At home with Joan

If it’s before 9 a.m. and the doorbell rings, I hurry down the stairs to get it. If it’s after 9, then I assume Joan is up and around, sitting in the kitchen, reading the New York Times as the light comes in through the front window. Upstairs in my treetop home, I loiter with my morning coffee, potter about some, write some letters and emails, look at the pigeons outside my bedroom window, generally nip at things. Then, after more loitering and my equivalent of another’s leisurely smoking, I may chance down to the 4th floor and fetch the Business and Sports sections lying there at the top of the stairs. I once told Joan that my family was “big into” sports. Something may have been lost in translation but now, I have to admit, reading the NYT Sports section–the box scores especially–has become a small indulgence. I cluck about how dismal the Celtics are doing this season–by last count, a pitiful 5-9–and then smile and become philosophical.

The mailman’s name is Bill, and he has a long ponytail and wears old black glasses that magnify his pupils. Once he was a hippie and now he wears those tall gray socks that mailmen wear. Joan told me that she slips him a $20 around Christmas; I said that that was a good idea, and I’ve made a note to myself to slip him a $20 when I see him next. Sometimes Bill and I chat, once about his winter trips to Florida, usually as I’m stepping out to run around the park. I may have Joan’s garbage in my right hand which I deposit at the corner bin. Bill is a good worker, and our chats tend to be short and chipper because he’s eager to be on his way. Something I’ve noticed mid-trot is that Bill is a seasoned waver.

When I get back from my run, Joan can’t believe that I’ve been gone for so long or so short a period of time. She’s impressed when I run 7 miles, less so (I imagine) when I’ve run a shorter stretch. Boy are you in good shape, young man. Oh, just so you know so-and-so will be staying in the guest bedroom this evening, but he won’t bother you. Off to my right on the corner of the counter, I see my mail stacked neatly upright beside the paperweight upon which my name is scrawled in gentle red letters. Joan was once a painter and a drawer, and her paintings of her second husband, a handsome physicist who could also play the piano, hang prominently on the living room wall.

Before Christmas, I accidentally opened a letter addressed to her son Andy, thinking that it was addressed to me. I left him a note with an apology followed by an exclamation point, knowing that he’d see it when he came by for dinner that evening. Andy, who’s in his mid-50s and who’s taking care of his ailing 90-year-old Uncle Henry who lives on the other side of the park, comes by most every evening for dinner. He eats with Joan, as they watch “just some old chestnut starring…,” and I’ve no idea what an old chestnut is and I’m not sure I’ll remember later who was starring in the chestnut either. On the nights I sit and watch with them, they tell me that this one was not a very good one. I’ve no other standard to go by, though.

This past Saturday it snowed heavily. According to the Washington Post, Central Park got 4.3 inches. Andy made a special trip this morning to shovel and salt the front porch. I could have done that, I said. There’s no reason why Andy has to head all the way across the park to shovel the front porch. When I was a boy, I used to shovel the family driveway which was the size of halfcourt, I said. I think the last reference was lost on her, but the point got through anyway.

This conversation was taking place after I’d just gotten back from the grocery store, and Joan had asked me if I could do her a “big favor.” Stomp stomp. Off with the snow. Sure.What’s that? I ask. Would you mind dropping this prescription off at the drugstore? Not at all,” I say. Really, it’s not a problem. Oh, you’re such a dear. It’s just that I’ve got this cold, and I don’t want it to get worse, she says. By now, I think I’ve heard the story about the cold “going around” a dozen times. She gargles in the morning, she says, and one of her dear old friends went to the hospital for it but was told she’d be better off at home. There’s no cure for it, Joan confirms, bewildered or assured.

I add, And it’s kind of icy and slick outside today, and I wouldn’t want you to get hurt. I’m thinking of old ladies and broken hips. Just before I leave, I pop my head back through the door to reassure her that it’s no big deal. And I’d be happy to pick up the prescription for you tomorrow. I doubt the sidewalks will be any better by then. I think Joan, an 87-year-old widow, is learning to trust me.


