Note: This piece is in response to some comment threads on a post I shared a few days ago. It’s been lurking in one of my draft folders for years, awaiting the time when it felt right to let it go. I think that time is now. Enjoy.
It was late at night, as I read a random thing, a wall post on Facebook , and the terrible news spoke of sudden tragedy and pain involving someone I knew in the past, a distant time, younger years. But we had fumbled our way, after many decades, toward one another again, tentatively at first, a bond that gently increased as bits of this and that crossed paths on our walls, in that odd, virtual-reality way that Facebook has when you have friendships that grow despite the separation of miles and the lack of physical meeting.
And you never know, with these Facebook friends. Sometimes you can pick up right where you left off, centuries ago, and everything is just right, the friend is still what you remember and the connection is solid. Other times, that person you remember has been replaced by someone you no longer know. We all change, granted, but sometimes the change is so extreme that you wonder if what you think you remember had anything to do with reality. We are all guilty of gilding our memories, making them a bit more than what they were. We all look backwards with more kindness than maybe we should.
But tonight, with this person, and the tragedy, the possible life-changing intrusion of unfairness and crushing despair, I knew this person to be decent and loving and full of respect for all flavors of life. I had to say something. But what do you say to someone that doesn’t really know you, and you don’t really know them? What are the words? How do you craft the right message that doesn’t ring of the falseness that so many people leave in comments on social media?
I didn’t know what to type. My normal way with words felt constricted, inadequate. Especially when this person’s wall was crammed with so many messages concerning “prayer circles” and “Jesus” and the standard “somebody up above will take care of this”. That angle leaves me uncomfortable. It’s just not… my path. I couldn’t click “like” on any of those comments with any degree of honesty or personal integrity.
So I was at a loss. I closed the browser window, without typing anything. I needed distance and thought.
And because I’m a person who lives so much of his life in his head, I imagined a scenario. I go out onto the patio behind the house, and I find a comfortable chair, probably my favorite one that allows me to see a big swath of the sky, as well as the mature trees, both of which have been here far longer than me. I like sitting on the patio at night, especially if I’m alone. I could sit there for hours, given the chance and a lessening of the Texas heat in summer. There’s something about the night that I find welcoming.
And let’s say that a man walks around the corner of the house and takes a seat near me. We’ll imagine him to be elderly, because the folks who have lived long lives have the most important information and wisdom, despite the youth of the world refusing to accept this obvious fact. We’ll call him Joshua, like the tree. I would like a tree, with its age and strength, to speak to me. Wouldn’t you?
Joshua, settling in, is quiet for a bit, because you really shouldn’t barge in with your own agenda and just start hollering and such, it’s really not neighborly. We watch the stars for a bit. Who wouldn’t want to do that, gazing upon the reminders that we clearly can’t be alone in this universe? Then he simply says “Talk to me. I’m here.”
I sigh, as this is already the best conversation I’ve had in forever. So many people want so many things from you that it’s hard to remain focused. Everybody talks, so few people listen. I don’t even know where to begin, but I do. “I have a friend who is in pain.”
Joshua nods very slightly. “These things happen. What are you going to do about it?”
I sigh again, for a different reason than the first exhale. “I don’t know. I don’t know if I can do anything. I mean, we’re not best friends, we only talk online, on Facebook, but I feel like I need to at least say something. It’s a terrible thing, to ignore it would be just completely wrong. But I feel out of place doing that. All of the friend comments are about Jesus and God. That’s a whole situation that I left behind long ago.”
Joshua shifts in his chair slightly. “So you don’t believe in God?”
I shift in my own chair. “Do you?”
Joshua chuckles, a low, almost imperceptible murmur. “That’s really not a valid question, is it? After all, this is your imagined conversation. If you’re seeking insight, we really shouldn’t clutter up the buffet with pointless side dishes. Do you follow?”
I studied one particular star in the sky that seemed to be shining with extra flair, before answering. “Yes. And no, I don’t believe there is a god, not in the way that some people believe.”
