There are marvelous things about being on the road. There are the reminders that the world’s a big place, that humans are a disparate lot, that life’s not long, that you’re often older than you think you are, that being right is more a coincidence than a plan, that being in the right place is at least as good as being right, that ‘timing’ is God’s middle name sometimes, God’s middle finger other times. It depends on severity, and on how you are with happenstance. The carbon complicates things, so it’s a lot of work to make sure that a trip comes close to balancing out. Sometimes it seems to, but it needs the work.
Planes are places where some movies go to eke out an existence, I suppose. That’s what I’ve noticed. On the plane to Europe I watched one about Mr. Rogers, the American children’s entertainer. I didn’t grow up with him, nor did my kids, so I was surprised by how quietly arresting his affirmations were, how feeble were my defences against them. His tangle with sneering adversity was strangely clarifying. Not what I expected. I expected not to like it at all. In an earlier incarnation, I probably wouldn’t have.
Without the plane I wouldn’t have seen it. I wasn’t surprised to see that he liked to swim lengths, though. I knew that first hand. We had, it turned out, a friend in common, who called me on his behalf. He was on the road, and could he come over? He swam lengths in my pool, years ago when I had a pool and a job to go with it. He did so in a Speedo, which I didn’t expect at all, for some reason. Mr. Rogers, in a Speedo, in my pool. I watched for a minute, just to make sure the whole thing was happening, then turned away to give him his privacy. He was a good swimmer. All of that came flooding back, 37K feet above the fray. God’s middle name, in this case. I think the event impresses my kids more now than it did then.
On the same trip I attended a screening of Griefwalker in Athens, with Greek subtitles. It happened in an old textile plant, with extremely funky vibes and an off-kilter smokestack that rivalled that lean on the tower in Pisa. I’d never worked in Greece, so the sold out house was totally unexpected. Some movies work out that way for a while.
The a/c was so loud that the management decided to forgo it in favour of being able to hear the film. This was mid-June, on an eastern Mediterranean summer evening. Fifteen minutes into things we got a message from somebody in the theatre: it was too hot, people were going to rebel. They opened a couple of doors, which couldn’t have changed much. Nobody left. Nobody left the q/a afterwards, or almost nobody. It was a spirited evening, and the adversity turned into an ennobling detail. We shut down the formal q/a, and lots of people still wanted to talk. They wanted me to talk, technically. A young woman, maybe early twenties, was looking at me particularly fiercely. “I have a short question”, she said through her translator friend. “It isn’t death that gets me. I’m not afraid to die.” When people say things like that, it’s usually because they haven’t been too close to it, and are nursing a bravado that will be sorely tested later on. That’s not what I saw in her face, though. There was forlorn intensity, something like defeat, something like a dare. “I’m afraid to live”, she said.
Waves of young people at these events on the other side of the world – on this side, too – not knowing how the whole thing’s going to shake out, hoping against hope that somebody might know, somebody who can translate grief until it’s another reason to live, somebody older. They’re hoping that they can trade all the evidence and the misanthropy it supports and the ‘God’s middle finger’ of it all for a little breathing room, a sense that it’s still worth trying. It’s an honour of a kind to be apprised of such things, an honour to be asked. A harrowing honour. For which there is no preparation. The film’s called Griefwalker, after all. Not We’ll See. It’s a fair caution to issue.
For sheer sorrow, the Greek story weighs heavy on the psyche, as Greek stories have done over the centuries, while the swimming story sort of breezes along. On the surface it’s hard to know if these two vignettes belong in the same day, the same era. But I’m guessing Mr. Roger’s life affirmations didn’t come from having an easy ride as a younger person. Things going well don’t bring those sorts of things on. Which is why our little corner of the world, with top marks in most public health protocols and health care access, can’t manage much engaged, responsive, citizenship sanity to go with our health.
Between these columns of affirmation and bad advice we sail the skiff of our little lives. Between the pillars of defiance and defeat we stagger, and we meet and, on the good days, we work.
Founder of Orphan Wisdom