As if Any of us Can Know

Yesterday I drove two-and-a-half hours in a southeasterly direction, through Vermont and into New Hampshire, where the leaves have only just begun to turn, to purchase a load of floor tile from a man who lived on the banks of a river. His name was Tom, and his accent I took for Boston Irish, though I could be wrong. He was perhaps ten years my senior, and he moved in an uncomfortable way. He told me he was moving from the house he’d been building for many years. He was fixing up a school bus and he’d be living in that. I didn’t ask why, and he didn’t offer, but of all the reasons I could imagine a man in his mid-50’s moving from a nice (if unfinished) house on the banks of a river and into a school bus, none seemed absent hardship. He had two friends with him, and they helped us load boxes of tile into the bed of my truck, 60 boxes in total, each box at least 30 pounds and probably more, until the truck had settled deeply into its suspension. I drove away, pleased with my purchase, astonished to find darkness already falling, hoping to be home before too late an hour.

Closer to home, hungry and low on gas, I stopped at a convenience store to refuel truck and body, and on the way to the bathroom, passed a woman sitting at a small table. She was eating from a box of candy, and next to the box of candy was an inhaler and one of those cellophane-wrapped Danishes. She offered a wan smile as I walked by, and the sadness in her face was unmistakable. I said hello, did my business, got back in my overloaded truck, hurriedly ate a sandwich I regretted even before I’d finished it, and continued my drive, thinking about all the hardship and heartbreak in this world, the stuff we all carry, albeit in varying degrees, and some more visibly than others. Thinking about Tom and his school bus, and how as we were loading, I’d found a scrap of paper taped to one of the boxes with a diagram for how he’d planned to lay out the tile. And now it was heading north in the dark of a warm October night, in the back of a rusty, low-hanging Ford, in possession of a man with plans of his own, as if any of us can know what the future might bring.

32 thoughts on “As if Any of us Can Know”

  1. Ben, Your writing makes me “feel” Tom’s disappointment and “ache” for the candy-woman’s sadness. It also makes me salute your keen awareness of all you encounter as well as your amazing gift to share it with others. Thanks!

  2. I’ve learned well how hard it is to see into the future. I do feel a pain, a hesitation when I go to to collect a good deal, and its obvious that the thing is being fire-saled because of hardship.
    What the heck are you doing with all that tile? I thought you wood floored your house. I remember Chris hoping you weren’t “just standing there” sanding a hole in the floor.

    1. I’ve got use for about a third of it… bathroom in the new place, some hearths, an entry way. The rest I’ll probably resell. The price was a bit too good to pass up.

  3. This post made tears well up in my eyes. I relate to this post on a very personal level. There is, indeed, so much hardship in this life. In some ways it pisses me off that I chose in my younger days to believe a guru when he said the natural state of man is bliss. It led me to repudiate any discomfort that came my way and resist it. Now at this late stage of my life I believe the natural state of man is suffering and we have to figure out a way to appreciate the moments when it is not suffering and to not let suffering be our master. If we have to sell our tile then we sell it. If we have to live in a school bus then we live there and find the joy of living in a school bus. It is much harder to find joy in eating candy and Danishes wrapped in plastic. Maybe next time you’ll give her that sandwich you did not enjoy. Not wagging my finger. Just an idea.

    1. This is a very long shot. Do you happen to be the Ellen Miles who writes The Puppy Place series of children’s books? If so, My boys recently discovered your books and LOVE them. Would be tickled pink to know if you are one and the same. If not, that’s cool, too. 🙂

  4. And your book was next to Danielle Steel on the library display table! What were they thinking?
    Your stories are heartfelt and thought provoking.

      1. If it makes you that happy, I’d be glad to pair up your books with Danielle Steel in my library. It might offer some amusement in the underlying sadness of autumn…. A more apt choice might be Daniel Mason’s new novel The Good Soldier. You’d love this book.

  5. How beautiful. I can’t add anything more meaningful than what the others commented, but I love Renee Benoit’s perspective. Hard lesson though it is, learning to live with suffering graciously is the most significant lesson I’ll need to master, for sure.
    Never stop writing Ben.

