(About a 10 minute read)
At the time I knew her, Tara had but one passion in life: People. Specifically, the people she personally knew. I don’t recall her ever mentioning someone as remote to her as a celebrity or some other personage she’d never met, but she was just as fervent in discussing her friends and acquaintances as any newlywed is about discussing their beloved.
Indeed, perhaps the only really significant difference between a newlywed and Tara was that a newlywed tends to ignore any faults or flaws in their beloved, while Tara seemed incapable of ignoring anything about the people she was so fascinated by. That’s by no means, however, to imply she was overtly critical of people.
As a rule, she was not. Or at least, she appeared not to criticize people.
It took me awhile to catch on to her because she would say things about people, such as “Brian is so jealous of Sammy”, that I assumed meant she was judging them. That is, I assumed she believed, as I did, that jealousy is a negative emotion, and that she must therefore on some level disapprove of it in Brian.
Gradually, however, I learned that Tara was oddly — quite oddly, when you think about it (for it is human nature to judge) — rather on the dispassionate side when it came to communicating her thoughts about people. Almost as dispassionate, I sometimes thought, as a chemist reporting on the interaction of sodium and chlorine.
Of course, I’m sure she did in fact judge people. How could she not? But the fact is, she seldom expressed judgment. She spoke of the commonplace and the outrageous in the very same tone of voice, the very same body language. She could say — and this is a true example, near as I can recollect it now — “Danny hit Rene last night because she said something he didn’t like about his getting a job.” — and sound just the same as when she once idly mentioned that Rene and Danny were moving in together.
The one time I can now recall Tara actually expressing disapproval — if that’s what it indeed was — was when she told me about a young woman who, at the age of 14, had been raped by her step-father. Tara ended her otherwise dispassionate account with something along these lines, “She was always telling jokes and laughing before that happened. Then she kept to herself a lot, and never much laughed again.” I have a fairly vivid memory of her saying that because it was so rare of her to express disapproval. But she expressed it so subtly, so gently, that I think you would have needed to know her as well as I did by then to detect the disapproval in her voice. Disapproval or sorrow, I’m still not sure to this day which.
Tara was one of those very rare people who seemed to more or less embody Spinoza’s statement, “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.” She would not, however, have ever heard of Spinoza, and had I quoted him to her, her first question would surely have been, “Is he a friend of yours?”
She could show surprising general insight into people, even though she herself seldom spoke of people in general terms. I once shared a poem with her that I’d written about a fictional “Kathy”. After I’d read the poem to her, Tara fell silent, looking deeply perplexed. “What do you think of it?”
“I don’t know.” Tara said.
“You didn’t like it?”
“No, it’s not that. It’s just that I’ve never known anyone in my life like Kathy. Did you make her up?” I no longer have the poem to test it, but I’d wager eight in ten people would not have so quickly realized Kathy was a fictional character.
I hired Tara as my “secretary” in my final year in business. “Secretary” was a bit of a stretch; she had almost no real secretarial skills; and she served instead as my data entry clerk. That’s to say, I hired her with the expectation I could train her up right and whole to be a real secretary, an expectation she proved to have little or no interest in fulfilling, just as she had little or no interest in anything other than the people she knew. I eventually resigned myself to her much needed help with data entry, for that she was willing to do, and do well.
Tara also resisted any urge I had to keep to a strictly formal employer/employee relationship. A mutual friend once told me, “Tara says you’re more of an uncle to her than a boss”, and I had to admit, that was how she treated me. There came a time, for instance, when she made a habit of calling me each evening in the office. Around nine o’clock the phone would ring, Tara. For the next forty-five minutes to an hour, she would fill me in on what everyone had been doing since she her last update during her working hours. It took her that long because Tara so seldom, if ever, generalized. Instead, she recounted details. All the details.
It also took her that long because she quite often asked me for advice. I once questioned her about that, and she replied, “You’re the only one who gives me good advice. Everyone else just says things like, ‘Go burn his house down’, but you give me things I can really do.” Which was ironic because, by that time, I had discovered that — of the two of us — Tara was the wisest.
