It was warm all day today, with occasional rain showers. By the time I got home from work, and Carol and I got out to take a walk, it was ten o’clock. We stepped out on to the front porch. “Let me grab a hat,” said Carol, and went back inside for a moment. “Boy, it got chilly,” I said. “This is the way it should be,” said Carol. I agreed with her. I don’t miss snow, but I do find it disconcerting when it gets too warm in the middle of winter.
The tomato plant that is growing in the container on the little second-floor deck outside our kitchen window has suddenly started to grow like crazy. This summer, it got some kind of leaf wilt, most of the leaves turned light brown, and we thought it was going to die. In September, I trimmed off the dead leaves so it would look more attractive, and hoped that the few remaining green tomatoes on it would eventually turn ripen and turn red.
Through the month of October, the tomato plant just sat there, not doing much. It didn’t get any worse, so I didn’t have the heart to uproot it and throw it in the compost pile; but it didn’t get any better, either. And then when the rains began, the plant suddenly started growing. At first there were a few new green leaves. Now, in the past week or so, it has really started growing again: several entirely new stems have started to grow, and there are even lots of new little yellow flowers. Whatever caused the leaf wilt hasn’t gone away — some of the new little leaves have already started to turn brown — but for the moment the plant is able to grow faster than the wilt can attack it.
I’m in the middle of watching some gossip fly around a certain circle of friends and acquaintances. But before I go any further, I had better define what I mean by gossip. Of course “gossip” can mean nasty, ill-informed rumors, but there is also an older sense of the word, where a gossip is a friend that you’d hang out with and exchange gossip that is a sort of passing the time of day — as in this passage from Langland’s Piers Plowman, as “done into modern English by the Rev. Professor Skeat” [London: Alexander Morning Ltd., 1905]:
Now beginneth Sir Glutton to go to his shrift;
His course is to kirkward, as culprit to pray. (305)
But Betty the brewster just bade him “Good-morrow,”
And asked him therewith as to whither he went.
“To holy church haste I, to hear me a mass,
And straight to be shriven, and sin nevermore.”
“Good ale have I, gossip; Sir Glutton, assay it!” (310)
In this older sense of the word, a gossip is a friend, and the everyday conversation that such friends have between themselves — talking about mutual friends, family, people they know, what’s happening in the village — is also called gossip. Considered in this sense, gossip is the talk between friends that lets us make sense out of our human relationships. Of course, as we talk about our friends and acquaintances, gossip can turn into rumor and speculation, and rumor or speculation can get nasty, and it is from this subset of gossip that gossip as a whole has come to mean something bad.
I’m watching this unfold right now: human relationships that have gotten a little strained, which has turned everyday conversation between friends into rumor and speculation. I’m lucky: this happens to be a good group of people, and they’re pulling themselves back from the rumor and speculation, proving that gossip can mean what it meant in Piers Plowman. (Now it will be interesting to find out how many people I hear from who think that I’m talking about them, and their gossip. The people I’m talking about don’t read this blog, so if you’re reading this, it’s not about you.)
These days, we mostly think gossip is bad by definition. But that is incorrect. Gossip is, in fact, essential to being human; having friends who are our gossips is also essential. As I said before, the primary way we sort through our many human relationships is to talk about them to friends — to gossip with our gossips. Just because some gossip is bad (and just because some gossips are nasty rumormongers) doesn’t mean we should stop gossiping — in the same way that just because I once happened to eat a piece of spoiled meat and threw up doesn’t mean I should stop eating. The art of gossip is knowing whom to choose for your gossips, and knowing how to avoid the nasty bits of gossip, the gossip equivalent of spoiled meat.
A gray day of rain,
a bright day of cool weather:
green shoots on bare earth.
I’ve been trying to write something. I’ve been trying to write it all day long. Sometimes, I think it’s getting better, but then I get it to a point where I realize that the whole thing is fatally flawed. So I scrap what I’ve written, and start writing again. And pretty soon run into another dead end.
I’ve given up on it for now — I put it aside, and maybe I’ll never pick it up again. But somehow I do think there’s something there that’s worth saving — if only I could figure out what —
It’s a warm evening. I just got up to stretch my legs, and I walked around the church grounds. There are crickets singing in the rose garden in front of the Main Hall, and I stopped to listen for a minute. I’ve heard hardly any crickets this summer, perhaps because the weather has been too cool. When I got back to my office, I realized that there were crickets singing in the little garden outside my office. It’s a peaceful sound. I opened my door to hear them better.
Carol and I went out for a walk. It was dark and drizzling rain. A few cars whizzed by on the wet pavement, and aside from that it was quiet. Then I heard fireworks somewhere off to our right.”I wonder who’s having fireworks tonight?” I said. Then we heard fireworks in front of us. “Maybe it’s the Giants game,” said Carol. “Of course,” I said, “they must’ve won.” Later, a car full of people drove past us, the windows down in spite of the rain. The people in the car shouted something that sounded like “Wa waba!” A few minutes later another car drove by, an orange and black piece of cloth flapping out a rear window. When we got to downtown San Mateo, we could hear blaring horns and people shouting down along Fourth Avenue.
It rained today; usually not much more than a drizzle or a mist, barely enough to feel on your face, but a few times I could hear the rain pattering on the roof. It didn’t rain all day, nor even the majority of the day, but it felt like a rainy day. The air is humid, and outdoors the smells are more intense: the smell of the pine tree near our house, the smell of the big Dumpster we walked by, the smells coming up out of the storm drains, the smell of some flower we walked by. Everything feels damp, and the bath towels we used this morning still haven’t dried out. This feels like the real beginning to this year’s rainy season.
The young man hailed me as I was about to go into the church kitchen to fix my dinner. He wondered if we had money we could give him; he was out of work; and so on. He didn’t seem like a con artist, or an addict, and I didn’t recognize him as one of the regulars who come back every few months with the same threadbare story. I told him we didn’t have money to give out, that what little money we got went to members of friends of the church. We talked a little about his specific problem. When I finally let it slip that I was close to someone who had been looking for work for a long time, he began to give me advice to pass along: here’s the best approach to use in interviews these days; here are the current hot Web sites for job searches; here’s the advice he gives for structuring resumes; and so on. It was really good advice. It was clear that he was dead serious about his job search. Just then Amy, the senior minister, happened to walk by. I asked if she had any money in her discretionary fund. She said someone had just given her some money back. She gave the money to the young man. Do I have to pay it back? he asked. No, no, we said, if you want to that’s fine and we’ll then give it to someone else, but just take it. He took the money, and I told him that if he was going to get the rest of what he needed by tomorrow, he’d better head off. He wrote down the best job search Web sites for me to pass on to the person I knew who is looking for work, and then he went on his way.
Update: He came back and repaid the money.