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Tolstoy at the Fifty-yard Line

Looking back, I find it strange – and charming – that I always thought I could be as eccentric as I chose and still belong.

In junior high school, like everyone else in my hometown, I would go to the Friday Night Football games. But to make it more substantive, I would take War and Peace with me to read in the bleachers.

I could have done this differently. The two more obvious courses of action would have been to: 1) stay at home reading Tolstoy alone; or 2) surrender myself to the mindless fun of small-town Friday Night Football. But I didn’t want to have to choose. As usual, I wanted everything: Tolstoy, touchdowns and pom-pom girls. So I sat there in the stands reading War and Peace, waiting for the game to start and answering polite questions from mystified neighbors.

I have always sought that elusive unity. I don’t accept that the disparate pieces of my soul must be at war. I believe that the contradictions were meant to get along.

Of course, I didn’t belong. I may have embraced the contradictions, but the others saw me as a strange bird indeed. I liked those people but I also knew I was meant for some other destiny. A life of small-town predictability – even one of upper middle class prosperity replete with over-achieving kids, games of golf at the country club and pious good citizenship – would not hold me.

I loved that place so much probably because I knew I would be going far away one day. My acute sense of the fragility of life makes me look at even the most common and sordid expressions of our humanity with a soft-eyed tenderness. (I could never be a cynic.)

The best part of the evening for me was the last part: walking home alone – proof (if you needed it) that even I knew I didn’t really belong. If someone offered me a ride home, I would decline. I preferred to walk. While the football players were celebrating or licking their wounds at a keg party, I walked through the graceful streets of Piedmont, my mind racing ahead to explore its own paths. The manicured gardens that surrounded the mansions spoke to me of beauty and balance and suggested that all the disparate pieces of a complex soul could fit together in harmony, no matter how contrived the association.

At least, that’s what I was betting on.

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