Of all the renewable resources in this world, none is more limitless than sadness in all its many forms. At least, that’s how it seemed to me this morning as I stood on my porch listening to the neighbors arguing in front of their house.
I’d been taking advantage of the quiet early hours of the Sabbath to do some chores which, while simple, were absorbing, so by the time I realized what I was hearing from down the block, the fight was in full swing, at or even a little past its peak. Fights have many trajectories, depending a lot on the style of the combatants, and, though I am expert in this subject, it would just take too long to go over it all. (If you, too, are versed in these things, then you know I am not bullshitting here. Otherwise, please, just trust me on this.)
At any rate, despite the many ways fights can begin and end, there comes a point in pretty much every fight when rational argument has been abandoned and what is going on instead is a kind of frantic call and response of distilled, extra-logical assertion in which the participants basically take turns saying, “I’m right, you’re wrong,” but with diction and pitch designed to cause the most possible pain and suffering to the other participant.
This is where my neighbors had arrived. Here is some of their dialog, reproduced as faithfully as I can, except for ninety percent of the obscenity and with the caveat that “he said” or “she replied” should really read, “he shouted” and “she screamed back at him.” That said, here goes:
“How can you disrespect me like this?” the woman says.
“How can I disrespect you?” the man replies as if this question were barely comprehensible, as if she’d spoken to him in Italian despite the fact that he is French.
“How can you disrespect me like this?” the woman asks again.
“How can you disrespect me?” the man counters with some evident indignation and a barely-concealed need to know.
“Disrespect you?” the woman asks with a laugh. “Can’t disrespect someone who doesn’t respect themselves.”
“Don’t respect myself?” he says, becoming, if possible, less credulous than before.
“That’s right,” the woman says. “You heard me. You’re not deaf.”
“Don’t tell me what I am,” the man responded.
Sensing that this avenue was dry, he quickly embarked on a new line of questioning.
“How can you say I didn’t ask you permission when you saw her there and you knew where I was going and you didn’t say [anything]?”
The woman didn’t seem to follow this any better than I did and for a moment she was nonplussed. The man pressed his advantage.
“You saw her there. You saw her there. You saw her. You saw her.”
The repetition, which looks a little crazy on the page, was just a technique to keep the woman from talking. It’s a stalling tactic at best and after a bit the momentum shifted back to her side and she railed on him a while and then she lost steam and he took up the torch and they went back and forth like this for bit with remarkable energy and dedication.
Just yesterday these neighbors had hosted a gala birthday party complete with streamers and balloons and squirt gun fights and capped off with a big inflatable bouncy house that they’d rented and put up in the side yard. There was music playing and evidence of much cake being eaten and the whole fandango stretched through the afternoon and into the evening. It seemed, from a distance, like an unmitigated success and I had imagined that the child at the center of it must feel on top of the world.
Now, like a supernova collapsing on itself, the glow from that event had been replaced by this void. It was impossible to know what they were fighting about—that is to say, the facts of the matter—anyway it wasn’t about facts anymore, except maybe that some event had tipped the scales. This was about frustration and anger and resentment built up on both sides over time. This was about history, not about right and wrong, and the events of the day before, which has seemed so joyful to me, were only raised as weapons.
“You act like this,” the woman said. “After everything I did for you yesterday.”
“You didn’t do it for me,” the man spat back instantly. “You did it for my daughter.”
I expected this to lead to another round of heavy sparring but instead there was quiet. Point scored, but to what end.
Finally the woman spoke.
“I don’t understand,” she said “how a son could treat his mother this way. You’re a major fucking disappointment.”
“Well you’re no fucking prize as a mother,” he said. “You can believe that.”
To my clinical eye, the fight had presented as a spat between husband and wife—the kind of thing where there was so much energy pushing these people apart you had to assume there was also some strong, invisible bond holding them together or else they wouldn’t bother. I’d assumed the bond was matrimony. Turns out it was birth.
