Outside, it’s cold and dark. Inside my warm, well-lit house, I’m finishing dinner. Being a man who takes so much for granted, I take this for granted, too. What blinds me to my great good fortune? Food and shelter, food and shelter: humanity’s mantra for millennia, our unceasing prayer. How many of us have wandered homeless and hungry? How many of us are too weak to stand right now? In my mind’s eye, I see a man no different than I — except he’s gaunt, starving, no roof over his balding head. I’m here. He’s there. But because he’s not here, he’s less real to me than my cats, less real to me than the bills I paid last night. I’m eating. He’s hungry. I’m still eating. I’ve eaten everything on my plate, and I’m reaching for more. The food is so delicious that I just can’t stop myself. More. Give me more.
How I yearn to be a better man, though I know that’s just a different kind of greed.
There are no spiritual techniques that will save me from human history, nor should I be saved. If all the illness, all the injustice, all the betrayals, all the hatred, all the ugliness, all the poverty, all the tyranny, all the lying, all the brokenheartedness — if all this has to be denied so I can have a moment of “inner peace,” then how profound is my peace?
I wanted to be dangerous, an enemy of the state. But the state kept disguising itself as an ordinary man with a bad case of hemorrhoids and a shaky marriage, a corner office with plenty of windows and two locked file cabinets where thousands of people were buried, some of them still breathing when he told the gang with the shovels to cover them up anyway, just fucking do it and don’t ask questions. He was going to call his wife now. They hadn’t spoken since that stupid argument on the way to the airport. The traffic had been terrible.
It took me three years to find the right reading chair. Admittedly, I wasn’t looking too hard. But three years! This makes it easier for me to understand why societies change so slowly. Sure, we can find the answer to some vexing social problem: just give us five hundred years.
I’m so cautious about proclaiming my happiness. I always keep an eye on the big yellow warning sign reminding me I can lose everything in a moment: my health, my loved ones, my magazine, my home. Why tempt God to teach me a lesson about pride? I don’t want to give God a chance. The God who ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son, the God who welcomed 6 million surprised Jews with a nudge and a wink: shall I stand before this God with a big grin on my face? My grandmother warned me about this God, my bubbe with her bent, arthritic legs. I’d help her up the stairs at night, as if we were climbing a mountain, as if everything that could conspire against her in this life had already happened to her, and to her beautiful legs that men had once loved to look at, that had made men believe, for a moment, in God.
C. writes, after moving to Maine: “At first, the blueberry fields seemed bleak, especially without blueberries. Now they just seem like blueberry fields. I pass by. There’s a blueberry field, I think, rather pleased to recognize it. And beginning to see the rolling openness as worthy.”
I’m rereading the Sermon on the Mount. I could spend a year wandering up and down these winding streets. The streets appear ancient, but nothing is ever what it seems. Who do I think I am? A twenty-first-century Jew? A modern man with a laptop computer? And the poor, barefoot Jew whom some called teacher: who was he? At the end of a dusty lane, I stop. I turn. If I raise my head just a little, I can see him.
First there was Jesus; then there was bingo. Moses brought the law to his people; then his people filed a brief with the court. We start with the shiny apple, then peel it and cut it and cook it and mash it. On the altar, we place a jar of applesauce.
All those women I wanted to hold. All those books I wanted to read. All those teachers inviting me to worship at their feet. I’ve held a few women, read a few books, searched the eyes of gurus for something I could trust. Found it, lost it, found it, lost it. And here I am, waiting for the sun to come up on another day in this life of longing.