Monday, December 21, 2009

The Sparrow's Fall

Today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. For millennia, people have celebrated this liminal time with festivals of light, anticipating the year's rebirth and the renewal of community. It's a gloomy time, especially in northern climes. We need light, and hope. Most of all, we need compassion. Because this season can be a real downer.

Heads up: this post isn't about Romeo and Juliet. It's about King Lear, sort of. Actually it's about the kinds of things that can happen to people in this life. I'm not a preachy person, usually. In fact, never. I'm not going to preach now. I'm just going to tell a story, because I have to. 

Yesterday I was trolling the web, looking for a lost soul. I look for him every few months, ever since he went dark about five years ago. We were once friends, a lifetime ago. More than friends, really. But it's been twenty-five years since then. I want--need--to tell you about this guy. He could fix anything. I mean anything--a toaster, a car, an air conditioner. He never saw any sense in throwing things away, because he could always solder a wire, or replace a spring, and the damned thing was as good as new. That was long before it became cool to recycle, mind you. He built his own sound systems, and they sounded like nothing you've ever heard. Frank Zappa, Bach, Sonny Rollins--they all sounded like music from some celestial sphere. I am not kidding--I've never heard a stereo sound like that. It was the tubes, he'd say. Much better sound than transistors. He had the greenest thumb of anyone I've ever seen. He made our garden into an organic paradise. He was funny as hell--I remember we laughed so hard our stomachs hurt. He was ethical and compassionate--they aren't always the same, but he was both. He liked cats. He argued politics with the Socialist Workers who knocked on our door, and the Young Republicans, too. He was a great debater--never personal, never mean. Just smart, incisive, and witty. He worked as a janitor and a short-order cook to help put me through college. In fact, he was one of the hardest-working people I've ever known. He could flip an omelet high in the air, and it landed perfectly every time. He could make a soup out of whatever was in your fridge and cabinet. He loved baseball, because he was from a baseball town.

After we split up, way back in the early 80's, we stayed friends. He had some rough times, went back to grad school, became a social worker. He was a caseworker in some of the scariest neighborhoods you could imagine. He was brave, and cared way too much about things.

So yesterday I finally found him. Did you know that a homeless person can go to a public library, use its computers, and actually maintain a blog? For real. O brave new world, right? But a homeless person where he lives, in one of the richest states in the country, has to sleep in the rain. No shelters in his part of the Golden State.

I read his blog, and I'll say only this. People who care too much, but have no family or people to care about them, often break. Then they become the kind of people you cross the street to avoid. They talk to themselves, and they have weird, irrational ideas about things. They don't bathe as much as they should, because they can't. And we look away, because they're scary. When we see someone reduced to that, we hurry to reassure ourselves that we're different. We're clean, and we have houses, and people who love us. We're not that guy. He must have done something wrong to end up like that.

He didn't. I won't violate his privacy by saying any more--you'll just have to take my word for it. He didn't. He just fell.

Hamlet says that "there's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow." He's alluding to Matthew 10:29--"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father's will."  Both passages are about divine providence, but that's not an idea I'm comfortable with, so I'm going to stick with the basic human point. Sparrows fall. Maybe there's a divinity that shapes our ends--and the ends of sparrows--or maybe there's a divinity that lets us rough-hew them as we will. Maybe there's something else that we haven't yet conceived of. But when a sparrow falls, something is lost.

I've mentioned several times in passing that Antony and Cleopatra is my favorite of Will's plays. But if I had to pick one, just one, that the world needs to read, and see, and think about, it would be King Lear. Lear was once a king--spoiled, selfish, arrogant. Then the world turns upside down, and he's a homeless nobody, railing at fate, his daughters, and the gods. And finally, he's human being:

This tempest will not give me leave to ponder
On things that would hurt me more.  But I'll go in.
[to the Fool] In, boy; go first. You houseless poverty--
Nay, get thee in. I'll pray, and then I'll sleep.
Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

I love this speech. It's so simple, and so humane. I'm going to be thinking about it a lot this season.

I said I wouldn't preach, and I won't. But I would ask a favor. Next time you see one of those people, looped and windowed in raggedness, entertain for a moment the idea that once they may have been brilliant, and gifted, and never ever lazy. Once they might have been able to take apart an engine or make a stereo sing like the angels.They might have made someone laugh so hard her stomach hurt.

Okay, that was a little preachy. Forgive me, but I had to.

Happy Solstice, Merry Christmas. Keep warm.


  1. This is the saddest thing I've encountered in years. I don't quite know what to do, either--I've written a comment on his blog, but probably he won't reply. Once I had a teacher who said that the definition of tragedy was when the people who are most worthy are somehow banished from society. This is one of those cases, and it just breaks my heart.

  2. Such a poignant post - heartfelt, amazing to read. Thanks for sharing that.