Everyday Communion

If you use social media, you know the difficulties. How to feel about those who love something you love but who, you believe in the sub-basement of your heart, have missed the point?

A childhood friend, educated, prosperous, posts a tribute to Aretha Franklin on his wall. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” he writes. The only problem: he’s not just a bigot but a well-known bigot, who also trades comments with a mutual friend about double-tapping a female politician.

What about the poet with the wheat-field smile who plays parenthood like a lyre but cares nothing for the well-being of others? How can you both like Philip Larkin, both know and like many of the same peers in the literary community?

Think of the millions who love The Beatles. How many of those would reject what the Beatles said they stood for—or hate you for what you stand for?

It has always been this way, of course, but social life in the digital age has become like that bit from Seinfeld where Elaine has not thought to ask her new boyfriend’s opinion on flashpoint issues.

“And what is his stand on abortion?” Jerry asks sadistically.

“Well, I’m sure he’s pro-choice,” Elaine says, her lipstick now drawn all the way across her face.

“How do you know?” Jerry says.

“Because he … well … he’s just so good-looking,” she says.

We are all flawed and must be forgiven together, but in the meantime, we grow increasingly wary. I read the blog post of a woman in south Louisiana who once hosted Anthony Bourdain for his show Parts Unknown. She has “read all [his] books and articles, seen all [his] shows.” She credits him with changing her life before and after the visit. She writes well and was wrecked by his suicide. She loves her kids and has been through hard times supporting them. She likes John Irving and David Sedaris. But what if, I couldn’t help thinking as I read, holding myself tense, she has more in common with Duck Dynasty Phil than Bourdain, who after all made an episode with Barack Obama in Hanoi and another with Putin critic Boris Nemtsov in Moscow? (Nemtsov was later murdered in the shadow of the Kremlin.) The food blogger in Louisiana wrote professionally enough that in the end I could not tell, and it did not matter in the moment. Did it matter otherwise? Can cultural artifacts be enjoyed apart from their creators’ lives?

I drowned again last night. I was a military diver decades ago, and the training left me with an easily-irritated throat and sinuses. Any child virus on a doorknob leaves me in pain and drowning in postnasal drip all night. Rain pattered on the windows, aiding the illusion, as I choked, swallowed, refluxed, cleared my throat, and swallowed more air, over and over. I saw the exhaustion of 3 a.m., then 3:30, 4:15, 5:00, 5:05.

Getting upright at dawn was a relief, and driving through the rain-washed subdivision I breathed easier. Concrete trucks were pouring foundations in the muddy earth. The coffee shop was loud with music and voices, and steam rose in my head with each sip of hot sweet coffee. How good to be out of the shroud of sheets, out of the basement room, with other people in common ritual. How good to be alive among the community of the mismatched! Maybe there is something in how we share things that still means something after all.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.