friend request

First day of school. Dropped off the kids at their elementary school. They are in class for the first time since the pandemic closed in-class learning.

Hit the road to the shop. By chance, two different podcasts I follow feature a discussion about the life and work of Simone de Beauvoir, a french philosopher.

The first is a segment on a posthumously published and translated novel describing de Beauvoir’s close childhood friendship. I reflect on the childhood friends that my kids might make on the playground and the similar impact it may have on their lives.

The second podcast is about an aspect of her philosophy that deals with conflicts in ideas about life and the world. Life is full of binary choices and there’s a lot of pressure to follow one particular way or the other on anything.

De Beauvoir terms the feeling of discomfort we have in the world as the ambiguity of existence. Our mere existence seems to precede any particular idea of who we are or meaning to our lives. An incredibly freeing idea, until you get caught up trying to figure out what to do. We are awkward riders of contradiction: transcendent and stuck in a body, capable and oppressed, subject and object.

I remember getting into a fight with another kid in my first week of elementary school (“primary school” in South Africa). He was showing off a slow-mo karate kick in the line up outside our classroom for the morning period.

He got some of the other boys to kick like him, but I was convinced the way to kick was as if you were kicking a soccer ball. I felt teased and we possibly started kicking each other and fell in the grass. I don’t exactly recall what physically happened, but I do remember the feeling of squabbling over the purpose of kicking. It was the kind of argument that you have with an acquaintance that turns you into friends.

We became close friends. In a way it made sense. We were both outsiders to the English speaking South African culture that was represented at the school. He was an American, son of an engineer working at an American firm in the country. I was the Afrikaner at an English speaking school.

I remember his house. He had a pool, the coolest water guns (Super Soakers!), a friendly Labrador Retriever, video games (Nintendo, Game Boy, AND Sega Genesis), loads of G.I. Joe figurines, a basketball hoop, and an older brother that introduced us to a whole bunch of age inappropriate stuff, but most memorably, Nirvana and Weird Al Yankovic.

After he moved back to the United States and to Colorado, we exchanged a few letters, but by the time I moved to Canada we had drifted apart. Our parents kept in contact with each other and even saw each other a few times after I left home.

I thought it was natural. We drift apart, we make new friends, make a life for ourselves and then one day, maybe, we run into each other and share our life journeys from then to now. That won’t happen now. He died a few years back.

De Beauvoir’s childhood friend also died young, at the age of 22. It was a loss that profoundly impacted De Beauvoir. For her there is a sense of the friend’s presence in her life and a reason for her success – “for a long time I believed that I had paid for my own freedom with her death.”

First day of school. There’s a new girl in class and boy does she have a story. She spent a year at home in bed after her dress caught fire.

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program break

The car was on the road by 9:00pm, heading south to the mountains. No freeways. It was city streets to rural routes via every traffic light until the lights of the city fell back with the suburbs like surf receding on the shore.

The inefficient route masked an urgency driving the car. The late hour departure says something for the road ahead. Too late for a road trip. The night is a hard condition for a car. Limited visibility, nocturnal creatures on the road, and tired minds on wheels.

Up on the pass by the big mountain is a parking lot for a popular summer trail. During the day for a few late summer weeks, the trail is a destination for hikers seeking vistas of alpine meadows, delicate mountain flowers, and the monumental presence of the mountain with its vertical canyons carved by winter glaciers. The car pulls in to the empty parking lot. A bolt of lightning that radiates a rainbow of colors crosses the sky. Then silence. The mountain holds order in the emerging moonlight.

Upon the following day or some days later, I find myself back in my skin. Cold, hungry, rested. I can’t recall the last time I made a clear break like this from the world and the hundred of lines of calls and push notifications that entrap and shackle me to work. On call, on tap, on persistently. The sense of touch and smell dulled with the endlessly anticipated vibrations of notices that crawled up my bones.

It isn’t enough to regain a sense of basic human dignity or to have others grant you basic dignity. What dignity is in busyness and business? A life stuffed with buzzing and no being. I had to restore the moving presence of a certain kind of emptiness. Emptied I can now be moved again by a moving question: what does it mean to be human?

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