I am, too often perhaps, an angry man. Too often perhaps –
or, perhaps, not often enough. Lately I can't seem to decide.
Anger can be a difficult emotion to handle, particularly when it's
directed towards other people. There's always the danger of its
getting out of hand and landing you in trouble. But I think that
anger is sometimes justified; there are times when it might even be
called compassionate. When anger is combined with clarity –
that is to say, when valid criticism is projected with force –
then I think it may be called compassionate. I remember saying
to Robert once (for he struck me often as being privately very judgmental
towards people he treated kindly in public) that we should not judge
others. "Judge not lest ye be judged . . ." and so
on. But he said: "Of course we should judge
each other. It's part of our function as human beings to judge
each other. If we don't do it, who will?" I did not
agree with him then. I do now. Still, I sometimes think that,
lately, my anger is simply irritability carried to an extreme.
I wonder about the degree to which my environment influences me, and
just how those environmental influences should be factored into what I
think of as the "self-ordaining laws" that make me me. I
have long tried to find a place for myself within my environment, to
understand my relationship to society, to my co-workers, to my family.
I have tried to find a "context" within which to exist.
Without much success however, even at the most basic level:
I feel drawn to nature for instance – love nature –
but of course like most everyone else I live at one remove from it.
And I interpret it always, filtering it through a particular set of
understandings, expectations, and beliefs. Though this is unavoidable,
I sometimes think that it's a mistake. I sometimes think that our
brains are a sort of mistake. Or – not our brains exactly,
but our minds: that abstraction born of the brain. The brain
itself is after all simply an outgrowth of, a balloon-like appendage to,
the nervous system; perhaps we simply misuse it. If we learned to
still the mind, as so many sages say we should, perhaps we could learn to
use our brains more appropriately, as a sort of superior, delicately
attuned sensory organ. An organ of perception. What, I wonder,
would happen to the faculty of judgment then?
Snow begins to fall regularly here in my small town, blurring the sharp
angles and hard edges of the world to a softly rounded inconclusiveness.
It's quite beautiful, this rounded softness, especially when juxtaposed
with the stark blackness of the trees and the spiny brown stalks of the
withered weeds. As the weather turns colder, fewer and fewer customers
stop in at the convenience store. Sometimes hours and hours go by
when I'm left completely alone, especially when I'm working the night
shift, as I've often lately been asked to do. As for the people who
do come in – well, what can I say? They are, so often,
"odd," odder even than the people who come in during the day.
They strike me as being, one way or another, mentally askew. This is
true in so many instances that I sometimes have to wonder: Is it
just here in my hometown that such people proliferate, or are their numbers
this high everywhere? Growing up, I saw many of them wandering the
streets: my parents would point them out as we drove by in the car,
attracting my attention their way. There was one woman who was known
as the "Cracked Lady" because of her habit of always being careful
to avoid stepping on cracks in the sidewalk. She'd walk about town
with eyes peering downward, lifting her feet high whenever she saw
one, stepping as if over an imaginary wall. Another woman was called
the "Rubber Band Lady" because of her habit of picking up
rubber bands and pieces of string wherever she found them and stuffing
them into her pockets. What she did with them no one knew.
There was one young fellow I privately dubbed "The Soldier"
because he always walked with the brisk, exacting step of a soldier
performing a drill. At corners he would come to a complete
stop and then execute a perfect ninety-degree turn. There was
one man who claimed he was Jesus, and another who said he was God (I
don't know if these two ever met). One older gentleman, seen around town
daily for years and years, was a mildly retarded deaf-mute.
Very friendly, he grunted and waved to everyone he met. Alone,
he fluttered and twitched his hands about in front of him, making a
series of mysterious gestures and signs. Apparently this was
his way of muttering to himself.
How any of these people lived I do not know. There are a couple
of group homes located around town for those who have various mental
disabilities, and some lived in these I suppose. Others would appear
and be seen wandering the streets for some months or years, then suddenly
vanish. Sent back to the institutions from which they came, I
suppose. They are the truly displaced, wherever they exist.
One woman, named Barbara, mentally deranged but not to the point at
which she need be removed from society, has made it a habit to stop
by at the store now and again during the wee hours of the morning.
Some organic deficiency, some chemical imbalance of the brain, makes
it impossible for her to focus herself, to make the appropriate
connections between herself and other members of society. Like
many of the mentally ill, it's difficult to guess her age: life
has dealt with her differently than it has with most of us, and left
its marks upon her in different ways. I would guess her to be
in her late thirties. Her hair is a long, dry, tangled mass,
brown with a few streaks of grey in it. Her face is narrow,
nose and chin pointy, the mouth unusually wide. She wears a large,
dirty coat that flaps about her like a cape, and thick glasses that
magnify her eyes, emphasizing their vague, makeshift awareness.
