Tuesday, December 29, 2009

`Pleasing in Familiar Life'

One of my oldest friends, Suzanne Murphy, is the now-retired high-school English teacher who from 1968 to 1970 taught me grammar, composition, creative writing and the difference between “finished” and “done.” She also taught me to be very suspicious of the adverb “very.” With her I read Mr. Sammler’s Planet as it was serialized in The Atlantic Monthly. She was, and remains, a friend I trust implicitly, my first confidante. I never set out to erase the natural teacher-student imbalance. If I had, I would have proven myself an unworthy student, but time has softened our differences and we can call each other, without a false show of equality, “friend.”

Her Christmas card arrived one day after the holiday and contained a photo of her sitting with her daughter, two grandchildren and another former English teacher of mine – the wonderful woman who introduced me to Yeats. In her note Suzanne writes:

“I remain grateful for a casual sentence you said on your last visit: `I don’t fix things.’ I mulled it over for a long time and have retired from fixing.”

She could have claimed the advice as her own because I have no memory of uttering it. I’m not certain what it means and Suzanne offers no gloss, but I’m happy to finally begin repaying my unpayable debt. Perhaps the words represent an acceptance of limits, a hard, essential lesson, though I’m unaware of any limits to our friendship. Suzanne merits the finest encomium memory serves up – lines from Samuel Johnson’s Rambler #64, published Oct. 27, 1750:

“That friendship may be at once fond and lasting, there must not only be equal virtue on each part, but virtue of the same kind; not only the same end must be proposed, but the same means must be approved by both. We are often, by superficial accomplishments and accidental endearments, induced to love those whom we cannot esteem; we are sometimes, by great abilities, and incontestable evidences of virtue, compelled to esteem those whom we cannot love. But friendship, compounded of esteem and love, derives from one its tenderness, and its permanence from the other; and therefore, requires not only that its candidates should gain the judgment, but that they should attract the affections; that they should not only be firm in the day of distress, but gay in the hour of jollity; not only useful in exigencies, but pleasing in familiar life; their presence should give cheerfulness as well as courage, and dispel alike the gloom of fear and of melancholy.”

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