Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Search for Goodness (GPD08)

When I first knew my neighbour (who came to sit next to me on the bus today) she had four children under the age of five. Now she has five, but the last one came a little later, and a small snip has ensured that it will be the last. Now each little human has their own history and plan, of course, and I was interested to hear them, but the item I remember most - the thing that struck me as good - was that a middle one gets a D grade in all his subjects, and yet an A for effort.

'What can I say to him?' she said, and I suggested 'Well done.'
But she shook her head. 'For his brothers it is the other way round.'

So I told her that I thought that a child like that would have been cherished as a quiet and dependable member of society in previous generations, and so it should be today. But she shook her head again, and told me that she didn't know what to say. I suppose he suffers from the endless testing and assessment that there is in our education system now. If you cannot succeed academically you are swiftly labelled a failure. It saps us all, I think.

Then we went on to our own plans and I admitted that I didn't have any. She suggested that I did what she did and take a job in a shop and I nodded and said that I might.
'Borders,' she said, knowing that I write, 'because of the books.'
'Good idea,' I said.

When another friend joined us, we talked about raising children, how difficult it was, and how at first we felt so isolated, and the best thing to do is get out, even a voluntary job is better than no job at all, and I agreed and thought about the time very soon when Hodmandod Minor leaves home, and how quiet it will be.

I was still thinking this as I walked through the streets, and although I saw plenty of people smiling, I have to report that I saw no sign of anyone actively being good.

Stepping down into the Roman depths of a city bar I came across my friend, a former colleague from the university, waiting, as arranged, at a table with the covers of his latest books spread out before him for me to see. I inspected them in the candle-light and murmured approval. Then we discussed our writing and books; the superimposition of pictures from a bubble-chamber on images from the Hubble telescope - the smallest on the largest - and how these images are apparitions that no one actually ever sees; whether a metaphor is the same in science and the arts; that the root of the word 'niggardly' betrays its decidedly non-racial origins (despite a congressman's dismissal over the word); Darwin's ideas on facial expression and his experiments with primates; and then my friend's new book covers again; and then that I was still waiting and doing nothing.

It was still light outside, still mid-afternoon, when we said good-bye and for a while my head was still full of Darwin and chimps snorting snuff - but then, as I went down the main street, I noticed this:

He had shifted his site. Normally he is on the town hall square, singing and holding forth, but today he was sitting on an upturned box, apparently exhausted, but still yelling out the Lord's praises to uninterested passersby: red sweat-shirt, sparse grey beard like fungal growth on his polished black skin, eyes looking doggedly ahead, intent on something only he could see, and his bill-board in his left hand, tilting slowly, proclaiming the reassurance that Jesus loves me. Is that goodness? My grandmother would say that it was.

And then there was this: an elderly lady on the bus and a man talking next to her in a loud slow voice.

'I live in a hostel.' I heard him say, 'No not a hostel, a centre.'
And she nodded and smiled and spoke and smiled again.

I, meanwhile, had plugged myself into my ipod and swept up the volume until I could hear nothing but my thoughts.


Blogger Susanna said...

your writing is your work, if you got a structure job you might either get more done cause you have less time, or get less done.

I think I am still inbetween on which I am. I went for so long only writing papers when I was in university that I never had a real chance to write for me, then I got a job in my field just after graduation, so I am not really sure which I would be. Although, I never get to see friends now that I working, dont get to go to accordion lessons, and my dieting has fizzeled in the worst uncontrollable way. But I think I am getting more of a hold on juggling things and time management.

Deciding what chriteria fall under "good" is like trying to define art, I guess it depends on the individual and the moment.

I cant seem to make myself lie to my mother despite the fact that I want to. maybe it falls somewhere in the bravery category, your not brave if you are not scared.

bla bla bla, just a little free thought.

about that kid, I always brough home middle of the way C on my score cards, and my mom always congratulated me. I think it was this relaxed approach to school that allowed to do it for so long and grad school

Thu Apr 03, 11:11:00 pm  
Blogger JL said...

A woman in a powered handcart waved me into the checkout aisle at the grocery store today, protesting, against my own protests, that she was 'impeding' me.

She was most gracious.

I asked if she had children, and she responded, "None that care".

I asked if she had children she cared for. She told me, surprised, that in her subsidised housing complex (estate) there were children who came by and kept her company, and called her 'Grandma'.

She bought 'coloring books' to keep them in her home, as she very, very much enjoyed the company.

There are good people out there, they are just rare.

Fri Apr 04, 03:30:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks S, it is a dilemma isn't it? I suppose I'm lucky to have a dilemma, really, because I have people that support me and have a choice. Doesn't stop me feeling inadequate, though! And I agree about the concept of goodness meaning different things to different people...which takes me on to JL's fascinating observation...That's such a great little cameo, JL, and says so much. It's wonderfully Chekhovian, in it way. Her remark that she has 'None who care' tells something important because I immediately wonder why? What did she do or didn't do to make people not care? And yet it seems she cares a lot about relative strangers - which smacks a little of Dickens - full of charitable works and undertakings and yet (so I understand) treated his own wife and family fairly shamefully. To the world outside he was 'good' but maybe not to his closest family.

Fri Apr 04, 09:03:00 am  
Blogger Kay Cooke said...

This is kind of depressing ... yet you have managed to make it sweet as well. It's just life - pure and simple.
I must give this GPD08 a go. My curiosity has been piqued ... and I can also see that it is great fodder for some really good writing as well ... :)

Fri Apr 04, 10:42:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, my. Well, this produced some interesting commentary.

And this: "...sparse grey beard like fungal growth on his polished black skin...." Gorgeous.

Fri Apr 04, 03:46:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So often when one goes looking for something it is found very close to the origin of the search... You talk about searching for goodness Clare, and there it is in your words! Your response to the lady suggesting employment at a shop, your sympathetic ear, your encouragement and support of your friends and your kind observation of every poor sod you pass on the street - 'goodness' is standing right there in your own shoes.

A 'born-again Christian' friend of mine once expounded on his belief that each of us has a particular God-given gift. He thought mine was the ability to instantly assess people. Well, I spotted yours instantly, Clare. Apart from your obvious literary skills, I would say your God-given gift is kindness.

Fri Apr 04, 05:05:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you CB and Debra for very kind comments...and Susan, well, thank you too, you are so lovely to me as usual and it is appreciated - but I have to say that I did blank everything out with my ipod, and I did admire the elderly lady who talked with such patience - much more than I have!

Fri Apr 04, 09:10:00 pm  

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