On walking home from school

I said, “If ever I have a girl, I would like to name her Marilynne. Wouldn’t that be something?”

She said, “I think it would be something if you could name a daughter Marilynne.”

I must have been 8 years old when I first started walking home from school. That would have put me in the 3th grade and in my second-to-last year at the elementary school. The following year, the school sign would be redesigned by my friend Shauheen, an artistic boy who lived across from the school in a red, two story house. In the front lawn, there was a black walnut tree bearing nasty, smelly fruit in the early spring. Inside, the house smelled of warm spices, of Persia and cardamom.

If you followed Elm Street all the way to one end, you would hit upon main street, the movie theater, and the supermarket where my father worked. And if you followed it the other way, past the barn-looking house, past the fenced in, unkempt, shitting dogs, past the county hospital, and past the city limits, you would inevitably come upon my house, that big, hulking thing. From the elementary school, most of the walk home was indeed uphill, in spring and in winter both, until the last stretch, which was downhill all four seasons.

When I was 10 years old, I went to the middle school which wasn’t that far from the elementary school. Nor was it that far from the high school. Nor was it that far from home. I think school got out around 3:30, maybe at 3:15. The middle school was a neo-Gothic building whose naves were properly gargoyled and whose doors opened, as they ought, onto back passageways. When school got out, I walked home by cutting across the playground that ran parallel to a street lined with unremarkable ranch houses. During recess, many of the boys played football, not least my sometime friend Aaron who, I’m told, died in a car accident in the middle of winter of 2007. If memory serves, the Propsts or Probsts (or maybe just the father, ever a small man) lived on the other side of the street, one house down from the Manuels. I remember a swinging bench out in front of the first, a single mother raising a boy behind the door of the second.

Taking the shortest route through Smith Park, on my right I could see between the trees a baseball diamond, more a sandlot at the time, later to be replaced by a parking lot. Next to it was the local radio station, a house with an antennae, around the corner was the Pleva mother, and behind both was the city pool where I almost never swam. I wasn’t sure about the bloodshot eyes, blue toes, and chattering teeth. Seemed a waste when one could be riding bikes or playing baseball or doing neither.

Smith Park had so many elm and maple trees that shade was never a problem. There was a basketball court also. Years later, I spent many evenings and weekends playing pickup basketball alongside T. Poler, a man who wore black ducktaped glasses, drove a rambling ducktaped car, and might have been something of an ‘eccentric.’ Tall, unselfish, in his early 40s, he was a pretty decent low post player as well as a rather kind, possibly tender, most certainly awkward man, all at once.

In late afternoon when I was walking home, the northern sun tended to cast the park in chiaroscuro light; there were susurros of chiaroscuro and plenty of skittish squirrels. I wore a backpack and knew many things about peregrine falcons, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and about how to spell accommodations. I also knew that our 5th grade teacher had had a ‘nervous breakdown’ (susurros again), and we may have had a substitute for a few weeks before he returned, now looking more careworn and wild-eyed, I believe. I knew things, like suffering.

One of the things I knew well was not to walk through this old man’s lawn when he was standing near the front window because he would tell you so: he would tell you not to do it because walking over the lawn would, in time, ruin his finely manicured lawn. To play it safe (accounting for mood: I usually didn’t), I would walk on the neighbor’s driveway until I reached the unplowed and seemingly unclaimed field around the back. The field was full of prickly things and thrumming things and pass-your-hand-over-the-yellow reeds and of those low-lying little green weeds with the purplish flowers that, if you pulled out the threads and sucked hard on the heads with your tongue and teeth working in tandem, would give forth a few drops of nectar. My friend Jacob, a freckled Norwegian with peach-colored hackles, double-jointed elbows, and an Adam’s apple to boot, taught me this, and I was never much impressed.

Along the back of the field stood a tall row of evergreen trees, as stately as earnest boys saluting the American flag. Through the center of the field ran a trodden path which happened to be wide enough to accommodate a child’s wandering feet. Warmed by springtime, the field felt like an itchy annunciation of summer.

Sometimes I went around the field, taking the long leg that stepped between the back of the squat houses and the front of the weedy plot. This I likely did on the occasions when I saw that some crab apples–those sour, wormy, pitiful fruits–had fallen and were lying on the ground of a poor neighbor’s house out back. The apples were so sour as to border on disgusting, so you ate one more just to find out. You knew they were poor, these people with the crab apple tree, because the front and side of their small house was insulated but exposed. Rumor had it, if such qualifies as rumor, that years later the couple would win the lottery and decide to spend the money on putting up linoleum siding. The color of the linoleum was sea green, as bright as lightning bugs in midsummer, radiating sci-fi at twilight, this sea green the color of mermaid skin.

