I’m driving home with Chris from New England—well, I mean, right now he’s driving, obviously, but you know what I mean. I love watching how the character of the land changes, how I can look out the window and see New England, go to sleep, then wake up some unknown time later and look out and know we’re now in New Jersey. What tips me off exactly? Tree species mix? Soil or rock color? Assuming I’m not imagining it, I’m seeing something that’s different, but I don’t know what it is. I know more than I think I know. Anyway, we’ve had Jimmy Buffet blasting intermittently as we drove, which is always fun, especially when we both sing along. We were doing the same thing on the way up, too, and the song “Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude” came on. I won’t bore you with a full recital—it strikes me that Jimmy Buffet isn’t actually on your list of favorite musicians, and the title kind of says it all, anyway; Buffet’s done a lot of different things in a lot of different places, and the older I get, the more I can relate. “Nothing remains quite the same,” as he says, and certainly I don’t. Visiting campus this week…I’m actually still a student, but my days of taking classes feels like a million years ago.
Change in latitude—northward, specifically, has always been the direction of adventure for me; New England is where I go when I extend myself, when I go exploring. Southward is the direction of return, contraction to the familiar—a sad, but satisfying thing. I know more about certain parts of New England than I do about my own home state. I go there, always, with a sense of excitement. Yet I cling stubbornly to my Delaware driver’s license, even when I’m not actually living there. Delaware is home, and I can’t imagine ever not returning there. These are the two poles of my life; New England and the Mid-Atlantic. I would have liked to have seen you on this week’s quick northward swing, but of course you were otherwise engaged.
I did see snow—it had been predicted, and we brought our snow-shoes so we could take advantage of the flakes. Here, near Assateague, we hardly get any snow, but normally it gets cold and raw for weeks at a time. This year, we’ve hardly gotten winter at all—I understand the campus hasn’t gotten winter, either, except for this weekend. What about where you are—has there been a winter? It’s disorientating, like skipping Saturday for no apparent reason. It’s odd how fragile winter is getting these days, how cold weather, once the annual antithesis of life, has become a symbol, an illusion, of a certain kind of hope. The whole, warm winter, I’ve been complaining loudly; I think somehow that if I do not welcome climate change, it will go away.
My adviser, whom I also saw this week, says the northeast is actually cooling, according to the latest data; the melting ice at the pole is cooling us down, and will continue to do so until the ice finishes melting, when the region will catch up to the rest of the warm planet. He does this sort of thing a lot, and probably on purpose—pokes holes in other people’s neat and simple ideas of what’s going on. I’m not sure how much of this is his fascination with a certain kind of complexity, how much is him being a smart-ass, and how much is his awareness that it was neat and simple ideas about how the world works that got us into this mess in the first place. This particular contrarian complexity is one I have trouble believing, though I’ve never known him to be wrong. I’ve just seen too much weirdly abnormal warmth. But then, if casual observation were reliable for this sort of thing, we wouldn’t need science. You taught me that.
This was the first time I’ve spoken to him as a friend—I had nothing I needed to say this week as his student, but I wanted to say hi. It was an odd conversation, but then he’s an odd man. I say that as a compliment, as I’m too odd myself to use that adjective in any other way. The particular oddness of this conversation…when I was small, I noticed that many of my teachers had what I called “teacher-personalities,” personas that they adopted while teaching that were subtly different from how they were when not at work—if I bumped into one of them at the grocery store, for example. I was fantastically unpopular with other children, so I made a habit of socializing with teachers, but I knew that many of them thought of our friendship as simply a part of their jobs. They weren’t being fake, but they were enacting a role, the role of teacher, and my friendship with the teacher was not necessarily a friendship with the human being underneath. This awareness of mine was why I did not realize until you told me so that you and I were friends for real—that, and I was oblivious, I suppose. You don’t have a separate teacher-persona, I know now. He does, and this week was the first time I’ve ever seen him without it. Unlike my childhood teacher-friends, who were not my friends except at school, I think that as soon as I leave school, my adviser will become my friend. I am his friend already, as I was yours long before I realized you were mine, but since he does have separate personas, I wonder whether, in gaining a friend, I will see my beloved mentor disappear like snow?
My understanding of friendship has changed so much over the years. I used to think it was something one has, some emotional mist that hovers between two people who like each other. In practice, I thought it was mostly something one received, and I’m sure I was a very poor friend as a result. I can’t chalk up my unpopularity entirely to xenophobia and shallowness on the part of other children and teens; we were all immature together. I think now friendship is a thing that one gives. It has its limits and its boundaries, certainly, but as a species of love, it is an act of hand and mind. To some degree, whether casual or lifelong, it is a deliberate orientation towards the other person’s good.
I learned that quite suddenly by doing it one summer years ago. I don’t know why I did it, as I didn’t know what I was doing until it was at least partially done. Call it a prayer answered, if you like, as I recited the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi almost every morning that summer. I gave my friendship to two boys I worked with, and in giving…it was like I became a garden-hose, a conduit for friendship, watering myself by selflessly watering another. One of those friendships drifted apart, but the other is still going. The boy in question, now a man, though almost ten years my junior, is another I compliment by calling odd. He’d laugh to hear me say so, but he belongs on my short list of smartest people I’ve ever met, because of his emotional intelligence. At eighteen years old he was better at loving than I am now. In some ways his mind is more robust than I can imagine. Even when he was diagnosed with an incurable mental illness, he retained the presence of mind, the commitment to sweetness, to ask how I was doing, to ask if I was ok, before he told me that he was not, that his doctors had told him he would never really be ok again.
I don’t know that I believe those doctors. I’ve seen first-hand how narrow is our society’s conception of mind, how “odd” can become “broken” in the eyes of supposed experts, doctors eager to break a mind so they can set it in the proper direction. I don’t deny that my friend needs help, but I have little faith that he will find the help he really needs. As his friend, I’d move Heaven and Earth if I could, to make things right for him, but as his friend I have hardly any power to do anything for him at all. I have no money, no knowledge, no custody, and no influence. Only love.
I was thinking about him an hour or so ago as we drove, as yet another song came on the truck’s CD player, not Jimmy Buffet this time, a song that reminds me of my friend, and always has. The hard, light-hearted beat matched the rhythm of the sun through the snow-covered trees of Route 10 exactly, and the frank simplicity of the lyrics over the complexity of instrumental sound, the repeating line “it’s good to be young and daring,” expressed perfectly the sweet boyishness my friend had when he was eighteen. Schizophrenia is the ultimate hole in anybody’s neat and simple ideas of what’s what. Its reality defeats both despair and hope.
So, unable to think, I watched the snow on the trees, the whiteness painted here with blue shadow and there with lemon sun, clinging to the sides and the tops of the dark trunks and branches, pines and oaks and hemlocks marching up hills and down drainages for mile after mile, the occasional fence holding back inches of accumulated leaves and snow on the uphill side and keeping pace with the car for a while and vanishing, and there, that drainage there, might be the locus of childhoods, animal tracks, warfare, geology, and gone again in a moment as the car speeds by, leaving its fumes behind it in the vast, silent forest I know how to destroy but not how to fix.
I think, sometimes, that to love is to be willing to do anything while remaining aware that there is nothing one can do, no service of the hands and heart that can be simply guaranteed.
Everything I love seems vast and intricate and fragile.