Joshua suddenly reached inside his coat and pulled out a pipe, followed by a bag that I assumed was tobacco. It was a bit dark, not sure. “And what exactly,” he asked, fiddling with his accessories, “do you believe?”
I hesitated, slightly. Some people in this country, at times, seem so overwhelmingly determined to excoriate someone who doesn’t agree with their own chosen philosophy, reacting in a vengeful manner that belies the foundations of that very philosophy. If you feel compelled to pass a law to enforce your religion, what does that say about your religion? “I do believe… in a higher energy, in this positive thing, that you can sense, that you can feel, when you meet certain people. You can see it in their eyes, in the way they act, in how they treat others who are different from them. It’s palpable. I believe that some people choose to follow a path that is just and right, and others choose one that is devoid of compassion.”
Joshua lit his pipe, nurturing the flame, then pulled it away from his mouth. “Sounds like Heaven and Hell to me. Or something like that.”
I shook my head. “No. That’s too simplistic, and it’s a different concept. I don’t believe in damnation. I don’t believe in salvation, not in a bible-thumping way. I believe that people make choices, consciously, and that those decisions affect the world around them.”
Joshua blew out three perfect smoke rings, which somehow seemed to give him an upper hand and slightly irritated me. “Of course their decisions affect other people. This is nothing new. It’s part of life.”
I sighed again. “But I’m trying to say that some people knowingly do the wrong thing, and other people knowingly do the right thing. And there’s a collectiveness to those actions whichever way they go. That’s the energy that I’m talking about.”
“So,” said Joshua, still doing whatever with his pipe, “you do believe that one single person can affect the balance. In either direction.”
I nodded. “Yes. We all make a choice. And that affects everything.”
More smoke rings from Joshua, while some random critter in the alley decided it was very important to knock something over at that very precise moment, and then run away. Joshua turned to gaze in the direction of this random and fleeting sound, reflecting. “How fitting,” he finally mumbled.
“Why do you say that?”
He turned back to me. “Isn’t that what you’re doing? Making pointless noise which is avoiding your real issue?”
Well, I wasn’t sure what to think about that. “I don’t understand what you mean. Are you saying that our conversation, or at least my end of it, has been worthless? Am I failing a test in some way?”
Joshua chuckled again. “Of course not. Any time someone seeks answers, regardless of the reason, is a good thing. All of us should actively ponder what we see and feel. To simply accept without question, to support a cause without consideration, is an ill-advised path that leads to persecution, subjugation of humanity, and inane military aggression that solves nothing.”
This was becoming quite deep. “I agree with that, that people must think. So many people don’t, accepting what they are fed and reacting as intended by the people doing the feeding, people that only want to manipulate and control.”
Joshua blew out another smoke ring, a single puff this time. “So said the anarchist as he railed against society and demanded that the walls be torn down, not understanding that some people will be lost when those walls are down, because they’ve never known anything but walls.”
I tried to soak this in, I really did, but things had slid in a direction that I didn’t understand. “We seem to share fundamental concepts, but I sense that you are dissatisfied with me in some way. What am I doing that gives you pause?”
He chuckled yet again, an otherwise jovial sound that I might have to decide that I didn’t like. “Do you always speak in such an arrogant manner?”
Arrogant manner? “But you’re talking just like I am.”
“Of course I am. I’m talking in the same manner as you because I have been devised by you. You are seeking validation that agrees with your principles, which is a failed mission before it begins, because no one single person has all the principles, all the answers. If someone did, don’t you think the guns of domination would have been silenced by now?”
I really didn’t have a response for this.
Joshua turned again to the vague point in the alley where a trashcan had been molested minutes before. “I see the dogs have left us. Now perhaps we can speak of truth.”
Joshua put down his pipe, clinking it in an ashtray that I hadn’t even noticed was on the small table to his side. He stared at me for a moment, allowing me to realize that he had the bluest eyes I had ever seen. “There was a flaw in your design.”
