Pruning (Second Try)



More (finally) on a topic from two months ago. 


At the time, I made this observation about pruning: “None of that explains the feeling you get, though, when after much experience, you are holding the branch of a tree in one hand and your trusty pruning saw in the other. It’s reminiscent of that tingly, dazed feeling that sometimes overcomes you when someone is cutting your hair. Or a stranger’s arm is grazing yours on the armrest between your seats. What, then, is the source of that feeling?”


And my answer was that there are moments when, despite ourselves, we are drawn out of our lifelong contemplation of what the novelist Walker Percy calls the “self sucking everything into itself.”


Pulling off at an overlook, he took the Luger from the glove compartment of the Mercedes. As he stepped out, he caught sight of a shadowy stranger in the mirror fixed to the door. But he quickly saw that the stranger was himself. The reason the figure appeared strange was that it was reflected by two mirrors, one the rearview mirror, the other the dark windowglass of the Mercedes door.


He smiled. Yes, that was it. With two mirrors it is possible to see oneself briefly as a man among men rather than a self sucking everything into itself – just as you can see the back of your head in a clothier’s triple mirror.


He gazed down at the wrist of the hand holding the Luger. Light and air poured into the wrist. It was neither thick nor thin. Who can see his own wrist? It was not a wrist but The Wrist, part of the hole into which everything was sucked and drained out.


There are rare moments, in other words, when each of us is liberated from the prison cell of our own narcissism, the walls, floor, and ceiling of which are covered, naturally, with images of ourselves. (“Sort of like your blog is for you, Jim”: I just know that’s what you’re thinking.)


Maybe it’s unexpectedly seeing a reflection of yourself, as Percy’s Will Barrett does in The Second Coming (1980). Or maybe you’re wandering around, lost, separated from your group, a little frightened, and then you get a glimpse of this mammoth 2000-year-old tree, and in the split second before you think I have to get a picture of this! and I can’t wait to tell everyone about this!, your Everything-Sucking Self is silenced and the Other becomes visible.



Michael Nichols/National Geographic
Michael Nichols/National Geographic


Anyway, for me that can happen when I’m pruning, for you on some other occasion. We all have our zen gardens.


There’s this other aspect of pruning, though, and I suspect it cuts in the opposite direction. Let me explain. I’ve been doing some pruning of a different kind lately. To wit, cutting away some relationships that had become problematic. Problematic, that is, in the sense that I could no longer realistically hope that they would ever become more nearly reciprocal. After all, with apology to William Maxwell, I do believe that our capacity to continue loving (supporting, showing an interest in, assisting, fostering, caring for, championing, serving, etc.) a person in the absence of any reciprocity or mutuality is, finally, limited. You agree, don’t you? (I hope?)


The obvious difficulty is that in abandoning those aspects of our lives that we decide we can no longer sustain, we run the risk of being locked in that prison cell forever, seeing even with our eyes closed those self-portraits staring back at us. It’s like my grandfather told my father when the latter complained to him, not long after returning to his hometown to practice law with him, “I’m just not sure I can work with these SOBs.” Meaning, by SOBs, some fraction of the fraction of humanity then living in and about our birthplace.


“Well, Jim,” said my grandfather, “if you’re not willing to work with SOBs, who in the hell are you going to work with?” Meaning, clearly, that pruning of the kind I’m writing about today is a hazardous undertaking. Where do you stop?





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