Contents of an empty box

ONE day I found a little cardboard box on my study desk. On the box was written in bold letters: ``Daddy, the box is full of love.'' My six-year-old daughter was nowhere in sight. I opened the box gently. It was empty. Across the years, that precious ``emptiness'' between us has been quietly preserved. Kristen is now a young woman and we live in different cities. I think we both recognize the lasting worth of what we share without choosing to articulate it. It's part of a silence in her I refuse to break.

Of course, all relationship thrives on mutual respect. But I truly believe that the most rewarding relationships are the most surprising. Sometimes the most unlikely. It has to do with the moral strength that can hold two very different dispositions in meaningful contact. Like reticence poised (without flinching) at a twinkling distance from wit. Like your Prospero playing host to my Caliban. This is the situational stuff out of which paradox is bred. It's what can make a virtue out of the willingness to be surprised. And somehow it's always beautiful.

The ancient Greeks had a word for this kind of experience - kalos (moral beauty). Like doing something beautiful even in the most unlikely circumstance. That's when aesthetics join hands with ethics. Of course, as history shows us, classical Greece - in whose isles ``burning Sappho loved and sung'' - somehow lost the link between beauty and moral strength. The quotation is from Byron, by the way.

Speaking of Byron (and speaking of the unlikely), it's worth noting that the poet earned the disapproval of his peers for his interest in boxing, which, in turn, involved his relationship with ``Gentleman John Jackson.'' It was Gentleman Jackson of late 18th-century England who is credited with imparting boxing's scientific principles and gentlemanly values. Lord Byron, when chided for this interest and his choice of companions, insisted that Jackson's manners were ``infinitely superior to those of the fellows of the college whom I meet at the high table.'' Byron also referred to his coach in these lines from his ``Hints from Horace'':

And men unpractised in

exchanging knocks

Must go to Jackson ere they dare

to box ...

What is it, then, that brings about fresh encounters within the same relationship? I think perhaps something like the amalgam of affection with a sense of humor and the willingness to be surprised. Neither disposition nor age need interfere with this. But it helps to be bent on adventure. That is, if you can come to think of the unlikely in terms of the adventurous.

In this respect, perhaps we need to be less gullible. I've grown weary of the techniques with which the media seek constantly to turn living into advertisement. As if relationship itself were a kind of refined technology. But here in my increasingly international city, Toronto, I see a new, clean wave forming - a growing unpolluted humanity that can lift friendships above the clich'es of urban culture.

A kind of nostalgia for pure values is there, I think - a desire for guiltless worth, a longing to feel again uninhibited respect for others.

And we're not waking up to this too late. When things seem to go wrong, often a new ``encounter'' is in the making. What could be more bizarre than finding yourself face to face with a stranger - yet separated by a soundproof transparent partition? As in many penitentiaries at visiting time, the only communication is by phone. Here you are holding your phone while the prisoner is holding his only inches from you. Unaccountably the line goes dead. You watch him mouthing words inaudibly; and neither of you lip-reads, of course. Suddenly he is grinning at you broadly and the visit concludes hilariously in grimaces and improvised sign language.

Then there's the time you spar with your towering teen-age son. You have taught him how to avoid friendly buffets and at the same time to score on ``the target area'' (meaning your waistline). Now abruptly you witness a brilliant maneuver ruined as he sidesteps and envelopes you in an inescapable hug!

Lasting relationships have often started beautifully with a joke or a bump!

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