With fists, with words, with kindness
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My father taught me a lot about duty, unwittingly, I suspect. He was an innovator and a free spirit at heart. As a young boy, he had designed, built, and flown his own model airplanes; later, he invented a high-speed camera built upon principles of reflecting light and rotating mirrors. As a man, he railed against convention. Nonetheless, he was a dutiful, obedient son and brother, and thus easily manipulated by his iron-willed Eastern European mother and his introverted, depressed, anti-social sister. His father had died at an early age, and the two surviving women of the household had lived together for as long as I could remember. As the oldest grandchild and favorite nephew of my lonely, doting aunt, I became the pawn and the prize in a tacit game. I sensed that it was mandatory for me to play my part, for the sake of my aunt and grandmother — and, somehow, my father. He and I were linked in this ritual of obeisance.
On Saturday mornings, my dad would dourly coax me, with an insistence I dared not oppose, into joining him for our weekly visit to Grandmom and Aunt Eleanor’s in Philadelphia. He would stoically take the wheel and slip into what became a familiar style of unconsciousness, as together we rode out the one hundred colorless miles.
At the doorway, I always received one of Grandmom’s oyster-cold kisses, which I dutifully endured. Then came the musty aroma of decades of sameness and the enervating vacuousness of that crypt-like home, as the crisp tick-tock of the tall, glass-encased grandfather clock marked the orderly passage of time.
It was in that solid, hermetic row house in West Philly that, as a maturing boy, I struggled painfully with wanting to be free — to draw open the shades, spring open the windows, and escape into the streets, where I knew that every path led to adventure and discovery. I learned to submit to the rule of the roost, to give in and go unconscious as a way of muffling the pain that bled into my awareness anyway, no matter how hard I tried to restrain it. Though I dreamed of spaceships (and sometimes cried for them to come rescue me), my inner child and I learned to buckle under; we became stowaways inside ourselves.
Years later, on the day I was to attend a graduation dinner in honor of my medical school class, I received a call from home. My father had died suddenly, and I was to return immediately. Fresh from four years of medical studies — during which I had developed a “clinical distance” to separate myself even more from my own feelings and from the pain and suffering around me — I now had to prepare for my father’s burial.
On the day of his funeral I gazed at his serene face. In death, it was as pale and cold as his mother’s and sister’s had seemed in life. When no one was looking, I slipped into his breast pocket a little pin — a favorite treasure of mine, my rhinestone butterfly — offering him the wings I wish he had claimed when he was alive.
Chevy Chase, Maryland
Duty. Say the word to yourself out loud — doo-dee. Sounds like another euphemism for excrement. “Now do your caca like a good little boy.” Combed hair, pressed uniform, and three-fingered oaths. Something guilt-fueled, overzealous, and militaristic is conjured up by the word. A lot of leverage is abdicated to external authority in that name. I might well have “done my duty” in Vietnam at eighteen. How many heartless acts have we committed heeding duty, that great rationale?
Of course, duty does remain, as integral to life as caca. Neither one is a big deal unless we grovel in or hide from it; both are just natural. As we each have our unique gifts and perceptions to share, we have our own duties to carry out. The whisper of God available at each moment guides us and stills the confusion brought by such concepts as duty. Perhaps our true duty is to listen to that voice alone.
Duty is beauty in drag.
Martha O. Adams
My wife was pregnant with our third child. It carried and kicked like a boy. She dreamed it was a boy. We had two boys already. We assumed she would give birth only to boys.
I became entangled in a love affair with another woman. My affairs were always deeply entangling and painful: I did not just sleep with women, but tried to love them as well; I wanted their confirmation that I was not a sexist oppressor, but a caring and tender male. Of course they told me I was just like all the others, a collector of relationships, using females to affirm my ego. They told me this with a rage that was all the more intense because they loved me, and they knew I could be hurt.