No, she didn’t know she was wise, but she was. And she was wise in a very special way — a way that is often neglected or under-valued by Westerners. For we in the West so often think of wisdom as something shown through a person’s words. So far as I recall, the closest Tara ever came to saying something that might pass as wise with many of us was perhaps when she one day told me, “Boss, I don’t worry about doing the right thing or the wrong thing like you do. I just try to do the best thing.”
Somewhere in his book, Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez mentions that the Inuit word for “wise person” literally means, “Someone who makes wisdom visible through their actions or behavior”. The word has nothing specifically to do with what a person says or doesn’t say, except as that might be accounted a part of their overall behavior. Rather, the emphasis is on visible actions (and perhaps equally telling moments when one chooses not to act). Tara, I came to believe, was a wise person in the sense of the Inuit word.
It was quite a long haul for me to arrive at that conclusion about her. For one thing, I had to overcome my prejudice that wise people spout wise sayings. The thought that a wise person might not say many wise things at all was simply foreign to me. Another prejudice I needed to overcome was that someone who routinely asked me for advice might actually be wiser than me. But when I finally got around to observing how skillfully Tara appeared to be negotiating her life, as compared to how clumsily I seemed to be negotiating my own, it revolutionized my understanding of her.
For instance, at about midpoint during the year I employed her, Tara’s boyfriend abruptly decided to cheat on her. Tara spent all of three days and nights crying on her couch, waiting for him to come home. Then she had, as she put it, the revelation that, “I was doing no one any good, least of all myself, by feeling sorry for me”. With that, she picked herself up, and returned to her circle of friends. The ache was not over for her, nor were any of the issues involved resolved. But she was firmly set on getting on with her life, come what might of the boyfriend business.
I doubt Tara had ever heard of — or at least had absorbed — the expression, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”, but no one had to have told her that, because she lived it. Not just when her boyfriend cheated on her, but in one manner after the next. Tara could drop an emotional burden as spontaneously as a child can let go of a grandparent’s hand to run play on a swing. I believe the metaphor of a child is correct because hearts as resilient as hers usually belong either to children or to sages.
But was Tara really a sage?
I do not think she would compare with the Buddha, nor even, perhaps, with a few other people I actually know. I saw her falter more than once; that is, I saw her do something I regarded as foolish, sometimes terribly foolish. But it seemed to me that each time she faltered, she picked herself up, and made the best of her new situation. Sage or not, I am fairly certain she was at the time I knew her, wiser than me. Yet, only if you looked at, not what she said, but at what she did or did not do.
Barry López again:
How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but in oneself? There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.
I mean it as no criticism when I say that Tara would not have fully understood Lopez’s words. She wasn’t educated well enough to entirely grasp what Lopez might mean by “finding darkness not only in one’s culture but in oneself”, for instance. And life’s “great pressing questions” never seemed to me to cross her mind, at least not in any abstract way.
But Tara was as level-headed, as dispassionate as anyone I’ve known when it came to seeing people as they are, seeing both the light and darkness of them. And she was surely empathetic, although I’m not certain that her empathy often rose to the level of compassion. It might have, but I just don’t know. She did, however, in so many ways, “lean into the light”.
I never discovered even a hint of malice or cruelty in her. She was forgiving perhaps to a fault (unless one understands her willingness to forgive as a refusal to emotionally cling to things she had no control over). She strove to tell the truth when talking of the one thing that really mattered to her, people.
Her circle of friends and acquaintances included many people whose behavior can be clinically described as “dysfunctional”, people full of petty hatreds, foolish envies, habitual cowardice towards the more powerful, and just as habitual bullying towards the less powerful then they; people who never seem to value what they have, nor ever get what they want. Tara lived in that world, but she was not of it. It did not turn her.
Instead, she was to some remarkable degree true to herself, albeit not like a stone, but like water. She didn’t oppose things that were not her, she flowed around them, under them, or over them. I would not call her a sage at the time I knew her, more than twenty years ago, but I would not be at all surprised if I’d call her that today, should we ever meet again. Last I knew, she was married to a man she loved and the mother of six children.