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Essay — From the October 2018 issue

Nothing but Gifts

Finding a home in a world gone awry

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Life at the blue house—I chose a deep-sea shade that made it a standout in the neighborhood—had a certain crude charm, even poetry. Yes, we lived at a construction site, an arrangement prolonged because I was learning on the job, but we were also within minutes of eight different movie theaters, which at the time were our temples of worship. Though the traffic noise could be annoying, especially when I didn’t have to report to one of my many wretched day jobs, Lake Union was a refuge for both of us as we wandered through Gas Works Park, and sometimes swam; watched crews prepare Greenpeace or ­NOAA ships for further voyages; or sat on a dock after nightfall, listening to the water lap against the pilings and contemplating the lights of downtown.

Still, the desperate measures continued. To get a phone hooked up, I registered under a false name belonging to the French philosopher I was then reading, a fast-talking trickster who appealed to my distrust of metaphysics. No matter how grim things got at the blue house, I always smiled when a bill arrived addressed to Jacques Derrida. And I was especially pleased when he appeared in the new edition of the Seattle phone book alongside my address and phone number. To appropriate one of Derrida’s signature terms, I had placed my name under erasure.

Even closer to the edge, and harder to romanticize: the first winter I fell far enough behind on the gas bill that service was disrupted. Ezra and I huddled before the open door of the electric kitchen stove and slept together under a thick stack of blankets until I got fed up, broke the lock on the inlet valve behind the house, and turned the gas back on. After that, heat was free.

For two years, we practiced scarcity-inspired bricolage at the blue house, which is not to say good fortune never came our way. Occasionally, even in perennially overcast Seattle, the sun made an appearance. One evening, Ezra and I returned from a Wim Wenders double feature—he slept through most of it—to find that someone had broken into our house. Evidence of transgression was as obvious as it was strangely benign. The living room, almost vacant when we’d departed, was now quite cozy, with an overstuffed chair and couch, well worn but still handsome, and very near the marine color of the house itself. It didn’t take long to track down the culprits—Jim, the wily ringleader, a bohemian masquerading as an insurance salesman whom I’d met in a poetry workshop, and his henchmen, the amusing, enigmatic K sisters. Certain generous acts don’t outlive themselves simply by continuing to please or benefit the recipient; they are the everlasting soul of giving. This was one—an unforgettable lesson in the ecology of indebtedness, as well as, less obviously, a clue to finding one’s place in the world.

Photograph © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos

Relocation to Seattle coincided with a temporary separation from Ezra’s mother, S, one of several different living arrangements during our experimental twenty-five-year romance. S and I had met four years earlier, when I was in my mid-twenties. Up until then, I hadn’t entertained a thought about children; the word didn’t exist in my primitive vocabulary of self-absorption. But that changed the night I picked up S for our first date and met her kids—Ezra, then five, and Kate, who was three. Anyone observing the scene would have considered it uneventful. Ezra was eager to show me his favorite Matchbox car, rolling it across a table and making vroom-vroom sounds, and Kate lay on the floor drawing intently, her head cocked at an angle to the paper beneath her small hand, while S delivered last-minute instructions to the babysitter. But for me it was a moment of singular significance. Abruptly, unexpectedly, a door opened where none had existed. Awaiting me on the other side was a world whose features I could scarcely discern yet was surely vastly different from anything I’d experienced, anything I’d imagined, a world I nonetheless wanted to explore, and the sooner the better, caution be damned. Two weeks later I moved in.

What distinguishes a reckless act from an inspired one? How can one tell the difference between impulsiveness and conviction, momentary urge and lifelong calling? Worthwhile questions, but not ones I addressed back then, in those blissful doubt-free days. I was certain about Kate and Ezra in the same all-at-once, no-turning-back, ultimately inexplicable sense that I was certain about their mother. In other words, I fell in love with three people at the same time. And I mean people: no general appreciation of childhood charms had been awakened. I remained mostly indifferent to other kids, cuddly, wide-eyed babies included. My affection was claimed by this particular boy, this girl; my interest drawn toward the decidedly exotic yet curiously welcome circumstances now at hand.

