On the John
When nothing can be done.
Originally completed May 20, 2009
You’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art, because it’s real difficult in life.
——Woody Allen, Annie Hall
Life has a way of getting realer in a hurry.
What’s sneaky is the way it happens.
You read about plane crashes and mass shootings, or someone you know has a friend your age who suddenly drops from a heart attack, and you say “Alright. Be ready.” You prepare yourself for what you think is the worst, and you build your strength and create your armor. You will surely be ready. Only the prepared-for worst never comes, and what attacks instead is something you could never anticipate, and now you’re reeling because all that time you were keeping the worst contained in a box, so you could study it and loom over it and make yourself believe, “No matter when it happens, it’s still just this thing. It cannot hurt me. I am ready.”
…but the thing in the box just sits there, staring at you, and during all that time you spent preparing to be prepared, the real danger was growing, unseen, and then it clobbers you, and that’s all she wrote.
You think you’re strong. Or, fine: you know you’re strong. And your strength is supposed to save you. You say, “I can handle it. I can outlast it. I am strong enough to meet this. I will make this work.” For a while, you seem to be right. You see the path to victory. It is obvious and it is clear. If it were only up to you, triumph would be assured. And they teach you to work hard, to do your best, because as long as you do that, you will have no regrets. But they have forgotten: there is more than just regret.
Because sometimes you take full control of that within your control, and still nothing works. In writing, you sit at your desk and craft your story. If you are good enough, and if you work hard enough, and if the story is there to be told, then you tell it, and it is good. In sports, you work on your foul shooting, on your putting, on your infielding and your catching. You hone and you practice, and should you be defeated, it is disappointing but acceptable, because sports is a competition and someone else was better. You have put in the work, made no mistakes, and yet you lose, so it is a question of natural-born talent. There was nothing you could do.
In sports, maybe you can live with that.
In life, though, there may not always be solace in ‘nothing I could have done.’ Especially if you pride yourself on the ability to mend relationships, to enable bickering friends to find common ground, to be patient with a person’s shortcomings, to aid in the understanding of people. You say, “If I just give a little more love, grant a bit more freedom, listen like I wish to be listened, this person will come around.” But the person is not a story to be written. They are writing their own story that might not jive with yours. And the person is not a trophy to be captured, and you end up feeling as if you battled hard, played by the rules, won the game, yet were artificially declared the loser.
And that’s what was sneaking up while you were staring at that box. If natural talent is what matters, you can live with that, and if you lose a fair fight, you can live with that, and if feelings evolve to a point in which there is no mutual desire for connection, you can live with that too. Because they taught you that if hard work and preparation does not achieve your desired end, then there was nothing you could do and that’s just the way things go. That all is well. But they have forgotten: ‘nothing you could do’ and ‘just the way things go’ are, sometimes, the most painful defeats of all.
And you spend your life preparing for that plane crash or that heart attack, getting your ducks in a row, and instead you are sideswiped by someone else’s happiness or someone else’s misfortune or someone else’s carelessness. You have prepared yourself: “If it doesn’t work out, it will be because ‘it was not meant to be,’ and you’ll know it and I’ll know it and we both can live with that.” But what if ‘it was not meant to be’ takes the form of ‘it was meant to be, but someone else fucked it up?’
I am talking to you now.
In your way, you have been one of my greatest friends, and for that I will always be grateful. And even when your friendship was not perfect, your support of my work always was. You were one of my best readers, an ear whenever I was ready to share, an encouraging audience from start to close. Seeing your smile as I read you my latest always brought one of my own, and it was those times that were quite possibly the essence of what made us great.
Where will the story go from here? I cannot say. Knowing how it has already gone, I fight the urge to declare, “It is over.” You will make it work for you and I will do the same, and the path we thought we were traveling will close like another folded piece of paper, and where we end will become where we were always going. Never say never say never…maybe you always knew where this was headed, but it’s been a surprise to me.
I know this hasn’t been my clearest piece of writing. My mind is not in its clearest place. We cannot make another’s decisions. We cannot always change the blowing wind. Sometimes we can do nothing more than keep on with our writing. So here it is, for you more than anyone else, and I hope that even at its saddest point, it made you smile.
Copyright 2009, jm silverstein