With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Shall I say a line from a song changed my life? It’s sentimental but true. Important things rarely touch me; the news, like an old wind, rushes by. Small things, signs, gestures point the way for me — in 1971, it was a song, reminding me that making a living and making a life aren’t separate, though we pretend otherwise.
I led two lives that year, different as night and day. From midnight until dawn, when the sun slanted across my desk through dusty blinds, I was a copy editor for the Long Island Press. I didn’t like the job, or most of the people there — the angle of their judgments, the heavy air of their lives; nor did I like the Press, which I’d worked for previously — vowing, when I’d quit, never to return. How strange to be back; how strange to be back just for the money.
The money had hardly mattered when I’d started out, in 1966, as a reporter — fresh from graduate school, energetic and idealistic, yearning to change society. To bring down the falsely pious, to bring down prejudice and patronage and raise up the poor, this was my goal — and facts, the right facts, and the right words would do it, turn people’s minds and hearts back to what America, now on its knees, once stood for.
It didn’t work that way. I won a few victories, even a few awards, but I soon realized I was fighting with a rubber sword. The Press’ editors had friends in high places and they took care of their friends; if the poor could be served, that was fine, but not at the expense of the rich. Once, I suggested an article about the local business community’s indifference to suffering in the slums; I was told it would “open a can of worms.”
Several times I almost quit, in protest over some arbitrary editing or a thoughtless assignment. Instead, I saved up my rage and my money; something told me I needed to quit not just the Press but my whole life, at least for a while, to quit America, too, and my ardor to save it. In 1969, I left, after telling my editors what I thought of them. My wife and I went to Europe, to travel until the money ran out; then, we figured, we’d come back. I’d find a job on a better paper.
The money ran out but I didn’t want to return. During a year on the road, I’d changed. I’d met people who by word and example challenged me deeply, forced me to read between the lines of my life, look at my own false pieties, confront the fears that lay behind my concern about others’ lives.
I stopped seeing the world as a succession of separate stories, rising and falling in the daily headlines like ducks in a shooting gallery. The real news was what connected us. What sense was there in going back to work for a “better” newspaper; didn’t all the papers share the same assumptions? Facts were facts; the truth was something else.
We stayed in Europe nearly another year, scraping by. I did some writing, but nothing came out clearly. The revolution was inside me now; it was myself I was trying to save. Was there a politician anywhere who had lied more to the people than I had lied to myself — about my own feelings? Talk about injustice! To reclaim my heart, to win back my life, occupied me fully. I had few answers, lots of questions; some were practical and needed to be answered soon: if I was no longer a journalist, who was I? How was I going to make a living, without compromising these new, hard-won, truths?
If I went back to America, it would be to a commune, not a city room, I promised myself. To live simply, with others who shared our values, might be a place to start. Off we went, down the back roads of America and Canada, visiting communes, looking for home. But nothing was in our emotional price range: being committed to each other was hard enough; to commit ourselves to three or five or eight others, people we didn’t know — that we weren’t ready for. We decided to start from scratch: go back to work, save money, buy land. If we found kindred souls to join us, fine. If not, we’d create the good life ourselves.
My wife, Judy, just as reluctant to return to teaching as I was to reporting, tried her hand at crafts. I, who felt my hands were good for nothing but writing — even writing nothing at all — went back to the Press. I knew, living frugally, we could save enough in a year to buy land. I knew, too, the Press would take me back, at a good salary. My goodbyes, seething with denunciation, had been regarded as youthful excess. And despite my odd appearance now — my shoulder-length hair, faded jeans, and leather vest, not exactly Press attire — the editors believed my half-truth, that I wanted to come back, while I choked on the other half.
But I’d misjudged how much I’d changed. I’d asked for a copy editing job because it was faceless; perhaps editing lies would be easier than writing them? Not so easy, it turned out. Each morning, I left work sad. What was I doing driving in yet deeper the nail of misunderstanding? Wasn’t the world bleeding already from a million wounds and confusions? This kind of news helped no one; I knew that. But then came the rationalizations, right on time like the dawn: I was buying the future, saving for the downpayment on the new American dream, for the land, the tiller, the axe, the stove. I’d walk home through the park, the sun breaking through the trees, imagining tall grasses bent by the wind, out beyond the garden and the woodpile and the houses of our friends, arranged in a circle, or maybe at first we’d live in tents. . . . And on the other side of the dream, the night-shift beckoned, with crook’d finger and sour breath.