In a black-and-white photograph I took of Kate shortly before her fourth birthday, she holds a camera in front of her face and points it at me, giggling, the two of us joined in mutual amusement. Even now, the mirroring picture makes me smile, reminding me of her roguery and independence, characteristics that were much in evidence even then. There was no film in Kate’s camera, so no corresponding image exists, but still an impression was made, one that will last as long as I live—a man’s heart captured by a child.

Someone else’s child, it might be noted, though it scarcely seems relevant anymore. Today those words possess so little substance they evaporate before my eyes, ghosts of their original meaning. My relationships with Kate and Ezra partake of eternity, the always-was and always-will-be, having remade the character of everything that came before while reshaping everything that came after.

Could there have been a time when they weren’t mine, when I wasn’t their father? That’s the heart speaking, of course. Memory, when rigorously interrogated, testifies otherwise: despite the suddenness and finality of the initial seduction, I did indeed eventually question myself, my actions, wrestling with the ramifications of becoming attached to children who already had fathers, even if those fathers had long been absent and in all likelihood would remain so. Didn’t I want kids of my own? Didn’t I want to perpetuate my name, my likeness, my blood? But the answer wasn’t long in taking shape: perhaps in an alternative universe, the one, for instance, I inhabited before I met Ezra and Kate, the one I’d left behind forever. What had appeared to be an immutable, inborn drive turned out to be yet another received idea that couldn’t survive the test of experience.

That’s when I chose what had chosen me. After a little research, I found a physician in Seattle, during the blue house days, who was willing to perform a vasectomy on a twenty-nine-year-old. No one knew but S. Among friends and family—including and especially my parents, who went to their graves unaware—disapproval, even horror, would have been instantaneous, unappeasable. And understandably so. How could someone so young be so sure about something so consequential? What’s more, I was technically single. S and I weren’t married, nor had I sought legal guardianship of Ezra and Kate. Indeed, we made a habit of bypassing such formalities, sometimes by design, other times by happenstance, and didn’t seek the state’s approval for any aspect of our domestic arrangement, not then, not ever. Depending on the situation, I referred to Ezra and Kate as my girlfriend’s children, my stepchildren, or, simply, my children, the latter eventually taking over. (Back in the 1970s, when this experiment in homegrown bohemia began, it may have been rare, but it is not today. In the 2010 census, about 362,000 men who were either unmarried or living without their wives reported residing with stepchildren under the age of eighteen. Roughly 292,000 of those men, or 80 percent, also shared their households with an unmarried female partner, which led analysts to conclude that tens of thousands of men now use the term “stepchild” as I once did, to describe an extralegal parental relationship for which no precise En­glish word exists.)

And while language strained to keep pace with actuality, actuality continued to twist and turn and reinvent itself. My children, now in their late forties, have children of their own: Kate, two daughters, twelve and nine; Ezra, also two daughters, also twelve and nine, as well as a four-year-old boy. Which makes me what, exactly? Wildly happy, to be sure, as well as obnoxiously proud; I’m a complete cornball, and every inch a grandfather. The arrival of these five provides further confirmation, among the most dramatic yet, that my leap of faith was well aimed—or, from a less forgiving point of view, that my foolhardy wager miraculously paid off, despite odds whose overwhelmingness was evident to everyone but me. Stubborn as ever, I stand by my conviction that the miracle took place at the outset, when fate presented me with a now-or-never opportunity, unbidden and undeserved, and I happened to be additionally lucky enough to recognize it immediately. Since then, the original blessing has multiplied again and again, as my relationships with Ezra and Kate have deepened, grown more complex and sometimes more contentious, giving rise to some of the most significant experiences of my life, experiences that both exalt and humble me.