So I had betrayed my wife and she was about to give birth. When I told my lover that I had to go home and take care of my wife, my lover tore my letters to bits and threw them in my face. I had betrayed every woman I ever loved. I thought about killing myself. I thought the kindest thing I could do for the female sex was to jump into a grave and pull the dirt over my head to save them the trouble.
My wife and I were snarling and screaming at each other when she went into labor. Instantly, our quarrel vanished, like a bad dream, and we drove to the hospital together, timing pains. During the birth I held her hands, wiped the sweat off her face, and gave her a whiff of gas whenever she called for it. Both of us wept copiously. The baby’s head crowned. In a final push, the baby oozed forth onto a table and mewed like a kitten. It was completely naked, helpless, tiny, covered with blood and slime, and it was a girl.
In answer to my guilty confusion and pain, my violated commitments, my sense of hopeless inadequacy, my groping attempts to love and be loved, another woman had been delivered into my hands. It was as if the universe were saying, “Here. Since you think you are not doing so well relating to woman, try this.”
It was an invitation to love without expecting anything in return, and I accepted. I fell in love with her on the spot. The bonding happened just like the birth: spontaneous, direct, and without credentials. It had nothing to do with my concepts of what kind of man I should be.
“Duty” is best when it comes from this ground. The universe takes care of its own. All we have to do is get out of the way.
Stephen T. Butterfield
Duty has a musty odor. It sits around getting old with other words that stifle: obedience, authority, compulsion, legality, sacrifice.
When I was thirteen, I met a woman who knew it was her duty to make a pilgrimage for peace. Peace Pilgrim traveled on foot and talked with people about peace in the world, in communities, in families, in the heart. When I met her in 1964, she had walked coast-to-coast seven times. (I was particularly impressed that she carried all she owned — a toothbrush, a comb, a handkerchief — in the pockets of her blue tunic.)
Recently, at a friend’s house, I found a pamphlet by Peace Pilgrim entitled Steps Toward Inner Peace. In it she writes, “The laws which govern this universe work for good as soon as we obey them, and anything contrary to these laws doesn’t last long.” Our duty, she says, is to do God’s will, to live according to universal laws, to reveal our uniqueness, and to make the contribution to this life that only we can make.
Cullowhee, North Carolina
I have a sick headache when I wake up. My daughter is wonderful; she has herself dressed and helps me get her little brother ready for school. He and his dad are awfully cranky. I rush them all through breakfast. Finally we all load up in my little car. The children are late. I watch them go to the office for their late passes. My son takes his time; his sister rushes and spills her triple box of crayons. I jump out of the car to help her.
My husband and I drive through the park, a shortcut to the doctor’s office. Why can’t I find the darn place? They made it sound so easy over the phone. I park and wander around looking for the correct office among all the other look alikes. My husband spots the right door, motions my way, and snaps, “Make it fast.”
I walk past him and into the office. I give the nurse my urine in a jar, and she has me take a seat. A few minutes later I’m called through another door.
I am told the fact, and then the other facts — cost, and so on. “Any questions?” “No,” I say. I find my husband on the sidewalk. I tell him the cost and he gets upset. He has been saving for a truck and now this small operation of mine will keep him from getting it. “You depress me,” he says.
I haven’t had breakfast yet. I start in on the dishes from last night and this morning. Having my hands in the hot water usually has a calming effect on me, but today I get sick to my stomach. My husband wants to wait a while; I would like to get it over with. I am scared to death. This is such an awful thing to do and my husband is mad at me! He won’t get an operation because he says it will hurt; he won’t let me because he says I will fool around.
My husband finally leaves for work saying something I can’t hear because I don’t want to. I call and make an appointment for next Saturday. I cry for a while and then finish the dishes. I finally sit down and eat some toast and an orange. It is time to pick up the children. I run into the bathroom, pull my dirty hair on top of my head, wipe on a little makeup, and, on my way out, pick up some toys and clothes that are lying in the hallway.
