Choices There and Back

Driving south down snow-banked Rt. 41 last Saturday from South Egremont (Massachusetts) to Salisbury and Lakeville (Connecticut), and further down the road to Millerton (New York)—three States so close together geographically yet so immediately, identifiably different—was a journey into my past, a past lived in these exact places more than forty years ago, with my entire adult lifetime lived since then.

I was a young man then, naïve, and fresh from graduate school at Trinity College, Dublin, working at my first job, as managing editor of the nonprofit photographic publishing firm Aperture. That I had been hired with no experience other than my education was a small miracle. I remember the day I first met Michael Hoffman, Aperture’s publisher, at his brownstone on East 36th Street in Manhattan. From the moment I walked in the door he assumed I would be taking the role. Michael loved that I had this graduate degree in Anglo-Irish literature, that I had gone to Bowdoin, that I was this WASPY guy so different from himself. Michael was a difficult, complex man yet throughout the time we worked together he was invariably kind and generous to me. I remember, too, spending my first night at Michael’s historic and beautiful house in Shekomeko, when I was greeted at the door by his very young son and daughter who asked me if I was the new boss. Less than a year before Michael’s wife had been killed in a car accident on the Taconic Parkway, leaving the children motherless. Since that night Michael had alienated more than five housekeepers; hence the children’s question. Was I there to care for them?

He opened a world to me that I could only have dreamed possible. Those four years opened so many doors—and so many that I chose to close.

How could I possibly have seen my future life from my house on Hammertown Road in Salisbury? That of the choices I had then the ones I chose led me to marriage and three sons, one of whom just closed on the house in South Egremont, coming full circle from my past to this present. And that despite the many trials in my life since that time of youthful confusion and exploration I can look back and be content with the outcome, the outcome that has been my life.

What of the choices I rejected: the might-have-beens had I not been so fearful of the consequences, fearful of leaping into a different kind of freedom? Those touchpoints of memory, with people long gone… and long gone from my life but for what they gave me, making me the man I am. I cannot drive down those country roads without these ghosts speaking to me still—as strong today as ever. One friend from those days is still there; we haven’t spoken for more than thirty-five years. He had greatly objected to my marriage and that objection proved too deep to overcome with any kind of continued friendship. It was a choice I made, one of many I made that cut one lifetime from another. Now that these years have passed is there a new opportunity? Or let the nighttime of the past remain sleeping.

To name the names of friends who made my life then, and what it became: Michael Hoffman, Arthur Bullowa, Anne Kennedy, Steve Baron–all at Aperture; Anne’s Millbrook boyfriend Christopher Kent; Jay and Steve from whom I rented Willow Tree House; Jonathan Williams, Tom Meyer and the universe of Jargon: Paul and Nancy Metcalf, Philip Hanes, Doug and Bingle Lewis, Guy Davenport; Leslie Katz and The Eakins Press (and Leslie taking me to lunch with Monroe Wheeler); Lincoln Kirsten; Dale McConathy; Christopher Hewat, still in Salisbury.

Someone else, last seen one snow-filled night at the Red Lion Inn in nearby Stockbridge. I believe she lives in Amherst. Another choice.

Someone else, memories of the Interlaken Inn, and years afterward, gone, died while we lived in Australia. Another choice.

Others that came with my work and turned into friendships, gone. Jonathan and the Jargon Society. More choices.

How could I possibly have seen any of this future, a future that led to Manhattan and Spain and Singapore and Australia and Westchester and San Francisco and now Boston—a lifetime lived with choice after choice after choice. With love lost and found and lost again. Love hinted at but never realized.

Now that we’re almost settled in our house
I’ll name the friends that cannot sup with us
Beside a fire of turf in th’ ancient tower,
And having talked to some late hour
Climb up the narrow winding stair to bed:
Discoverers of forgotten truth
Or mere companions of my youth,
All, all are in my thoughts to-night being dead.

The compensation, the grand reward for all the choices I’ve made—and for those I chose not to make—are my three sons, who would never have become had those other choices been made.

So, for all the choices I chose not to make I’m immensely grateful.

And grateful for all the new choices in life ahead…that I may or may not choose to choose.

The God Who Loves You
It must be troubling for the god who loves you
To ponder how much happier you’d be today
Had you been able to glimpse your many futures.
It must be painful for him to watch you on Friday evenings
Driving home from the office, content with your week—
Three fine houses sold to deserving families—
Knowing as he does exactly what would have happened
Had you gone to your second choice for college,
Knowing the roommate you’d have been allotted
Whose ardent opinions on painting and music
Would have kindled in you a lifelong passion.
A life thirty points above the life you’re living
On any scale of satisfaction. And every point
A thorn in the side of the god who loves you.
You don’t want that, a large-souled man like you
Who tries to withhold from your wife the day’s disappointments
So she can save her empathy for the children.
And would you want this god to compare your wife
With the woman you were destined to meet on the other campus?
It hurts you to think of him ranking the conversation
You’d have enjoyed over there higher in insight
Than the conversation you’re used to.
And think how this loving god would feel
Knowing that the man next in line for your wife
Would have pleased her more than you ever will
Even on your best days, when you really try.
Can you sleep at night believing a god like that
Is pacing his cloudy bedroom, harassed by alternatives
You’re spared by ignorance? The difference between what is
And what could have been will remain alive for him
Even after you cease existing, after you catch a chill
Running out in the snow for the morning paper,
Losing eleven years that the god who loves you
Will feel compelled to imagine scene by scene
Unless you come to the rescue by imagining him
No wiser than you are, no god at all, only a friend
No closer than the actual friend you made at college,
The one you haven’t written in months. Sit down tonight
And write him about the life you can talk about
With a claim to authority, the life you’ve witnessed,
Which for all you know is the life you’ve chosen.

Carl Dennis, “The God Who Loves You” from Practical Gods. Copyright © 2001 by Carl Dennis.