Mae West said, “To err is human, but it feels divine.” How right she was, to a certain extent.
It’s been quite a while since I did anything really bad, dammit. The errors I make these days are modest in scope, caused largely by unintended social klutziness: rushing forth in my enthusiasm to speak and depriving someone else of the spotlight; inflicting my will on others without thinking and then realizing how unpopular my unilateral decision was; or blithely assuming people are more comfortable socially than they are and making a blunder in judgment.
But when I was younger, and not even that much younger, my life was spinning off like a revved-up racecar without a driver. Back then, for years and even decades, I made colossal errors, life-changing ones, errors so big, they set me on a different course.
It did not feel “divine,” exactly, to err so dramatically, it felt stressful and strange, nightmarish even, as if I were going against the high standards I generally like to hold myself to, acting out of loneliness and hunger rather than generosity and thoughtfulness. However, these mistakes I made set off a chain of events that caused me to act decisively in order to stop making them. If I hadn’t made them, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now, I’m sure of that, so regret is useless.
If anything, making mistakes teaches you things you can’t learn any other way. Besides the usual residual rewards of a life fully lived, such as wisdom and hindsight and forgiveness of others and the knowledge of what an incredible asshole you’re actually capable of being, big mistakes teach you who your true friends are and who’s been judging you, sniping behind your back, and slitting their eyes at you all along. This is useful information, as any Shakespearean tragedy proves: naïve belief in the high opinion of others can be deadly. Mistakes make you humble, cure you of arrogant superiority. At least, they did me. And they made me appreciate the people who love me in a whole new way. I can’t take anything for granted anymore, not ever. To err is very human, I think.
I’m sitting in front of a hot fire on a zero-degree night in the White Mountains. It’s a tough world out there, beyond the walls of this farmhouse. Tonight, outside, the sky is dark and clear, mad with stars. The eaves are hung with icicles sharp as shards of glass. We saw a very thin coyote at the bottom of the field the other morning. He was trolling the edge of the field, for what food, I didn’t know. He didn’t bother coming up to root for fallen apples in the snow in the orchard, so maybe there weren’t any. Compared to the portly old velvet-furred pasha of a canine dozing at my feet, the coyote looked truly wild and on the verge of starvation. There’s no supermarket for him to go to.
In the woods, the dark, shaggy branches of the hemlocks are heaped in pillows of white snow. On our walks, we stop to look at the brooks, whose surfaces are iced over in ornate layers and hummocks. The snowy, frozen lake is bluish in the shade. The air has been so cold, so dry, that once we warm up from the hard exercise, I’m weirdly reminded of hot days in Arizona, of that desert air that scalds the skin with its parched aridity. The absolute lack of moisture makes our skin crackle. The hard packed beige-brown sand on the road over the ice also feels desert-like, as does the sunlight, which, although it lacks warmth, is intensely bright.
We come into the warm house after our walk with our skin flushed, our scarves frozen from our exhalations, noses dripping, blood pumping. We shed everything as fast as we can, gulp big glasses of cold well water, and then, within twenty minutes, we’re chilly again, and the layers gradually go back on.
When we went to the barn earlier to get more wood, we bundled up as if we were heading out into the Siberian steppe. Our boots creaked in the snow as we walked in the tire tracks across the yard to the driveway and across it to the barn. We had to go through the stable to the woodpile because the side entrance is buried by the towering pile of snow that slid from the roof last week, when it warmed up enough to melt it slightly. We shoe-skated over the ice on the floor to the nearly-depleted woodpile, loaded up and staggered back to the house with our armloads.
In here, in front of the fire, it’s warm and safe. Dingo’s on the window seat snoozing. Brendan’s making veal cutlets, dredging them in beaten egg, then bread crumbs, and then he’ll fry them in hot oil. Sweet potatoes are in the oven; peas are simmering in a pot.
It’s a Blue Plate Special night. This is always an occasion for contemplation and gratitude, especially in light of the flood of bad news that crowds into my sphere of attention, constantly, with no hope of improvement or change. Today’s haul was typical: the southern leg of the Keystone Pipeline is open for business as of today, thank to our President; the rare albino baby dolphin who was caught in Japan the other day in their latest mass haul has been shipped off to a life of captivity, and its mother has committed suicide; Chevron, who has dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic oil waste into the once-pristine river system of the Ecuadorean Amazon over the years, is suing an Ecuadorian man who claims the poisons caused the cancer that killed his father and wife; and so forth, on and on, day after day. It’s too much to believe, the scope of our environmental ruin. My own individual death feels totally insignificant to me now. What a strange species we are.
So we turn up the heat, put another log on the fire, and tuck into our plates of food. Everything feels hard-won, provisional, and fragile, and I love it all the more for that.