“A tree is best measured when it is down—and so it is with people.”
—from a documentary on creative process, Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars, which was released in 1987. Lincoln: The War Years…
Bob Wilson is right. It is true of people too. When society is cut down by war, violence, injustice, or wild acts of nature (nature is continually reminding us it’ll step on our meager anthills of ‘civilization’ anytime it chooses); what truly measures us collectively is the ability to rise up afterward…or whether or not we remain fallen and inevitably decay.
It’s sort of like when incarcerated people “find God.” Isn’t it usually the way- that malnourished, starved spirits often turn to drugs and/or violence and crime? Or at the least, we spiral into depressions. But sometimes tragedy and misfortune lead the way to healthier transcendent emotions.
There is a book called
Measure of a Man
by Martin Greenfield:
“The first time Martin Greenfield took up needle and thread was at Auschwitz, to mend the shirt of the SS guard who had just beaten him. Today, he is recognized as America’s greatest living tailor, the man who dresses presidents and movie stars.”
My “problems” are so insignificant and infinitely smaller compared to Martin’s life story. I read memoirs specifically to be reminded of that.
When I was a child, my problems felt gargantuan, however. Hindsight allows me to recall with laughter, that day in 1971 and the resolve it took to walk back into my classroom after what happened that September Autumn day.
One particular teacher (Miss Buckley) was always telling me to “suck in your stomach when you walk” and “don’t slouch like that.”
I was in this Miss Buckley’s first grade class when I knew my first public embarrassment. I remember flashes of the humiliation in vivid snippets. Here they are:
My two shortbread cookies, swaddled in a napkin, were placed on my desk by a student proudly assigned to the task of “Handing Out Snack.” Another appointed classmate carried a lunch room tray up and down rows; passing out a small carton of milk to everyone.
I’d no sooner finished the goodies, than——–
I stood up when the retching started. Sparing details, I stood there in the aisle and sprayed everywhere, including all over my black and white saddle shoes.
So much puke came out of me. Not one spew, but several, until my stomach felt hollow and completely emptied.
There were sounds of “ew!” And “Yuk!” I think someone even screamed.
Miss Buckley: “Didn’t you have any warning? You could’ve asked to go to the lav!”
She ushered me into the coat room, where my mother arrived with fresh clothing (I was wearing a dress and I remember peeling off sour wet panty hose from my legs.)
When my mother said goodbye to the teacher (and to tell her she was taking me home), I stood there in front of the chalkboard for that solitary moment which seemed immense, and the expressions on the children’s faces puzzled me. I felt bad for the janitor, who I saw was cleaning up my mess.
He winked at me.
I realize now, those expressions on the children were disgust.
If one student had said, “hope you feel better,” or “aw don’t worry…it can happen to anybody,” then a portion of my shame would’ve been erased. But it’s rare that little people express compassion so young. Unless maybe they’re encouraged early on by adults.
I know that I took measure of the janitor that day. I considered the wink and declared him a good man.
I remember, at that age, having a crying fit because my mother couldn’t sufficiently explain to me just HOW her special thermo cup holder KNEW how to either keep her Coke cold, or keep her coffee hot? How did it know?
Like that cup holder, people adapt to circumstance. Somehow.
Living all my days in a “small town” always brings to mind a captive Beluga whale. (AKA Delphinapterus Leucas).
They want/need/yearn to swim 100 miles a day, but are confined to the show pool or concrete holding tank.
Free from predators and threats.
I’ll bet they long to ride the ocean currents though. To choose mates and cohorts based on the larger population rather than proximity. To be a part of their own Beluga villages.
To swim among sea plants, shipwrecks, vibrant coral, undulating jellyfish and dancing schools of smaller fish darting in unison… To completely experience the phosphorous glows of algae, the pull of tides… To glimpse shadows of larger beasts looming in the depths. From the small encroaching space of the holding tank, do they think these things?
Even small town captive human counterparts to the Delphinapterous Leucas can access the internet, or “cyberspace,” (I like that term), which is a type of virtual village where anyone with a connection to the web can consociate with like minded individuals about shared interests, infatuations or peeves.
Take this blog for example. Before this outlet, the words I had were logjambed. I was wiping full rambling sentences in Times New Roman script (I never think in Comic Sans, always Times New Roman; I don’t know why), from my pillow every morning. Where else but here could I tell this story:
Yesterday at the local playground, I sat on a bench enjoying perfect Spring breezes and sun on my face when I heard my three year old granddaughter talking to a big inky crow.
“Aaww! Cawgggh! Awwk!” She was calling out.
She was coming down the slide, then circling round, climbing the ladder, and sliding down again. Over and over, she played and all the while letting out these sounds! I thought at first she was just voicing her excitement.
But I soon realized she was answering a crow on a high Oak branch, who was watching her intently and also exclaiming in caws of three:
“Kaawww! Kkkrraa! Kaaa!”
They carried on back and forth for some time and I wondered —If ravens were white, not black, but possessed the same keen intellect and behaviors, would we have the same eerie, mysterious, even dark perceptions of them?-
Anyway a tree truly is best measured after it’s chopped down. Bob is correct. But I was thinking…even though it’s the easiest way to measure it, it doesn’t really mean it’s the best way to take its measure. Why not climb it and measure it that way?
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