Gary wearing all his hats at once. He posed.

. . . it woulda’ bit’cha.”

When there was a break in the weather, we walked north, our usual direction. There was sand, but on our way out we were mostly in the rocks at the eastern edge, picking up trash. I found the hilt of a plastic knife and then the sheath. Gary found a stainless steel serving spoon. Other than that we bagged the typical mix of plastic rope trimmings, broken food container lids, candy bar wrappers, bottle caps, valves and fireworks debris, squashed polystyrene foam, shattered straws, and mysterious thick nylon chunks probably once part of shipping containers. Colorless, white, purple, faded red, blue, green, and yellow bits and pieces.

Two pieces of Mt. St. Helen’s pumice. A handful of agates. An ugly-clam shell (which is beautiful). No glass.

Tammy waved from her solitary walk in the opposite direction.

Just before I got to the creek, Charlie ran right to me and allowed I should scratch his back and ears. Then he greeted Gary. This was a rare treat for me, since Gary greets all dogs with, “Hello, pup!” and they generally go to him first. We stood, five locals—counting the dog, because the dog does count—on the sand and chatted. We made a tentative coffee date after New Year’s with his people.

We walked home on the sand. A chaise lounge has been stuck at the tideline for a week now. I think it blew off a deck and wonder if the owners haven’t been here, failed to notice it was missing, or believe it has been stolen. Gary is beginning to wonder if it washed onshore. If it’s still there next year, he says he’s going to use it to haul home a piece of driftwood he’s been eyeing.

Last week our tenant told us that our neighbor John was taken to the hospital. By the time we heard about it the next day, he’d had a pacemaker installed, and the morning we were talking about walking over to see him—Would he feel well enough to come to the door? Would he even hear the bell?—he showed up here. We had a gift ready for him and the three of us sat in the living room with the fire in the stove and talked for a long time. Just like last year. Except John has a tiny device on his upper left chest that prevents his heart from taking a break. He told us all about that.

Inevitably, Gary retrieved a bit of plastic I didn’t notice this morning, though I nearly trod on it. A few days ago, I picked up a bit of bottle green sea glass right beside where Gary had put his foot. Right in front of our house. We cross the same ground but see different things.

Isn’t that how it is for everyone? Even side by side, we see something different. We see a storm bigger than anything, but we are safe indoors and no pet is cowering under the bed, which means it’s a different experience from Eva and Marsha’s. We watched the high waves roar up our path, almost to the garden gate, but that is nothing like being drenched to the waist, hanging on for dear life because we were on the beach. We watched safely from indoors.

Sometimes reality is too much to bear.

Two children died in the past week while in ICE custody. Children. That is no joke. Even Fox News is upset. Felipe and Jakelin had families who loved them. The U.S. has about 15,000 migrant children in custody, often removed from their parents’ custody after crossing the border with Mexico. “The average length of stay for a child detained ranges from 100 to 240 days, and these children are often held far from family members and without legal representation.” They are being kept, often without proper identification necessary to reunite them with family later, and almost never without proper housing and other childcare available.

The two little children who died were both fleeing potentially lethal threats in their home country. Guatemala is a nation with a brutal recent history, a history the U.S. has a part in. They had traveled, mostly on foot, over a thousand miles to gain safety. They did not find it.

My great grandmother Rosa came here to marry and then had to support her children when her husband was imprisoned. My grandfather came from England to make a new life. One of Gary’s ancestors fled Sweden to Finland, and from there to America. Some of our relatives have been here during the past couple of centuries. Some came more recently to make better lives and to escape political persecution.

I am reading novelist Kent Haruf and he reminds me that life is often harder than we might wish, that some good people are ground up and cast away.

Homeless men always came up to Gary on First Avenue when we were visiting pawn shops to look at guitars. That was a very long time ago when we were young, in college, and on our way toward a better life. The homeless were generally much older and had harder lives than we could imagine. Most people walked right past them without looking, but Gary gave them his full attention. Gary always had a few coins for them, but more important, he listened to their stories. These men were often displaced, often veterans, sometimes from the war our fathers fought in, sometimes from the war he did not. They always thanked Gary for listening to their stories, for asking questions. They nodded to me, and went on their way. There was no harm in them, but often harm had been done to them.

Everything that matters is not about money or about winning and losing. And what costs little kindness? Who wins . . .

My husband and I have been blessed this holiday to have health and family and friends and neighbors. We have peace in our country and food and a comfortable home. There is suffering all around us in the world, and we recognize we have done little to deserve our good fortune. We don’t deserve it, however grateful we are to have it.

A step to either side, an accident of birth, an error of judgement, might have made our lives quite different.

When I was young, the new idea was that human beings, as animals, were all about competition, about being the strongest, about beating out those competing for limited resources. A few decades later, I read a careful study by an evolutionary biologist who details the evidence that altruism—self sacrifice—is likely an inherited trait. “The Selfless Gene” by Olivia Judson (of Stanford and Oxford) talks back to that earlier popular understanding of human nature. Far from being selfish and brutal animals, we have survived because we are willing to do for others. Sailers give their seats in lifeboats to passengers. A philosopher dies rescuing a drowning child she is not even related to. It is not merely heroic, but in our nature. And this is true not only for human beings, but for other life forms too, from amebae to baboons. We survive because it is instinctive to care for others.

It is possible to see life merely as a battle ground, but when we have the choice, we are better than that. I prefer to see my life as something better, as an opportunity. And lucky. I am grateful for my luck. I am grateful for a life of hard work and attention.




One thought on ““IF IT BEEN A SNAKE . . .

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