Only Connect


I had been meaning to write about something else, but recent loss had refocused my thoughts to where they might more appropriately have been in the first place – because our affectionate connections are all that matters. (Peggy Lee wants to know, “is that all there is?” and I reply, “yes, and it is enough!”) The title phrase (“Only Connect”) is from E. M. Forster’s gravestone. He had found the secret, and had it engraved as his exit line.

When I review the list of other ideas that have most deeply affected me, I am surprised at how many touch this thread:

From The Who’s “Tommy”:  “See me.  Feel me.  Touch me. Heal me…” 

And Walt Whitman’s lonely, patient spider: “Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, – seeking the spheres, to connect them; / Till the bridge you will need, be form’d – till the ductile anchor hold; / Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.”

This idea became Jess Lair’s guiding light: “What are some of the discoveries I have made? I found I needed people because I needed the love they could give me. I found that love was something I did. I found that the way I showed people my need and love for them was to tell how it was with me in my deepest heart. I came to feel that was the most loving thing I could do for anyone – tell them how it was with me and share my imperfections with them. When I did this, most people came back at me with what was deep within them. This was love coming to me. And the more I had coming to me, the more I had to give away. I ain’t much, baby – but I’m all I’ve got [his famous book’s title].”

Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” is really about this connecting: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…” (It’s a good poem, filled also with sly humor.) And I’ve whole-heartedly absorbed for myself a concept from Gunter Grass – “Peeling the Onion,” the title of his memoir. First the onion:

In transcribing conversations with myself, I have more than once written, “Once again it’s all about you, isn’t it?” And my reply is that it absolutely must be, at least as a starting point, because I have to find out first what’s true for me, and then “contrast and compare,” often with someone else sharing her or his own discovered, and hard-won, truth – exactly as Lair suggested.

I used to say that this required brutal honesty – this onion peeling. And perhaps it does, for the outer layers. But if I am deeply honest, the only way I can get near the marrow is with the utmost tenderness. There may be terrible open wounds there, which have never before been exposed to the light. Then there will be pain. That’s why it’s rarely done.

In “Mending Wall” Frost is poking his neighbor for so smugly repeating his father’s dictum, unexamined – “good fences make good neighbors.” Frost imagines that before he built a wall he’d want to know what he’s walling in, and walling out, and who might be injured by it. My own quest, since I reached some understanding of the human predicament, is to persuade some people to let me over their walls, to simply connect.

This happens when I sense that someone I would like to know better is hiding. There are innumerable reasons for people’s hiding. We know what they are; they don’t need repeating. They are usually regrettable reasons, and sad, but I often feel that it would be futile to try to breach them. To permit one into the inner sanctum requires trust. Some are born apprehensive. Some have had trust burned out of them. I know.

When I was fourteen I was working in the kitchen of a summer camp. Someone discovered that I had learned to play a tune by bonking a wooden spoon on a set of inverted metal water pitchers. On rainy days the routine was to gather the campers in the dining hall and entertain them with whatever foolery came to hand. I was persuaded one day to play the pitchers.

I was extremely reluctant to do it, but eventually believed that I couldn’t avoid it; so I played those pitchers while managing not to be seen – by ducking down behind them so that I was invisible, like a puppeteer. A boy with “issues”! More bluntly, I had become by then emotionally crippled. I began my slow turning, some time not long after that. But any psychologist will tell you that a turn begun that late will never be completed. By middle age I thought I had changed so much that soon I would be totally better. More silliness.

 Iimagine everyone carries their early imperfections somewhere inside. I call mine my demon, or my little voice, reminding me that I’m not a worthwhile person. (“You’re no good, and you know it.”) He stays surprisingly near the surface, and is far too easily urged back to action. I find that I’m eternally at war with him, trying to drown him while he vigorously resists. (Are there people who never have this fight? Are you one? I’m extremely interested in knowing.)

The Brits have a put-down: “She’s no better than she should be.” Taken literally, it can’t be understood. What it means is “she’s got too big for her britches, but she doesn’t fool me.” Someone like me – suspecting sometimes that I am an imposter masquerading as someone worthwhile, but at bottom knowing better – fears being discovered. “Uncovered” is a better word because it implies exposure, and shame.

 am exploring these parts of myself because it’s the only hope I have of understanding why others hide. Sometimes I get impatient with both myself and them, and will mock both of us. The demand is to “man up!” and is just more macho crap, which keeps us from the difficult work of trying to understand complexity – and harder still, to admit our fear.

I remember once being critical of Don McLean, in his song “Crossroads,” when he pleads, “Can you find my pain? Can you heal it?” My complaint was that he hoped someone else could do what only he must do in the end. I still think this, but realize now that the compassionate component was missing in my “man up” expectation. At bottom we do, indeed, need someone to lean on. It’s OK.

I think this softening coincided with my getting a more balanced perspective on my own past. The Shaker hymn comes to me again: “by turning, turning, to come down right” – at last. I used to stop myself from feeling compassion for the little kid I once was, from whom hope had fled, because I knew I couldn’t use that for an excuse for not trying as hard as I was able to, to find healing, and to get past it. I thought of it as whining.

But now that I’m old, I find a necessary place for sympathy for the lost kid. I no longer need to be tough. I need to find the sweet spot, the harmonious center. My earlier stance was arrogant, and could have led me to expect other people to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” which is often terribly unreasonable. Nasty, even. We can’t do it alone, and we don’t. And I didn’t.

I have known for a long time now that when I have run and hidden, though, I must for my own sake evict myself from my hiding place. (Hiding is an achingly lonely business. I did it for years.) If the Black Dog has seized me, this evicting is very hard. But if I put myself in a place where the jolly person in me is called forth – with my granddaughter Evie, for example – it will help me restore my equilibrium. “Behaving as though makes it so.” Some famous person must have said that. Maybe me.

I ask myself whether all this skritch-scratching is just petulant narcissism. But no, I think it a necessary admission of vulnerability, in order to carefully peel another layer of the onion. If I must settle (and I must) for never eliminating my self-doubt, can I nevertheless hope to get to the center of the onion? Is it possible for anyone?

I remember when I was young, sitting in a pew in the Baptist church, when the preacher would say “let me leave you with this.” I’d perk up. The old wind-bag was about to run out of wind. Well, I’ll leave you with Karen Armstrong’s story, vastly abbreviated: She was a nun. She confronted herself when she realized she was shoving her mind into channels in which it did not naturally flow, so she opted out of nunning and re-calibrated her life. Now she’s mainlining on the idea of shared compassion among all persuasions, and I’m listening intently. I think she may have struck the mother lode. Worth a look. Guaranteed.

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Something there is that doesn’t love a wall; that wants it down.

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