Turning schools into “hardened targets”: We heard about that this week. We talked about that this week. Someone prone to all-caps pronouncements, no need to say who, suggested putting guns in the hands of teachers, no need to say why. This debate consumes us all.
But as I cleaned the house on Saturday, sweeping and scrubbing and repairing various mantelpiece items knocked to the floor by my cats, I started thinking about life as a pileup of damaged tchotchkes. (Doesn’t everybody? At least, everybody with cats?) I started thinking about brokenness. And vulnerability. And the phenomenon, the joy, the absolute necessity, of strolling through its bumpy contours as a soft target. I don’t care how much weaponry you strap to your thighs; if you think you can make it through without risking injury, you’re missing the point.
The point of living isn’t to harden yourself. The point isn’t to fortify the stronghold against some invasion. The point is the opposite. The point is to let people in. To put yourself at risk. To be welcoming and loving and curious and open. To be soft. This is the gist of living, the essence of courage that gets us out of bed and out the door and into the terrifying everyday. We face the world with fear suppressed by gumption, knowing it can knock us sideways but braving its elements anyway.
I was thinking about all this, and yes, it’s true, I think too much; that’s been established. I had started to think about Peter Capaldi’s departure from “Doctor Who” instead when there, amid all the cat-generated debris on my living room floor, I found this grinning snapshot of me ‘n Mama Jeanne from sometime in the late 1970s. Judging from the dazzling mouthful of orthodontia, I was 14 or 15. My mother was 54 or 55 — around my age now. In those days she was busy teaching music, playing the violin, fixing every damn thing that broke in that blessed house, shepherding me and my sister through the horrors of adolescence and, through it all, caring for my father — who had no short-term memory whatsoever, probably due to his nine-day coma following a suicide attempt in ’74. She managed all this with wisdom, humor, fortitude, and pluck.
Mama was no wimp. You didn’t want to tick her off under any circumstances. But she was the ultimate soft target: putting herself out there with no restrictive armor, living and loving however she felt called to live and love, doing what had to be done. She needed to work; she worked. She needed to spend the last 18 years of her husband’s life tending to him while repeating everything she said over and over and over; she did. She surrendered herself to the many and uncatalogable hazards of loving, no matter what that commitment entailed. She didn’t harden herself. She opened herself, and in the process she became the strongest human being I’ve ever known.
Because softness is strength. Softness is mettle. Softness is the willingness to face danger and live in spite of it.
We’re born as soft targets. Cry at our mother’s breasts as soft targets. Climb on the bus as soft targets. Risk rejection as soft targets. Apply to college and try for jobs as soft targets. Fall in love as soft targets, knowing we might lose. Let our lovers inside us as soft targets, knowing they might leave.
We get pregnant as soft targets. Give birth as soft targets. Raise children as soft targets, knowing that every time they fall and weep and burn in fear, we will, too. Keep the faith as soft targets, whether the mystery we worship is humanity or God. Brave illness as soft targets. Bury our dear ones as soft targets. Laugh in the aftermath as soft targets, knowing that any moment we might collapse in tears.Wake to the next day as soft targets, and the next day, and the next.
Life is hard. Softness is the answer. And I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.