Peace of Paradise

Piece (if not Peace) of Paradise

I saw that a former neighbor’s house is for sale. The asking price: $7m and change. If you have the millions, the change won’t matter.

I never knew my neighbor. Actually never even met him. I saw him quite a bit. A lot of people did. But never on the street, as we say. Even if you didn’t know him, you would recognize him especially when he made you laugh and sometimes cry.

I call him a neighbor, but he really lived a few towns over, about 15 minutes away. But I drove by his neighborhood often over the years. I knew he lived there. The newspapers told me. And a woman I knew said she saw him late one night in a grocery store, with a baseball cap pulled down low and moving fast, like he didn’t want to be seen—and no doubt he didn’t.

Thoreau once wrote, “However mean [average] your life is, meet it and live it … love your life, poor as it is.” Henry, the one who lived in a small cabin by a pond for a short time, knew something of poverty, or at least not having much. He thought being poor didn’t have to be a terrible thing, if a person has the right outlook. “The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich person’s abode … . I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly [in the almshouse], and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace” (Conclusion to Walden).

My neighbor’s house isn’t a palace, yet, as the real estate photos show, it sits on the edge of the water. Staring at the photo of the spacious deck, I imagined the brilliance of my neighbor found many a moment of inspiration sitting or standing out there, hearing the gentle sounds of the waves and winds of the bay.

Though my neighbor acted like a high octane madman at times, he must have known many quiet hours by those waters, the same waters I found so peaceful for many years.

That photograph of his deck over the bay made me think back to all the people I worked with who also lived by that bay, and along the streams and canals that flowed with the rains and tides. People of the bushes and boxes; people with tents living intense lives on the edge of the bay, often on the edge of sanity. Certainly on the edge of surviving. Without homes, these people—other neighbors of mine—were not thoughtless or heartless though they were robbed of their humanity with one word: homeless. Criminalized, demonized because most of us with homes refused to look them in the eyes. So there were “sweeps” of the campsites when everything they had was swept away like some kind of trash. And daily arrests for things like trespassing, camping without a permit or drinking in public. As we would say: “It’s against the law to be poor here.”

The neighbor seemed to understand. He raised a boatload of money for people like these.

“Rather … than money, than fame, give me truth,” said the other famous man by another body of water. Henry seemed to have his finger on the pulse of what it means to be human beyond the stuff, beneath the lights.

My neighbor, who had so much stuff and stood in the lights so much, once said, “If heaven exists, to know that there are laughs, that would be a great thing.” And, “I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.” Again, “Please, don’t worry so much. Because in the end none of us have very long on this earth. Life is fleeting. And if you’re ever distressed, cast your eyes to the summer sky.”

He was a wise man, and a wise guy. And he lived in Paradise—no, really—it’s a super-wealthy neighborhood in an extremely wealthy town in an obscenely wealthy county, and it’s called Paradise, just off Paradise Drive. I kid you not.

Robin was privileged in every way. But he gave us all something intangible yet essential. He gave us art and joy and laughter. Something to live by and live for. He brought us stories to both entertain and enlighten. We could almost feel like we knew him, but we didn’t, we couldn’t, see all of him. He hid from us, though he was constantly a public figure.

And his success—or the despair that can infect success—led him to suicide. In 2014, Robin Williams killed himself in that $7m house in Paradise Cay on San Francisco Bay. Now you can live there, if you have the millions, and the change.

I don’t think I would if I could, but maybe someone should. Then they can invite us all, including those other neighbors whose homes are bushes and tents. We can all listen to the waves and the wind, breathe the salty air and reflect on Robin’s words:

“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.”

And, his line from Good Will Hunting:

“I can’t learn anything from you, unless you want to talk about you.”

That kind of paradise isn’t easy or comfortable, but there could be room for a few smiles, and even some laughter. Surely some honesty amidst the comedy.

Because it’s true–isn’t it?– the setting sun is as bright in a camp as in a castle, and maybe just a little brighter sometimes.

Chris Highland

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