Disembarking from a subway car one recent evening, I was engulfed by a chattering bunch of middle schoolers (all of eleven or twelve years old) returning from a soccer game. Bunched together, we climbed the steps to the station and I dutifully followed the pair of pink-socked legs that appeared at my eye level. How wonderful, I marveled, a coed team. Reaching the top, I was content to be carried along as they steered a path through the crowd.
As we passed by three tall guys, all twenty-something and unhappy, I puzzled at their consternation. I realized then the lead navigator of our pack, the one with the most energy, the one wearing the pink soccer socks, was a boy. I couldn’t hear the exact texts that were exchanged, but the trio did launch a derogatory comment as he walked by. For his part, he simply tossed back a smooth reply, not even breaking stride.
All at once, there were many things to think about. It occurred to me that, to have replied so quickly and calmly, the boy must encounter similar situations often enough. He must wear those pink socks often enough. Were they a sister’s hand-me-downs? A laundry mishap? A youthful dare? An emblem of emerging identity: gay, bi, trans, boy, boi?
The ne’er-do-wells were not happy with the boy’s easy reply and issued another, more wounding one. Nearly to the exit with his companions, the boy spun around, walked back, stood directly in front of the trio, and made eye contact. He had one final message to deliver:
This is OK.
And besides, I have more than you anyway.
Or was it “any day”? Such poise, such confidence, such cockiness. Information dispatched, he scampered ahead to meet his friends once more. They burst, laughing, through the doors and, in a moment, were down the stairs and out into the night.
What does it take for us to more deeply and authentically appreciate our very large and very varied world? Alicia Ostriker, in April, offers three examples. At the beginning of the poem (first published in the February 2011 issue of Poetry magazine), she describes the springtime work of “optimists” who are:
attending their meetings
signing their e-mail petitions
marching with their satiric signs
singing their we shall overcome songs
posting their pungent twitters and blogs
believing in a better world
for no good reason
(Perhaps the Occupy Vincent movement we encountered last Friday?)
The earnest giddiness of the optimists is shared by flowers and trees and grasses, each at their own tempo, each awakened anew in springtime:
… the tulip
dancing among her friends
in their brown bed in the sun
in the April breeze
under a maple canopy
that was also dancing
What springtime would be worthy of the name without a dog? One who sniffs and hears with abandon, heart and stomach wild with joy at the prospect of:
… the leftover meat and grease
singing along in all the wastebaskets
Amid these three scenes, however deftly sketched, there is one who is not feeling springtime’s new life:
I envy them
said the old woman
Your lively world (she seems to be saying) your full and beautiful life, is not working for me. I see something I do not have. The men in the station, however youthful themselves, looked inside and found something missing. If we are frightened of difference, do we register that as an abundance of emptiness or a failure of imagination?
Bewildered by even the ordinary changes of every day, afraid of something new, longing for something gone by, blind to nature’s own beauty, not satisfied even by “a concerto of good stinks” — how, indeed, will all these empty hearts be filled? What steps need to be taken?
If we would live in abundance (and lift up those with us), we would do well to honor the universal advice to walk for a while in someone else’s shoes.
Alicia Ostriker is a many-published, much-awarded poet and critic and Professor emerita of English at Rutgers University. She is also a fearless inhabitant of the shadowed valley where the Bible and literature meet. In the afterword of For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book she notes:
Love is as strong as death, says the Song of Songs. We might try taking that seriously. The angry tide of fundamentalisms flooding the world can perhaps be overcome, not by denying the channel of the spirit altogether, but by widening it. We (and by “we” I mean both secular and religious, both men and women) need to claim the life of the spirit along with the lives of body and mind.