The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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THE HOUSE WASN’T YELLOW when we moved in, but it needed a fresh coat of paint. I regretted the choice almost immediately. All that yellow made the ramshackle building too bright, too cheerful, too . . . yellow. It hardly looked like the home of a serious little magazine. But, for thirteen years, that’s what it was.
The roof leaked. The floors sagged. The pipes froze in winter. There was no central heat, no central air. But there was something at the center, something vital and alive. I put together more than 150 issues of The Sun at 412 West Rosemary Street, pounding out essays on my old manual typewriter, editing and proofreading and worrying about the bills, never knowing from month to month whether the magazine would survive.
By 1989, the staff had outgrown the four-room house, so we moved to a larger, two-story building just around the corner. From my upstairs window, I could still see the yellow house. I could also see the nearby bookstore where, in a narrow dormer room just big enough for a desk and a chair, I’d had my very first office. Sometimes, when visitors asked about the history of the magazine, I’d invite them to stand by the window. There, I’d point. And there. A few years ago, the bookstore was torn down. Now I’ve learned that the old yellow house is going to be torn down, too.
When I found out the news, someone in the office asked how I felt. I shrugged. The building doesn’t mean much to me, I said. I dream about it sometimes, but I won’t miss it when it’s gone. Then I walked upstairs and gazed out the window. What an astonishing thing to say, I thought: The building doesn’t mean much to me. But it was where The Sun had grown from a toddler to a teenager. The building doesn’t mean much to me. But it was where, year after year, I had worked fifty, sixty, seventy hours a week for something I believed in. The building doesn’t mean much to me. But I’d fallen in love there. I’d betrayed a woman I loved there. When my marriage broke up, and I couldn’t afford a place of my own, I’d even lived there for a year. I could still recall my first night on the sofa, the light from the street lamp piercing my heart. And I recalled, too, that no matter how remorseful I’d been in those days, how lonely, how confused, I’d met my deadlines. I had always been faithful to my deadlines. 1976. 1977. 1978. 1979. 1980. 1981. 1982. 1983. 1984. 1985. 1986. 1987. 1988. The years had marched by, and I’d marched with them. Now here came the future with its broom and dustpan, sweeping up all traces of the past.
A developer wanted to put up a three-story complex of shops and offices on the site — vaguely out of character for this vaguely seedy neighborhood, but progress was coming to this end of town. In a few weeks, there would be a public hearing. I imagined I’d attend, though I doubted I’d have much to say. There was no natural habitat to defend, and the house had little historical value, except perhaps to me. I suspected the new building would be ugly; most new buildings are. But I had to admit that the old yellow house was ugly, too. It wasn’t spacious or architecturally intriguing, not the kind of place anyone was ever likely to restore. Vacant for years, overgrown with weeds, it had become an eyesore, a tired old man who forgets to bathe or shave, who has stopped caring about the world and its relentless self-improvement schemes. How could I argue for the life of a building like that?
In Breath by Breath, meditation teacher Larry Rosenberg writes that, after a six-month meditation retreat, he returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to discover that a familiar building had been knocked down.
“There had been an old-fashioned homey restaurant,” he recounts, “where a bunch of us had enjoyed hanging out, the kind of place where you could have a muffin and coffee, sit and read the paper, talk to friends. But when I came back from my retreat, it was no longer there. In its place was an upscale clothing store, a window full of mannequins in all kinds of enticing poses. I had a stark realization of impermanence. I kept looking at the new store, remembering the old restaurant. The place I’d had such affection for no longer existed.” He continues: “Sometimes, when people really see the law of impermanence, they finally understand: it is unintelligent to attach to things that are changing.”
Theoretically, I accept the fact that everything is always changing. I was thirty-one, with hair down to my shoulders, when I walked through the door of 412 West Rosemary for the first time. I’m not the same man today. For that matter, I’m not the same man I was yesterday. The Sy who was a day younger: gone. The amazing conversation he had with his wife last night, the touch of her hand, the press of her lips: gone. What’s that Buddhist chant? Gone, gone beyond, gone beyond beyond.
