Each day a half-dozen neighbors walk or drive by the yard and stop to talk. Nothing of great substance is exchanged. Depending on the tenor of the relationship, we kid each other, share anecdotes about the weather, swap stories about recent visits we have made to other parts of the country. Joan will be riding horses descended from a Viking line in Iceland soon. Jack, an old friend, stops to talk while swinging a bag; he picks up trash along the road on his long circuits. Barry reveals snippets of history about the half mile that extends in a circle from the corner where our house sits. I showed him an old horseshoe, homemade nails still in place, that I had found in the field next-door, and he knew it had belonged to either Jim or Joey, big horses his grandfather had owned. He had driven them as a child.
These moments matter.
Peasant Wedding, 1568
In Museum Hours, a 2012 film, a museum attendant, one of those quiet men and women who watch us as we look, strikes up a friendship with a visitor from Montreal, a woman who has come to Vienna to sit by the bed of a cousin, a dying, comatose relation she barely knows. The cousin has no one else. The woman is all but alone in her life, as is the attendant. She comes to the Museum. She has little money so she spends time away from the hospital room there. He engages her in conversation. They begin a temporary friendship – they share meals and drink and conversation about their lives, intimate details sometimes, but no romance comes of this. Both want a connection. That is all and everything.
Wedding Dance In the Open Air, 1566
The center of the movie is Bruegel’s paintings; the Museum has one large room devoted solely to his intricate, wild, humane work which portrayed Dutch peasants engaged in a daily life in close contact with nature. Some paintings are an extension of Hieronymus Bosch, apocalyptic, bloody, and dark, but as Bruegel aged, his compositions grew warmer. He had “sympathy and affection for country folk” and looked to render “universal even the most trivial events” of daily life.* More than anything else, he shows them in close contact with each other – arguing, drinking, laughing, dancing, celebrating, working together to build or herd or hunt, silently walking – in the vast numbers of human beings who populated his canvases, he gives us individual faces and bodies, postures and expressions. He presents them in all their inextricable, inevitable linkings. For a 450 year old painter, he is utterly modern.
I think we are always on the lookout for reminders that we exist outside of the tedious hum of our own thoughts. In Act II of Waiting for Godot, Estragon and Vladimir, wanderers, speaking about others and themselves, say “They talk about their lives. … To have lived is not enough for them.” And later: “We are incapable of keeping silent.” Nor should we. Nor must we. So we meet for breakfasts and drink coffee and tell our small tales or we drape ourselves over fences and chatter, settle into the window seat and begin a traveler’s conversation on the way to Barbados or London or Santa Fe, or stop on an empty road, windows down and driver to driver we quickly tie each other together with a few sentences.
More than a certification of our own lives is on the line in these exchanges. We want to know what others have seen and done, how their years have added up. We are greedy for loops and twists of life wider than our own — for the circus, the tragedy, the absurd, the humane, the melody and dissonance of other voices and their stories. I cannot think of a misanthrope who ever seemed happy. It is another’s voice we always desire, and the surprises it unfolds and the warm murmurs we each give away.