Her eyebrows are bushy. Her teeth are bad: she's missing
quite a few of them; the ones that are left are a greasy sort of yellowy-black.
She smokes incessantly. She comes into the store to warm herself, and
to talk; her talk is an endless, nervous, circular complaint:
"This town sucks, don't it, Simon. Huh? Huh?
Don't it. Am I right or am I right? I mean, the people
that live around here, they're full of bullshit. They're just
full of bullshit. Ya know what I mean? Huh? Huh?
The fuckers. It ain't right, the way they treat me. Ya know
what I mean? It's just bullshit. I mean, these people . . .
They're just fuckers. Huh, Simon. Huh." She sleeps,
she tells me, sometimes at a shelter for the homeless, sometimes with
friends who have a room, or an apartment, or a trailer, of their own;
but really, she just lives on the streets. She goes through
dumpsters, sifting through the garbage to find whatever might be
useful there. She's always showing me her latest find:
a sack of half-rotten potatoes, a used notebook, a broken telephone
– it could be anything. What she does with these things, where
she keeps them, I have no idea.
Barbara likes me though. I do not chase her away. I give
her free coffee and day-old doughnuts sometimes. In return she
regales me with her repetitious opinions on life: "This
town sucks, don't it, Simon . . ." Or she complains to me
about what's been done with her kids: "Oh, it ain't right,
about my kids. That's just bullshit. Ya know what I mean?
These people . . . I mean, what the fuck! It ain't right.
Huh, Simon. Huh." "Yeah, well . . ." I
say, wearily, indifferently, for I don't know what else could have been
done. Barbara has given birth to five children so far – is
now pregnant with a sixth. They have all, of course, been taken
from her; it could not have been otherwise; but she feels, instinctively
I suppose, the injustice of it, of society, of "the system,"
which does not and never can do as much to help her as she feels it should.
"It ain't right. It ain't right. This town's just
bullshit. It's just bullshit. Ya know what I mean, Simon?
Ya know what I mean? Huh? Huh?"
She is an irritating woman. She cannot hold a job. She
receives food and money from social agencies which she then in turn
constantly berates; she's provided with shelter when she cannot stay
with friends; her children must be given to others to care for.
She's a drain on society, and gives nothing in return. Her only
defense against the world she lives in is that she cannot help being
the way she is. Is that defense enough? Society answers,
"Yes, it is" – but only just barely.
I live in a small apartment, a converted attic, with two neutered male
cats for company. I do not drink; I no longer use drugs. I have
very few friends, and no lovers. I spend most of my time alone.
When I was younger I attended college, but never graduated. I
refused to take that one last step, make that one last compromise,
choosing instead to spurn the path society had laid out for me and
thereby refusing to bear the burden of all that is entailed in becoming
one with the status quo. My parents were disappointed in me.
They were disappointed for me. I was the square peg they
had failed to make fit into the round hole. They tried to make me
fit for many years, tried to cram me in. They tried out of love
– or so they have told me; out of a sense of compassion for me.
They wanted to help equip me for survival. There were afraid for
me. Their fear centered upon my relentless pursuit of total
independence and individuality, on my fundamental disregard for all
that society considered "normal." They didn't know what
to make of such a reckless endeavor. And they feared, rightly
enough, that society would not know what to make of it either.
We are such a strange species, we humans. Strange, and at such an
awkward stage in our evolutionary development. We do not "fit
in" with nature anymore – but how can we think that we've
outgrown our need of it? We are all of us warped, really, one way
or another. Endless numbers of books have been written with just
this theme at their core: that we are warped; that we don't
fit in: and here is the why of it, and here the how; here is one way
we might learn to cope with the problem, and here another. But
the dilemma we present to ourselves is never resolved.
Tonight is one of my nights off from work. Outside, it has begun
to snow again. Where is Barbara now, I wonder? Is she safe?
Is she cold? Do I care? Heavy, fluffy flakes come drifting
down, as if from nowhere, as if from out of nothing. It's one of my
favorite things to do, to sit at my window and watch these frozen white
flakes falling down out of a pitch black sky. Wonderful, the sense
of peace it brings to the irritable clamor in my head. Snow falls
with such a silent sound.
they are strangers
am a stranger
are a stranger
they are strangers
they are strangers
are a stranger
am a stranger
they are strangers