ZA 6: Old Friends

Coming to visit an old friend after a very long time is a delicious risk. The more so if the relationship before was marked with frictions and difficulties, as well as the most extraordinary freedom and range. In this case, I turn at night into a gravel driveway, past the lit sculptures of The Fool and The Juggler that are dramatic features of his large garden of succulents, and we fall immediately into a wide-ranging conversation on the back porch, as if no time had passed. But of course it has.

In some people, life’s inevitable difficulties and disappointments are too much for their dreams, these people, however beneficent, carry a bitterness. In others, in A’s case, for instance, life has tempered his difficult bits, not eliminated them or overwhelmed them, but honed them to a useful edge that now can applied as a scalpel, rather than a cleaver, and only when surgery is necessary. I hope the same may be said of me someday.

People carry a number of different intelligences – emotional, verbal, acquired, physical, innate, common sense, mechanical, spatial, wisdom, formulatory, wit (esprit), or intuitive. A carries more than most; a severe but discerning judge coupled with a camp-ish offhand way of granting utter freedom. Egyptian-born, raised in India, educated by England, and the most thoroughly modern European I know, A’s journey of spirit in himself, and his way through the world, have been anything but easy. He allows one to understand of what little value the attribute known as ‘happiness’ really means. Happy or unhappy is unimportant, or in any case ebbs and flows with the moon. Connection, engagement, awareness, the objectivity that comes of outlasting the most fatiguing delays, the most mortifying disappointments, and worst of all, the presumptuous judgment of the ignorant upon your design.

I have promised (myself, he has said nothing) to protect A’s anonymity, so I will only say that when we met in my practice in 1982, he was a successful teacher in London with many fameuse clients. (Cue the opening saxophone line in Jennifer Warnes’ version of Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat… in fact, listen to the whole song, which has the spirit of early encounters if not the facts.) First he was my client, then I was his, then we were friends, then we were both Cancer men trying to have a child with our Scorpio women – and all the while admiring each other yet competitive, each wanting some unknown approval from the other.

A plowed his success under to start an institute to promote the arts at a chateau that was condemned and harried to extinction as a ‘sect’ by the French government. I had the child he never found, but lost the marriage he has finally consummated – we lost touch, but for the occasional email. Moving to the new South Africa in the mid-90’s, he has recently withdrawn (always hermetic – now expressed in his abode) to a tiny town miles from anywhere.

A recent life-threatening illness has focused his attention on the hereafter, with the usual parmesan piquancy added to the experience of the now. We are both completely narcissistic and both completely engaged in the evolution of the world. How wonderful to have a conversation – useful argument, disagreement leading to either a ruefully acknowledged pin or an understanding accommodation – with a fellow man (it’s easier with women) that can range among the subjects of rational suicide, the current economy, ecology, social evolution, politics, sexuality, gender, aging, music, pop culture, without missing a beat or any nuance being forgotten.

For the next two otherwise lazy days in the desert heat, marked only by walking the dogs or the occasional light meal, that conversation keeps unfolding and folding back in. I was recently asked to write an essay on the subject: ‘Given our ecological situation, how do you live now?’ A and I have been constantly engaged with that question. But by this time in our lives, the desperation (mine), the competition (ours), and the need for sexual conquest (his) are all smoothed by the years and the miles.

A is livid with America and its dogged determination to remain ignorant the rest of the world while still bombing it – his understanding of Islam is deep, though he rejects all fundamentalism. He fears that not even Obama – our great black hope – can overcome the evil that is the American empire. In so many ways I agree – I have been at odds with my government since Vietnam, but never more so than the last eight years of deception, torture, and blind venal stupidity – but of course the fundamentalism of Islam is no answer,

A agrees, but ‘America must understand that the Arab world is cursing them. These things are not light, they have power and last for generations.’

‘We all must live somewhere’, I answer lamely. I have signed petitions, written my congresspeople, voted consistently, but beyond that, what can one do besides lay aside one’s profession to throw oneself into political work, and then that becomes just a game. Or throw one’s shoes and spend 11 years in prison.

Of course the new South Africa is not without sin either – or England or France or anywhere else we live. I wonder if A is really ready to ‘retire’ to this little town, which has pretensions to being an artists’ colony, but very little of either. Although one can stay in touch with the world from anywhere via the internet, I wonder if A will be able to stand the retreat from full-on European-style dialogue, rubbing shoulders with the change agents. I suspect he will either import them, and make of this town a little artist’s retreat for real, or he will use this time – in a little ranch house surrounded by cacti and muscular depictions of Le Fou, Le Bateleur, Le Diable, et La Force (an incredibly strong lion-woman done by his wife), overlooking the baking scrub – to forge another gesture with a world destined to see him as odd – the biblical Azazel or scapegoat – when he is in fact among the sanest of men.

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