Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird

(a philosophical odd little post)

“Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”– Iris Murdoch

I was taking a bus back from Boston to New York today, watching the Connecticut landscape off I-95 go by through the window, and I caught sight of an apartment building with a window facing the highway. And I thought, Somebody lives in that apartment. I imagined that person—a man or a woman, not sure which—looking out the window at my bus as we shot by on our way to New York. And then he or she turned and looked back in the room, which I gave white-painted walls, beige wall-to-wall carpeting, a white-and-brass ceiling fan. I was conscious of imagining myself into this person’s head, looking out of his or her eyes, without choosing an identity other than the consciousness of being in someone else’s head; if I had looked in a mirror, I would have seen well-tanned skin, aviator-style glasses, short, curly, salt-and-pepper hair; or perhaps pale freckled skin, long, stringy auburn hair, a small nose and incongruously full lips. Either way, the me-in-this-imaginary-person’s head looked around for keys, turned off the lights, left and locked the apartment, and walked down the stairs to go outside to the parking lot, where a car was waiting. I imagined the view from this person’s eyes at every step, the fluorescent-lit hallway, the concrete steps down to the lot, the low chunk of the lock as it turned, the comforting support of the car seat.

And once this person was sitting in the car, I let him or her go and came back to myself in the bus. I didn’t know who that person really was, whoever lived in that apartment, but the act of imagining, of looking out through his or her imaginary eyes, had made that person exist for me. He or she had passions, tastes, a history, a personality, loved ones, ones they are loved by, responsibilities, hobbies, a mind that works according to a certain education and ideologies, feelings as strongly held and as complicated as my own. Whoever lived there was as real as I was; and that realization knocked me back, as it always does, whenever I allow it to intrude on my daily life.

Because it is so easy to go about my day thinking of all the random people around me as characters in a novel starring me, blips on the video-game screen of my life, and therefore as unimportant compared to me. But of course I am merely a blip on everyone else’s screen; and as I sat on the bus, I looked at the SUVs roaring along the highway next to us with drivers and passengers, then the people talking or sleeping or working all around me, and felt all those consciousnesses working away just as mine was, consumed with hopes and fears and dreams just like mine. I was reminded that everyone else is of as much worth and possibility to God or the universe as I am, and I find it profoundly humbling to sit and feel what that means every so often, my small place as one of the billions on this planet. And then to feel the empathy that grows out of that: for if everyone is like me, we are all uncertain, all damaged, all needful of kindness and mercy.

Not that I can sustain this feeling all the time: As T. S. Eliot wrote, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” and I have to reassert my primacy in my universe in order to be able to function within it. But that meditative state has two useful applications for subjects often addressed on this blog. One, for fiction, I could create a character simply by turning those eyes inward toward the mind of the person I imagined in that apartment—to poke at that brain and see what secrets it held and who it revealed itself to be. Or to look out around the apartment, pick up the magazines and pick through the closets and open the medicine-cabinet door, and take all the clues those things offer as showing the soul that would choose them. The hard part is, of course, getting all those things on the page in an interesting way; but their creation starts with the pleasure of imagining and digging—of seeing this made-up person as real, and creating all the complications and contradictions that would support that.

And two, for politics, this reminded me why I am a liberal. I support the right of gays and lesbians to marry because their loves and romantic relationships are as real as my own; I support welfare and S-CHIP and Medicaid and Medicare because the pains of poverty and lack of health insurance and the hard choices those force are as real (or actually more real) as any pains I face, and the Republicans’ all-sainted market offers no empathy at all. And if I in my incredibly blessed and comfortable New York life have to pay a little bit more in taxes so that a single mother in Texas who works two minimum-wage jobs gets food stamps, and her child gets milk and orange juice and a doctor’s supervision—that’s not actually patriotic, pace Biden; that’s common human decency, and worth it.


I was in Boston for academic reasons of a sort: My friend Donna Freitas is a professor of religion at Boston University (and also the author of the excellent YA novel The Possibilities of Sainthood, in stores now), and because I knew she likes YA fiction that addresses religious questions, I gave her a galley of an upcoming novel I edited, Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork (due out March 2009). And she loved Marcelo so much that she put it on the syllabus of her Religion and Children’s Literature class at BU. Francisco (who lives in Boston) and I visited her class and enjoyed a terrific conversation about the book with Donna and her students.

The students delved deep into the religious questions the book raises, of course—actually about just these points, on the reality and suffering of others, and our responsibility towards them. And it was fascinating to go into these thematic questions with them, because as an editor I so often get caught up in the purely practical aspects of making a story work—not just making sure a character gets from point A to point B, but that the character’s motive for going to point B is sufficiently drawn, that the effects of this journey reverberate in the lives of the other characters as they should, that there aren’t any unnecessary words or repetitions in the sentences describing the journey. . . . Francisco and I talked a great deal about the larger philosophical points of the book in working on it—in fact, in our very first official editorial interaction, I asked him to write out what he wanted the book to be about and the larger questions he wanted to address, and he came back with a three-page essay that shaped all the work we did on it going forward. But the last six months or so have all been back on the practical level, so it was a pleasure to revisit that thematic level again, and of course a pleasure to discuss Marcelo with people who adore it as much as I do.


Finally, I strongly commend two things to you: One, this marvelous post by the Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates on Obama’s grandparents, and the long history of people in our country who did the right thing when it came to race; and two, the BoltBus, which carried me to Boston and back again for less than $35 round-trip, and provided not just a clean bus and plenty of legroom but free Wi-Fi and a plug for my laptop. Bliss!