I received a warm reception at my reading yesterday. It’s gratifying to know my writing is appreciated; everyone loves the sound of applause. Today, however, I’m reminded of the Zen koan “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” When I’m writing in my notebook early in the morning, whose applause do I want to hear? If the words come from my heart, stripped of artifice and the need to impress, it doesn’t matter. But when I try to make these sentences look handsome, everything’s lost. I didn’t get up before dawn to watch a middle-aged man admire himself in the mirror. Is that a new shirt he’s wearing? I’m not impressed. Naked, I tell him. Naked is all I care about. And I don’t mean naked except for your underwear. And I don’t mean naked except for your charming smile.
Maybe I won’t write anything today. More words aren’t what the hungry cry out for. More words won’t bring back the children who died yesterday in their mothers’ arms. More words won’t even change the way I’m feeling. So what’s the use of being a man of words? Last night, the President gave a speech. He led thousands of words in a little march with flags waving and a brass band playing. What if he’d just stood quietly for a few minutes? What if the silence washed over him like a wave?
Here in my kitchen, the hum of the refrigerator is the only sound I hear. I don’t hear the diplomat clearing his throat. I don’t hear the hungry man weep.
I can’t love humanity in the abstract, only individuals in particular. Yet if I forget that those I love are no more worthy of love than anyone else, I’ve made a huge mistake. How do I remember that the light doesn’t shine more brightly in one person than in another?
I pray to remember I’m a middle-aged white man, which limits my understanding. I pray to remember that not understanding doesn’t let me off the hook. When was the last time I risked something for the cause of racial justice? I don’t mean shaking my head at intolerance. I don’t mean writing a check. Racial politics have become more complicated than they were in the sixties, when I marched for civil rights. Yet my daughter Sara’s decision to live in a predominantly black neighborhood reminds me that racial politics can still be surprisingly simple.
If I’m not too busy to breathe, I’m not too busy to be thankful for breathing. If I’m not too busy to smile at a stranger, I’m not too busy to remember we’re breathing the same air.
How hard it is to change the simplest habit. No wonder, then, that society’s bad habits can seem so intractable. Yet whenever I’m finally able to open a stuck window in my psyche, my notion of what’s possible is profoundly altered, and society begins to seem a little less monolithic. We really do teach by example, and it’s impossible to say what the effect of even the smallest change might be.
I went to hear Ralph Nader speak yesterday. He’s one of my heroes, a man who fights injustice and corporate greed because he can’t think of anything more important, or more personally satisfying. I’m glad he’s running for President again. Being forced to choose between Gore and Bush is like having to decide which of the town’s two morticians to call to haul away the body. I’d rather see Nader hunched over the hapless victim, checking for a pulse. I’d rather see him cradling America in his arms as he tries to breathe some life into her. Heroic measures are called for. As the recent demonstrations against the World Trade Organization attest, we’re not dead yet.
If Ralph Nader were President, I’d still get up before dawn, still sit on the floor and talk to an unseen god, still wrestle all day with how to be a better man. If Ralph Nader were President, I’d still be a Jew who doesn’t go to synagogue, who keeps a picture of a Hindu guru on his wall, who prays to Jesus. Last night was the first night of Passover. Norma and I opened a bottle of wine. We talked. We made love. Over dinner, she told me about holding a friend in her arms. The woman was sobbing because her son had died. We ate silently for a few minutes. Norma pointed to the rosebush climbing up the side of the porch. In a few weeks, she said, it will be in bloom. There will be roses everywhere.
I dreamt that I was dancing with God. God wanted me to lead, but I was embarrassed. I dreamt that I was singing with God. God wanted me to harmonize, but I was afraid I’d sing off-key. I dreamt that God and I were smoking a joint. I was worried someone might see us. God was laughing.