We live under the shadow of the Holocaust, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of the killing fields of Cambodia — but the world does not seem particularly restrained by the memory of these events. Let’s not forget, here on the cusp of the twenty-first century, that new calendars are still made from trees; that the same old ax delivers the blow.
America’s promises in the passionate night. America, how I loved you.
Sadness doesn’t want me to deny its complexity and stubbornness, take away its mystery. Sadness doesn’t want to wait while I drink a double latte — skim milk, please (I may be sad, but I don’t want to be fat) — and convince myself I shouldn’t feel sad. No, sadness wants me to put down the newspaper and cry — right now — for those too tired, too desperate to cry for themselves; for everyone who’s lonely and everyone who thinks he’s defeated loneliness; for all the dead in all the wars still to be fought.
God disguised as love. God disguised as loneliness. How God deceives me.
To keep from being angry — at the same old crimes, the same old criminals — I learned to be philosophical. But philosophy was another crime.
Bill Clinton and I have this in common: both of us have just about everything we ever wanted. This makes it harder to feel angry, to feel broken — to be up in arms or down on our knees. Here in the halls of satisfaction, the light falls across our faces at flattering angles. Hunger is a word. It lives far below us, in its box on the street. Hunger is too complicated to understand, even for smart men like us. I mean, what can we be expected to do: change human nature?
The great passions are reduced to policy papers, the great truths to armies of facts sent to do battle with each other. A fact: each day, the world produces enough grain to adequately feed every man, woman, and child. A fact: each day, sixty thousand people die from hunger and related diseases. A fact: the most affluent one-fifth of the world’s population enjoys sixty times the goods and services available to the lowest one-fifth.
Question the flag and all it stands for. Question the wind.
Rob Nichols, who bakes bread in Carrboro, North Carolina, says that “real bread has strengths and imperfections that reflect the baker’s hands and spirit, the temperature and humidity, strength of the starter, subtle changes in the flour, how the oven was loaded . . . and God knows what else. Character is why we have good bread days and disappointing bread days.”
I’m no harder on Bill Clinton than I am on myself. I’m opposed not to him as a person but to the tendency in all of us toward cant and self-deception.
In Washington, at the Vietnam Memorial, I nod to a man in a wheelchair. “I Was in Vietnam and I’m Proud of It,” his cap proclaims. He has no legs. I remember writing editorials in my college paper against the war. I remember deciding that, if I was drafted, I’d go to Canada rather than fight. I’m neither proud nor ashamed of that. I was just being patriotic in my own way.
Jesse Helms is my senator. The moon, too, is mine.
Let’s respect the heroes who live far from public sight: behind a battered desk in a legal-aid office; on a meditation cushion; in the kitchen at three in the morning, rocking a child who can’t sleep.
Sometimes, when I sit down to eat, I try this: As I put each bite of food into my mouth, I picture someone who is starving. I picture one person, not thousands; a man just like me — except that he’s starving. I do this neither to feel guilty nor to exorcise my guilt, but to be more aware. With each bite, I try to confront the unbearable mystery of a world in which he has nothing to eat and I have plenty. It’s like staring at the sun: I can’t do it for long. Often I forget the practice altogether — for days, weeks, months at a time. The starving man doesn’t forget he’s starving.
I spied Jesus through the keyhole, but the door was locked to me. I saw him sleeping, testing the temperature of human dreams.
I can’t celebrate life by denying suffering and injustice, by burying my head in the sand of an unaware, self-deceptive “spirituality.” But I can celebrate the inconceivable love expressed in the smallest acts, in everyday triumphs and tragedies. A spiritual teacher, asked why he didn’t work miracles, replied, “I have no need to work miracles. The circulation of blood through my body is enough.”
At the World Traveler Bookstore, there are ten clocks showing the time in different cities throughout the world. I imagine someone asking, What time is it, really? It’s like asking, Who am I, really?
I’m shown only what I’m able to understand. Truth in all its glory would shatter me.