I turned off the radio. I didn’t want to hear more about the war in Chechnya, about the man who lost his wife and son. I didn’t want to think about the wars to come. The full moon had something to say to me, but I didn’t want to listen. I didn’t want to be reminded we’re as far from the moon as we’ve ever been. Here I am, living in the year 2000, yet how utterly familiar everything seems. Maybe this is the surprise the future had in store for us: Some of us have food in our bellies and some of us don’t. The seven deadly sins are no less deadly. The snow that fell last week is finally melting. How white it was.
The yoga teacher demonstrates a posture. I look at her incredulously, knowing I’ll never be able to bend that way. I’m too old for this, I think. It’s as hard as learning how to read, as hard as being led step by step through the alphabet, studying the mountains and valleys of this word and that word, a solitary traveler slowly moving his index finger across the page. I stop and start, stop and start, encouraged by the teacher to keep going, to cover the inconceivable distance from the beginning of the sentence to the end. I look at her and smile, shake my head doubtfully. “Don’t give up,” she says.
I pray not to turn my eyes from injustice; it’s not the same old story. I pray to remember that thousands are dying today of hunger. My words don’t feed them. I pray to remember the power of words, and I pray to remember their uselessness.
I worked hard last week, but tell myself I could have worked harder. I tell myself I ate too much, talked too much, spent too much time polishing the chrome fenders of desire. This scolding voice isn’t a loving voice, nor is it particularly insightful. It jabs at me like a schoolyard bully who knows how to make me feel vulnerable. Can I say no to the bully? Yes, I ate too much. Sometimes I do that. But why condemn myself? Being strong has less to do with not overeating than with not letting the bully push me around.
I’m like a man with his eyes shut tight who insists that seeing is impossible, who insists that blindness is the best he can hope for, who will not open his eyes. What a miracle that would be: to see God with the eyes God gave me.
Yesterday I said something scornful about my mother, then remembered it was the sixth anniversary of her death. I felt sad that I’d soiled the air with my words, sad that I was still complaining about this woman who tried her best to be a loving mother. She wasn’t perfect. Neither am I. She could be blind to the consequences of her actions. So can I. She wasn’t better than me or worse than me. If blacks can forgive whites, if Jews can forgive Germans, surely I can forgive this woman whose life was harder than mine, whose own mother died when she was still a teenager, who never had the benefit of a college education or an understanding therapist. How much longer shall I complain about my childhood? Yes, it rained a lot. Yes, I got wet.
Too much food. Too much conversation. Why does dinner with friends always turn into too much of a good thing? Why do I insist on finishing everything on my plate, as if finishing could happen in only one way? I read yesterday about a tornado that killed dozens of people in Oklahoma. Sometimes we’re finished when we’re only half finished. Sometimes we’re finished when we’ve only just gotten started.
When I’ve fallen under the spell, when I’m convinced that God doesn’t exist, that love is an illusion, how do I remind myself I’m profoundly mistaken — not just a little wrong, but as wrong as I can be? As wrong as Rush Limbaugh. As wrong as the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.
It’s so simple, I remind myself: Just sit down and have a good cry. Just stay with the feeling, including the fear; including the aversion to the fear; in eluding the judgment that I’m a coward; including the actual sensation in the chest, in the belly; including the sadness; including the sadness about the sadness. By staying with the feeling, I’m actually, genuinely loving myself. The feeling is naked. It doesn’t need to wear a story, though I have a closet full of stories. The feeling wants to be naked, to feel its own skin. The feeling is more alive than the stories. The feeling is the healing. When I stay with the feeling, I feel God’s presence — not as an abstraction, but here in this flesh, in this shame that tears wash away.
In Toronto this morning, I walked for hours. I saw a black squirrel. Yes, there are black squirrels in Toronto! When I walked past the Hospital for Sick Children, I prayed for the children, and for their parents and grandparents, and for their brothers and sisters. My legs were tired, but I kept walking. I made up songs and sang them. I remembered how much I like to walk and sing. Now I’m back in my hotel room. The old loneliness sits in the corner. He’s not walking. He’s not singing. He doesn’t believe in prayer. What’s the use? he says. But there are black squirrels in Toronto. He never told me that.