Richard Hoffman

Nonfiction Editor’s Note

I wonder if anyone else has noticed the frequency with which the words transaction, transactive, transactional are becoming part of our current lexicon. I encounter them more and more frequently, not only in print but in conversation. I hope this means that we are catching on to the fact that slowly but surely we have all been turning into one another’s customers. Paypal, GoFundMe, Venmo, Cash App, Google Pay, Zelle, Payoneer, and other apps do more than allow the secure exchange of money online, they affect the culture in ways that amplify entrepreneurship to the degree that it eclipses other kinds of exchanges. In addition to the deep regional, racial, class, and political differences we all must negotiate, this shift seems to me a significant force contributing to our estrangement from one another. And I hope that it is still possible to resist such a mercantile model of being in the world together. It seems to me that looking for and seeing only advantage — a sale or a bargain — deal – makes actually trying to know someone else beside the point. It makes sacrifice foolish, friendship a tool. It makes love a liability. It occupies our affections with receipts and invoices, working out what we owe and what we’ve paid. Is generosity generosity when it expects, requires, repayment? Is gratitude gratitude when it is a debt?

I just answered the door to two Jehovah’s Witnesses who interrupted my writing time. I used to be less patient, even hostile. But these days, I’m more interested in people, more interested in understanding them than placing them, I’ve learned it is useless to argue with zealots, and I have come to value anyone whose values are not derived from Ayn Rand (see above) ! You can argue that my door-to-door evangels were sales people of a kind, but they certainly believed in their product! I recalled Jehovah’s Witnesses are pacifists and were among the first victims of the Holocaust. Besides, their devotion offered a counter weight to the ubiquitous cynicism of retail relationships.

Once when I was younger, a pair of these apostles rang the doorbell and one asked me if I thought things were getting better or worse (the guy today started with the same gambit) and I screamed at him, “Are you fucking kidding me? What a shit storm we’re in! The greedy capitalist motherfuckers are bleeding us dry and our whole country’s tits up in a ditch getting rat fucked by the corporations. Son of a bitch! Soon we’ll have to pay for the air we breathe. They’ll be charging us to take a shit!” The guy backed up, his feet got tangled and he would have fallen down the steps if his partner hadn’t grabbed him. I laughed as I closed the door, pleased by my wit, feeling justified in my bullying, having driven away a pest. What a smug little punk I was.

Today I smiled, exchanged pleasantries about the weather, asked each of them their names, and offered something like, “whatever gets you through the night.” I even let them read me one of their cherry-picked passages from the Bible. I thought of them as a species of holy fools. I’m a fool myself, even if only a profane one, so I said that I was happy for them that they had found words that felt right to them, that offered them a way to understand this confusing world, that helped them smile in the face of hardship and grief. And I meant it. Although I declined their pamphlet.

Finding the words is what those of us who don’t find what we’re looking for in a creed or orthodoxy spend our time trying to do. We value the freedom to find or make our own meanings; we look for the words that feel right, that lead us to some understanding. We inhabit a bewilderment that helps us focus our questions. Yes, I think bewilderment is the term I want to use for a confusion that’s generative; bewilderment suggests being returned to the wild, to an elemental lostness with which I must “come to terms.” It’s a productive chaos and it’s painful, but its pain is the pain of trying to see clearly, the satisfying pain of great effort, like lifting a heavy object or swimming a long distance to shore.

Out of such productive lostness comes, with integrity and art, the essays collected here. Each one in its own way asks us to know one another, to meet somewhere in the still wild and authentic world.


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