North Pole, South Pole

north_pole_MG0233My friend R. is a brilliant guitarist who spends a lot of time on the road. Road trips and trans-Atlantic flights can get long, and musicians tend to be a pretty funny bunch, which is, I suspect, how R.’s “North Pole, South Pole” game came into existence. The game goes something like this:

“Hey, Hil. North Pole, South Pole. Would you rather live in a remote village in Papua New Guinea with all your favorite records OR in New York City, but you’d never be able to hear music again?”

“Okay, North Pole, South Pole. Would you rather write ‘jazz is dead’ 5000 times on a chalkboard OR be forced to transcribe every note of a Shooby Taylor solo?”

And so on.

Now, it’s fun to play “North Pole, South Pole” on an endless road trip or after a couple of beers, but we engage in real-life “North Pole, South Pole” thinking at our own psychological peril. Regarding our life choices as binary, “either/or” propositions can actually leave us with some pretty miserable options:

“I can be an artist and live in abject poverty, OR I can give up my creativity and be financially stable.”

“I can have independence and a strong sense of self, OR I can sublimate my identity and be in a relationship with someone.”

“I can be liked OR I can say what I think.”

“I can have a career OR a family.”

At times, I’ve bought into every single one of the “North Pole, South Pole” scenarios listed above. But, invariably, whenever I start to paint the world in black-and-white, Life comes along and throws a bunch of gray onto the canvas. Free from “North Pole, South Pole” thinking, our choices, our challenges, become about balance. How can we:

weighing_the_balance_587x30…pursue our creative potential while maintaining financial solvency?

…connect wholeheartedly to our partners without losing our connection to our individuated Selves?

…articulate our own needs and ideas with the right blend of assertiveness and compassion?

…navigate the distance between our home life and our life’s work?

Pic2-3aSphereNot surprisingly, the answers to our biggest, most pressing questions can’t be found in a game of “North Pole, South Pole.” Truth, like people, tends to live somewhere in the middle.


Holy Water, Chicken Stock, Tomato, Tomahto

Saturday night had tumbled ass-over-teakettle into a maelstrom of hasty words and hurt feelings. Apologies finally wrestled their way to the surface at dawn, leaving us wrung out and penitent and asleep until noon. When I woke, the bourbon from the night before had taken up residence behind my eyes, making Sunday hurt.

Forgiveness, especially when summoned on a hung-over morning, can be elusive and coy, like calling a cat from a hiding place: it’ll come out when it’s good and goddamn ready, no matter how sweetly you call or what you promise in return.

CIMG3863There is nothing elusive or coy, however, about soup made from scratch in early Autumn. Soothing, evocative of grandmothers and sweater weather, soup is pretty difficult to mess up. If you add too much salt, you can always add some water. The three lonely celery stalks in your fridge that have been waiting for something to do will be welcomed, as will a stray potato, or basil on the verge of going bad.

You have to just kind of let everything simmer together for a while. Eventually, the flavors begin to commingle and the soup begins to look like more than the sum of its parts. Soup, unlike people, will always forgive rashness, impatience, and too much spice.

And so, contrite and in need of comfort, we decided to make soup for Sunday dinner. While rolling oregano-and-garlic turkey meatballs between our hands, chopping dill, melting onions in oil, and baptizing everything in an ablution of homemade chicken stock, a palpable, if tentative, peace began to settle itself around and throughout us.

CIMG3868Later, we sat on the floor, big ceramic bowls of our soup on the coffee table in front of us. This silence was companionable, open. Then:

“Do you like the soup?”

“Yes, but it’s more that I’m taking refuge in it, you know?”

“Yeah. Me, too.”

I haven’t been to Mass in years, but I know Communion when I see it.


But I think it’s about…forgiveness.

My land is bare of chattering folk;
The clouds are low along the ridges,
And sweet’s the air with curly smoke
From all my burning bridges.
-Dorothy Parker

Lately I’ve been thinking about bridges that have burned over the years. I don’t have a laundry list of mortal enemies, or anything, but a handful of personal and professional relationships in my adulthood have ended badly.

I have no regrets about cutting off contact with some of the abusive characters I’ve encountered in my life.  Some of my severed ties, though, just leave me feeling a little sad.  I’ve had a couple of friendships disintegrate because of disagreements over money.  My “righteous indignation” led to some harsh words on my part, as well as a lack of tolerance for my friends’ (and my  own) shortcomings.  I’m not proud of the way I acted.  Turns out, being “right” can carry a pretty hefty price tag.

There is one incident in which I was the sole architect of a friendship’s demise.  Deep in a blue melancholy, I deliberately shut out a friend whose happiness over her new relationship was too much for my bruised heart to stand.  My heart and I eventually recovered, I was appropriately embarrassed over my selfish, self-pitying behavior, and I offered a humble and sincere apology to this lovely girl.

She was unequivocally gracious and compassionate, which humbled me further.  However, despite our most conciliatory intentions, after a year of hurt feelings and neglect, our friendship is not–and will likely never be–the same. 

Picasso's Blue Dove

Picasso's Blue Dove

One of the defining characteristics of maturity, at least as I see it, is the understanding that some things cannot be undone.  Some of our words and actions forever change the landscape of our lives and relationships.  I learned this lesson the way I learn most of my lessons: the hard way.

Unlike Dorothy Parker, I find no sanctuary in the isolation of bridges burned.  The older I get, the more certain I become that sanctuary will only be found in forgiveness: for others and for ourselves.