Out of the corner of my eye

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September 13, 2004 // UPDATED 4:04 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Julie Landsman
Julie Landsman

The satisfactions of the casual communities we make

Landing at the airport, watching the river unwind along the side of the road as the taxi took me home, everything felt soft. There is no other way to describe this city at the end of a summer of rain and cool temperatures. I had returned from Florida, where the lushness was overdone, dripping, too full in tropic heat.

In Miami, we had been mourning the death of my father-in-law, a man of 89. He had lived a full life. Yet no matter how full it was and how we knew for a while that his death was not far off, it still felt sudden.

For the past week we had been "sitting Shiva" -- a period of mourning in the Jewish faith that involves services each evening and a constant flow of people, food and stories throughout the day. As I listened to everyone from children, cousins, grandchildren and bowling partners, describe this man, and as I told my own recent story of his pleasure in my newfound interest in Yiddish, I realized how little I really knew Manny Landsman.

He was, in a sense, one of the many peripheral people in my life. Some of these people are connected to me by birth or marriage, others I pass on the street or say good morning to in the hallway. Manny was more to me than this, yet our relationship had dwindled to sporadic visits a few times a year and an occasional hello over the phone.

The evening I got home, I went out to water plants on our tiny deck that overlooks the garden. A few people were downstairs having a glass of wine at the end of the week. One yelled up and asked how Maury was doing and welcomed me home. These neighbors invited me down to join them. I was exhausted after flight changes and unpacking, a long list of appointments to reschedule, calls to make. I filled a glass with white wine and went down anyway. Again, I felt the heavy cool air, the relative quiet of our back yard and the easy laughter of people I do not know well but say "hello, how are you" to each day.

And it struck me again that what brings a certain kind of satisfaction to our lives are these peripheral relationships. They are warm, fleeting and respectful, demanding little. I have finally built up my own city space of habitual people. Drinking coffee at Moose 'n' Sadie's every other Friday, the man behind the counter now knows what I want to drink (mocha in the winter, iced chai in the summer). As I pass the man who picks up trash along the river in the mornings, we exchange nods of recognition.

Some I drink wine with after mourning for a week, others I continue to smile at in passing. And still others, like Manny, I have known in this same, peripheral way, all my life. This does not mean I appreciate him any less, in fact, perhaps even more. We kept up our acquaintance long distance, and near his death, his beautiful calligraphy scrolled Yiddish words into a notebook for me: "Schlep" as in "It is a long schlep to St. Paul."

Perhaps these are the people we take for granted then, the ones who pass gently through our lives: family, friends, the woman at the dry cleaners who asks about my teaching, Maury's schedule. Perhaps the lack of intensity in our relationship to them is their gift, finally, as they make our life more beautiful each day, on the periphery, where we barely notice.

Julie Landsman lives in North Loop.