John can usually be found at the coffee shop I often go to. He is a grizzled man in his sixties, homeless. Sometimes he talks to himself but he is gentle, always very gentle. Not like me, where gentle is a decision I make when I would really rather punch someone. He is gentle all the way through.
Sometimes he says hello and wants to talk and when that happens I listen. Once he told me all about the microclimate we live in and why it is prone to drought. Once he told me about his friend who drinks too much and often can’t get a bed at the shelter because of it. Another time he told me about a friend who had triple bypass surgery after too many years of eating peanut butter and popcorn, prompting me to change my planned menu for the day.
Today he is talking about education, and how learning shouldn’t be about all the things you’re doing wrong but about all the things you’re doing right. And also families need support and teachers need support. John is making a lot more sense than any politician I have ever heard.
I don’t know anything about him, in terms of biography. I guess he is a Vietnam vet, because his age and circumstances are right. That war did a lot of damage to a lot of people in his generation. I am old enough to remember the fall of Saigon and the last helicopter leaving, but too young for any of it to have left any scars.
John always thanks me politely for my time. I always say, “You’re welcome.”
I don’t know why I stop and listen. I have a lot of other things I could be doing. Maybe I listen to remind myself that life has almost nothing to do with how much I accomplish today.
Today my head is in that place I hate, where I know I am being Type A and I can’t seem to stop it. I know that the busywork is just avoidance, like that Burn Notice marathon last week. I can’t seem to help it. It is a feeling of being stuck, the idea that if I just do something, do more, I will change what cannot be changed.
I am letting go of outcomes, but it’s a process, and I’ve been letting go for almost twenty years now. I still don’t get it right a lot of the time. Today is one of those days. I am losing the path. I am one of those middling people who find it, then wander off. The ones Lao Tzu gently derides. I know it, and can’t seem to do anything about it.
Sadly, I tell Lao Tzu, I was not born a superior person. At least I am not a goat.
I don’t know what’s wrong with being a goat, but it seems a good thing to be thankful for, so I go with it. I am a middling person, wavering on the way.
John is quietly winding down about education policy. He looks up at me, his eyes watery and old behind his glasses.
“Not very many people can see reality,” he says suddenly, from out of nowhere. “I try. It’s important to try.”
It is like a little message from Lao Tzu. I can hear him chuckling.
“Thank you,” I say.
“You’re welcome,” says John. Then: “What is your name? I don’t remember it.”
“That’s right. Jenni-fu. Jenni-fu.”
I don’t correct him. I like what he has named me. I figure it translates to The art of not being a goat.
I am imagining what might have been. I don’t do this very often; it’s pointless and it hurts. But today in the warm spring sunshine it seems harmless, and I think I am tough enough to take it.
My “what might have been” always begins with “What if my daughter Jessica were like anyone else?” I might still be married. I imagine that I am, and that she will be going to college next year. I am not exactly imagining her as a college student; I cannot actually imagine Jessica as other than she is, and anyway this project is about me and not about her.
So she would be off to college and I would be married. Our mortgage would be nearly paid off and our retirement savings in good order. You see, I am imagining that nothing else has gone wrong, that no businesses have failed, that Jessica has not turned into a drug addict or died in a car accident on a lonely county road.
We would be comfortable, as they say, my husband and I, thinking our hard work had brought us here. We would be planning a trip, maybe a cruise but probably not, probably a two-week trip to China or Kenya.
I am probably a little smug. I am probably in better shape. I am probably content. I am probably thinking everything turned out just the way I wanted it to.
It is an attractive picture, for a moment. I turn it over in my mind. I think I would like to be her, the woman in that might-have-been picture. I think it would be very restful.
The sun is strong. I’m getting a burn. Later I will remark that I get older but I don’t get wiser. You would think after all these years I would remember the sunscreen. I go inside, turning the image over in my mind one last time. I would like that life, I think, and even as I think it, the picture starts to crack across, like what happens with old paintings, fine little cracks everywhere.
Even if Jessica were like every other child, that is not the life you would have, the part of me that knows me thinks. You would not be married. You hated being married, irrespective of your daughter. You hate being in relationships. You are like a feral cat, thinking someone is trying to trap you. The only relationship you have ever been in that has not strangled the life out of you is the one you have with Jessica. And if she were like everyone else, she probably would have strangled the life out of you, too. Also, you would never have money in the bank. Are you kidding me?
I rub some lotion on my sunburn, thinking age may not have brought wisdom, but it has brought something. Discernment, maybe. The ability to tell the truth from the lie.
The might-have-been picture crackles into dust. I am happy.
Today is my birthday, and it is one of those birthdays with a zero in it, the kind of thing that makes you think, “If thirteen-year-old me could see me now, she’d be saying WHAT THE FUCK!!?!!?”
I first became interested in Taoism at a young age, but I could not fully embrace it then. That makes sense to me. I don’t think you should be a Taoist in your twenties. I think you should probably be on fire, trying to save the world. You won’t, and then you’ll need to figure out how not to be cranky about that fact, and then you’ll need Taoism. But not before.