“Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel,” the bumbling Lord Polonius in Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” tells his son Laertes in a rant of advice often repeated since as sage and sound. But who wants to be grappled with a metal belt? Neither is friendship a luxury cruise liner where one might go shopping for a friend. A rowboat, maybe, lost on some stormy night on some stormy sea in some stormy argument, a crew of two with only one oar. A lack of friends may be associated with loneliness, and one is often never so lonely as when part of a crowd in which one can find no partner. Acquaintances and neighbors are often confused with friends when they are not. Likewise, parents, children, and siblings, when impressed as friends are often the first to jump ship. A friend at court can hardly be trusted, neither is one’s cohort a circle of friends. A friend in need is not free. To simply like is not necessarily to befriend. What is the focus point of a circle of friends? One’s spouse must not be mistaken for one’s friend, nor one’s friend mistaken for one’s spouse. Friendship is not a vessel, unless it is a ship of fools.
Social distancing guidelines now include no more than 10 people gathered together in one place, and, anyway, to stay home. I grew up one of ten kids. The doors and windows to our house were never locked. I never even had a key to the place. And friends and friends of friends roamed freely across the threshold, in and out. A restriction of no more than 10 at any one time might have come as a welcome rule for my parents – but they rarely objected to visitors.
I’ve lived at 19 different addresses over time, never alone, not including the room in the garage at the back of our lot my dad and I built when I got back from the army and found my digs in the house usurped by younger siblings.
But I’ve lived in the house I’m in now for 30 years. It was built in 1907 in what was then a mostly truck farming community or trolley commute from downtown Portland. The street name is now Southeast 69th Avenue, but it was originally named East View Street. A house this old comes with stories, particularly one that has been home to several households over the years. Those stories are often told by neighbors who have overlapped stays with other neighbors.
Not long after we first moved in, I was digging around in the backyard and uncovered a large clam shell. The occupants just prior to us lived in the house 12 years before we moved in. The shell, we learned from one of our old-timer neighbors, predated those years. There had been a family, lived in our house, who hosted South Pacific sailors who regularly came to port for the annual Rose Festival (the first Rose Festival Parade was held downtown in 1907). One year, one of the sailors brought the shell as a gift for the house hosts. We learned from that same old-timer neighbor that another year one of the sailors died in the house. He collapsed from a heart attack in the entry room. His name was Joe. His host would later also die in the house, in the downstairs bathroom, also from a heart attack. His name was also Joe.
Lately, homebound by local decree, I’ve increased my walks around the neighborhood, reflecting on houses. Local neighborhood lore tells of one house that was once a tuberculosis sanatorium, another that was a brothel, another that was a small barbershop, another that was a local post office. It’s not a neighborhood of any spectacular historical interest. While a few of the houses might maintain historical value, there’s no doubt that in another hundred years they will all be replaced. The clam shell might still be somewhere around, though. Maybe something still will be living in it.
From Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Act II:
Ham. Then is doomsday near: but your news is not true. Let me question more in particular: what have you, my good friends, deserved at the hands of Fortune, that she sends you to prison hither?
Guil. Prison, my lord!
Ham. Denmark’s a prison.
Ros. Then is the world one.
Ham. A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.
Ros. We think not so, my lord.
Ham. Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.
Ros. Why, then, your ambition makes it one; ’tis too narrow for your mind.
Ham. O God, I could be bounded in a nut-shell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
Polonius: What friends thou hast, add them fast, Lord Hamlet.
Hamlet: Polonius advises us to link our souls with hoopla,
When twice this same moon updates us,
But still to me she hath not chatted.
Polonius: Light lord, thy status in disconnect must be,
Causing you this dark and dour distress.
Hamlet: Fish not, sir; I fear she hath deleted me.
What post supports this knotted matter?
False light quickly fades, casting us in dark shadows.
Let the clouds betide, let the rains come
So thick and dark not the bark of the ark stays dry.
Polonius: Despair not, care not, Lord, care less than not.
Some new compeer will soon light your night
With comely links and notes bright.
Light be your aim, Lord, light your audience,
And this will give light to thee.
Hamlet: Nay, sir. In this book of faces there is but one for me,
And I am trapped in this light box like a wench in a nunnery.
“We look before and after,” Shelley told his quiet skylark, “and pine for what is not.” Shakespeare would have enjoyed Percy’s pun, knowing naught comes from knot, “like quills upon the fretful porcupine,” this from the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and of Hamlet’s replies, “a happiness that often madness hits on,” follows from the bumbling fool of wise quotes, Polonius. Hamlet suffers the curse of anxiety, and one imagines the prince of plotters distracted by his Facebooking and Twittering, there staging his feigned feelings, for his mood is not hopeful.
And to what do we owe this staged post? To Jill Lepore’s “Dickens in Eden: Summer vacation with ‘Great Expectations.’” But just this, Jill quoting from one Andrew Miller, academic from Indiana, who, Jill says, “…argued that the novel [Great Expectations] is defined by ‘the optative mode of self-understanding,’ an experience of modern life, in which everything is what it is but could have been something else” (New Yorker, 29 Aug. 56). Ah, where’s a physicist when you need one? For how does one understand oneself when one’s creation is a matter of chance? But the mood of chance may be ever hopeful for a changed ending, a substitute ending, a revised ending.
And this is McTeague country, Naturalism, where Trina wins a lottery, an experience of modern life, for she might have lost, as everyone else does, and is not winning the equivalent to losing? And we were still considering the Greenblatt (New Yorker, 8 Aug.), wondering if Rerum Natura might still come at a bargain, “By chance…By chance…By chance…” (29). But if everything happens by chance, why bother introducing any event as having happened by chance? Anyway, the chance of naught creates part of Hamlet’s anxiety, certainly, but even if he takes a Lucretius pill he still has his bad dreams – thus the not of the nutshell and infinite space.
In the pine, Shelley’s bird sings of jobs, of the disappearance of guilds, for what is not, and of winter in summer and the irony of discontent. This is the anxiety of our time, that it didn’t have to be this way; it “could have been something else.” Yet the physicist tells us that not only could it have been something else, it was something else; in fact, it was what it is and everything else. This is why we tell stories – like one of Leonard Cohen’s “lonesome and very quarrelsome heroes,” who would “like to tell my story before I turn into gold,” where gold is an antidote to anxiety.