Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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L.’s daughter died last weekend in a car wreck. She was one of more than two hundred people who were killed last weekend in cars. If as many people had died in a plane crash, it would have been headline news. Yet deaths on the highways aren’t really news, except to friends and family, or unless someone famous is involved. It’s a tragedy for a woman to die that young. It’s a tragedy that her boyfriend, who was behind the wheel, had been drinking. It’s a tragedy that this is such an ordinary tragedy.
Is it a tragedy that, a hundred years from now, all of us will be dead?
George W. Bush will be inaugurated today. Surely he needs my prayers, too. Let’s pray together, Mr. President. For the liberation of all beings. For the thousand-petaled lotus to bloom in all our hearts.
When I woke, it was dark outside and raining. One of my cats was curled against my leg, the other nestled under my arm. I didn’t want to wake them, so I didn’t move. I listened to the rain. I listened to my wife’s breathing. For years, I’d told her I didn’t want a cat. I wasn’t fond of cats. That’s just the kind of man I was.
My first cup of coffee must be strong because I want to be strong. This may be demanding too much of coffee.
If I really acknowledged how little I knew about the future, wouldn’t I live more fully in the present? The truth is that I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow. Life could take the most unpredictable turn. Tragedy could befall someone I love, or a tree could fall on my house, or some cherished belief could come crashing. A comet strikes the soft belly of the atmosphere, and the dinosaurs look up, amazed. No one had mentioned this.
I pulled a muscle in my lower back. Now I can’t bend over without wincing. But today I’m supposed to be at the warehouse to help unload two hundred boxes of books. I could ask someone to fill in for me, but I’m too proud. I don’t want to be a middle-aged man with a sore back. It reminds me of suffering from acne as a teenager, as if adolescence weren’t enough to bear without advertising it with pimples.
How embarrassing that I’ve figured out so little — about how to run a magazine, about how to come to terms with my intractable personality. Nor do I know how to come to terms with the world’s intractable personality. As I sit here on my porch, drinking coffee, millions of people are suffering. They are hungry. They are homeless. They, too, have figured out so little, yet how many of them have the luxury of sitting on a screened porch and writing about it? All day, I get to wrestle with my feelings. Oh, the luxury of tears.
Can I respect my longing instead of condemning it? Do I want God’s arms around me? Am I hungry, hungry, hungry? There is no shame in being a man.
My wife and I were invited to a Passover Seder. Norma, raised a Catholic, had never been to a Seder; she was curious. I, the lamb who had strayed, participated politely but didn’t feel the Holy One. Later, when the conversation turned to animals, I started talking about my cats. I said I’d fallen completely in love with them. How foolish I felt afterward, a Jew who loved his cats more than his own religion.
I use the fact of death to remind myself of impermanence, but I use it sloppily, like an artist indiscriminately splashing paint over a canvas. It’s the right color, but still . . . I wouldn’t walk up to a child and start shouting, “You’re going to die! You’re going to die!” Yet I do this to myself all the time: I frighten myself for no good reason, which isn’t the same thing as reminding myself, for a very good reason, that death will come for me, too.
In my dream, the plane flying me to New Mexico came in too low, hit the ground hard, and lurched to a stop just before hitting a fence. Well, it was a safe landing. How glad I was to be alive, to step outside and breathe the clean desert air. The dream was so vivid that, when I woke up this morning, I was startled for a moment to be in North Carolina. But here I am, in this mysterious body. I don’t know how I got here. One day, my mother spread her legs and I arrived: a safe landing. Today my world is no less wondrous than it was the day I was born; I’ve merely learned to stand upright and name things. So many names! I walk through a dream, only who is the dreamer? In my dream, the adobe walls of the houses were lit by the sun. The colors kept changing.
I’m here in the early-morning darkness, a congregation of one. I’m here, just one more man who thinks he deserves God’s ear, as if God had time for everyone who reached out. I’m here, reaching.
The Sun is a state of grace. It relentlessly asks the question “What does it mean to be human?” And it asks the sufferers, not the philosophers. The Sun’s pages are like modern sutras written for the longing, waiting, and vigilant heart.
In his May 2001 “Notebook,” Sy Safransky writes, “I’m here in the early-morning darkness, a congregation of one.” To him, I say: You are one, but make no mistake, you are one of many. There are plenty of us reaching out in the morning darkness. You, of all people, are not alone. Your many readers take refuge in the dharma of these pages that you painstakingly churn out each month. You are supported on all sides. You help us to know that, out of the early-morning darkness, the sun will rise. So continue with “the luxury of tears.” The wet warmth gives us life and ties us together as we learn what it is to be human.