A friend suggested I post this entry from my FB page, written to attempt to answer the question of why I write. Everyone’s reasons are different, but this is as good as any I’ve come up with:
The gift, or perhaps compulsion, for writing, comes from a willingness to dig for harsh truths and record every element of them, and then regurgitate them in a way that may be uncomfortable, but is interesting, or even horrifying, whether in fiction, or non.
As an example, I sat in a gelato store yesterday evening, and an elderly gentleman with a bald pate but long angel’s wings of silver-white hair on either side of his head slowly walked to the counter as I ate my treat, and paid for a single scoop of gelato in a cone. I noted that his blue blazer, while old, was an obviously expensive cut from a bygone era, the lapels hand stitched, and his gray wool slacks well cared for. His leather shoes were at one time pricey, but were splitting at the seams, the heels worn down and toes scuffed, betraying the ravages of time. I watched as he shambled from the cashier to the counter, placed his order in an inaudible murmur, and then sat a few tables from me, obviously struggling to manage the spoon and the gelato, but also all dressed up to do so.
My heart broke. Being a writer, I conjured up instant possibilities – is he an eccentric millionaire and this is his guilty pleasure? Was that his last dollar and he is returning to his home he’s lived in for seventy years, his last joy a bite of gelato before he ends it all? Or does he live in a doorway, and this is his bid for humanity, if only slight. Is he a widower, and is this his window into the world of the living, for which formal attire is preferred? Or perhaps he’s one of the last living Nazi monsters, comfortably ensconced in Argentina, his cataract glazed eyes replaying his atrocities with every blink?
He dropped the cone with a plop on the floor about halfway through his one scoop, and looked around in embarrassment before scraping it up and tossing it into the garbage. Nobody else saw but me, out of the corner of my eye. He rose, brushed off his threadbare slacks, and left without a word. He didn’t glance at the cashier to perhaps buy another one. He recognized the finality of gravity’s work, and left as quietly as he had come.
I seriously considered going after him and buying him another cone, but didn’t. Why? There was a pride, a frail, birdlike poise to the way he squared his ancient shoulders, even in defeat, and left without attracting attention, as though he was making the best of what he had to work with. Who was I to intrude on his life, his drama, his experience, playing some sort of fat, privileged demi-god of gelato, thinking my overture would change anything other than to impose my existence into his life, and possibly remind him of his own failings, his own inability to buy as many gelatos as he wished, for those with whom he felt empathy? Or to make him uncomfortable because he perhaps could buy the whole town gelato, but carefully compartmentalized his ritual to only one scoop, one time, and the chips fall where they may. Worse, what if that was the last few dimes he had collected, and he’d saved them sedulously, only to watch their worth splat in a gelatinous glob on the floor? And I would then cheapen that by making it all as though it had never happened, with a “ha ha ha, think nothing of it, here are a few coins, mere trinkets hardly worth consideration?” I both desperately wanted to make his immediate reality better, to show him, hey, see, I got your gelato back, but feared the ramifications of even that smallest of kindnesses, for which I am the poorer for my inaction.
The problem with connectedness is you feel the joy, as well as the pain, and mostly the aimless futility, because it all seems so hollow and pointless much of the time, and it usually is, except for the doing, and even that is questionable. So your instinct is to want to soften that discomfort for others, and yet in doing so, you’re also reducing the authenticity of their experience, and injecting your perspective into their struggle, sometimes for good, sometimes with poor results. An easy way to frame it is trying to soften the blows for your kids, and yet robbing them of the pain that is life’s way of teaching them lessons they must learn to survive and prosper.
But what I do know is that my humanity, that kernel of sentience that’s resisted the caustic ravages of the world to this point, resonates with others at the oddest of times, be they dogs, cats, humans, bugs; and wishes that all of them could have just a brief sojourn from the norm, in a good way. Then back to spiders eating flies, and puppies being collected and gassed or tortured by street kids, and stoned punks roaming streets looking for easier duty than working. For my one divine moment, we would all be sitting with full cones of gelato, savoring that beat in time – puppies in our well groomed laps, their fur stroked by healing hands – with one collective, appreciative, sigh.