young?

How about your daydreams? Did you fulfill some? I remember the orphans at Mother Teresa’s, aged three or four, surrounding a visitor such as me in a politely silent but emotionally clamorous circle, all lifting their arms high to be picked up. They were chubby by now, cleanly clothed, and well disciplined, with cribs and cots overflowing from an adjoining room, whatever original circumstances they’d been rescued from. One of the deepest impulses children have is to raise their arms as a signal that they want to be picked up, whereupon the closest adult immediately bends down and does so, with a hug. It’s primal enough that other primates do it. And there I was, ringed by a dozen imploring orphans, but resisting because a soft-voiced nun, their caretaker, rightly told me and the couple of other tourists, “Don’t pick up any child if you’re going to put her down again—unless you’re going to take her home.”

I didn’t, but that is what vocations are about. If you choose one, do it. Be Albert Schweitzer, or a nun; be a father, a farmer, a writer, or whatever. Lifelong, love the primal.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Edward Hoagland, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is the author of many books of essays, travel, and ficiton. His most recent novel is In the Country of the Blind.


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