In the car again, the window open, I feel the warm breeze on my neck. I have been so cold lately; the sun is good. I wave to my kids. They hop into the car.
Once home, I don’t want to clean the house. I feel confused. I put my sweater on, grab some paper and a pen, and walk out to the back porch to sit and think. Not so many flies in January. I am alone for a few moments of quiet and warmth, and I just know I would feel good if I didn’t feel so bad.
World War II had ended. My Dad was home — at least that’s who my Mom said he was. I was almost five. He seemed faintly familiar. Some of his movements reminded me of someone out of my past, but other things he did seemed very strange. I was told he had shell shock. He cried. He screamed in the night. It was a recurring nightmare, he said, a replay of a battle in northern Italy: infantry fighting for days, then a truce to clear the battlefield of the debris of dead bodies; walls of bodies were built on both sides, then the fighting resumed. . . .
. . . another truce to clear the battlefield of the debris of dead bodies; walls of bodies were built on both sides, then the fighting resumed. . . .
On and on it went in northern Italy; night after night in the home of my childhood. It was their duty to God and country, they all said.
To this day, my father does not understand why I, as a grown woman, believe it is my duty to dedicate my life to world peace. Because I love you, Dad. I love you.
Nicole Christine Krekorian
I was tired when I arrived in Texas on that hot August afternoon. I had just spent two weeks vacationing with my family. They headed home while I went on to Dallas to attend a conference. After checking into my hotel room, I debated about whether to go walking. I walk for exercise, usually for at least two hours each day. On vacation I had gotten up at 5:30 each morning to take an eight- or nine-mile hike before a day of sightseeing. The regimen was demanding — I usually collapsed into bed each evening by 9. Besides experiencing the obvious rewards of walking, I use it as an extension of meditation, which I’ve practiced for ten years.
That afternoon I wrestled with whether to walk or to take a nap. The conflict was familiar: would I do the right thing and go for a walk or would I do what I felt like doing and flop into bed in my air-conditioned room? My Catholic upbringing won out; I put on my shorts, T-shirt, and running shoes. The sun was relentless, and the few people I saw seemed to move languidly, with no direction.
After about an hour and a half of wandering the streets, I was heading back to my hotel when I saw a pigeon in the gutter, helplessly flapping one wing. The image provoked turmoil in me. I knew that the pigeon was hurt and that I had to take responsibility for it. I didn’t want to. I asked myself what I would do with a badly wounded pigeon in a strange city. I knew the painful answer. I had to kill it.
I had confronted this issue twice recently. When my two cats had badly wounded a young bird, I snatched it away from them and wrapped it in a paper towel. I felt the bird’s tiny heart beating rapidly against my hand. Asking forgiveness, I quickly snapped its neck. I gently placed the wrapped remains in the trash can. The second time I was driving home from work, when I passed a half-mashed squirrel twitching in the road. I knew its torn body had no chance of surviving. I turned my car around and finished the job. I hate such acts.
I kept walking, telling myself that maybe the pigeon was already dead, maybe the wind had caught its wing and moved it. This was not very convincing, but it was a measure of how much I wanted to avoid taking responsibility for a wounded pigeon that afternoon in Texas. About half a block farther, I finally stopped, turned, and went back. The pigeon was alive and badly hurt. He was unable to stand or fly and could barely flap one wing. I looked into his eyes and saw pain, fear, and a desire to live. I realized that this was going to be harder to deal with than the other two animals. I decided to wrap him in something before killing him. Partly, I was afraid he might bite me when I picked him up; but even more, I needed a way to block out what I was about to do.
A few feet away I found a plastic grocery bag. As I bent over the twitching bird, a car drove by. I stood up quickly and pretended to walk away. I felt self-conscious. My behavior might appear cruel and perhaps bizarre to an observer. Alone again with the bird, I gently wrapped him in the bag, wrung his neck, and placed him in a nearby trash container.
