Letting go of either/or

My little village in northeastern Pennsylvania has its town meeting on the first Monday of the month. Last week, two women attended in order to complain about the mess surrounding the home of their next-door neighbor.

And they’re right. This man really is a collector of many things and apparently a thrower-away of absolutely nothing. His home is a beaten-up trailer. He has a backhoe, a truck, and the skeleton of a car parked in his tiny yard. There is a dumpster (full) in the driveway and all around it are all manner of things from broken chairs to pieces of lumber to dog toys to old Christmas decorations. He responded to an earlier complaint last year by covering some of the piles with tarps.

After the meeting, I went up to one of the women to commiserate with her. “But,” I said, “he’s really a sweet guy.”

She took offense and started telling me about how much worse his place looks from their upstairs window.

I told her, yes, I can imagine. But when we planted all those new trees in town a few years ago, I said, he went round with us and dug all the holes with his backhoe and didn’t charge a thing.

She retorted that many evil people can fool you into thinking they’re good: Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy.

“He’s a nice guy and he’s a slob,” I said.

She would have none of it, so I finally left the conversation. But, really, we don’t have to choose only one way of looking at anything and forcing all other aspects of that person or place or situation into our particular mold. A clear-cut forest is tragic—and it is beautiful. Ezra Pound was Fascist—and he was a great poet. When you see a raven perch on a tree during your mother’s burial service, it is perfectly okay to feel both joy and horrid grief at the same moment.

We can hold wild contraries in our hands. It’s not always about either/or. And, really, it’s a relief to know that the world and all its parts are so marvelously complex.

Vast Forward!


Splash Action!

To insist on a guarantee that something you do when you set out to do it will be successful is to lop off the wild idea, the blooming vision before it’s formed. What we do matters because we are responsible for living up to our own ideals, whether anyone is watching or not. Whether we will be thanked or not.

Shortly after September 11, I led a ceremony in New York near Ground Zero. It was called Attending the City. Toward the end of it I asked everyone present to commit to making an act of beauty for the city within one week. The things people did were so personal! One woman adopted two cats that had belonged to someone who was killed the World Trade Tower fell. A man baked lasagna and took it to his local firehouse, which had lost several firefighters. A poet who had written a poem about the attack posted it on lampposts all around the city. These people acted because they were moved to do so, without hope of reward, simply because they cared about their city and how it was suffering, and they wanted to cheer it up.

What if, like the splash a pebble makes when it’s tossed into a pond, my actions could be beautiful, bold, and dramatic—whether anyone can imagine its trajectory or not?