No, I can’t argue with the law of impermanence. To be attached to the past is . . . unintelligent. Every spiritual teacher tells us to live fully in the present. But what exactly does that mean? Today, for example, I’ll have lunch with a friend. We’ll sit at a table that was once a living tree. We’ll eat bread that was baked while we were sleeping. And won’t the waiter’s mood depend on whether he and his girlfriend parted on good terms this morning? The past isn’t gone; it’s here now. It wraps itself around every thought, every action. At the end of the meal, when I hug my friend goodbye, won’t I be embracing not only him but a friendship that is rooted in the past and draws sustenance from the past?
I can’t argue with the law of impermanence. But, for thirteen years, I couldn’t separate the soul of The Sun from the soul of that old yellow house. And soon that house will be gone.
As I walked to the Chapel Hill Town Hall the afternoon of the hearing, I thought about how much this part of North Carolina had changed in recent years. If a gang of motorcycle outlaws had roared in on a black cloud and started setting fires and smashing windows, they would have been arrested. But, these days, developers were regularly handed permits to do much worse. Every few months, I’d hear about another new subdivision, another new office building, another new mall.
Chapel Hill, with zoning laws stricter than those in many nearby communities, had escaped the worst of it — so far. In this liberal enclave, there were enough activists, environmentalists, and malcontents to keep the lid on unchecked sprawl. Still, those determined to use the town like a Monopoly board were persistent, and, increasingly, they got their way. After all, in a culture that worshiped growth, developers provided a valuable service: they did the devil’s work. They paved meadows. They bulldozed forests. To seal the pact, we agreed to call this “development” rather than “destruction,” just as we called slaughterhouses “beef-processing plants.”
I passed a construction site and heard the rumble of a diesel-powered engine; dust filled the air. No, this wasn’t the sleepy college town I’d fallen in love with thirty years ago. And now The Sun’s little neighborhood was under the gun.
As I expected, only a handful of people showed up for the hearing. We were shown an architect’s drawing of the proposed colossus: a three-story, fifteen-thousand-square-foot building. A few questions were raised about the size of the structure and about the extra traffic it would bring. The developer assured us that ample parking would be provided. As for the size of the building — well, he’d paid a lot of money for the lot. To earn back his investment, he needed to put up a large building. It was, he said, the only reasonable thing to do.
To my surprise, I knew him. I’d met him years ago, when he was a martial-arts teacher and I was a fledgling karate student. Though I’d never studied with him (and never gotten beyond the fledgling stage), he’d impressed me as a decent, intelligent man. In addition, his mother and I had friends in common; I’d met her once, too. So it was hard to cast him as a villain. I had to admit, the lot where the house stood was no meadow. The new building, so close to downtown, would alleviate, not contribute to, suburban sprawl. And I knew that his argument made sense — economically. Economic arguments usually do. I thought of standing up anyway. Don’t tear it down, I wanted to say. Don’t do what’s reasonable. Starting a magazine wasn’t reasonable. Keeping it alive all those years wasn’t reasonable. But I might as well have argued against the tide coming in, against children turning into grown-ups and grown-ups growing old. Besides, I knew he wasn’t the first with designs on this piece of land. One person or another had been “improving” it since the Indians who’d once lived here had been driven away.
At the end of the meeting, town officials said there would be additional hearings, but I had little doubt the project would eventually be approved. Before leaving, I went up to the developer and said hello. He remembered me. He asked how the magazine was doing. Fine, I said, though I hated to see part of its history disappear. He looked at me but didn’t say anything. I asked about his mother. She still read The Sun, he said.
On the way back to the office, I stopped in front of 412 West Rosemary Street. I felt as if I were standing at the bedside of an old friend who’d just been handed a terminal diagnosis. I knew that only a miracle could save him now, and no one was praying for a miracle, not even me.
I hadn’t set foot in the house since I’d carried out the last of the files in 1989, but I still remembered each of the four modest-sized rooms. I remembered our battered, secondhand desks and chairs; the elegant cut-velvet sofa, greatest thrift-store find of my life; the big, battleship gray Underwood that sat on my desk — my rock, my strength. I remembered when the typewriter had broken and couldn’t be fixed, and how my heart had broken a little, too. I stared at the weathered siding and boarded-up windows. I thought about how many sunrises I’d watched from those windows after having been up all night finishing an issue, bone tired but thankful to be done. As the sky brightened, the pigeons who lived in the attic would start scratching and cooing. I’d put on a fresh pot of coffee and, for perhaps the hundredth time, listen to my scratchy recording of Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert, crying at the same heartbreakingly beautiful parts I always cried at, grateful to be alive.