The next day when I took my walk, the look in the bird’s eyes came back to me repeatedly. I have seen that look in other people and occasionally in my own eyes in the mirror. It wasn’t that the look in the bird’s eyes was human; the look was universal. The will to survive is a never-ending pulse, the engine that drives all life. It is the need to live, to be, to persist in a world where such effort is futile because nothing endures, everything changes, and all life ends in death. Therefore we suffer.
Is our suffering different from the pigeon’s? The major difference I see is that we create explanations for ours. We give our suffering meaning by expressing it as art, science, or religion. Thus perhaps we avoid, for a time, fully confronting the depth of our pain.
Did I do the right thing? Was killing the pigeon an act of expediency rather than compassion? Perhaps I should have looked for an animal shelter or a veterinarian. Maybe I shouldn’t have intervened at all. Whose suffering was I trying to alleviate — mine or the bird’s? I just don’t know.
Robert M. Anderson
The Blues Man in the Times Square subway has a new leather suit, with a reckless pillbox hat! I love this guy. He comes every day and plays bass, sings through an echo machine. You can’t always make out his words — they’re usually about his “baby.”
Funny that we call someone we love a baby. (In France women sometimes call their lovers mon vieux, translated in subtitles as “old chap.”)
We call our lovers “baby,” and our friends “old buddy.” Is this to show we pity them, perhaps? One has a duty to the tiny and superannuated, in fact.
The Blues Man ekes out a tiny living. There are few coins in his open box — while men delivering Glen Campbell songs under unisex hair do fine.
What keeps him singing, on the carpet he’s laid out in the December cold? Does he owe it to the Blues? I once saw a woman his age, with straightened hair, bring him a thermos. Does he do it for her?
The Isle of Manhattan
Duty calls. I call back, “Hey, Duty, leave me alone for a few hours, OK? I got some stuff to do.” I take a bath, stare out the window.
Duty taps me on the shoulder, clears her throat. “Yeah, I know,” I say, “three hours a day is very little work, but I’m a poet. Constraint inhibits my creativity.” I play with the cats, type out a few poems.
Duty props her feet up on the kitchen table and stares me in the face. “Look, Duty dear. I don’t buy that capitalist work ethic. I’m a free spirit. I have my lights to follow.”
Duty goes for a walk around the block. I make popcorn. I break a molar on an unpopped kernel, ruining my $500 root canal job and requiring a $700 post and crown. I consider asking my parents for money, but they’ve bought enough of my soul.
“Duty!” I holler. “I need a full-time job with benefits. Come and get me!”
She comes, she comes.
New York, New York
For twelve years I did my duty, and a man became spoiled by it, along with two cats and a dog. It did not seem it would come to this, to duty, when Richard and I met, fell in love, and made a wild move to the California coast with all our belongings in the back of a new blue Chevy pickup. It was a move we went into with high hopes and the smell of adventure. We had not yet considered the concept of duty, but lived every moment, gesture, and response willingly. We were stunned, years later, to discover how duty had wormed its way into our lives and chewed out all the fun.
Routine breeds duty breeds boredom breeds little ferret thoughts that creep into dreams with claws flexed, prying your eyes open to stare in the dark while you think of anything but duty. You fantasize about clearing out your life with a garage sale and hitting the road on a motorcycle; good sex like the first time you met; mornings without the dull scum of certainty; anything but laundry, homemade soup, cat food, and duty.
Sprung free of duty, my life hangs unstructured, loose on my shoulders. It moves with my body but is not warm. If I did my duty, I’d buy a good winter coat and lentils. I’d pay all my bills on time. Instead, it’s bacon at midnight, no socks under boots, and overdue notices. It’s laundry three weeks old and the painful absence of cats fat with duty. It’s writing with Debora, and gossip, words that flow in unmentionable directions. Sometimes it’s even frozen macaroni and cheese and cheap magazines when I absolutely defy duty to body and mind. Somehow the soul survives on this — she gets a kick out of it, she feels reborn.