There were other rumors about town but, I’m afraid, not very many good ones. My father’s rumors about work were so dull that when he prefaced what he was about to tell us with the sober warning that we were not to tell anyone at school we soon lost interest in what he was about to say. I think it was around this time that I first became interested in humor.

Another pitiful rumor: across from the exposed house was an untended orchard attached to a dilapidated house in which, on very rare occasions, you could see these two hunchbacked elderly men wearing overalls and doing, I suppose, some form of backbreaking work with their pitchforks. It may have been those men who owned the field with the wandering path. When I saw them working backbreakingly, I don’t remember ever saying hello or hearing hello back but neither do I recall being afraid of them. It was said of them that they had a bowling alley in their basement and that they spent their days bowling. Maybe this is true.

The rest of the route home was mostly straight, also straightforward. I followed the paved country road that ran beside the untended orchard and past the line of evergreens south or east (in my memory, it is south) for a few hundred yards until it reached the big old gray and dour blue house that sat well and stolid off the road. That was my home, large and ugly and solid, the stone chimney climbing up the side never having been used.

On the home stretch, Butterscotch, our Labrador/Golden Retriever mix, liked to gallop to meet me, his glistening, wild eyes all glory, until he got older and then he trotted, sauntered with alternating shoulders, and finally lay flat, panting in the shade, waiting for me to let him in by the tightly loose side door. After having spent a lifetime rolling in mud and dead flesh and falling absentmindedly into the basements of unfinished homes that, in time, would sprout up all around us, he would die, all ribs and ravages, of diabetes. I was 18 by then.

I remember being home a good deal on my own. I think it was around this time, or perhaps a few years prior, that my mother had started working and my two older sisters, whatever the season, would have still been at school with sports practice, so I would have been on my own till nightfall. I thought nothing of this then and don’t make much of it now, except to say that it seems a pleasant thought, this sense of being alone but not being forlorn.

You know I was always a contemplative boy. The plum tree out front, each year as fruitless as the last, was ever a wondrous thing to behold.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Our Winter Ourselves,” Writing in Public

When Lois came to stay

From Monday evening to Thursday afternoon, Lois came to stay with us. She keeps her things–fresh linens, washed towels, extra toiletries–stored in two boxes in the back of the unused closet in David’s old study. She brings three bags, as well as a large purse, with her. Joan tells me she went through a box of tissues in the past three days and that she normally takes two hours to get ready in the morning and another two hours to get ready for bed.

Lois is twice widowed. Both men were wealthy, and both left her with almost nothing. She now lives in a small apartment in the East Hamptons. In town, she takes taxis and medicine; she comes to stay with Joan in order to see her doctors and Bergman Dorfman. She lives with one of her daughters who does something with computers. The daughter goes through phases, is up and down, takes medicine like her mother. All of her children–all two, possibly three–were raised to make money.

Joan can’t easily abide Lois, except that Lois is an old friend whose second husband was a dear. That man was charming, a good dancer when they used to have dances (“balls,” I think) in the house on the day before New Year’s Eve. When Lois calls her up, Joan asks herself whether she can be generous this time, and, as usual, she can. Joan is generous, making supper for Andy most nights and, on Wednesdays, for Christopher and for all three the past couple nights, the guest diner being petite, careworn, and especially particular. By the time Lois gets onto the express bus, Joan is exhausted.

Lois has no money but takes taxis around town. She has a son who became rich through investing, retired at age 40, married a young woman who spends his money, spends his time playing golf and traveling abroad, and can’t stand his mother. Lois was once, or so I imagine, a fixture in Society, but now she needs to have some kind of ankle surgery. Her left eye tears up all day (“because she’s sad,” I asked. Apparently not.), and her back hurts, Joan thinks, because of her large purse.

I tell Joan that Lois appears self-conflicted and sad. Lois hasn’t sold a house in over a year and, about a year ago, she was laid off from her real estate job. She  has thin blond hair, bought lactose-free milk that now sits by itself in the bottom of the refrigerator, and drank a quarter cup before she left yesterday afternoon. She is 77 years old and friendless save for Joan.