This went on for several months. During that time, I made a friend, Tom, who worked in a nearby bookstore. Tom loved the city — its late nights, its surrealistic intensities. His girlfriend was a model with blazing red hair; they lived fast. Most of all, Tom loved music. Regularly, he’d bring over albums — reminding me as he fixed me with his dark eyes, “Don’t tap your foot; listen to the words.” One Fall afternoon, we listened to Graham Nash’s “Songs for Beginners.” Its sincerity and earned truth pierced me. I bought it, and played it again and again. On it was a hauntingly beautiful line that called to me: “Make sure that the things you do keep us alive.” To live a life that respected Life — this is what mattered. But half my life was hidden. Like a ghost, the song came unbidden in the night, as I bent over the hodgepodge of facts and misinformation that passed before me as news, needing touching up, a bit of rouge and a hat, before being seen. Was I buying a future this way? Maybe, but what kind? And at what price?
The next weekend, I listened to the album one too many times. And something in me shifted: some continent broke in two and the waters came rushing in. My world had changed. I knew I’d rather starve than do something I didn’t believe in. I know it was a real change because I’ve never stopped believing it.
The next day I quit.
For thirteen years, I’ve lived on the other side of that decision, which rises like a mountain from the plains of my old life.
It hasn’t always been easy. Quitting the Press was a first step; figuring out what to do next took time. We tried to live communally; it didn’t work. I learned to make handicrafts, too; I ran a juice bar; I mowed lawns. These jobs weren’t compromising but they weren’t satisfying either. In 1974 I started THE SUN. Here, finally, was work that sprang from deep necessity, work that was personal and social rather than a job that was neither.
It’s been hard work but I wouldn’t trade places with anyone. Marrying who I am with what I do — earning a life, not just a living — has been an act of the purest magic, aligning me with some raw power in the universe, giving me the strength to stay up late, get up early, do what I’d never do just for the money.
And somehow I’ve gotten by, never lacking for what I truly need. Need, of course, is relative. My friend Pete says, “All you need is a warm place and a little food in your belly.” Generally, I’ve fared better.
Living simply helps. I eat plainly, exercise each day; I don’t have a family doctor because I don’t need one. I don’t try to impress others with what I wear or what I own. I like elegance, but elegance isn’t always expensive. I find bargains at the Thrift Shop and at yard sales. I use my imagination. I barter for things I want and some things I learn to live without. So what? Can money buy what I have — the certainty that everything I need will come to me if I’m doing what’s right?
So how come, this past Winter, in THE SUN office on Rosemary Street, I’m listening so raptly to a description of financial nirvana? Our indebtedness wiped out! A paid staff and a computer! A million — did he say a million — dollar endowment!
Telling the tale, newly arrived from the West Coast, is a self-described “money midwife” — a professional fund-raiser, now at work for THE SUN.
I’m enchanted by the promises; they’re impossible to believe yet I want to believe. He says we deserve it; how can I argue? I’ve been thinking too small, he suggests — romanticizing scarcity, afraid to ask for what I want. I know there’s truth in that. He tells me I have to double or triple my $100 a week salary right away. I shrug modestly but there’s no denying the pleasure. He’s scooping out the ice cream as fast as he can and I — who don’t eat sugar; who once called money white sugar! — start wondering what’s wrong with sugar anyway. As if I didn’t know. As if I weren’t about to be reminded.
From the first, THE SUN was an improbable financial venture: I started it with fifty dollars, not much business sense, and no idea where the next fifty would come from. There’s never been enough to pay all the bills, and sometimes not enough to pay me.
Have I been denying myself success? More than one person has suggested it, so I’ve paid attention. I’ve discarded my old prejudices against wealth, and wealthy people; they’re no less “spiritual” than anyone else. And I no longer pretend that success invariably means selling out. I’ve read the recommended books on prosperity consciousness — separating, I hope, the wheat from the chaff. I agree: thoughts create reality; each of us has undreamt-of creative powers to make our lives rich or poor; money is just another form of energy. So much for the wheat.
But I haven’t been able to sit each day and mutter prosperity affirmations; or draw a picture of everything I “want” and put it on the wall; or imagine that Jesus Christ is my personal banker, as one book suggested. I believe prayers are answered, but that doesn’t mean God is our errand boy. What we want and what we need are often different — and who knows for sure which is which? Besides, who said we’re here to satisfy our desires? Not the great teachers I’ve studied. Nor the life I’ve lived, in which disappointment has been a great teacher. Asking the universe for what we want is one thing; listening to the universe is another. I haven’t yet learned how to do both at once and, right now, listening feels more important: Thy will, not my will.
