In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I made a New Year’s resolution not to make any New Year’s resolutions. But here it is, the second of January, and I’m ready to break it. Did I really think I could turn my back on a lifelong habit of trying to improve myself? Begin the year without a ten-point plan to become a leaner, stronger, better man? Lay down my sword and shield and, pardon the expression, just be me? Impossible.
I had a hard time tearing myself away from The New York Times this morning. After all, I’m genuinely interested in this world of sorrows, its wayward drift toward ruin, the herculean struggle of so many to turn this sinking ship around. What a pageant — every day another page added to the history book our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren will study, even as they shake their heads in disbelief that their forebears could have been so stupid.
What can I say? I’m as stupid as the next guy. I’m not sure what my carbon footprint is, but with each new purchase I make, whether it’s a hybrid car or an energy-efficient refrigerator, I suspect I’m only adding to the problem. How much easier it was not to buy anything new when I had no money. How virtuous I felt doing all my shopping at the thrift store.
I wonder how many trees had to be cut down to make the handsome, solid-oak furniture my wife, Norma, and I bought last year. The price was right. The workmanship was impressive. But the wood for the desk and the file cabinets and the bookcases came from trees grown in the Midwest. The lumber was trucked to Southern California, where the furniture was built; then it was shipped to North Carolina, where I live. That’s a journey of thousands of miles, requiring hundreds of gallons of gasoline, that began with a single step: my decision to buy something new.
One of the Dalai Lama’s favorite possessions, I’ve read, is a gold Patek Philippe wristwatch, given to him as a gift. He is fascinated by mechanical objects and repairs timepieces as a hobby. As a good Buddhist, however — not to mention an avowed Marxist — he is not supposed to be attached to material possessions. “My eyes are fond of watches,” he says. “They are one of my weaknesses.”
I dreamt that a tornado was bearing down on me, but at the last minute it veered off, God’s wrath now aimed at someone whose sins were greater than mine.
I know it doesn’t work that way. Tragedy befalls the virtuous while investment bankers, on their hundred-foot yachts, ride out the storm. God is fickle. God is great. “God does not play dice,” Albert Einstein proclaimed. But who knows what kind of games God likes to play? My parents and grandparents taught me that God can’t be trusted; that, powerful as He is, He’s not above trying to pull a fast one. When God hands you change, make sure to count it. When God showers you with blessings, make sure a lightning bolt isn’t heading your way. Ask Job how much you can trust your good fortune. Ask your distant relatives who were killed in the pogroms or rounded up by the Nazis.
I pretend I need protection. I pretend the walls of my house protect me. Before I go to sleep, I lock the door. But a locked door won’t deter the One who wants a word with me. He will find me at my desk or in my car or in my dreams. He will say what He needs to say.
Yes, Your Honor. I admit that I’ve been writing the year as 2012, not 2013. You could say this is a sign I’m growing old and forgetful. But I made similar mistakes when I was young and forgetful. Besides, a yearlong habit is hard to break. “Oh, please,” the judge interrupts. “We know the defendant can tell us when the Civil War was fought. We know he can remember the names of his ex-wives and the street where he grew up. But does he recall what he did last weekend or the weekend before that? And how about the amusing anecdote he told his colleagues yesterday, the one he’s already told them three times — or is it four? And doesn’t the fact that the defendant can’t even remember what he’s been charged with today point to the obvious conclusion that he’s guilty? Since he’s been caught red-handed in the act of being sixty-seven, and is conspiring to celebrate yet another birthday in March, I suggest he change his plea and throw himself on the mercy of the court.” But my doddering old attorney whispers in my ear: Mercy? Don’t be ridiculous. This is a hanging judge.
Let me start with gratitude: The world is broken in ten thousand places. Can I be thankful for the brokenness? How else can I learn to love the broken world? I am thankful for the dirt Norma tracked into the house this morning. True, I’d just swept the floor. But how could I not be thankful for every square inch of creation? Norma once told me it takes at least five hundred years to make one inch of topsoil, and that there are as many as a billion organisms in a spoonful of that soil. Those are facts you can take to the bank. I’m thankful for facts, thankful there are so many of them, enough to support nearly every point of view. I’m thankful to be married to a woman whose facts are often better than my facts, thankful that if I need a fact all I have to do is ask her, or argue with her. How thankful I am for every square inch of Norma.
Two years ago I was diagnosed with stage-IV colon cancer. The average life expectancy for someone in my condition, post diagnosis, is thirty-two months. I’m still hoping to reach it.
I have sometimes stared death in the face, but mostly I’ve avoided that stark confrontation. So I was primed to be delighted by Sy Safransky’s brief masterpiece in the March 2013 issue. I laughed aloud at his witty, poignant, and sly approach to the way of all flesh, which invariably ends with a “hanging judge” delivering his verdict. Alas, no hung jury for us!