To the children who transformed a selfish, shortsighted young man into a father, then a grandfather, I also owe the realization that, like them, everything I value most is on loan, no more mine or of my making than the generative, sustaining light of the sun. Just as I arrived at the blue house to discover a sofa and chair that didn’t belong to me yet were much needed, I’ve been made aware that the world I dwell in has been furnished almost entirely by others, only rarely with my particular well-being in mind but to my lasting benefit all the same. And among the many ways I might respond to this inheritance, the most fruitful, it seems to me, is adoption—choosing to take care of someone else’s creation.

Any big commitment, whether born of fevered spontaneity or not, entails risk, none more so than adopting the world-as-it-is. How much easier it is to pledge allegiance to the world-as-it-was, before the fall, the exile, the lamentable yet inexorable degradation, or the world-as-it-will-be, with its promise of deliverance from chaos and suffering and evil. Away from this place, this time, these awful people. Few are wholly exempt from the siren call of escapism, whether mundane or exceptional, historicist or theological. The imagination, especially the anguished imagination, will always be susceptible to the allure of the ideal elsewhere. But the ideal elsewhere is uninhabitable, an ever-receding mirage, the pursuit of which seems to offer relief but is instead the folly of the impotent or cowardly, yielding only disappointment, bitterness, and violence. Consider how much blood has been spilled and destruction wrought by those for whom tomorrow’s paradise is the measure of all things and the ruthless logic with which they justify today’s deceit, tyranny, murder. By contrast, the harvest that nourishes and fulfills comes from cultivating what’s at hand—tending to “the grave and suffering land,” as Hölderlin wrote, while never forsaking “her enigmas” and “heavy burden of fatality.”

The enigmas and burdens of existence are inescapable, of course, a hard truth more readily appreciated under certain circumstances, like those of my hometown, Butte, in southwestern Montana, for most of its first hundred years. From the early 1880s, when an enormous copper ore deposit was discovered beneath the town, until the middle of the twentieth century, by which time its industrial-scale operations were in decline, hard-rock mining was one of the most dangerous occupations in America. Injury in Butte was routine; silicosis, especially among those who regularly breathed the rock dust produced by drills, virtually universal. Almost every other week, the mines took the life of at least one person, often more. Everyone dreaded the next big fire, cave-in, or unexpected pocket of lethal gas. In 1917, when the carnage was the worst, some 230 men perished, at least 166 of them in a single event, the Granite Mountain–Speculator Mine fire, the deadliest hard-rock mining disaster in US history. Besides never allowing the town’s residents to forget for long their thread-thin hold on existence, this unrelenting, largely random loss of fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons continually ripped holes in the fabric of family life. Small wonder that both mining machinery and the mines themselves were known as widow-makers, the same morbid term that’s part of the vernacular wherever women suffer because of the work men do.

Some families never recovered from such losses, to be sure, but those that did developed a distinctive attitude toward misfortune, a mixture of acceptance and perseverance that manifested itself most instructively in efforts to mend what had been torn apart—a widow marrying the brother of her deceased husband; a couple opening their arms to orphaned children; a grandfather filling in for an absent father. The remedies varied with the circumstances but were always intended to reconstitute the family, or at least some semblance thereof, from whatever fragments had survived the latest calamity. Consequently, working-class neighborhoods such as Corktown, an Irish-Catholic enclave that was part of the so-called parish of widows, evolved into interdependent patchworks of relationships based on contingency as much as on blood ties. This improvisatory social climate fostered what might be called existential solidarity—the mutual recognition that, despite our differences, despite the accidents that brought us here, we’re all in this together—as well as a keen appreciation of black humor. Laughing in the face of tragedy, common practice at traditional Irish wakes, was a way to preserve one’s dignity and peace of mind, a modest but back-stiffening gesture by which one acknowledged the absurd cruelty of life as a whole while also affirming the value of one’s own tiny fleeting share of it. Dancing before the casket embodied this paradoxical outlook even more forcefully.

