A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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Norma and I walk along the shore, holding hands. The wind whips her beautiful long hair, streaked now with gray. Since we met, eighteen years have slipped away. Time: the punch line to God’s favorite joke, one we never really get, though we smile politely and pretend to understand.
How unreasonably possessive I am. Insecurity: it’s the old toothache, the minor surgery performed with no anesthetic, the dingy interrogation room where the weary torturer has one more lesson to teach me. It’s the false hope that I’ve been wrongly seized: surely there’s been some mistake.
Truth isn’t diminished because I act like a fool. The light isn’t extinguished because I close my eyes.
Walking past the United Nations headquarters, I’m reminded that the UN is as old as I am. Since 1945, we’ve both been struggling with human nature. Yet how quickly I shut my heart to a disagreeable neighbor. How quickly I shut the door on myself! If I make a habit out of judging myself harshly for every real or imagined failing, how can I possibly extend generosity to others? My politics must be rooted in compassion for myself if I want to contribute to a more compassionate world.
I forgot who I was, and there was nothing in my wallet to remind me, and nothing in my wife’s eyes, and nothing on the World Wide Web. So I looked in the mirror. I saw a boy. I saw a young man. I saw an old man. I saw his face change like the changing seasons.
The lie I tell myself is that I’m not good enough. By whose standards? By standards that are impossible to attain — certainly impossible for me to attain. I never was a straight-A student and I’m not a straight-A student now. I make mistakes. I don’t always live up to my potential. My sexual imagination is X-rated, not politically correct, sometimes not even anatomically correct. The lie I tell myself is that God is appalled.
Norma’s idea of a heaping spoonful is different from mine, so the coffee tasted watery this morning. She’s more frugal than I am, which I admire, though I don’t like watery coffee. Still, I don’t need to criticize her. Nor do I need to see this as symbolic: She wasn’t measuring out love. She wasn’t reminding me I always want too much. We’re just different, and our differences are married, too.
Can I stop identifying so much with Sy’s story? I don’t mean ignoring my feelings. I mean no longer cherishing the golden embroidery of me and mine. Instead of worrying about how to improve myself, can I acknowledge that the game is fixed? My desire to be a better man and my harsh judgment when I fail to meet my lofty goals are two sides of the same coin: heads, I lose; tails, I lose. But Sy is an inveterate gambler. He still imagines that one day he’ll win.
Is it important for me to pray every day? Is that how I nourish myself? Then why would I neglect to nourish myself? How profoundly disrespectful; how sad. Is it important for me to exercise every day? Who’s stopping me? Is it important for me to write? What do I make more important?
A baby is born. Immediately, he’s in trouble because the people around him are in trouble. They’re frightened; they’re sleepy; they’re lost in a dream and don’t know they’re dreaming. The baby doesn’t know what to do. How painful it is to be here, yet here he is. Can I reach across the years and hold him? Who else but me can find his way back to that child, born at the end of a world war into a family at war with itself? Can I be a messenger from the future with strong arms and a soothing voice; a man who’s learned to honor the innocent wisdom of a newborn; a friend who will never desert him?
Norma and I celebrated our anniversary by going out to dinner. Then we stayed up late. What a pleasure to follow each other’s thoughts into unfamiliar neighborhoods, then to chase each other’s nakedness round and round the block. We fell asleep the usual way, Norma curled against me, the cats between us at the foot of the bed. At three in the morning, she woke up, violently sick from something she’d eaten, and spent the next two hours throwing up. I knelt beside her in the bathroom, my arm around her shoulder. There are many positions for love.
To live like a spiritual warrior is difficult but not impossible. A spiritual warrior sees both the beauty and the sadness in everything. A spiritual warrior knows that in life there are no victors, yet makes his stand. When the mob inside him calls for “justice,” he doesn’t blink an eye. He says, There will be no lynching here.