I was talking with a neighbor recently, someone whose kids I grew up with and hold in the sort of high regard reserved for those who have always been your elders. He is a painter and a carpenter and he served in Vietnam.
When I was a kid, he was one of the town parents who oversaw all of us kids who passed from friends’ house to friends’ house in roving mobs. When my father passed, he attended my father’s memorial, and later offered to me tips and insights on gardening, as well as overflow from his own garden.
I share the following from him, a summation of what he shared with me, without identifying him specifically because these are things he said in passing — not in an interview. But much of it was exactly what I needed to hear in the moment, and in the midst of the chaos before us all. It is a beautiful thing to hear about a person’s life, and some of the lessons they’ve derived and want for you to know, and in listening hearing how people arrive at what they believe.
When I shared this elsewhere, some who were ideologically liberal went straight to parsing out what was meant by way of the line “government needs to leave us alone” because many of us are always engaging in an ongoing argument in our heads that takes place with nobody in particular. As someone who is myself ideologically left-leaning, I found resonance in so much of what was shared, and found this idea that we all need to leave each other to be ourselves, but we can’t seem to do it without some sort of intervention, refreshingly accurate.
Leaving each other alone, broadly, does not suggest we should not go out of our way to take care of each other. Beyond all of that, getting fixated on what one line might mean about a person’s partisan outlook occupies our capacity to recognize the larger, profound truths packed into a person’s story, but this tendency itself is indicative of our particular moment.
But enough from me.
This is what he told me:
Do you know where I spent the first six years of my schooling? No heat, no plumbing. We were in a little school house, all four grades of us and the teacher worked with us one grade at a time. A man stopped by to drop off boiling water and we would all grill our sandwiches on a little potbelly stove. I liked it just fine; the only thing I didn’t like is going out to poop in that outhouse when it was real cold but nobody liked that.
If there’s one word I can say about everything I’ve seen in my life, it’s magic. You put a seed into some dirt and it turns into a carrot? You put some rotting leaves onto a garden and it grows better? Magic.
Everybody thinks the stakes are higher than ever before, but they’ve always been high and felt higher than they actually were in the moment. I remember I was late for school one morning because the Russians had launched Sputnik and I wanted to hear more about that on the radio. Everyone was running around nervous. But I also remember right where I was on June 20, 1969. I was in Fort Bragg where all the drill instructors are usually yelling at you, calling you names. But there we all were, crowded together around this tiny TV. That’s what we can do when we all agree on a mission; we can send men to the moon. That’s what we can do when we agree to do something that isn’t fighting each other. And then it was back to reality and they went back to yelling at us, calling us worthless and all that. It’s funny when you think about it.
And if we can’t agree to work together, at least we could leave each other alone. Government needs to leave us alone, too, but then when it does people don’t lay off each other and on and on it goes, back and forth. I’m almost 70 years old, Alex, and I find peace because I am not paying attention to that anymore. I’m building or painting. I paid my dues and now I have some perspective.
We don’t have enough time on this planet. If you’re lucky, you live just long enough to get a little perspective and then you die. There isn’t enough time to see all of the magic.
Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was a teenager. He’s an owner-partner of a Portland-based content production company and lives with his family, dogs and garden in Westbrook.