We were never able to get rid of the pigeons, or the pigeon shit, or the musty smell that lingered in the hallway, though I guess we never really tried. Of greater concern to me was what to tell the printer when I showed up again that month with no check. Amazingly, he kept extending credit long after realizing there was only a remote chance he’d ever get paid. Our landlord, too, was kind beyond measure: every couple of years, he’d announce a rent increase, then let me talk him out of it. By such acts of grace, The Sun survived.
Now the sky was growing darker, but I didn’t want to leave yet. Like a kid probing at a loose tooth with his tongue, I tried to imagine the building already gone. I imagined someone running a rag over the cool, sleeping body of a bulldozer. I imagined its powerful engine coming to life. I imagined it lumbering out of its shed and coming face to face with one man’s past. I imagined the yellow bulldozer smashing into the yellow house, and the bones of the house snapping one by one. The roof coming down, and the walls. And the door that always creaked, and the doorknob that always needed tightening — all of it collapsing, like a man at the end of his days.
But why let my imagination stop there? I knew that a similar fate awaited every building that had ever been important to me, every place I’d ever lived in or worked in, all my favorite haunts. It might take fifty years. It might take a hundred or a hundred and fifty. They might get knocked down, or they might crumble on their own. But I was seeing the future, no doubt about it. The wrecking ball swings this way, that way: once, twice, three times, you’re out. Everything gets bulldozed. Everything and everyone. At the end of the day, Time calls her children, and we come running. We’re all tied to her apron strings, though we like to pretend otherwise. She’ll gather us back to her — we who used every moment wisely and we who feared we’d pissed our lives away. She’ll wrap her arms around us and laugh at the nonsense we’re babbling — about wanting just a few more years, a few more months, just one more breath.
While the building and I were both still standing, I wanted to offer up my thanks. In that house, against the odds, an odd little magazine had survived. In that house, I’d learned what could be accomplished with faith and earnestness and hard work. Month after month, my love affair with words had been consummated, and my love had grown. What greater gift could I have asked for? So I thanked the rusty roof for sheltering my dream. And I thanked the walls, and I thanked the creaky floors. And I praised the unnamable, unfathomable mystery at the heart of it.
I remembered a small, scribbled sign I used to keep over my desk there. The sign had been meant to remind me of a favorite story: A student asks his master how he can ever be happy in a world where nothing remains the same, where loss and grief are unavoidable. The master holds up a drinking glass. “You see this glass?” he says. “For me, this glass is already broken. I drink from it. I enjoy it. I admire the way it catches the light. But if, a week from now, my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the floor and shatters, I’ll say, ‘Of course.’ If I can understand that this glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious. Every moment is just as it is.”
IT’S ALREADY BROKEN, my sign had said. I’d taken it down when we moved from the yellow house. I’d never gotten around to putting it up again.
A gust of chilly air sent dry leaves skittering along the sidewalk. I didn’t know how long I’d been standing there, but I was starting to feel cold. My car was parked behind the present Sun office, so I headed in that direction. Everyone had already left for the day; it was time for me to go home, too. But instead I unlocked the door to the building and stepped inside.
This was another house filled with memories. Naturally, after eleven years, I’d come to love it, too. For a few minutes, I wanted just to stand in the hallway. I wanted to look at everything I usually ignored, as if it were going to last forever: the shelves of back issues; the cracked plaster walls that needed painting; the French doors to the front office, each with fifteen small panes of glass. Instead of rushing around as I did most days, busy and distracted, I wanted to look at the house the way, all too rarely, I looked, really looked, at the face of someone I loved. I wanted to look at it the way, years ago, I’d looked in on my daughters when they were sleeping. How amazed I’d been just to watch them breathe. They’re young women now, one in Los Angeles, one in New York. Those two little girls: gone. I stood there. Soon enough, I’d be on my way home; another day would be ending. Could I pause for one precious moment? Take a look, I told myself. Take a good look.