“And that would be?”
“In your imagining, in your quaint attempt to visualize a mystical encounter on your patio, a setting that is actually quite nice, love the clay pots of marigolds that seem random but are actually very strategic, and all those stars overhead, who couldn’t get wistful when seeing such things, you actually let slip something that you couldn’t control, thus changing the script.”
I swallowed, not sure about this. “And what slipped?”
“That positive energy that you rhapsodized about, or at least justified about, however you want to explain your possibly suspect but possibly valid way to explain that there is, indeed, something of a higher power on this planet of lost people who are fumbling their way towards truth, whatever that might be.”
“That was a slip? It was a long one.”
Joshua smiled. “Maybe not. But if you truly believe in that concept, then anything you send out, anything you do, for whatever reason, will have little bits of that clinging to it. And those bits allow me to say what you need to hear.”
I gulped again.
Joshua knocked the tobacco out of his pipe, then tucked it away somewhere that one tucks pipes that have served their current purpose. “You need to drop the attitude. Your friend, your friend in need, the one that started all of this mess of an imagined conversation on a marigold-enhanced patio where strangers gaze at stars and seek clarity? That friend doesn’t give one tiny squat about what your beliefs might be. They only want, and need, for you to do everything in your power, in whatever spiritual manner you choose, to send healing their way.”
He paused for a beat, those blue eyes penetrating. “Does that satisfy your sanctimonious need to always be right?”
Crickets chirped. I didn’t even know they were part of the cast, but apparently they had been rather subdued until this final showdown. Then, “I really didn’t mean to be sanctimonious, I’m not even sure what that means in this situation, but I guess I may have done that.”
Blue eyes again. “Of course you did. If you truly care about someone who is having a moment of pain and confusion and need, then you put aside all of your objections and personal issues and political crap and you do exactly what that person needs to see to give them the tiniest push toward soul comfort and eventual peace.”
And I regretted this as soon as it came out of my mouth: “But what if what I’m doing, what I’m appearing to support, goes against everything that I-”
“Don’t be a child, child. This is in no way about you. It’s about them. It’s about that positive energy that you idolize. Use it. Increase your numbers, increase the strength. Save the opportunity to enlighten for another time, when hearts are not so raw. Change only comes about when panic is not in the room.”
Then Joshua suddenly stood up, arising from the chair next to the small table with the ashtray that I didn’t remember. He fished around in one of his many pockets and finally extracted a wallet. “Do you have change for a five? The city bus only takes singles at this time of night.”
What? City bus? How could a prophet on my patio have a need for public transportation? Especially if I created him in my own mind. But I had a more pressing question. “So I’ve just been stupid about all this, right?”
Joshua smiled. “No, you’ve just been human. After thousands of years, we’re still trying to figure out how we can all live together. And when we get to that point, there’s going to be one hell of a party. No religious affiliation intended.”
I took the proffered bill and handed him five singles, but not before rubbing those dollars with a little bit of me. Maybe I had the right idea and maybe I didn’t, but if there really was such a thing as simple positivity, I needed to do my part and spread the molecules. A minor act, possibly pointless, but when the night is in full strength and you can see the stars, well, that’s a personal time when you reflect on everything and nothing.
Joshua gave a backwards wave over his shoulder as he stepped off the patio and headed down the driveway. The giant, patient trees lining the concrete lane sighed and rustled gently. They knew so much more than me, and still they stand.
I sat for a minute longer, thinking of the stars and how light can travel so very far.
Then I went back in the house, fired up the laptop, navigated to my hurting friend’s wall, and clicked “like” on everything that I could find. Even some mess about how you can grow marigolds in places that you never thought you could…
General Note: The image, of course, is a painting by Vincent van Gogh. We met in a bar one night during our college years, and he agreed to let me use this image for one of my stories if the writing was just. I hope I kept up my end of the promise.
Personal Note to Christi: This is the one we talked about, some months ago on an equally starry night…
Categories: The Journey