The familial bricolage that once was prevalent in Butte and places like it comes pretty close, I think, to what Camus had in mind when he spoke of learning to love necessity. The often misunderstood French moralist certainly wasn’t counseling fatalism, but instead a clear-eyed view of existence, in all its ambiguity and turmoil, suffering and corruption, wedded to an impassioned, even defiant willingness to embrace that same deeply flawed, maddeningly provisional existence—in other words, rebellion molded into responsibility, and responsibility, it warrants saying again, for something that one didn’t have a hand in fashioning. That no one-size-fits-all prescription exists for bringing about this transvaluation doesn’t in any way diminish its benefits, including the primary psychological effect—a stronger feeling of at-homeness, of belonging to the time and place where one finds oneself.

Adoption, in this wider, more radical sense, alleviates estrangement, a malaise so widespread that it might as well be considered a human birthright, the price of passage when we emigrate from oblivion to consciousness, becoming foreigners by virtue of illumination, lost and isolated in a brightly lit universe. Though they never would have pictured themselves this way, nor realized that they were following customs much older and more down-to-earth than their heaven-centered religious beliefs, the people of Corktown knew the remedy for disorientation and disconnectedness. Rather than lock their doors against death, hoping in vain to be spared, they invited it into their living rooms. For three days and nights, the corpse was on display, no more a stranger than the women keening nearby, the men drinking whiskey in the kitchen, or the children asleep in their beds upstairs. By making a place for the inevitable, by welcoming the unwanted—one sign of a tragic sensibility—they reduced the monstrous to a human scale, thereby decreasing its power over them.

The ethical implications of claiming as one’s own a world governed by indifferent, often hostile forces are as paradoxical as the act itself. What begins as a voluntary trade-off—exchanging alienation for responsibility—can, if pursued faithfully, reconfigure itself in unexpected ways, the most surprising of all being an expansive sense of gratitude, of permanent yet welcome debt. To return to my original example: the making-do didn’t end when Ezra and I left the blue house and blue furniture to rejoin S and Kate. As the kids grew older and in greater need of a sure hand and prudent counsel, to say nothing of emotional and financial security, the gravity of my commitment became clearer, while my unshakable confidence that I could fulfill it gave way to mounting worries. And the corrosive introspection reached ever further into the past, to the day I met S and the kids, revealing—is self-knowledge always attained with a rearview mirror?—that back then I was little more than a child myself. So much had been poorly done, and much not done at all. Distractions and obligations, lack of time, lack of discipline, immaturity, and, yes, impulsiveness, the uninspired kind: the reasons don’t matter. I could have done better. And, foolish as it might seem, perhaps especially to those who have never been parents, even now I remain haunted by my failings, no matter how trivial—the time I yelled, the time I raised my hand in anger, the time I said no for no good reason, the time I got drunk, the time I broke a promise, the time I lied, the time I pretended to be someone I wasn’t. Time after time a­fter time.

Yet, despite my many and persistent shortcomings, Ezra stands by me, as does Kate, each giving me their best and their all, both becoming increasingly aware that their best sometimes falls short, too. Today our lives are more firmly and more fatefully woven together than ever. My necessity has become my salvation—obligation as redemption.

Although such indebtedness goes a long way toward describing the human condition, saying so runs counter to the thoroughly American fairy tales of self-sufficiency and solitary achievement, still dominant because of the country’s relative comfort, affluence, and insulation from prolonged, widespread horror. Absent mine disasters, we sometimes require a sudden turn of fortune, a rupture in the taken-for-granted, to remind us that the individual is an invention, a work of artifice, one that’s terribly ingenious, to be sure, also immensely useful, and now indispensable, but nonetheless limited in value and under some conditions a liability.

During rush hour in Manhattan one winter morning, I entered the subway at Seventh Avenue and 34th Street, intending to catch a downtown local. The instant I arrived at the platform a woman standing thirty feet in front of me lost consciousness and collapsed to the concrete, then rolled over the edge. She lay motionless on the tracks, only a few feet away from the third rail, while the rumble of an approaching train in the tunnel beyond grew louder. Yet two men in business attire immediately lowered themselves to the woman. Her weight, maybe two hundred pounds, and the shoulder-high elevation of the platform made the lifting difficult. Several other bystanders knelt and helped pull the unconscious woman to safety, then, none too soon, extended hands to the swift-acting rescuers.