Does this mean THE SUN will never be successful? I hope not. But surely I’m not the sole arbiter of that. Yet, if I’m wrong about this, perhaps that’s the lesson I need, more than the experience of “success.” The truth is, I don’t know what the truth is — not in any absolute sense. I try to balance these abstractions with day-to-day affairs, not always “successfully.” I keep an eye on when “manifesting my will” turns into bullying. I wonder at this small bit of embroidery in the great design.
Enter, into this uncertainty, into my life, Max (not his real name, but maybe his real name isn’t his real name). We had started corresponding last year. He contributed a short piece, which I liked, to the magazine; it seemed a heartfelt description of his devotion to a life of “service.” Then he wrote again, asking if I’d read some of his essays and poems — and mentioning, parenthetically, that he was a fund-raiser.
One letter led to another which led to a phone call which led to Max coming to work for THE SUN — “our fund-raiser in California,” I called him, proudly, glad I’d taken this step, “open to receiving,” as the books say.
He delivered. The checks started arriving — generous donations from readers who cared about the magazine. Max and I started spending more time on the phone. Mostly he talked, I listened — to his opinions on wine, and opera, and spy novels; to his own get-rich-quick schemes — his involvement with international cartels and foreign publishing houses; and then there was his new career as a literary agent. It went on and on — a little too fast and a little too vague for me. I’d hang up after 20 or 30 minutes, and Norma would ask me what Max had said. I wouldn’t know what to answer. “Nothing,” I’d reply, lamely. Go describe the air.
In January Max arrived to do “some serious fund-raising.” I picked him up at the airport. After a few hours of conversation, I was even more mystified: now there was a body to go with the voice, but what went with the body? Clever, charming, intuitive, quick to joke and just as eager to discuss theology, he seemed to adapt phenomenally to the mood of the moment, unless it turned to something sharp-edged from the past or painful, something lumbering and ungainly that wouldn’t fly.
Forget money, he told me; he’d take care of that. I should concentrate on putting out the magazine and putting away my limiting beliefs about success. Soon, we’d be publishing books, too, of all kinds, including his own just-finished manuscript about — you guessed it — money.
I’d listen to Max talk about THE SUN and my heart would sink. I didn’t want anyone to feel pressured into giving us money, or made to feel guilty for not doing it but I couldn’t be sure that wasn’t happening. He didn’t lie, or, as far as I know, deliberately mislead anyone; his hustle was more subtle. Max wasn’t out to line his pockets (he was working for a modest 10 percent) but his psyche. He thrived on extravagance: an undistinguished wine, an ordinary job, the plain, unvarnished truth wasn’t enough for him. Embellishment was his oxygen.
He talked a lot about his “intuitions” regarding the weather, other people, anything. And many were uncannily accurate. Often, he could read someone’s strengths and weaknesses at a glance. What he did with this gift was a shame. “When he found out I was a writer,” a friend told me, “and that I was unpublished, he came on like I was a neglected Hemingway and he was going to get me my due. It pushed all my buttons and he knew it. He said he wanted to represent me, though we’d only been talking five minutes and he didn’t know a thing about me or what I’d written.
My “buttons” were being pushed, too: belly up from the depths came my sharp-toothed greed — not for stereos or sports cars but for “my” magazine. One day, a check arrived; we’d been promised this gift on the phone, the amount undisclosed. I opened the envelope eagerly, but I’d been expecting more — and disappointment, not gratitude, was my first response.
Yes, Max was shaking the money tree and with his encouragement I’d climbed out on a limb. Go higher, he said. But it was the wrong direction. More than money was at stake. It didn’t matter how much Max raised if THE SUN’s integrity was a casualty. You can’t buy back purity of intent. You can’t buy it in the first place — just thank God it’s there, its roots burrowing deeper and deeper into the source of all riches. Did I suggest THE SUN wasn’t a success? How foolish!
This time it wasn’t a song but a dream that pointed the way for me; I didn’t need an analyst to explain the significance of the roof of THE SUN building falling in. I didn’t need more than a week of Max before letting him go. That I needed a week tells me how much more letting go there is.