My youngest daughter, Sara, is walking now, often falling, and getting right up again. So, I learn by her example, and she by mine: from across the room, I beckon to her, my voice encouraging and soft as her cheek. I am calmed by her, and give that calmness back to her. She is living proof that life continues; that what is predictable (learning to walk) and unpredictable (when she’ll fall) are the twin halves of a great mystery; that no esoteric doctrine teaches us more about that mystery than the step of a child.
Or the death of a child. Aiden, the eight-month-old son of my friends Farra and Libby, died in his crib. A step too enormous to comprehend, though we must. Our understanding and our bewilderment are twin reefs: we are smashed by life and lifted, carried in and swept away. “Life and death are one,” writes Gibran, “even as the river and the sea are one.” And tears are tears.
Another death was on my mind as I took a walk this morning, the day before Thanksgiving. Today is fifteen years since John Kennedy was killed. Dry branches scrape the heart. What broke is not repaired. It was frontier “justice,” a dark spirit come to save us, a conspiracy of ignorance and fear deep in the American body. We are not saved by those who try, with Bibles or guns. I was 18 years old; it was my political coming-of-age. Today, I read articles contemptuous of Kennedy, his foreign adventurism, the “myth” of Camelot and the “reality” of his politics: conservative, jingoistic, narcissistic. Sure, he made mistakes. What do you expect of a politician, or a man? Kennedy was a man — human and therefore imperfect, someone who relished power, and women, and who was perhaps less sensitive than the professors and journalists who believe they would have made better Presidents. There was another dimension to Kennedy: a vitality, an optimism, a rootedness in the American past and the American spirit of freedom and change.
Freedom and change? Some would say it’s the spirit of oppression, and the defense of the status quo. There’s blood, but there’s something worth affirming: America as an experiment in self-government, in the meaning of individual responsibility (and irresponsibility), in the agonies and ecstasies of being . . . American! Cut loose in new space and new time, we began with the frontier, as immense as the ocean we crossed to get here, a space beyond dreams, large enough to swallow Europe. A space in which to create new lives and test freedom in new ways — uncrowded not just physically but psychically, for we had left behind the burden of how to live, the centuries-old traditions that anchored us in time as well as space. Anchors raised, we were a free people journeying into our own living flesh, and consciousness striving to know itself: political freedom; economic freedom; sexual freedom; artistic freedom. The freedom to abuse freedom. To enslave, and to set free. To become President, and to bear arms: to lean a rifle on a window sill, take aim, squeeze the trigger, and hurl a tiny speck of our own dark heart into the tissue of another. All for the sake of freedom — the greatest burden, the greatest joy. John Kennedy understood this, I think. That is why he encouraged hopefulness in the young and the old, why his name is still uttered reverentially by people who knew little of his politics but something of his heart.
There’s something to be said against encouraging hopefulness. Henry Miller said it: “I do not want to give hope to others, nor to inspire others. If we knew what it meant to be inspired, we would not inspire. We would simply be.” I can’t disagree; hope and hopefulness are trapdoors, through which we drop out of the moment. When we live fully in the moment, we don’t worry about being fulfilled. But I’m inspired often enough; at least, I console myself, I’m inspired to just be. The Catch-22 of the spiritual life.
Now at night, I stare out the window and the night stares back at me. Asking me nothing, telling me nothing I don’t already know. It’s dark all the way out to the stars. And what are the stars? And what star of self sends forth these thoughts? What distance must they cross? I was fascinated, as a child, with astronomical measurements. I learned before my friends all the “facts” about the solar system, savored them like hard candies: ninety-three million miles from the Earth to the sun! As I wind my way to my own core, I wonder at the distance.