I was transfixed by the scene, but what happened afterward amazed me even more. A pair of transit cops had been alerted and now approached, one of them led by a high-strung German shepherd. The crowd parted. Those who had been leaning over the woman moved to the side. Just then the train pulled into the station and everyone boarded. Not one person who had been directly involved in the incident stayed behind. The men who had placed themselves at risk by climbing down to the tracks had not asked for recognition. They had done nothing more than precisely what was necessary to save a stranger’s life before resuming their morning routine. As the warning tone sounded and the doors started to close, I, too, rushed into a car. The train rolled slowly past the impromptu tableau on the platform—the attentive cops, their fidgety dog, and the woman, prostrate and still unconscious, resembling a patient under anesthesia.

This incident occurred in 1990, in the days when homelessness and crack and despair were rampant. That year twenty-six people were murdered in the subways. Yet even under those conditions, New Yorkers who didn’t know each other improvised a heroic act, mustering up the kind of generosity that, according to conventional wisdom, is difficult to find outside, say, Butte’s Corktown neighborhood in the period of alleged innocence before the Second World War. And the woman who benefited from their kindness has even more to tell us about the nature of generosity. Imagine what it was like for her when she came to and learned she owed her life to invisible, unknowable intercessors. Her gratitude surely would have been immense, maybe overwhelming, but also aimless. Whom should she thank? Where should she direct her urge to return the favor, at least symbolically? At the same time, it seems to me, her dilemma is just a highly distilled version of the situation we all inherit, by virtue of being the beneficiaries of everyone and everything that preceded us, beginning with the obvious—parents, grandparents, and so on—then extending outward and backward to encompass myriad invisible, unknowable intercessors, including what came before Homo sapiens, other creatures, the elements and physical conditions that make life possible, the very planet itself. “There are nothing but gifts on this poor, poor earth,” as Milosz memorably said in a poem.

And like the woman on the subway platform, we, too, awaken in the middle of our own stories, much of the action having already taken place, our characters forged, our fates largely settled. As the anesthetic wears off, and we come to appreciate in agony and wonder that we aren’t the sole or necessarily the most influential authors of our lives, we are also given a glimpse of the scope of our inheritance—that who we are derives from all that was and is sustained by all that is.

Such epiphanies have been routine enough, of course, that they long ago became codified in religious and quasi-religious notions such as the Great Chain of Being, and every culture and era seem to produce their own variant, including the secular West, where astrophysicists have informed us that we are children of the stars, the twinkle in our eyes owing to the same fourteen-billion-year-old stuff that fuels the sun and its cosmic kin.

What an extraordinary moment in intellectual history. And yet for all its grandeur, its startling implications, this modern version of the idea of universal connectedness remains largely that, an idea, doubtless a brilliant one but so far removed from everyday affairs that the light it casts is cold, exercising little practical effect. Milosz’s revelation, it’s worth remembering, was triggered by the kind of everyday concrete experience available to anyone willing to give the world at hand the attention it deserves: “the scent of winter apples, of hoarfrost, and of linen.” And Milosz’s contrastive reference to “this poor, poor earth” underscores his enduring gratitude for the abundance he enjoys. Wealthy beyond imagining is the man who receives as gifts everything his senses bestow upon him.

It’s no accident that the poet recognizes his—and humanity’s—prosperity in the context of action, because the commonplace blessings he celebrates, as well as those I invoke when I speak of the transformation my children and grandchildren have brought about in me during the past forty-odd years, exist only in motion, including, as in this instance, motion in the form of a subtle, subjective experience—smelling apples and linen. So constant and pervasive is our interdependence, however, that the human action required to sustain it often goes unacknowledged, if not altogether unnoticed. More ruptures are always needed, perhaps precipitated by crisis.

