practical gods

Some time ago, R. gave me a book of poems, Practical Gods by Carl Dennis. He marked this one in particular, “On The Bus to Utica.” In it, the speaker tells of his abduction by aliens from the parking lot, after a Rotary meeting. They take him, of course, to the mothership:

I remember the red lights of the docking platform, 

A dark hall, a room with a gurney where it dawned on me

Just before I went under there would be no discussions,

No sharing of thoughts on the fate of the universe,

No messages to bring back to my fellow earthlings. 

The simplicity of the poem is deceptive, I think. It draws you in with its humor, the earnestness of its speaker, the Rotary Club chairman drugged by aliens. 

But by the end, Dennis gives us this:

Do you think they’ve planted a bug inside me? 

Is that why you’re silent? Fear will do us more harm

Than they will. Be brave. Be open. 

Tell me something that you won’t confide to your friends

Out of fear they may think you strange, eccentric.

If you’re waiting for an audience that’s more congenial,

More sensitive than the one that happens

To be sitting beside you now on this ramshackle bus,

I can sympathize. Once I waited too. 

Now you can see I take what’s offered. 

I have spent decades waiting. A half-lifetime of magical thinking: Once this falls into place, then I can…

One gift of 40 is perhaps the slowly-dawning recognition that there is no perfect time. Time passes, we make our choices in the day to day, and they accumulate, newspapers on the front lawn.

The new job, the baby, the new house, the move to the city or to the country, the marriage, the divorce, the new marriage, the promotion. When the new year starts. When we finish this project. When the kids are in school, when the kids leave home. When I retire: We wait for these things like they will give us permission to live. We hover in this holding pattern, waiting to launch.

Friendships are different in mid-life. I am often nostalgic for college friendships. The gift then was time - shapeless hours spent in the company of others, where there were no goals, there were no tasks, just the slow, easy sharing with our fellow travelers. It was that time, though, that built the bonds - the pool of shared experience - from which our relationships drew their texture and richness.

Now, I find myself so often impatient. There are checklists to be worked through, things to be done. And yet the reward for making the time - the idle, shapeless time - is the trust, the closeness, the intimacy that can only be tended in those ways, in that space. 

Be brave. Be open.

Just before the untimely death of my friend S., many years ago, she visited me in Providence. I was in my own process of uncoupling, and there were things I hadn’t told her, choices I had made about which I was not particularly proud. 

We spent the afternoon together, and I shared my stories. The outpouring of love from her was something I will not forget. I was grateful for her kindness, her generosity and I told her this. “If it was me telling you this,” she said, “wouldn’t you do the same?”


“This is what we do,” she said. “This is how we show each other love.”

This year, I have started telling people the things I want from these next decades. There are just a handful; some are modest, some less so: to spend more time in New York, trips to Paris, a house in France. More time to write, to read. Dinner parties with friends. A chance to mourn old losses. There are things I want to let go - the old anxieties, the old fears. I want to launch.

My companions are indeed a congenial and sensitive bunch. I will ride this bus with them where it takes us.