Yesterday around noon, Lois and Joan and I all loitered about in the kitchen, reading different sections of the paper by the meager overhead lights. I stood by the sink, leaning back against the counter, while the two women sat and read by the window. Outside, it was raining hard enough to darken the trees but not hard enough to stop the birds from singing. I was skimming an Op-Ed about the ailing Philadelphia newspapers while Joan read to us aloud about layoffs, sculptures, still lives, those sorts of things. Somehow, we got to talking about Joan’s daughter-in-law Susan, who’s very tall and looks her best when her hair is up, and then about Chris and his lifelong heavyset partner Jean. “A pair of pears,” I said. Lois and I smiled. Still life.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “At Home with Joan”

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”

On night visions and homecomings

On the way to the airport well before dawn, my middle sister told me about the recurring nightmares she’d had when she was a girl. There was the one about the angry man with the red eyes. The one about my mother who’d become the mean witch from the Wizard of Oz. And the one about the Incredible Hulk who’d turned evil. In each case, the dream had been precipitated by an intimation or experience of death. In one case, she’d tried counting by 2’s to distract herself from envisioning; in another, she’d stayed up all night to protect us while we slept. This led to her two weeks of insomnia.

Have you had insomnia recently, I asked. No, that was years ago.

Mid-air and half-asleep, I remembered my recurring boyhood dream. In it, I feel my teeth getting loose. I think they’re going to come out, I bring my hands up to my mouth, but they don’t. The teeth stay put while moving about. Then, I go to speak, but my jaw is half-locked, not locked entirely but out-of-sync. My teeth rub up against each other, painfully but not as painfully as I expect them to, while my jaw moves discordantly, out of tune. The truth is that I can speak, can speak just fine, but the words that come forth clot out. These intelligible words are not the right ones.

For me, this is the shudder of a death that is mine. The meaning of the nightmare is not pictorial but metaphysical. It is not that there is some structural flaw in the architecture of my mouth nor is there some cognitive degradation in the hardware of my brain but rather a metaphysical rivenness in the order of things. In the face of the Unfathomable, my mouth is relatively intact whereas my words cannot but come forth broken. For someone like me who’s lived his life according to right speech, the terror abides still.

And will this be how Death comes, comes kindly for me? With whatever I say being the wrong thing but without the ability to make amends with some last rites? No matter my philosophical meditations on death, no matter my nightly ruminations or morning exercises, regardless of my lifelong preparations (Cicero, recall: “To philosophize is to learn how to die.”), will I befoul the earth and the air, leave polluted a consecrated space, despoil the lives of others in my final moments? That is horrible.

Maybe this is why the wise (and lucky) among us, sensing the end, know to close their mouths and put out their hands and rub.


When I got home, I checked the lights and the heat. I looked in the refrigerator and checked the pantry. I turned on the faucets and watered the plants. I imagined having dogs at once forlorn and ebullient. Food, heat, light, life: the basics, the essentials. We’re inclined to think that these are no more than material necessities, but they may very well be inchoate philosophical thoughts.

It could be that our thought-actions are of home. Omphalos. Thought-actions that are a three-fold answer to a three-fold question:

Do you exist, ask the pigeons in the tree. (Yes, here I am.)

And have you forsaken us, plead the plants and the animals. (No, my friends, I’ve not forsaken you.)

And are you grateful, entreat the lights and the heat, grateful for this and for everything. (Yes, I am. Danken, my friends.)

On Anne Page’s courage

The woman was beautiful and strong but sad. Doubtless she married badly. Evidence for this can be perceived in her slightly downcast left eye; in her stilted, rigid left hand; in the spine that gives the impression of needing to be held up by strength of will. To one with her aesthetic temperament, life had to have grown, or had to have always been, cold.

It could, of course, be objected that Anne Page was merely an amateur and that the long hours of sitting would have worn on her. She was not used to this, it could be observed. Doubtless, it was tedious business, this appearance of naturalness. In addition, it is not inconceivable that Dennis Miller Bunker could have been a real bore, singular in his occupation, attentive to his subject while inattentive to this woman.

Still, to explain Anne’s exhaustion by appealing solely to the immediate situation is to close off imagining her inner life: her austere widow peak; her playful left ear; her dark eyes that confront us, asking something of us, revealing something of her inner resolve. There is also in her black dress and her pale beauty the conceit of life holding on amid the quiet despair. Like Madame Bovary, like Hedda Gabler, she must have hungered. Like them, she must have demanded, from this life, to be alive to all, to put all in her mouth. At some blank point (“pain has an element of blank,” writes Emily Dickinson), she must have seen that for her erotic vitality there would be no one.

She will never be at home. This she knows. Courage, she whispers, whispers so loud as to be audible. With this word, she draws me back to her eyes, into her hands. I stand with her for minutes; I long to stay with her until I forget all apart from her.


“Portrait of Anne Page” (1887) is on view at Crystal Bridges Museum as part of its permanent collection.