Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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My cat Nimbus is sick. Oil is fouling the Gulf of Mexico. The veterinarian, who makes house calls, will arrive soon in his twenty-four-foot-long animal hospital on wheels. I wonder how many miles to the gallon it gets. But with my cat’s well-being at stake, do I really care? Recently I’ve been shopping for a car: maybe a new car, maybe a used car, maybe an abandoned car I can drive when I’m feeling abandoned. I’ll probably buy an environmentally friendly hybrid. Still, when it comes to those I love, be they cats or humans, what price am I willing to ask my good friend the earth to pay?
Before I put out the first issue of The Sun nearly thirty-seven years ago, I considered calling the magazine The Sometimes Sunshine. Given my melancholic tendencies, that might have been a better fit. This morning, for example, I’m having a hard time focusing on the numbers in front of me, and an even harder time admitting it. I don’t like to acknowledge, even to myself, that my responsibilities as an editor and publisher sometimes feel burdensome. Just because I know what I’m doing most of the time doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing all the time. Just because I work hard doesn’t mean all the work gets done. Just because I want each issue to blaze like the sun doesn’t mean the clouds don’t roll in. It’s been raining all night. It’s raining still.
I read recently that Harold Ross, who founded the New Yorker, had his office soundproofed because he couldn’t stand distractions. Then he was distracted by the silence. He hired most of his staff himself, but whenever someone had to be fired, he either left the building or hid in a closet.
Putting out a monthly magazine is my end of the deal: the covenant I make with God, or with my readers, and perhaps there’s no difference. Maybe dreamers like me need a deadline the way the soul needs a body. Maybe we need to get roughed up regularly the way the immortal soul, in order to experience a human incarnation, needs to take birth in all-too-mortal flesh. The soul may dwell in eternity, but time has the last word here.
Duke Ellington: “I don’t need time. What I need is a deadline.”
In August the United States officially ended all “combat operations” in Iraq, but fifty thousand troops will remain until the end of 2011 to advise the Iraqis on how to deal with the bloody internecine conflicts unleashed by, ahem, the U.S. invasion. Fifty thousand? That’s a lot of advice. Fifty thousand is the population, give or take a few thousand, of the town in which I live. I picture the houses abandoned, the shops shuttered, the streets empty: everyone’s gone to Iraq. Fifty thousand? Imagine you’ve been coerced into sharing your small apartment with a befuddled exchange student who flunks nation-building year after year. Finally he tells you he’s leaving. He’ll have everything out of your place by Friday, he assures you — except for his ratty armchair, his leaky waterbed, his rusty bicycle, his stash of pornography, his boxes of guns and munitions stacked in the hallway, and a pile of dirty laundry. Don’t touch anything, he says. He’ll be back for it. By the end of 2011. That’s a promise.
When I focus too much on the day’s headlines, I become as impatient for political change as a hungry man for a scrap of bread. That’s when I need to remember that man isn’t nourished by bread alone.
Thirty years ago, if I felt tired in the afternoon, I blamed it on working too hard and not sleeping enough. These days I chalk it up to being old. Is this ageism? I’m not sure. The truth is that I have slowed down. I no longer run every morning. I do fewer push-ups and sit-ups. My sister Elyse recently had knee-replacement surgery. It’s not hard to foresee a time when we’ll both walk, not run, to the nearest exit. Was this predictable? Of course. Did I expect that it would happen to us? Of course not!
Is there anyone who complains about me more than I complain about myself? I could fill the Correspondence section with one letter after another, the handwriting on them all the same: Maybe you’ve written everything of value you’re ever going to write, Mr. Safransky. Maybe you’re an old dog who’d rather lick himself than learn new tricks. Maybe it’s time to say goodbye, Mr. Safransky. We all know you’re having a hard time hiking up this winding road. No one really cares if you take off your pack, lie down, and catch up on all the sleep you’ve missed. No one really cares if you’ve left the best part of yourself in the twentieth century, Mr. Safransky — or, frankly, which part of you that is.
I’m here at the intersection of flesh and spirit: a six-foot-tall biped with my feet on the ground and my head in the clouds; 165 pounds of muscle and fat and memories and opinions walking upright on an oxygen-rich planet, breathing in and breathing out, which has been my habit — one of my better habits — for sixty-five years. This morning I’m feeling particularly buoyant because I dreamt that beings from an advanced civilization gave me a mind-expanding drug. Well, their civilization was certainly advanced when it came to hallucinogens. Or maybe it had just been too long since I’d had the blinders removed and glimpsed the radiant mystery at the heart of existence. I experienced oneness not as a mere abstraction but as an undeniable reality, as plain as the nose on God’s face. I knew in my bones, in my cells, in the very atoms of “me” that everyone is part of the same living intelligence, as are the trees, the rocks, the sky; that separateness is an illusion; that death is nothing to fear. One look at my benevolent companions told me they knew it too. It was hard to say whether they’d also taken the drug or had evolved this way after innumerable virtuous lifetimes. In my dream, it didn’t matter; I’d woken up.