While laying in bed one morning I watched a spider ascend a bit of nothing. When I stood up the spider disappeared as if the spiders’ existence was contingent upon observation. Often attention is what brings relationships to life. The person who was in front of you become a friend because you notice or recognize something within them that they may or may not see.
It is strange how fragile relationships are. It takes so little for them to disappear and often there is no easy answer to why they cease. This was true before the quarantine, but it is a time that seems to have either accelerated this dynamic or pulled people closer. There is a threshold on the emotional energy levels required to maintain and sustain relationships.
I write about friendship often here because it has sustained me through bad seasons. As I have gotten older it has become more difficult to find and keep connections with people. Often the events that I reference come from years ago and while they are still part of my reality and frame the way that I see, the more you write about a subject, the more removed that you can get from the reality of living it. This is as true when you write about friends as it is when you write about God.
In writing about all of the things that spin around a crisis, the thing that persists is the strange beauty of the threads that hold people together despite all of the limits of communication.
A friend moved and I miss her because she was the voice that held up the dining room table. She gave us space to laugh at ourselves. It is good to have good food, but it is better to share good food. It is good to sit with a friend making sticker puzzles of birds as a respite from the barrage of everyday horror. It is good for the soul to be with people who can see around the worst of what you see in yourself.
Another friend dropped off a yellow plastic crate of painting materials because he thought there might be something that I could use in the collection. When I returned to drop off the supplies that I couldn’t use his son answered the door dressed as a fuzzy yellow chicken, said “hi”, and immediately closed the door. I dropped off a crate of poisonous chemicals and he gave me a bunch of fresh vegetables from the quarantine garden that he grew out back with the kids and a small fuzzy chicken this year.
A week ago a friend sent a poem about a healthy cardinal feeding another injured cardinal. It was connected to a conversation that we had earlier in the week about watching birds in the back yard, about how being trapped at home transformed simple things into a source of hope. We talked about their decision to buy a dog while sitting outside of the town hall building struggling to hear one another through masks and over echoing construction sounds. Eventually, we turned to comment on the people walking by with dogs. Part of the ritual of this spring was delivering beer to their home. The beer was made by one friend to be delivered to another. It was one of the few interactions that we had. The brief conversations standing outside while dropping off growlers of IPA that were still wet from sanitizer.
We received a video last week of a friend playing Auld Lang Syne on a ukulele in the back yard, before she started playing she politely announced, “and now I am going to play the song.” It was wholesome in a way that is true to character. She carries a sincere, unforced kindness that makes me wish that I was a more gentle person.
This evening we met a group of friends outside until the long gaps in our conversation were filled with crickets and fighting squirrels in the giant shadows of trees much older than us. We were once a Bible study group and now we are tired people in the park trying to survive. All suspended over various points of transition on invisible threads. I’m not sure that it was any different before. We just had more energy to make light of it. One of my friends joked about running down the street on fire and screaming, I mentioned that he would probably gain a following. It can be the weekly running-while-screaming-and-on-fire group. Before we left that night a friend gave me a small pink container of melatonin pills because I had mentioned having difficulty sleeping. It was thoughtful and kind in a time when it is difficult to remember to be both of those things.
I can’t remember all of the news. It was mostly dreadful, continuous sickening noise. All bullies are boring and noisy in the same predictable ways. I become predicably smaller when I try to use cruelty to control people. The ways that people care for one another are beautiful, diverse, and unique to the individual. They take on surprising forms from nerdy conversations about synthesizers to an offering of melatonin. We give from what we have to give. It is the vast diversity of generosity offered in what we give to others to make their lives less difficult that will continue after us. The tyrants always look the same, they tell the same lies in the same way. The pain and the loss are tools we use to connect to one another. The attention to the pain of another person can bring meaning and hope to your life that wasn’t there before. What another person will or can become is always and will always be a mystery, we are nothing if not unpredictable to both ourselves and others.
Maybe I am broken in my attention? I am not an optimist, but a foolish joy can come from nothing just like the lilac tree exploded with flowers just as we were being locked in our home this spring. All real joy is a disruption, it cannot be prescribed, it just occurs. You have to be looking in the right direction to catch it. The small observations fix nothing, but the point is not the fixing, both deeply good and horrifying run side by side. There is nothing new about the time that we live though, we just have been given a much more clear vision of that reality. There is no person who was ever all that far from tragedy, we just had more illusions about that distance and what protected us. It is hard to have this much clarity about the realities that have existed around us.
My partner, Grace, hid in a room upstairs and read mysteries to ward off depression while I worked downstairs. As the months went on she sat in a chair on the far side of the table so that she could watch the birds. She would always make me get up from work to look at every single cardinal as if the sighting was an event. I think that holiness might be about attention, about the things just outside of the frame, the people, the way that the sun burns the edges of a plant in the window. It was a seeing ritual and it was the reason that our friend sent us the poem about cardinals later:
AT THE WINTER FEEDER by John Leax
His feather flame doused dull by icy cold,
the cardinal hunched
into the rough, green feeder
but ate no seed.
through binoculars I saw
festered and useless
his beak, broken
at the root
Then two: one blazing, one gray,
rode the swirling weather
into my vision
and lighted at his side.
Unhurried, as if possessing
the patience of God,
they cracked sunflowers
and fed him
beak to wounded beak
Each morning and afternoon
the winter long,
that odd triumvirate,
that trinity of need,
returned and ate
of broken seed.
I can smell the melatonin pills on the nightstand. They smell like chemical strawberries.