Tuesday, August 2, 2011

All Good People

In late childhood I went through a phase wherein I was obsessed with JFK; at some point I had found an old copy of Life magazine that was dedicated to the Camelot era and I poured through that volume until the pages were smudged and torn. My walls were peppered with photos of the late President and of Jackie O., whose sense of style eluded me (I was, and to this day remain, generally oblivious to style and fashion), and I cried regularly over photos of the graves of their son Patrick, who died in infancy. I read about policy and the crises of his presidency; I studied photographs of the assassination and when I closed my eyes at night, I tried to imagine I was Jackie O, standing aboard Airforce One in a blood-soaked dress, watching the new President take a dreadful oath. I was enthralled by the pageantry but in retrospect I think it was the lack of cynicism that I was most attracted to--their goodness seemed palpable, indisputable. All you had to do was study the looks on the faces of the mourners who were photographed in the hours and days after the assassination to know, with certainty, that JFK was a good President, a good husband and father, a good man.

Of course I had read the nonsense about his philandering. I can't remember if it didn't seem important at the time, or if I didn't understand it, or if I chose to ignore it so as not to disturb the fantasy, but for whatever reason, these trespasses did not disrupt my fantasy. From a young age I'd always been comfortable with moral ambiguity. I remember a bedtime conversation with my mother about someone who'd hurt my feelings at school; I distinctly remember saying something along the lines of "I don't think there is such a thing as a bad person, only people who do bad things."

I still believe this to be true, though distinctions tend to gain importance as we age, don't they? As children we're permitted a non-judgmental stance; as adults we're expected to have opinions, to take stands and sides and positions. Those of us who are more comfortable in the grey area are thought of as wishy-washy. There's a line in a song I love: I see that there is evil/And I know that there is good/But the in-betweens I've never understood. The lyrics are catchy but the sensibility is opposite my own; the in-betweens have always made more sense to me than the poles.

But here's the rub: I'm surrounded by good people. Not just good enough, as in never killed or maimed anyone, but straight up amazing, off-the-charts awesome. My husband's grandmother died a few weeks ago, just shy of her 93rd birthday, and at her funeral we heard stories about the clothes and costumes she sewed for her children and their friends, the wedding cakes she made (in her spare time), the ferris wheel my husband's grandfather built for the 4 kids in the backyard of their home in Luling. Another funeral I attended back in the Spring, for a man who died way too early of a rare degenerative disease, left me reeling for days, contemplating the astounding integrity of this man's life. And it made me think of Tom Sawyer spying on his own funeral, and how every kid who read that chapter must have been fascinated by this scene--not just the fact of our mortality but the prospect of so much focused attention, of so many people observing our last appearance, celebrating our life. And it begs the question: what will people say at the end of yourlife? Will they spew platitudes and sing a couple of songs and go back to the house and eat cheese and crackers, or will it be a standing-room-only, tears-at-the-podium, we-all-learned-so-much-from-this-life sort of affair?

I had a dream in college after listening to the Beatles for hours on end and watching too many episodes of Twin Peaks with my roommate. In the dream, it was raining and everyone was searching for the body of Penny Lane; the banker, who wasn't wearing a Mac, was running through the drenched streets with blood dripping down his arms screaming "Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes!" and I sat in the barber's chair, horrified, contemplating the scene, and the barber leaned over and whispered in my ear "It's not enough to be a good person."

It's not enough to be a good person. Now what is that supposed to mean? As parents we comment on our children's behavior, not their character; we talk to them about making good choices and we (hopefully) encourage a non-judgmental approach to interpreting others' bad behaviors. But how many of us really think about the accumulation of our behaviors and choices? How often do we let ourselves slide because we believe in our own intent, in our goodness? How often do we recuse ourselves?

Sydney and I are working on our way through the first Harry Potter book and she has tons of questions about the Dursleys and at one point, the other night, I just said something along the lines of "they treat Harry like that because they are rotten people." Normally I go to great lengths to explain the nuances of human behavior, but on that particular evening exhaustion got the better of me. Sydney was quiet for a moment and I had just resumed reading when she tugged on my arm and said "Mommy? I don't think the Dursleys are bad people. They just seem a little scared to me."

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