My sister dropped a teabag into a cup of boiling water she’d just removed from the microwave. The water shot into her face, scalding her with first- and second-degree burns. She’s in a lot of pain, and called last night to ask me to pray for her. But to whom do I pray? To the same God who already knows she’s suffering? To the God of first- and second-degree burns? To the God of light and the God of the thermonuclear explosion? Wasn’t God guiding my sister’s hand when she dropped the teabag? Wasn’t God guiding the pilot when he dropped the bomb on Hiroshima? My sister was slapped in the face and doesn’t know why. Her eye is half closed. Her cheek is still burning.
This is the shortest day of the year. This is the darkness I do not love. This is the dead of winter, the secret that summer keeps from us. This is the tooth, the claw. This is the night that eats the day and goes on eating. This is sorrow dragging her old body across the floor.
I keep forgetting why I’m here. So I reach for comfort. Maybe I’ll find it in the bedroom with my loving wife. Maybe I’ll find it in the kitchen alone at night. Maybe I’ll distract myself with the world’s troubles, read a newspaper and eat some nuts. Have some more almonds, Sy. Have a few dried apricots.
To really love myself is a radical act. I don’t mean self-flattery. I don’t mean a pat on the back for a good day’s work. I don’t mean admiring the reflection of myself in someone else’s eyes. To really love myself means to start with the naked baby: He has no name, no ideology, no ambition. He lies on his back, breathing evenly. His chest rises and falls. He’s an animal who must be cared for by other animals. They must feed him and clean him and hold him. They must make sure he feels comfortable and safe, safe in their hearts. He’s an animal who needs to be treated with dignity, even when he’s covered in shit, even when he’s crying for what he can’t have, even when he’s too much for his animal mother to bear. To really love myself is to start here. It doesn’t matter that I’m a middle-aged man now. I’m also that naked baby.
If I want to lose weight, I need to eat less and exercise more. If I want to deepen my faith, I need to practice gratitude every day — not just gratitude for everything I have, but for everything. I’m living inside the folds of a living planet, held by its gravity, wrapped in its atmosphere, breathing in and breathing out. How can I forget this? No, I don’t like rainy days. Still, I can praise the rain. And if my tears fall too freely, I can praise the mother of sadness. She isn’t angry with me. She’s just showing me one more way to say thank you. She’s reminding me to be grateful for my hunger, which no earthly feast can appease — though I eat and eat, smacking my lips and shouting to the women to bring more wine and shower me with kisses. She’s reminding me what I’m really hungry for.
If I’m going to find God, I’m going to find God here and now. Not later. Not after I’ve read one more spiritual book, or finished writing my next essay, or made peace with my childhood. Not after one more painful memory rises to the surface and I reach for it with my bare hands. If I’m going to find God, my hands will be empty. With my broken heart, I’ll find God. With my yearning for what I can’t have and can never understand.
I dreamt again of being in New York City. It’s such a familiar dream, as if I never left. In the dream I’m alone. I’m lost. Sometimes I’m back in the old neighborhood searching for a friendly face, but everyone’s a stranger, so I just keep walking. Last night, I kept looking at a map, unable to make sense of it. Maybe I need to pray for the Sy of my dreams to find what he’s looking for. Or maybe he needs to wander because I’ve settled down. Maybe he’s lonely because I’m married.
I’m alone in this body. It’s the nature of an incarnation. The hand that holds this pen is my hand. These are my words. I’ve touched the world, and the fingerprints I’ve left on everything are unmistakably mine. The Japanese maple outside is connected to every living thing and it’s a solitary Japanese maple: one tree, distinct and beautiful. I can’t love the world in the abstract, only in specifics. This tree. This cup of coffee. The rain this morning — a thousand fingers tapping, but not impatiently.
I felt gloomy yesterday and went for a walk. My spirits were revived when I passed two old men having a lively conversation. Just seeing them was comforting and reminded me that perhaps I spend too much time with young people. I need the company of old bones. I need their salts, their minerals, a trace of iron. I need to be with men whose lives were broken but who picked up the pieces and found the courage to move on. I need them to remind me that beautiful women were never the problem or the answer to the problem; that everything the holy books say is true really is true, but that life isn’t a book. I thought of my father, dead twenty-five years. I thought, Even a grown man sometimes needs a hand on his shoulder.