In a class about religious themes in literature, we were discussing the Flannery O’Connor story A Good Man is Hard to Find. The title reminded me of a conversation my freshman roommate had with her grandmother, a woman who’d left the state of South Carolina maybe twice in her 90 years. The grandmother asked my roommate whether she’d met any nice boys at college, and when my roommate said no, the grandmother sighed dramatically and said, “I don’t doubt it dear. There haven’t been any good men since the war.”
“Vietnam?” my roommate asked, this being the most recent war at the time.
“Don’t be silly. The War of Northern Aggression.”
After my roommate hung up, I pointed out to her that both her grandfather and father had been born since the Civil War. Was the grandmother including them in her sweeping condemnation, I wondered?
My roommate nodded. “Yep. She thinks they’re both pretty worthless.”
My own grandmother used to say, when something was in disarray (my hair, for instance), that it looked like “the Wreck of the Hesperus.” It was only recently that I found, in an antiques store, a movie placard for the The Wreck of the Hesperus, a film based on the poem by Henry Wordsworth Longfellow. The basic plot of the poem is that a sea captain takes his daughter on his ship, and they’re having a lovely time when lo! a storm kicks up. To save his daughter from going overboard, the captain lashes his daughter to the mast…where she promptly freezes to death.
Apparently the movie version replaces the daughter with a damsel (no doubt with heavily corseted heaving bosoms) and makes the sea captain less culpable — in the poem, he fails to heed the signs of an impending hurricane, but in the poster below, it looks like an electrical malfunction is to blame, and the freezing deaths of the captain and his daughter have been replaced by a happy ending, which totally makes sense, because there’s nothing like maritime negligence to bring people together.
I’m not entirely sure whether my grandmother was saying that my hair looked like the sea captain’s daughter’s (Longfellow describes it as brown sea-weed) or my general person was akin to a wrecked ship; either way, it was okay, because I loved her and found everything she said highly entertaining. She had that Southern way of delightfully summing up a situation, like when she turned to the mother of a wretched brat who was running amok in a restaurant and said, “What a darling child!” Not one person in earshot doubted what she was saying, but her words and tone of voice betrayed not a whiff of annoyance. That takes skill.
It is my fondest wish to get to that point in life where you can say anything, and have it be chalked up to old age. I live for the day when it is no longer necessary to censor myself…and I say this with the full knowledge that I don’t have much of a filter, compared to many people. I used to have a filter, but as the years added up and the b.s. piled on, I lost the desire to be pleasantly polite, and now, after a couple years of nonstop hell, when it comes to certain things — my children, my dearest friends, the people I believe in — I’m completely unwilling to stand down and swallow what needs to be said in the service of “being polite.” If it hurts to have your nonsense pointed out, reign it in! File a report with someone who cares. I don’t like drama, but if you bring your bullshit to my yard, I’m not going to pretend I don’t see it.
The flip side of that is, if I’ve learned anything in the past few years, it’s the importance of telling the good people in your life what they mean to you. Life is short — sometimes ridiculously so. And since I have the tremendous honor of having the greatest group of friends known to man (and I include some family members in this category), my hope, and my intention, is that I’ve made it clear to each of them how incredible they are. How much I value them. What a positive impact they’ve had on my life.
So in that regard, too, my filter is gone. Whereas my younger self might have thought “Surely they know how I feel, and I don’t need to say it” or “I’ll let them know another day,” what I know for sure now is that it all needs to be said — not tomorrow, but today. Because tomorrow is in no way guaranteed.
Janis Joplin’s got that great line in Me and Bobby McGee, “I’d trade all my tomorrows for one single yesterday, to be holding Bobby’s body next to mine,” and I’ve had that thought a lot lately — although not about Bobby, whoever he is, but about the people who are gone from this physical existence, like my grandparents. Dear friends. People I admired. The people whose laughs I’d love to hear again. Because what you don’t realize, when you’re young and convinced that life is long, is that these losses are going to accumulate. And accumulate. And accumulate.
When my grandmother was at the end of her life, and I was weeping next to her hospital bed, she reached over and patted my hand and said, Don’t cry for me, puddin’ head. I’ve had a great life, and all the people I grew up with are waiting for me. That’s what I mean, by the losses accumulating. You get to a point, if you are lucky enough to have a long life, that the balance sheet is heavily weighted towards the other side.
Episcopalians like to refer to themselves as “Easter people,” meaning that we center our faith on the Resurrection. The risen Christ, more than the Cross, is the cornerstone of our relationship with God, and it allows us a certain optimism, a certain sunny outlook and tolerance and long-range view of the world, that informs how we understand Scripture, and how we worship. I’m not saying that this outlook belongs to Episcopalians alone; certainly not. But it is fundamental, in many ways, to our lives with Christ.
I’m not entirely sure where I stand on this — and unfortunately, in order to know anything with certainty, one has to experience it himself, and I’m not quite done here. (So if you were thinking of pushing me off a cliff in the name of investigative journalism, don’t. At least wait until I get my degree.)
But regardless of what you or I think will happen (or not happen) after death, I think we can all agree that the world would be a much better place if we stopped waiting to tell people that we care about them, or that they make our lives better, or that we are happy to know them.
What do you say? Can we start today?!