I turned on Gladys Knight last night, and in a white China bowl, mixed krab with cilantro, bread crumbs and eggs according to the recipe my mom emailed me that morning. I chopped avocado and tomatoes for a prawn salad. My brother splish-splashed in the bath down the hall. Emerging red-cheeked and damp-haired, he fried the krab cakes while I spread half an inch of butter on slices of French bread, and whisked olive oil into mustard for the dressing. Glasses of wine in hand, we sat down in front of the TV to feast and watch the movies I’d rented.
Next week, my brother will meet my mom in Portland. He has already shipped most of his belongings back to Oregon with my dad and today is his last day of work here in Buffalo. My mom has left a few books, a mirrored clock, and a few pairs of leggings here. One or both of them may or may not return. They may or may not have to do work on the house in Salem to sell it. They may or may not go through the three storage units full of family furniture, books, dishes, videos, records, clothes, bicycles… My mom may or may not have to sell her customized Honda and her little white T-top. They may or may not have positive or negative encounters with my dad, who may or may not be able to support my mom in the coming months. As the last Buffalo resident, I may or may not have to ship and/or sell everything here, meet them in the Northwest, see them soon, or go back to New York.
The uncertainty we all face is so extreme as to be ridiculous. Yet last night, when we had eaten and drunk a great deal, enjoyed a good movie, and had made our midnight cups of tea, it wasn’t that uncertainty we talked about.
Instead, my brother and I talked about life. Not our life, but Life– that big experience we forget to mention because we’re so busy wondering whether we should take advantage of that electronics sale at Target. He had found a copy of The Anti-Nuclear Handbook on a recent pick up, and read me the first few pages. I told a story I’d read long ago and loved about an anti-nuke protester. After working for some time without drawing attention to the issue, she found herself standing by herself in the rain outside a government building in DC, experiencing a crisis of faith: was it worth this effort? Would anyone ever care? Yet a year or so later she learned that a senator who had previously taken the nuclear question for granted decided to investigate it after seeing a woman standing outside in the rain, by herself, holding this sign. Anything someone cared that much about must be worth researching, he thought. He became an important member of the nuclear debate, because of her.
Then, I said, my coworker just told me a story about a friend of a friend who’s opening a cupcake bakery this weekend. During the election, she made a giant image of Obama out of cupcakes; it garnered international press. The Smithsonian recently brought her down, my coworker said, to make a cupcake picture of Obama and Lincoln; they made it Day One, displayed it Day Two, and visitors ate the cupcakes Day Three.
I don’t really care if it’s cupcakes or a cardboard sign in the rain- I love stories about labors of love that get unexpected attention.
My brother said he had a customer at his store, a polite, well-dressed African gentleman who recently came in asking about vinyl interior paint for his house. Ian showed him what they had, and was astonished that this quiet, difficult-to-understand stranger showed such dignity and treated Ian with such respect. He was just buying paint from some kid, an exchange most people would do without ever really seeing or hearing Ian. But this man did, this man acted as though he had something to learn from even this small purchase at a used construction supply store. After he left, my brother found out from his managers and another customer, who knows the man, that he had been a powerful politician in his native country, before he lost everything and everyone and fled here as a refugee. This woman who told him this, my brother said, is a landlady now and comes in to buy a used A/C or a few lamps… she has a scar across her face and as far as he’s heard indirectly, lost her entire family in doubtlessly horrific ways before coming here. We don’t even know what country. These people live here with whatever kindness and respect they can give themselves and others, and have witnessed personal horror we can’t imagine, lost positions we’ll never even have.
My brother blinked, telling the story, saying, “I don’t know what made me bring that up…”
“Because you’d like to help that man,” I said. “The anti-nuke thing reminded you. It’s idealism.”
So often when my mom and brother and I get together with glasses of wine, we talk and talk about our problems. It’s human nature. We have real, pressing, financial, personal and emotional problems, so we talk about them looking for a solution. But we never really find any.
Last night I knew what I too often forget: I can each only do what needs to be done now. Talking “what if’s” won’t help. A few days before my brother leaves me here in Buffalo to take on as-yet unknown tasks with my mom, I willingly, happily, stepped aside and let my uncertainty, our problems, run past me into the backyard to play. It felt great. To think about other people, bigger issues, larger experiences. Cupcakes, signs in the rain, men with thick accents from countries we couldn’t even find on the map.
Our fears grow tall shadows on the walls at night and grip our hearts so that we cannot even take a step. But if you grab one, you will find it limp and wet.
Pull it out of the washing machine, shake it out, and hang it out to dry. The sun will take care of it. Leave your laundry basket in the grass. Come walk with me- the world is waiting.