Here is how our little economy works. I pay Joan the rent, but the money, in the form of a gift, actually goes to her son Henry (not to be confused with Uncle Henry) who is still recovering from cancer, who’s currently unemployed, and who’s living with his wife and daughter in Paris. Henry is attractive but diffident. His family is struggling financially. I put my old New Yorkers beside the washing machine where there is a pile of things that goes to Chris, the eldest son who’s in his early 60s and who lives upstate with his longtime partner Jean. When I see my friend Kevin, he gives me his old copies of NYRB which I read and then pass on to Chris. Andy likes to clip out WSJ articles, likes to hand me his old copies of First Things and New Criterion, lets me borrow books on monasticism and the Desert Fathers and travel writing, old browned books by Joseph Epstein and Chesterfield and Auerbach, and likes to put them at the top of the stairs for me with or without a note on top. (One day his friend Sim dropped a book through the front mail slot, and it took me days to figure out whom the gift was from.) At night, Andy may call out my name with an upward turn at the end, making my name into a question, almost a climb up the stairs, and we might talk for a while about theology and philosophy, but not too long because he needs to get back to see to his ailing Uncle Henry. I imagine him walking along the stunning Jackie O. across the park silhouetted against the turn-of-the-century buildings which would then be holding up the night.

I’ve given Joan my only copy of the collected works of Jane Austen, the green one with falling red leaves and gold letters for which I wrote the Introduction. The book is too heavy for her to read (even when you put it in your lap, it crushes your diaphragm), but I thought she would like it anyway. Today, she gave me a piece of dark chocolate which was surprisingly hard because I think she’d stored it in the refrigerator. I’m not sure she knows that I don’t have dental insurance. Tomorrow, I mean to return to the drugstore after I watch the pigeons for a while and then write some more letters.


The aim of personal essays like this one is to walk or guide the reader through a philosophical way of life. My thesis is that our old way of life is going under, carrying with it the institutions from which we have become estranged. It seems to me an open and very prescient question what family, work, home, caretaking, and the economy will look and feel like as we grope along in the second decade of the twenty-first century. In this piece, I provide one perspicuous account of how strangers become friends; of how an economy is broadened and widened and humanized; of how the young relate to the old; of how the sick are to be cared for; of what forms and shapes work may take; of how a life becomes more convivial as well as more settled.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Philosophical Life as Gift Economy”

Andrew Taggart, “On Walking Home from School”

5 thoughts on “At home with Joan

  1. When I was writing my piece, I was thinking of the homey pictures of small town life in Wendell Berry’s work or in Don Hall’s nonfiction. Your story is equally charming. I can’t help but enjoy the fact that Gary (the hen) is the very mobile creature who may bring you closer together with Gary (the fence builder).

    Your last question is never far from mind. (I wrote a PS about it here: I think, in this case, I’m being a bit clumsy in my account. To clarify: One thread you’ve probably noticed in the past week or so has been my focus on givings and receivings. The more I attend to my relations with others, the more I have conversations in my practice that to and fro along, the *more elemental* giving and receiving seems. I’ve begun thinking something fairly simply, in fact: what it means to be a good adult may very well be simply the capacity to give properly and receive properly.

    Clearly, though, I don’t want to reduce all givings and receivings to a gift economy or to an economy more generally. That would make the best of sex–the harmony of givings and receivings in the way of pleasure–into a farce. (And there would be other problem cases that would go too far away from a reasonable common sense.)

    But it could be said that a gift economy would evolve out of the basic givings and receivings that ‘come naturally to us when we’re at home in the world,’ out of the basic ethical tenor of good human lives. If this is the case, then we could sit more prettily with the idea that an economy based on ethical foundations wouldn’t ‘jar’ with the rest of our lives; instead, it would be a part of our radiant, self-integrated lives.

  2. A lovely glimpse of life — of a community — and, as always, so much more going on beneath the surface.

    And I loved the comment that “what it means to be a good adult may very well be simply the capacity to give properly and receive properly” — although I don’t know if that’s the only way to define adulthood. Something to ponder.

    1. Thank you, Alexis. It feels like a full life.

      About adulthood: I’m not sure not about its being the only way; I’m not even sure that it’s a suitable way. (Yes, it’s something to ponder, though.) What I like is the sharing of first and second thoughts. I like showing my work as I go; like sharing the errors provided they illumine something about life. The good thoughts, we hope, come after a time and only after refining the first and second ones. The good thoughts like a good life.

  3. Yes to the addition. This morning I wrote “I love you” to one conversation partner. Then paused paused paused. Let it stir and startle and settle. Then I wrote something very much like “giving love properly and receiving love properly.”

    (To me, philosophy, i.e., the lived kind, the only kind that matters, is serious play or gentle love. To brush the other’s lips with concepts.)

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