In the glooming
The charming, older woman, an acquaintance of perhaps 30 years, drove her shopping cart out of the coffee aisle, bound for the checkout line, just as I emerged from ice cream aiming for the line next door. Side by side, surveying the healthfulness of one another's grocery choices, we had a moment to talk. How are you? You look well. The kids? All fine.
I concluded with, Merry Christmas. She replied, I don't think anyone is merry anymore.
The ensuing silence was freighted, as they say.
But that was merely checkout line talk. At a Christmas party a few days later, an occasion when one expects to spar conversationally on a higher plane, there was a handsome, trim, dark haired older woman, appealingly crinkly around the eyes and the mouth. She had been - perhaps still was - an outdoorsy sort who, I imagined, climbed mountains, gardened, sailed, played tennis, and smiled endlessly, just the lovely sort of stranger you'd like to get to know at a Christmas party. And, though she was not a Vineyarder, she had a Vineyard - or, rather, a Chappaquiddick - connection, a conservationist relation, who pulled up stakes and headed south, revulsed, she explained, at the devastation to the environment.
On Chappaquiddick? I asked, incredulous.
Everywhere, she said, her smile lines plunging. I concluded she meant Chappaquiddick and the rest of the globe.
For someone who believes that the earth's climate may be warming, but that the earth itself is not likely to become a tasty Tater Tot anytime soon - or who thinks that while there are desperately sad folks spread in appalling numbers around the globe, most folks, and certainly most Islanders, are way beyond merry, verging on delighted (especially with themselves); or that although the mortgage mess and the housing slump may be enormously disappointing in widespread parts of the country, their effects appear to be limited here and in other favored areas, and unlikely to bring the nation's economy to its knees, no more than high crude oil prices have - your first impulse may be to question the health of your ability to despair. Perhaps, like you, some others have overlooked the enhanced desperation of mankind and its earthly home.
But, let me offer some words of modest comfort. Do not doubt yourself. If you are concerned, but not despairing, good. If you are keeping careful track, but not obsessing, fine. If you are able to venture more than two or three sentences into a conversation with a stranger or a friend you see rarely, without rearing back and launching a warning that the food is poisoned, or that the atmosphere is befouled, the seas are middens, the economy is in shambles, the NRA has the Congress by the short hairs, the Democrats will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the evangelists are no better than the European invaders who insisted on supplanting the Great Spirit with the Holy Trinity (and what about the near-eradication of the buffalo), and that Mitt Romney has a secret harem of wives he's itching to install in the White House, then you may reasonably assume you are emotionally healthy.
If you are merely and occasionally merry, not unrestrainedly euphoric nor resigned to the conviction that your life - and more importantly the lives of all around you, whether they know it or not - are eternally blighted, take heart, you're okay. On the other hand, if life is a cause to which you have committed yourself, rather than a daily struggle, albeit not an unpleasant one, you need help. If you regard every friend, as well as every stranger you meet, as a member of the audience; if your anthem is "Wind turbines uber alles", set to the tune of "Amazing Grace"; if you are secretly stocking the shelves in Cronig's with tiny, pretend packages labeled "Say no to trophy houses" or "Eat only plantains"; if you are contemplating a possible new zoning bylaw that requires all Island homeowners to shut the lights off and go to bed at seven each evening, but no hanky panky on account of the population explosion - you need to be institutionalized.
Which is not to say that, as this new year begins, the gloomiest among us are wrong. You may find that they are right, in full or in part. You may live to regret that you have been so blind to the impending horror of it all. You may be abashed by your mindless innocence in the face of the onrushing, calamitous fever about which we've been so often warned. You may, as your world crumbles, beg for redemption for yourself and the foolishly smiling host round about - but merry as you've been, better not to count on it.