And now he is saying, “That’s it, I’m outta here, I’m gonna take my shit and go,” and she’s saying, “You go, just leave, take your shit and leave.” Seems like all his shit must’ve already been in the yard because there is a brief, almost humorous, discussion about some particular piece of shit—“That’s not yours.” “It isn’t?” “I don’t think so.” “Didn’t I get it that time at the coast?” “Huh, your memory never was any good.”—and then they’re at it again, hammer and tongs.
Where is the daughter during all this? Inside pretending to sleep? Is she alone? Or did a friend stay over, as a concession to a kid who wants to hold on a little longer to the birthday feeling, which is just the feeling of being special in the world. Here today, gone tomorrow.
I remember one night when I was a boy—ten? twelve? fourteen?—waking up in the middle of the night to find my mother on the floor of my room, sobbing. She was half-sitting, half-lying, with her back to me, looking at the bedroom door which was ajar, and a shaft of light came in and fell across her so that she was all darkness and this one stripe of light. Outside my door there was a short hallway and then two steps up to the landing by the front door. My father stood at the top of those steps—I couldn’t see him but I could tell he was there from the sound of his voice as he spoke to her, sometimes pleading to her to come to bed, sometimes rising to argument, sometimes descending into frustrated disgust.
My mother—I don’t remember a thing she said, only that her voice was choked with sadness and bitterness and inconsolation. And in the pauses when no one was speaking, when they each must have been wondering how it came to this, in those moments the silence was frightening, crystalline and complete.
My childhood was wonderful. Me and my dog wandering through the fields and woods of this small town, sailing boats to sandy islands, getting into small scrapes and working out of them. It was like a dream.
In the course of that long dream, I’m sure I must’ve had my share of birthday parties. But I don’t remember a single one of them as well as I remember that night, with my mom huddled by my bed and my dad at the stop of the stairs asking her to come back but somehow unable or unwilling to come down there and get her.
You see, sadness sticks better than happiness. It is easier to make, there are more types of it, it lasts longer and, if you ever think you’re about to run out, just hold on a sec and someone will set you up.
Now, an optimist would stop me right there and point out that one could make the very same claims for joy and happiness and love. And as soon as I meet an optimist, I will put him on the job.
And no sooner have I said this, than here comes an optimist, where I least expected it, bubbling up inside of me. What’s wrong with a little sadness, this optimist says. Isn’t sadness in all its many forms like the shades and hues that, when we have reached the summit and turn to look out, fill the valley with such incredible splendor that we sigh and smile to ourselves and count that mountain well climbed? You know, I’m not sure I’m entirely down with telling your mother she’s “no fucking prize” but there is something to be said for the seasoning that some darker thought can bring to life’s pie.
In fact, that something has been said, pretty much beautifully and perfectly, by our friend in literature, Mr. Robert Frost, in a poem I’ll share with you here, despite the breech of copyright law this represents.
But first I have to remind you of the story of the Yankee farmer who was approached in his field by a surveyor from the city who wanted to know if he could help find a particular boundary marker. The farmer cut a diving rod from a willow branch and in short order found the stone marker under a bush by a stream.
The grateful surveyor said, “Send me the bill.”
The farmer said, “That’ll be two hundred and fifty dollars.”
“Why so much?” the surveyor asked.
“Fifty dollars for finding it,” the farmer said. “Two hundred dollars for knowing where it was.”
Now, here’s your poem:
Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air
That crossed me from sweet things,
The flow of—was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Down hill at dusk?
I had the swirl and ache
From sprays of honeysuckle
That when they're gathered shake
Dew on the knuckle.
I craved strong sweets, but those
Seemed strong when I was young;
The petal of the rose
It was that stung.
Now no joy but lacks salt
That is not dashed with pain
And weariness and fault;
I crave the stain
Of tears, the aftermark
Of almost too much love,
The sweet of bitter bark
And burning clove.
When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,
The hurt is not enough:
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length.