About a year after we met, S, the kids, and I lived for five weeks in Baja California, alternating between the two coasts, about four hundred miles south of the border. The transpeninsular highway had only recently been constructed and traffic was still light, scraggly burros outnumbering aging vehicles. One night we left a village—locals had taken us bass fishing, then treated us to a meal featuring our catch—and headed south, toward our seaside camp. Five miles later, the right front tire on my VW bus went flat. The spare was also flat. (We’d bent the right tie-rod, which pulled the wheel out of alignment, causing the tires to wear quickly.) Just as S and I were discussing the potential hazards of spending the night beside the highway, two Mexican Americans stopped to help. Starting from Los Angeles, their home, they, too, were driving south, to Cabo San Lucas, in a new pickup, and pulling a large boat rigged for deep sea trolling. Though it was long past sundown and hundreds of miles separated the men from their destination, they drove me back to town and waited while I found someone, a teenaged boy, to replace the tire. And they waited again, shining flashlights in my direction, while I reattached the wheel, tightened the lug nuts, lowered the jack.

Only when the men were convinced that our weary ragtag tribe would be able to make it back to camp did they say farewell. It was midnight. Their journey had been delayed by more than three hours. From my pocket I pulled the equivalent of five US dollars. They shook their heads and waved it off, indicating that I didn’t grasp the nature of the exchange.

“Today you,” one of them said. “Maybe me tomorrow.”

Maybe me tomorrow. What I grasped, watching the rear lights of the boat trailer recede into the darkness, is that I’d never be able to repay the particular me in that moral equation, with its nonprescriptive take on the Golden Rule. And that was the point: I needn’t do so, any more than the woman in the subway would need to find and repay her unknown intercessors. You and me were the alpha and omega of humanity, encompassing everyone, any of whom, on any tomorrow, anywhere in the world, could be the second-generation beneficiary of the generosity we received that night. In addition to providing assistance during an emergency, the roadside Samaritans reminded me that my life is embedded within a complex, ever-evolving ecosystem of indebtedness, and that in consequence I bore a specific responsibility, to pass the spirit of their gesture along to others. Since then, every time I’ve come upon someone whose vehicle has broken down on the highway, I’ve recalled S, the kids, and me stranded in Baja, at the mercy of unforgiving desert and implacable night, then the comfort I felt when two people unexpectedly arrived to lend a hand, to give of themselves to strangers. Yesterday me, maybe you today.

Not all acts of gift giving work this way, to be sure. Consider the homeless man I once observed begging near Penn Station in Manhattan one blustery autumn afternoon. Gaunt, partially crippled, and shivering, the man sat at the top of the stairs leading down to a subway station, nodding whenever someone dropped a quarter or a dollar bill into his dirt-lined palm. He wore a light jacket, which with his other hand he pulled tight against the chill wet air, and he slumped into himself, so that he didn’t notice when a well-dressed man and woman suddenly emerged from the tumult of people on the sidewalk and walked toward him. Without saying a word, the well-dressed man removed his wool overcoat and swung it behind and over the s­houlders of the beggar, all with the self-consciousness of a bullfighter flourishing a cape before an adoring audience. He had made a show of his charity, especially in the eyes of his companion, who seemed duly impressed, the beggar reduced to playing a supporting role in their drama.

But the beggar refused to submit. Though the script called for an outpouring of thanks, he remained silent, adamantine, pretending the coat made no difference. It seemed the beggar instinctively knew that his predicament had been converted into someone else’s opportunity for self-aggrandizement, a form of exploitation that he’d probably experienced before. No we’re-all-in-this-together-ness here but instead what looked a lot like a deliberate attempt to reinforce difference and hierarchy. Rather than lighten the recipient’s load and lift his spirits, the coat burdened him with shame. Beware of ghouls bearing gifts.

Another unfortunate aspect of encounters like this is that they obstruct the flow of energy—or kindness, if you prefer, or trust—upon which the ecology of indebtedness (and therefore all of us) depends for its vitality and longevity. Forget the cape man, for whom, I suspect, every day is a me day. What about the beggar? If there be a you on his horizon, in all likelihood it’s one he’s always wary of, guarding against, and with good reason. Materially impoverished like himself or psychologically impoverished like the cape man, others too often angle for advantage, exploit weakness, or look for chances to steal something. Best to hold on to what one has and go it alone.

