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The River Diaries

Wednesday, August 16, 2000

I have not walked by the river for many days. Both Perry and I find walking a little more difficult now. He, my dear and almost constant companion, is growing weaker. A frightened, sometimes foolish dog, he always regained his joy when he was given back his dog life—earth under his paws, a multitude of growing things to smell, a pond to splash in, and small amounts of doggy work, like walking ahead in the woods to make sure all the deer had scattered. Now we both spend many more hours in the apartment, he sleeping almost all the time, his tongue hanging out between his closed lips. Like a puppy again, he has accidents, not able to get through the night, and so I put down layers of newspaper and he tries his best. On walks he lags behind, his head low. Thin he is. An old lover still takes him to the country every weekend, where he sleeps on the deck, but without the embarrassment of soiling his home. Almost ten years ago, Lee and I saved his life; now Perry and I keep our eyes on each other, gauging the flow of life.

The source of my own walking problems remains a mystery, but I have grown accustomed to pain and slowness. I know the envy now of the fleetfooted, the solid thud of heel to pavement, to running tracks. My eyes grow larger as my gait grows slower; looking becomes a way to walk, to keep up, to go ahead. Last night, I went to dinner with two dear women friends, one in her eighties, the other in her seventies. They flanked me with their slender bodies, protecting me on both sides. We moved in unison down the dark city street, I the thick slow center, they the alert guardians, patrolling the edges. So all this goes on—and I write these words to readers I do not know and wonder how it all seems.

To my friends like Lepa in Belgrade and my old student Namita and any others who indulge my vanity by walking in this garden, and to my love, Di, so far away that only words can stretch the distance, I want to reassure and say that my anger at the failings of our politicians, of world leaders who turn their backs on poverty, on the waste of so much money when so many need it desperately still rages in me. In The New York Times last week, on the front page, the contradictions that condemn our age: Cheney, the Republican vice-presidential candidate smiling at his $20-million retirement package from a five-year job at an oil company whose hold on him is suspicious / a mother, her face turned away from her two children, worried, speaks about the 20-page form she had to fill out to get food stamps. Do not let the mother cheat, the government demands, don’t let her get undeserved milk or bread in these richest of times. Two months ago, a picture of a white man on the front lawn of his Hampton home, wondering how many more thousands of footage he can add to his oceanside mansion / two grieving parents stare at a smoldering garbage dump where their two children, scavenging for food, died, buried in an avalanche of waste.

There are humiliations that come with the wearing down of the body, with the loosening of muscle and the slowness of gait. Illness is part of our organic order, frailty is a human time, but the willed and ordained murdering of hope and appetite, the rationed doses of beauty or of vista, of care or schooling by those in power over so much of the world—these are the most terrible distortions of the human form. I read Dickens now, his novels of the 1850s and ’60s, because he knew this stalking terror of official cruelty so well—he knew and railed against the stone face of politicians.

It is true that How Not To Do It was the great study and object of all public departments and professional politicians all around the Circumlocution Office. It is true that every new premier and every new government, coming in because they upheld a certain thing as necessary to be done, were no sooner come in, than they applied their utmost faculties to discovering How Not To Do It... Because the Circumlocution Office went on mechanically, every day, keeping this wonderful, all-sufficient wheel of statesmanship, How Not To Do It, in motion.

Little Dorrit, 1857 (Penguin Classics, p. 110)

I have left the river it seems, but not really. This is how my life flows now—in fits and starts around the edges, the places where I have anything to say about it, but out in the middle of things where the tide runs strong, I am making my way to the sea.


© 2000 Joan Nestle

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