A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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What do I think I’ll accomplish by getting up early? If I keep writing in my notebook every day, then one day I’ll be an old man with a roomful of notebooks. That’s good, as long as I don’t imagine death will be impressed. If I meditate every day, if that’s the way I want to greet the mystery — legs crossed, spine straight — then that’s the way the mystery will find me. No problem. Still, the mystery. Whether I hammer the nails crooked or straight, this house of self will stand here only as long as it stands here, not a day longer, not one breath longer.
Norma and I made love yesterday morning, and we argued last night. The argument had a life of its own, like our bodies that morning, naked and sweaty. Call it the house of marriage. Call the plumber! Call the electrician! How suddenly our happiness collapses. Call it an act of God. The storm arrives without warning; that’s the nature of storms. But I don’t have to curse the rain for falling, or the thunder for startling me. I’m wet and miserable. What a fortunate man! I argued with a beautiful, stubborn, fragile woman here in the house we built. Then I lay down beside her, and slept.
I don’t believe that clothes make the man. Then why am I still a little proud that I own only one suit? How ridiculous — as if the bluejeans I wear every day somehow attested to my authenticity; as if a middle-aged Jew from Brooklyn who doesn’t ride horses, who hates camping, who was never even a Boy Scout, were somehow more himself in a pair of Levi’s than in neatly pressed pants.
In the church of morning, I give thanks for a good cup of coffee, and for the chain of events that brings this coffee to my table. I’m grateful for the coffee plants, for the sun, for the rain. I’m grateful for the hands that picked the beans. But what about the businessman who profits handsomely from their sale? Am I grateful for a socially unjust system? I don’t want my gratitude to be sentimental or politically naïve.
The latest Victoria’s Secret catalog was on the kitchen table. I picked it up and leafed through it, though I had intended to sit down and pray. I stood there instead, looking at photographs of barely clothed women who weren’t smiling merely to brighten another woman’s day. Like a gentleman, I smiled back.
To want nothing but God — what would that be like? Getting on an airplane, nervous about flying, what would it be like to want only God? On the longest, dreariest night of the year, when I’m melancholy and restless, what would it be like to want only God? What would it be like to give up the foolish dream that living a more spiritual life is going to save me, like a wise investment in the stock market; to see it all come crashing, and still want only God?
My friend R. doesn’t like me to use the word God so much. He’s right. It’s a blemish on the silence. Nothing can describe what’s beyond description. But, as Krishna says in the Bhagavad-Gita, “By whatever name you call me, it is I who will answer.”
Last night, I called J. We speak maybe once a year. I asked how things were going. He paused. His ninety-year-old mother had died last spring, he said. A week later, his wife’s son had been sentenced to life in prison for attempted murder. Then J. had discovered that the operation he’d undergone last year for prostate cancer hadn’t been as successful as he’d hoped; there were signs the cancer had spread. For a moment, I didn’t know what to say. J. laughed. I asked what was so funny. He said, “You’re like some poor guy who innocently asks a friend how he’s doing, only to be told, ‘My mother’s dead, my stepson is in prison, and I have cancer.’ ”
The weekend is too short. Life is too short. Do I face that fact squarely, or pretend that I can trick life by curling up in Norma’s arms and stealing one more kiss? Do I think I can escape my fate? I can’t know how many more weekends we’ll have together — only that the number is finite, and my appetite isn’t.
Instead of thinking, Death, think, Eternal Life. Instead of thinking, Lonely, think, Joined with God. It’s my attitude that needs to change. Heaven or hell: my choice.
Woody Allen attributes his prolific output of thirty-one films — a film almost every year — to the fact that he isn’t like the characters in most of them. “I have a perfectly sedate life,” he says. “I wake up, do my treadmill, have breakfast; then I write and practice the clarinet and take a walk and come back and write again and turn on the basketball game or go out with friends. I do it seven days a week. I don’t travel much. I could never be productive if I didn’t have a very regular life.”
How can I be more regular in my early-morning practices? This is a question I ask myself every day, and the answer is always the same. It’s a simple answer, but I don’t want a simple answer. I want the answer to be long and nuanced, to take into account how little sleep I got last night, and how cold and dark it is this morning, and how my mother didn’t love me the way I wanted to be loved. The answer isn’t interested in all that. He’s already up. He’s dressed and waiting.
I could have done without Sy Safransky’s Notebook item [February 2001] about making morning love with his wife, both of them “naked and sweaty.” Surely he’s been a writer and an editor long enough to know that sharing such intimate details will push plenty of people’s buttons — but, alas, maybe also long enough not to be too concerned about it.
Sy Safransky’s description of one day in the life of his marriage evoked an epiphany of sorts for me. I saw how his marriage is based on acceptance of the fact that anger can follow from passion and that both are welcome within the sanctuary of healthy love.
And then it dawned on me: I live alone not because I’m busy with my children or my career, or because — that weary excuse — there are no suitable men. I live alone because I cannot risk experiencing the searing hurt I grew accustomed to with my abusive ex-husband: the kind of hurt that would crush my hope and innocence and chip away at the mantel of love until nothing was left. I shun passion to avoid the thunder and rain that, of course, must fall.
How I envy what Safransky has, and fear it, too.