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I Want an Eye for the Secret Essence That Lies Beyond

In Roland Merullo’s lyrical novel, “In Revere, In Those Days,” we find a loving and moving memoir of the lead character, Anthony (Tonio) Benedetto. Tonio grows up in Revere, Massachusetts, in a home of love with his struggling but hard working and adoring Italian-American parents. All is well until at age 11 his parents are killed in a plane crash. Young Tonio is crushed by this tragedy and overwhelmed by what seems like life’s harsh indifference. But his paternal grandparents, gentle people who treasure Tonio, enter into his grief and envelop him in a love so rich it fortifies him the rest of his life. His uncle Peter, too, steps in to be a caring father figure. Tonio eventually finds ways out of his sorrow and out of Revere. But there are other challenges and heartaches to face. And he learns to love through them as he was loved.

Here is a story of family affection and commitment, sorrow, tragedy, society’s prejudices against immigrants, the struggle to survive in low paying work, the value of authentic religion, and the courage to find one’s own meaning in life.

The novel opens with a mature Tonio having already lived much of his life as he introduces himself to us:

“My name is Anthony Benedetto, and I live what might be called a secret life….If you passed me on the streets of this sleepy little town, you’d see an average-looking middle-aged man burdened by the usual cares and lifted by the small pleasures of the modern domestic whirl. What I mean when I say ‘secret life’ is that I often feel the visible part of me is a plain wrapper that hides a gem. I feel that way about people in general: there is the wrapping, and then there is a sort of finer essence. She is tall, sexy, greedy; he is loud, brilliant, addicted to amphetamines. We are crude, generous, beautiful, vicious; we wear a patchwork disguise made from a hundred talents, habits, and needs, and underneath it lies this spark of something else, something larger than our labels and flaws. You can see that spark clearly in children before the coat of the personality grows too thick. You can sense it when you first fall in love, before the beloved’s failings and troubles swell up into view; and then, later, if you’ve come to terms with the failings and troubles and built a mature affection. It’s not that I don’t see the evil, pettiness, and pain in the world; believe me I’ve seen it, I see it. It’s just that I also seem to have an eye for the secret essence that lies beyond that, the gem in plain wrapping.”

These are the musings of someone who has lived; someone who has learned that what builds endurance within us, what gives us our own human authenticity, is as poet Wallace Stegner once said, not really wisdom but “scar tissue and callous.”

And out of that awareness can truly come this amazing ability to see and sense more in both people and in life. It can give to us “an eye for the secret essence that lies beyond.”

If George Zimmerman could have done that; looked beyond the hoodie, beyond the young black stereotype, beyond the sinister suspicions created from his own fears; if he could have instead taken time to just assess the situation more, paused in his terror and assumptions and simply seen a teenager walking; had he had an eye for the secret essence in a young stranger, it all might have been so different.

And the truth is, all of us need this capacity.

What might happen if we could, out of the difficulties we have ourselves faced and overcome, find the ability to look for that secret essence in all other people? And not just in people but also in all of those hard hitting circumstances of life? In all of the confusing conflicts that challenge us in society?

Our politicians seem incapable of this. Can you imagine what our government might accomplish if our political leaders saw their work as a chance to see deeply into the lives of our citizens, to consider the reach of their legislation and how it might touch people in ways that lift and heal and affirm them?

What happened to the American ideal that our future as Americans is one of promise and not threats? That the world is ours to know and understand and partner with, not control or own or make enemies of? How did we get so far from the belief that here in this country we live to create, produce, achieve, help, contribute, cooperate, learn, change, excel, and love?

Poet and novelist Wendell Berry has said, "Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy." 

How did we forget that?

How did we come to this place in our land where so often our actions are enough to make the stars weep?

Most of us have been through our own dark days and nights. We have felt the sting of life’s sharp slaps in the face. We have been bent over and taken to our knees with grief and loss and some form of failure. We have all messed up in our own ways. Why can we not let those experiences gift us to look on others and on life with an “eye for the secret essence that lies beyond,” for the ability to discover “the gem in plain wrapping”?

© 2013 Timothy Moody

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