Tell Me Something Good
The first cup of coffee. A good joke. The quiet certainty that you’re not alone and that you are loved. Sunrises from behind mountains. Long runs. Chocolate.
My daughter’s teacher called to discuss a classroom display of frustration that didn’t seem to shore up with merely struggling with long division. Something else was bothering her. Something she conceals that builds and builds until she unloads her sublimated wrath on that God awful math. She snapped her pencil and cried and cried and cried some more. Couldn’t be consoled. The teacher took her to a different room until she calmed down.
Movie theaters. Sharp pencils. Finding money in an old jacket. Forgiving. Forgetting. Popcorn.
Autumn explodes in a mad dazzle of fireworks but make no mistake: it’s the finale. It’s already over. And I suppose I keep returning to the metaphor of autumn with the hope of unveiling a graceful end. How, I wonder, can we situate death in a good story that’s beautiful? I have snapped my own share of pencils. It’s inherited. This frustration. These tears. And never knowing for certain what’s really wrong. Math’s giving her a hard time, yes, the teacher said, but she also let it slip that she misses her daddy.
Holding hands. Cherries. Looking up at a blue sky and feeling somehow boundless. Reading. Writing. Old wives’ tales.
To our delighted surprise, we realize that there’s no ultimate distinction between self and other. The painful experience of being-apart is merely a trick of the ego, itself the result of an illusion—some Great Reality mistaking itself for a smaller reality that often takes itself way too seriously. For an I is a you and the rest of it too. Unfortunately, however, our insights into ultimacy are ultimately fleeting. Being so stubbornly subjected to our own subjectivity, we find ourselves frequently lonely, afraid, and frustrated by math. We miss our dads. Will, we ask, these wounds ever mend?
The moon. Bridges. The ecstasy of losing one’s self in reverie. Solitude. Silence. Unagi.
The alcoholism recovery people suggest that we make amends to the people we harmed, which is easy if you stole $500 from your old boss because all you do is pay him back. But how do you make amends to your kids for wrecking their family? How do you put that right? I’m of the mind that it can’t be done, that the most I can do is maintain a vigilant attempt to mend the wound, to heal the separation. And this call from her teacher, this report that my daughter is frustrated and misses her daddy, stirred up—again—the issue of amends.
Smiling monks. Forest paths. The way light and shadow converse in a little girl’s hair. Belly laughs. Cold water. Naps.
An old friend, long dead, once, after vomiting blood for the better part of 45 minutes and collapsing on the bathroom floor, asked me to lay down next to him because he was scared. He shook with delirium tremens and cried and we just laid there, knowing he would die. And then from nowhere he said, “Tell me something good.” I peered into the brown sludge of his hopeless eyes and flashed him a counterfeit smile. “Please,” his voice quivered, “tell me something good.” We’re going to win, I told him. We didn’t.
Old photographs of your grandparents. Ice cream. The windows down in August. Devotion. Prayer. Potato chips.
And so, in addition to seeing her three times a week, to make amends, to keep busy with the work of mending, I commit to calling her on the days I don’t see her, to either see her or talk to her every single day. It’s awkward at first. We are often at a loss for words or she responds to my inquiries with single word answers and I flounder, stutter, stop. Until, as if haunted, I demand without thinking, “Tell me something good.” Silence. “Yes, that’s what we’ll do,” I make it up as I go. “It’s my job to call you, but you need a job too, so your job is to, every single day, tell me something good.” Silence. More silence. And then: I have five Jolly Ranchers.
Five Jolly Ranchers. Friendship bracelets. Indian food. A repaired microscope. Substitute teachers.
Autumn explodes in a mad dazzle of fireworks and—yes—it’s all over (nobody wins), but look at that bloody mess of red, orange, and yellow—gasp! Good things. Not a solution or a cure or an attempt at justification, but there nonetheless, always in all ways. And maybe in spite of the despair and the woe and all our lonely missing being-apart—maybe a way toward the real work of the never-ending mending is in the shared discipline of seeking out good things.