With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Life takes the most unexpected turns. There’s a foot and a half of snow on the ground; no one predicted this. Schools and businesses are closed, and thousands of homes are without electricity. At the beginning of the year 2000, I worried that the computers would stop working; the computers kept working. Now nature drops her handkerchief, and everything grinds to a halt.
Norma and I argued about — what else? — how we argue. After dinner, I argued with a box of crackers, and the crackers won. Oh hungry man, who neglects the only hunger that matters. Saint Augustine said, “Restless is our heart until it rests in God.” How important to be reminded that I’m hungry for something that food can’t satisfy, that sex can’t satisfy, that twenty-six years of The Sun can’t satisfy.
I can trust the power of love. That’s all I can trust. Not my story about the past; not my fantasies about the future; not all my remarkable insights, polished until they shine. They’re like a wall full of trophies in a house that’s burning. Better to trust the flames.
The Sufis say: Love is the fire, and I am wood.
Almost completely paralyzed by polio, Mark O’Brien spent most of his life in an iron lung. He wrote poems and essays and articles by tapping on a computer keyboard with a mouth stick. He was both an inspiration to me and a reproach, a fearsome reminder of how harsh life can be. I finally met him last June. (A month later, a friend called to say Mark had died — alone, in the middle of the night, in his iron lung.) During our visit, we talked about writing. We talked about dying. We talked about faith and her twin sister, doubt. I fed him a sandwich. I held a straw to his lips as he sipped some juice. Before I left, I wanted to hug him, but, of course, that was impossible. So I asked if I could touch his head. He said he’d like that. I told him I was glad we got to meet in this lifetime. He told me he was, too.
I want to live like a man who knows he’s going to die and knows that everyone he loves is going to die, yet remembers that life is an unfathomable mystery that neither birth nor death explains.
All day, I argued against the existence of God. God didn’t take my argument seriously. I built a home and didn’t make a place for God. God followed me from room to room. I couldn’t get away from this so-called God I didn’t believe in. When I only pretended to pray, God wasn’t taken in by my disguise. I joined the hypocrites. I joined the holy ones. God waited patiently for my return.
Yesterday, on my way back from my morning run, I passed my neighbor Ray puttering in his garden. He nodded encouragingly. “Sy,” he called out, “you’re going to live forever.” I burst out laughing. “I don’t think so, Ray,” I said. We talked for a few minutes about the woman he was in love with; he said he couldn’t get over how beautiful she looked when she smiled at him in the morning. I said, “Maybe that’s where we live forever, Ray, in a moment like that.”
What a busy day! I reminded myself to savor it anyway. This is my life, I thought, not a dress rehearsal for some other life. If, while emptying the trash, I noticed how blue the sky was, then there was that much blue sky in my day: no more, no less.
Am I closer to God when I’m happy and confident and expansive? It seems so. But as soon as my good mood becomes something to defend, I’m only creating a different kind of suffering. It’s important not to insist on some false hierarchy of experience, not to identify more closely with the “good” times than with the “bad” times. To the extent that I identify with any state of mind, I’m creating suffering. This is so hard to remember.
I can’t stare directly at the sun. I can’t stare directly at the living God. But the sun is always shining, even when half the world is plunged in darkness.
As I walked along a crowded street yesterday, I remembered something I’d read that morning by the Dalai Lama: “All living beings want happiness and not suffering.” And, for a moment, I stopped noticing how different everyone looked. Behind our astonishing differences was something even more astonishing: our shared yearning to be happy and not to suffer. It didn’t matter whether we were consciously aware of this. It didn’t matter that we usually delude ourselves about the source of true happiness and look for it in all the wrong places. What mattered was that every single one of us wanted the same thing.