  6. I bought one of those Vitamix blenders when this guy had to close his restaurant, it was $40 bucks. Some other lady drove an hour to try and get it, but I beat her to it. She might have thought that if she told me how far she drove, I might be nice and give it to her….but I wasn’t feeling very charitable that day and sometimes you feel the Capitalism pulsing through your blood as you block out other’s humanity and think “MINE!”. Not a proud moment, but whose to say she wasn’t lying through her teeth? :} The dude closing the restaurant was pissed, and let everyone know why and how he felt about it (business was bad, but then again….who opens a restaurant on the busiest street in downtown BY YOURSELF??), which made paying for the items a little awkward. Strange world for sure. I admire how you are so observant of others, especially those at the bottom of the hierarchy.

  7. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You’re a wonderful “noticer.” I really value that skill and it always shows in your writing. Thanks for that!

  8. It is amazing to me that in our country of “plenty” we have so many people who can’t fend for themselves. We have soup kitchens everywhere and food pantries along with them. More billionaires than ever. People crowd funding to pay for medical treatment. When will it all STOP! Thanks Ben, I very much enjoy your thought provoking writing.

    1. A lot of people who can’t fend for themselves have made sub-optimal decisions that contributed to their difficult situations. Some of these sub-optimal decisions are driven by circumstances, such as the man/woman who drops out of school to care for a sick parent or to care for younger siblings when an undocumented alien mother is arrested and deported. I know of a family that had managed a ranch in Colorado for nearly 50 years and suddenly lost their employment when the ranch was sold and the new owner chose to bring in his own people to run it. A really sad situation that they had no control over. The new owner has agree to let them stay in their home rent free for up to a year, so that should help them in their transition.

      I doubt that there are many self-made billionaires who aren’t smart people who took greater than average risks to reap greater than average rewards.

    2. Well, the cost of living rising and wages staying stagnant does not help. You can live frugally, but medical emergencies happen. cars break down, water tanks fail and this all brings out stress which shows on people’s faces and in their attitudes.
      Yes some people make bad decisions, but a lot of folks follow the so-called rules and still get burned. This is incredibly frustrating and very sad.
      As the Declaration says, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. There is no guarantee of that happiness.
      As for the billionaires, some inherited it, some stole it and some worked for it. When you are born with a silver spoon you have a greater advantage. You can’t waste it and you have to make the most of it. But money is not everything.
      The kindness Ben showed by just saying “Hello” may have saved that person’s life that day.
      Have a lovely weekend.

      1. Agreed, bad stuff happens to many good people through not fault of their own, such as the ranchers who lost their livelihood, their way of life, because the ranch that they had called home for 3 generations was sold and they weren’t retained.

        Ben’s act of saying “Hello” to a stranger in passing could just as easily have been a proforma response to the woman’s wan smile as it was an act of kindness, just as many southerners say “sir” and “ma’am” in a proforma manner without any actual respect behind the words. Only Ben knows what he was feeling and what his intentions were when he said “hello”.

        I expect to have an excellent weekend with the annual trip to Vala’s Pumpkin Patch on the agenda for tomorrow AM and a few hours putting the garden to bed for the winter in the PM. ‘Hope that your weekend is looking equally good.

        PS – I’m hoping to become one of those billionaires later tonight courtesy of MegaMillions, 10/19/18. When I win, I expect my charitable trust to fund many good works in communities where I will have interests, wish me luck.

  9. This was great – got a little sniffly reading it thinking big thoughts. You should try your hand at fiction – loosely based in the reality of life around of course, you could get a lot of middle aged women reading prose like that in a book club…

  10. Hard to believe in the tumult of the world’s pain now, and into the far reaches of the eternal past, that plans really have anything at all to do with where we go and what sort of reality we find ourselves in, either collectively or individually. A very wise man whom I listen to often begs the question repeatedly, “How can I get my self out of the way of becoming that which I already am?” And maybe the shelter that houses that being or the cloak of livelihood or the family that circles is really quite inconsequential to what the universe has in store for us, if we would only stop fighting to send the stream uphill, relinquish our plans, which inevitably cling to the avoidance of suffering….or maybe those of us who cannot help but spin experiences into words of consequence are not trying to create anything at all more profound than the flimsy walls of a cardboard vessel for some squares of tile on an alternate journey from the one at first designed? And maybe we should just leave it at that – the rest of us, the listeners, the watchers, the readers of witness bearers (or maybe really, they are baring witness for us to see it better, even if it only lasts a moment) – let it settle in and be, in all its heavy uncertainty with no need to burden it with weightier supposition. And just be quiet. Get out of the way of our selves and listen.

    1. “And just be quiet. Get out of the way of ourselves and listen.”

      Well, yes.

      Tell me more about this wise man you listen to. Like: What’s his name?

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