Sometimes duty whispers in my dreams. She’s the one who would do well and live a miserable life. She says, “Look at you, you’re a mess! Balance the checkbook, write six hours a day, get a real job for heaven’s sake!” Sometimes she sounds like my mother, with a West Texas twang, “Get ahold of yourself, girl!”
Duty’s trick is to convince you to love her. But despite her beautiful face, if you leave duty long enough, you forget you ever loved her at all.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Duty, duty, oh yeah, duteeee. It always makes mine easier when I sing these words to the tune of “Louie Louie.” I have very few duties since I grew up. That was about the time I finally decided, at twenty-five, that it was not my duty to pretend I had accepted the Lord Jesus Christ into my heart so my grandmother could die happy. I realized I wouldn’t want anyone doing anything for me out of duty.
These days, caring for my husband and baby is an utter privilege. Visiting my parents and grandparents is a sort of guilt-ridden, love-and-gratitude gesture. Only my neighbor falls into the duty category. She is sixty-six, emphysemic, going blind, and living alone.
Once a week, I give up my precious parking space on these crowded San Francisco streets, and drive with my five-month-old daughter to pick up my neighbor on the corner where she waits. Together, the three of us “do” Safeway. Duty-duty, I sing to myself, dodging other shopping carts, feeling numbed by the inordinate number of choices. Invariably I spend too much money, buying things I’d never get at my neighborhood store: flavored waters, hair mousse, toilet bowl cleaner — things that look exotic and absolutely, unavoidably necessary while we inch along, listening to “Attention Safeway shoppers. . . .” Afterward, my neighbor buys two chocolate-covered ice cream bars, and we sit in my car and eat them. I do not tell her that, after being hugely pregnant, I’m trying not to eat sweets.
Once, when she had had an extra glass of wine, my neighbor told me that life was not meant to be lived alone, but that she would never admit it to anyone who asked whether she minded never marrying. Once, when I was sick and alone, she brought me lamb chops with mint, and freesias in a vase, all on a tray for dinner in bed.
Sometimes after shopping, I drive her by the apartment building that most recently had a fire, or a carnival she has heard about. She can still make out shapes and colors, and loves to imagine who is sifting through charred remains or riding higher and higher on the Ferris wheel. Duty-dutee, I sing to myself while we are stuck in traffic and my baby begins to cry. After, with baby under one arm, I help my neighbor carry her groceries into her apartment. Then baby and I collapse in the front seat of the car, illegally parked in front of the fire hydrant; I feed her, and we watch people walking up and down our street. During these moments, I see things I wouldn’t see otherwise: a homeless man scrutinizing a better-dressed man eating dates one by one out of a bag; the plug hanging out of a homeless woman’s electric blanket, as if she needed only to get the right socket to find some sort of relief; the way a teenage girl puffs on a cigarette as if she owned the world already just because she controls the smoke that she lets out in a slow stream. After having carried my restless daughter over my shoulder while pushing a cart through Safeway, I can really appreciate how unwieldy a shopping cart full of rolled-up blankets and odd pots and pans must be for a young man with his feet wrapped in brown paper bags, as he heads up the incline toward the Civic Center where Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity will serve soup for dinner.
If it weren’t for duty, I’d be home looking out my back window at cherry blossoms just coming out, telling my daughter how lucky we are to live in this flat with a back yard, telling her the songs she hears are that of a mourning dove and a robin. Now, as a bus roars past, I sing to her how lucky we are to be on this street together, how lucky we are to be part of a world that is not perfect, that needs us in ways as different but as crucial as the ways we need it, and over a piercing siren I tell her how unbelievably lucky I am to be holding her, watching her smile carve dimples in her peach-rose cheeks once again. I tell her I hope she never feels she has to act out of duty for me, but that duty is one of those things that both keeps us from being too utterly happy and allows us to see more of the world than we had ever hoped to be let in on.
San Francisco, California