Starting from scratch

Sorting clothes for a load of wash: hooded sweatshirt & long johns both came from my deceased grandfather; this wool coat belonged to a dead friend of a friend. And these shirts from Goodwill – who knows what became of their previous owners?

In they all go together with a handful of soap. I pull out the tank from the dehumidifier & empty it into the machine: water captured from the air seems somehow fitting for dead men’s clothes.


In last night’s digest of the local freecycle e-mail list, several angry missives derided someone for posting the same request more than once in the course of a month. Stop being so fucking discourteous! I wanted to write.


I like giving, but I hate the idea that it might sometimes be necessary to keep track. People around here tend to be very idealistic about this: being good friends, they like to say, means never keeping track of who owes whom. But in reality, I think, being friends means developing sensitivities far beyond what’s necessary for ordinary give-and-take. Each friendship requires a unique sensitivity; you have to start from scratch each time. Which isn’t such a bad starting point, really.


The grandfather whose clothes & shoes I have inherited started from scratch during the Great Depression, made a small fortune & gave it all away. He gave to churches, schools and charities, & he gave to his children. Toward the end of his life, when he became frail & sickly, he stubbornly refused to take care of himself, believing that anything he spent on himself represented money stolen from his children. It took a great deal of arguing to convince him that taking good care of himself was the best gift he could give to those who loved him.


Generous as he was, he always railed against the government for collecting taxes. He wanted to control where every penny went & give his money only to worthy recipients, not to random “crud” – the bums, the welfare cheats. How could he not see that none of us were ever really worthy – that we were all crud?


He gave & gave & gave, but he never let go. This I always found both admirable & deplorable.


“Not just whiter. Brighter.” As if ordinary clothes could be suffused with radiance just by adding the right soap!

But look here (as my grandfather would say): any real radiance my clothes might have comes from those whose frail and tarnished forms they used to cover. They are full of shadows; every line & fold & fray recalls some long-gone motion or posture. Our habits outlive us. How much about us might a forensic anthropologist be able to decipher from such deformations in the literal fabrics of our lives?


Let us get clean, but not too much. Let us give ourselves up, but not too often. “We find beauty not in the thing itself,” says Tanizaki, “but in the patterns of shadows.” The patterns that a lifetime of joy & laughter – or their opposite – inscribe around the eyes & mouth. The lines in a palm, whether open to grasp or to clasp, to caress, to implore.

Ote no ue ni / ochiba tamarinu / tachibotake

The honored hands
gathering fallen leaves:
stone buddha

(Masaoka Shiki)

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