Apr 15, 2009

Herr Göttinger's happiness

In the spring morning he stands there smoking and surveying the plot. He puffs at the pipe he puts in his mouth and he looks at his pile of rocks, his little bushes, his turned-up dirt: the start of the garden he’s designing in his mind. He looks at his flowers, which haven’t yet opened, and his trees, which are skinny saplings still tied to stakes. He looks at his tools where he left them from last night, clean but well-worn and with traces of dirt still clinging and coloring the metal, still smudged into the cracks in the grain of the wood. He walks all around his little square of earth, seeing everything and seeming to see even more than is there, and he puffs at his pipe, surveying his plot in the morning.

He is the master. Not of the universe or this world, but of this little spot of earth.

His shaggy-headed dog sort of follows him around. The dog checks in with him every few minutes, looking at the man who’s planning the garden, and then looking away again. The man mostly ignores the old dog, letting him lie by the fence and watch the kids get up and go to school, but every so often he says something softly, repeating a generous phrase, saying something the dog clearly already knows and takes for granted. The shaggy-headed dog is really too old for this cold, this early in the morning in the spring, but the dog has to pee and the man wants to smoke and they use each other as an excuse. So they both get to go out to the garden.

In the spring evening the man works. Bareheaded now, he moves rocks to make a wall and moves dirt to dig up a bed. The old dog watches the neighbor kids kick a ball into a garage where one wall has been declared a goal. During the day a tree has bloomed. In the morning it didn’t seem to be there, but now it’s flowering and smelling soft and sweet and it seems like he made it bloom, like he made it appear here, fully formed and beautiful. There are more flowers and more rocks, as if he multiplied them with his mind, and there are more patches of up-turned earth, warm and chunky and wormy and brown, and now they seem like they form a pattern, as the man transforms the plot. He sticks his hands into his earth and he changes it, imaging this spot as beautiful and then working and making it so.

Life is a little ridiculous. It’s so full of beauty and joy and also pointless pain, full of the meaning and order we find and make, and also of chaos and vast gaps of emptiness. It’s a world where men grow flowers, children play and people make up silly songs, where sunflower seeds and milk in coffee share mathematical explanations, and also where worms were made to eat children’s eyes and where whole cosmoses have been snuffed out for longer than any God has been believed in. It’s a world that was made out of darkness and that will return to darkness, no mater how long we live, or love, or remember. This is a world where the resurrection of a Jew who triumphed over death and the death of three Somalians can be celebrated in the same weekend. It’s more than a little ridiculous, but we are condemned to meaning, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty once said, even if the words we say are only ever unheard babblings. And we are consigned to beauty, even if we only make it up in the midst of ugliness, and we are assigned to joy, even though it’s unreasonable and sometimes simply silly. This is just the way it is: Grown men have nightmares on every street, every night, and they also have hobbies where they take a little earth and bring forth beautiful life.

The man works in his garden, down the street from where I live, in that little square where he plans everything out in his mind. He has his hands around a wheelbarrow, and his hands and knees are dirty. Down the street the boys cry out in victory when the ball slams into the wall of the garage, not caring that the goal is arbitrary, or that the assigned points don’t mean anything, but shouting anyway, jumping and waving their hands, and running on to make the next play. The shaggy-headed dog starts to bark, for no reason but to bark, because it’s evening and the air is sweet with spring and because babies are getting baths, up and down the street, and people are finding things funny, and dinner dishes are being washed, and the sun might shine again tomorrow. The man says something to his dog and the dog is quiet again and they stand there, the tousled man and his shaggy dog in the lot in the evening in the spring. My wife tells the man his garden is beautiful, as we walk by tonight, and he says thank you, and he says, “It makes me happy.”