Monday, June 18, 2007

A Visitation: Sunday Afternoon

Here I am, sitting quietly on my balcony on page 55 or so of “God Is Not Great” when this hummingbird appears a couple of feet from me, sinking its tiny, needle-long beak into the business end of a plant that happens to be set on the table next to me. I turn my head, very slowly, to avoid disturbing this marvelous creature, and watch… It continues on about its business, refilling the nectar tank, and then, as if aware of my observation, swivels around to take a look at me. I hold my breath. Curious, it leaves the plant and comes to inspect me in a closer view. It’s now hovering with its familiar hum no more than six inches from my face, and staring at me intently. I return the gaze. After a moment, my visitor gets bored and heads back to the more satisfying task of feeding. But then it repeats the maneuver, closing in on me again, almost strafing my cheek; and then again.

I’m astounded by the fearlessness of this tiny creature, and humbled in a certain way by its interest in inspecting me. I suspect that the bird’s eyes are better by far than mine, and wonder what this extreme close-up of my face can look like, with its outcrop of bristly hairs, its many wrinkles, and a thousand barely visible pores. I wonder what the bird makes of this carefully motionless, gigantic fellow being, so intent on staring back at it—and so awed by its minute and miraculous presence and by its ability to literally stand still in mid-air, with only the whirring of those infinitely fragile wings to support it. Anyway, I’m deeply touched by the encounter, and somehow honored to have been chosen in this way. Thanks, hummer, for the reminder of the fragility that we share.

Another odd bit of business, quite different, though, and raising certain interesting ethical issues. Here goes: in our small cottage down here, near the beach, we have a neighbor with a ficus tree next door. Our large picture window offers us a daily view of the huge tree—and a nightly one, since we light it from below. It’s a living sculpture right outside our sitting room, and we treasure its presence there.

But it brings with it one enormous problem: its roots. They reach down under the foundation of our house—where they have as yet done no damage, at least none that we can see. But they have mercilessly penetrated the cast-iron pipes of our aging drainage system. Three or four years ago, we were forced to spend a huge sum--$12,000, for the curious—to replace the section of drain that leads from the corner of the house to the main drain at the center of the street. Recently, with raw sewage backing up into our bath and shower whenever the toilet flushed, we learned from the plumber that a whole new section of pipe, running down the side of the house to where it was repaired before, would need to be replaced—at the cost of another $10,000!

We gulped, we got an alternative bid, much lower, little more than half the cost, for a process that would line the broken pipe rather than replace it—and come accompanied by a guarantee of fifty years, rather longer than we expect to be around to enjoy the fruits of our expense. Thinking, well, it’s HIS tree, after all, we approached our neighbor with a super friendly and carefully unthreatening request, this time, to share the cost. He dillied and dallied, the drains backed up, we were forced to move—and accepted the lower bid. The work was done, the bill was paid. And the neighbor sent a letter back denying responsibility for the roots of his tree and claiming, anyway, that it could have been done at far less expense.

The instinct, of course, is to fight back. Get angry. Send another letter explaining in still greater detail the predicament and presenting still more evidence of the culpability of the ficus tree. Does our neighbor not bear some responsibility for the destruction to our property? In fact, from the legal point of view, he does: I had earlier sought legal advice, and we would have ample grounds for action. Obviously, though, it’s just not worth it: the satisfaction of getting even--perhaps even recovering some part of our cost--pales beside the prospect of protracted neighborly warfare. The line from the “Sublime Attitudes” rings true to me: May I be free from animosity. In the Buddhist view, I believe, any action on my part would end up harming me more than it would harm him.

Or am I just a patsy? It's small matters like these that test the convictions. What do you think? If you were me, would you pursue things with your neighbor? If you were him, would your instinct have been to help me out--assuming you could reasonably afford it? Or would you have told me to get lost? I like to think I'd have been on the helpful side... His tree, my property. It's a conundrum.

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