One of the discouraging developments of recent times is that qualities often associated with homelessness—paranoia, a sense of grievance, defensive solitude—are increasingly influential factors in the day-to-day affairs of the wealthiest nation on earth. Instead of acknowledging and reinforcing what we hold in common, a proposition that should be easier to accept in a context of plenty, too many of us succumb to fear and prejudice. From there it is a small step to the belief that solidarity is for suckers; that it is a suicidal illusion fostered by those who don’t understand, or won’t admit, that not everyone is equal, not everyone deserves the same consideration, not everyone belongs here (this neighborhood, this country, this world). Under such poisonous conditions, tyranny can flourish, often obscured by bankrupt slogans like “makers and takers,” which is of a piece with another worrisome trend in the United States—the conflation of democracy and commerce, liberty and acquisition, a situation in which, perversely, freedom has come to mean the conditions that allow the affluent to accumulate ever more wealth, while for the rest of us, first the suburban mall and now its always expanding digital equivalent have replaced the town hall as the primary domain for the exercise of citizenship. Against this backdrop, it’s no surprise that our success narrative now culminates in endorsement deals and advertisement appearances, including by artists and writers; that serving as a marketing prop has become synonymous with having made it.

Into these troubling circumstances have come five more citizens: my grandchildren. Convention calls for an expression of concern, and in this instance convention is amply justified. Trying to picture what lies ahead for those born in recent years, or the years immediately ahead, only the blind or delusional will be spared sleepless nights. Yet I resist. For one thing, I don’t want to contribute to the climate of suspicion, hatred, and bigotry that has settled over large parts of America. For another, and more importantly, I refuse to accommodate those who stand to gain by the perpetuation of that climate.

My experience with adoption, both narrowly and broadly conceived, suggests that the fitting response to a world gone awry—and when, after all, has the world not been going awry?—isn’t to indulge in or promote fear, which leads to more greed and isolation, but instead to encourage engagement, especially engagement that sustains the ecology of indebtedness, in other words, the old-school strategies known as compassion and community.

My prayer for my grandchildren, then, is that they defy their circumstances rather than despair of them; that they possess the audacity, moral imagination, and tough-minded humor to make this heartbreaking, too-often-alien world their own, thereby transforming it into a place where they always feel at home if not always at peace, always enjoying access to existential solidarity and the solace and inspiration it provides, always acting in the knowledge that the good that graces their lives remains so only if they keep it in play, and this despite the anguish and disappointment that surely await them, along with every other child of the twenty-first century.

When Kate and Ezra were young, the four of us passed countless afternoons by open water—Gas Works Park, on Lake Union; Sauvie Island, in the Columbia River outside Portland, Oregon; Del Mar, north of San Diego; Crystal Beach, on Lake Erie, just across the Peace Bridge from Buffalo; Smith Point, off the south shore of Long Island. Like drive-in movies, these brief holidays from the rigors of making do were easily arranged, inexpensive forms of pleasure, which is why we took advantage of every opportunity within reach. But they also brought us into the presence of that part of creation that precedes and transcends not only us but all of man-made circumstance. Salt air and tidal stench, sudden immersion in cold water, sunlight glancing off distant swells: nothing but gifts, yes, and each one a much-needed reminder that we are the lucky heirs to immeasurably more than the sometimes squalid, sometimes sublime furnishings bequeathed by humankind. Camus, an ardent swimmer who from childhood onward worshipped the Mediterranean, both its light and water, said it best: “Poverty kept me from thinking all was well under the sun and in history; the sun taught me that history was not everything.”

And so, the rest of my prayer: that during my remaining days my granddaughters and grandson will join me in savoring the redemptive legacy that is the sea—that as often as possible we will plunge in together.

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, a former contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, teaches writing at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He lives in Bolinas, California.

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