This month, some pages from my journal: the moods, worries, questions, and devotions I turn to, and return to.
Sitting by the stove, drinking black coffee, the coffee and the sky almost the same color, the moon shining, lightening the sky like a drop of cream.
Turning, always turning, away from my inner self, which waits for me, waits for my return. Proudly, I show off the souvenirs of my journey. I speak a new language that makes no more sense than the last.
The jigsaw puzzle I bought the children is about one-fourth done. Sara stood over it yesterday, lips tight with concentration, brushing her curls away from her eyes, diligently trying to figure out what fit, what didn’t.
How we stand over our lives. . . .
“Look, Daddy, how much I got done.”
My exhaustion after being with the children isn’t because I’ve done too much; I get tired because I try too hard, instead of simply being with them. I try to cram too much fathering into too few days. I romanticize childhood in general and them in particular. I make their “happiness” too important; that isn’t love.
“Serve the poor,” Maharaji said.
“Who is poor, Maharaji?”
“Everyone is poor before Christ.”
The children wake up in the middle of the night, afraid of a thunderstorm. I get up to comfort them, then go back to sleep. At 4, when the alarm goes off, I’m groggy. I decide to rest “for a while.” I don’t wake until the sun is up. How annoyed, how discouraged I am at having lost these irreplaceable hours alone — the foundation, the rock of my day. Now, I have to build quickly: write a few sentences, meditate — a makeshift scaffold of accomplishment and “peace.”
But why let this ruin my morning; why write off the day because it starts this way? Can I make some progress today anyway, deepen my compassion, take one step closer to who I am?
“Can I ask you a personal question?” the woman in the nearby booth asks the man sitting next to her.
“Sure,” he says.
“It’s a very personal question,” she continues, lowering her voice for emphasis.
“Sociologists,” she says in a near-whisper, “believe it’s the most personal question you can ask someone.”
I put down my fork, stop chewing. I don’t want to miss this.
“What the question is,” she says, “is this: how much money did you earn last year?’’
Giving Up Coffee
The Third World is having its revenge. Caffeine withdrawal. In the back streets of me, the peasants who pick the beans are showing me the way out with fists and stones. They sit around the fire in my head and tell stories about the rich norte americanos.
To be at war with myself — with my longings, my needs — is to create a world at war, split into good and evil. I’m responsible for the hatred if I hate myself, or any part of myself. To eat of the tree of knowledge, to know of good and evil, was the sin that split the world in two because it took us from God, and the godly awareness that all is one.
How can I work for a world at peace if I’m not at peace? How can I respect the environment when I rape my own feeling self with “common sense,” with politeness, with transparent lies? I can’t bear the newspapers because of their reductionism, but what news do I report of myself? How stale, how crudely opinionated: my left and right; my hollow victories. I rail at materialism yet keep on eating “for the taste” even though I’m full.
He talked and talked. But everything he said his eyes undid like buttons. Every time she moved his eyes moved too. She raised a leg, drew her skirt over her knee, her hands like a breeze lifting leaves, then letting them drift back down. Did she see him looking? He didn’t want her to see. He wanted to cover himself with a moonless night, with wild vines, with his talk of God and love. But his own eyes laughed at him. Like a stream they ran up and down her body. The tanned skin. The glimpse of thigh. Idiot eyes! Babbling only of this!
What do I value instead of love? How many reasons are there for putting love second — which is to say, losing myself utterly in illusion? I wander from the heart; I meet myself in a thousand disguises; I lure myself away from myself; I rush from here to there, searching for the one who searches.
On awakening: the teacher is always with you. The heart is the teacher.
What an effort to leave this early morning wild and uncultivated, to leave it alone. Like a sprawling city, my work day clamors for more. Why not turn this time into something useful, it asks. Let some houses go up, some shops, some roads. Imagine the benefits.
No, I say, it’s sacred land.
Yet I hear the rumble of the bulldozers, the heavy equipment it’s so hard to stop. Isn’t my struggle futile? Trying to protect this little strip of nothing, this hour or two of darkness. I’m standing against Progress: my own progress, my award-winning sense of accomplishment.
I was a monk, copying manuscripts. I was careful, but not careful enough. I thought of women and made mistakes.
The guilt the lists the guilt the rules the guilt the long dry hours never enough hours the guilt the accomplishment the guilt the guilt running one mile not two two not three three not five.
No matter what I do I am not far from You. This is the truth I forget. This is the love that does not flatter. This is the lie that persists: that when I cherish pain and doubt I am apart from You. This is the prayer You utter with my lips.
I’m watching a movie with the children. I’ve seen it before, so I know the hero isn’t really in danger, but Mara is visibly upset by the sudden threatening turn. I reach out to comfort her. “Don’t worry,” I tell her. She looks up at me with a pleading expression. “But Dad. . . .” There are tears in her eyes.
That foolish impulse, to spare my children any suffering, gets the best of me. I squeeze her arm reassuringly. “I’ve seen it, remember?” If she gets the hint, she doesn’t let on. A tear rolls down her cheek. How unbearably forlorn she looks! “I know how it will end,” I say in a stage whisper. “You don’t have to worry. Everything turns out all right.”
Her lip stops trembling. She smiles, though uncertainly; she knows I wouldn’t lie to her, yet she’s not convinced. We turn back to the movie and, a moment later, she’s lost in the story again. Of course! It’s not my assurance she wants, but the worry, the suspense, the grief.
Christ died for our sins, but so do we. We are all Christ, and suffer like Christ. Who hasn’t been betrayed and crucified? Does it matter if it’s a nail driven through us, or a word, or some terrible silence from one we love?
As a child, I’d fall asleep with the same recurrent fantasy: I was a platoon leader, a hero, in the war against Japan, holding off hundreds of them from my lonely machine gun nest, saving my buddies, growing drowsier with each round, rat-a-tat, the blanket soft against my cheek, rat-a-tat, the enemy’s eyes wide in amazement, rat-a-tat, one boy holding out against thousands, rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat, falling like stars they fell.
I Stopped Writing Poems
I stopped writing poems. I stopped drinking coffee. I stopped dreaming about other women. I stopped writing poems. I stopped pretending the world was going to change. I stopped lying to myself about my great courage. I stopped writing poems. I stopped thinking all the time about words. And what they could do and couldn’t do.
What’s happened? I hear myself saying things like, “Of course, he’s a politician” — not contemptuously, with an emphasis on politician, but with charity, stressing the of course, as if a politician’s preoccupation with winning, with artful compromise, was, well, understandable, forgiveable and — listen to this! — no reason not to vote for him.
When I read the psychic’s prediction that the world was going to end soon, I checked the calendar. I was relieved to discover the children would be with me that week.
How narrow-minded: to reduce the fate of the world to something so personal. But “the fate of the world” is an abstraction until something in the world calls us down from the clouds to the fate of someone not ourself.
It doesn’t have to be a child. It could be anyone we love as much as life itself, and whose death would shatter us. There are saints, I suppose, whose generous embrace includes us all — and there are rare moments when I love everyone, with a love beyond measure — but most of the time, the world is my world, and I love it no more or less than that.
Every morning, he still got up at 4, but he’d forgotten why. He’d forgotten how to meditate, or pray. He just sat there, doing nothing, forgetting that this had been his goal, forgetting how foolish he’d felt striving for it.