February 28, 2006

The Grace Store

I did a Google search and there it was: Grace 4U. Clicked to the address: an attractive website, simple and striking, not corny or overdone anything like that.

“If you would like grace, click here.”

Wait a second. First I went to the FAQs.

“You mean all I have to do is click and receive grace?”

“Yes, that’s all you need do.”

“You mean that stuff about, ‘Ask and it shall be given’ is really true?”

“Just like ordering anything else. You click on what you want and you get it, right?”

My hand moved the mouse this way and that. My finger kept starting to press down. But it kept stopping before it went down far enough to click.

I decided to go to the live chat they offered.

“Your FAQ page says I’ll receive grace just by clicking. I don’t understand – please clarify.”

“We offer grace all the time, for everyone.”

“What do you get out of it?”

“We get to give grace.”

“Why do you make it so easy?”

“We have to compete with other online retailers.”

I clicked. I gave them my shipping information. Then I came to “Method of Payment.” It wasn’t the usual kind. They didn’t ask for my credit card number and expiration date. Instead they gave me this long, long scroll of terms and conditions, asking me to click “Agree” on each page.

“I'm somewhat puzzled,” I typed into the live chat box. “Are you saying there’s some kind of payment involved?”

“Well, you wouldn’t order a book from Amazon and not expect to pay for it, would you?”

“I don’t see where the amount is specified on this form.”

“Payment varies per individual.”

“So it might be very expensive.”

“You’re ordering God’s grace. You're looking for a bargain?”

I thought about it. I thought of all the things I might be asked to pay. You have to be careful about anything you buy online.

I clicked over to Amazon and ordered a book about grace.


February 27, 2006

Sunday Phone Calls

Phone calls with my parents used to happen on Sundays. I’d call my father or he’d call me, and we’d exchange trivial information about recent events – about who had a cold, and who had gotten an A on a test, and where we’d driven the day before, and whatnot. Occasionally important things were said, but not very often. I didn’t trust my father’s advice very much. He meant well, but I thought he didn’t know enough about life, or about my life, to steer me right. Sometimes I purposely did the opposite of what he said, on the theory that that was more likely to work. But I enjoyed talking to him about my kids and my work, and finding out how he was doing in his post-divorce life.

Phone calls with my mother were more problematic: so many boring complaints. But I liked it when we talked about the characters in our family, their meshuggener histories, her sharp acerbic assessments.

Now that they’re dead, I sometimes have a funny feeling on a Sunday morning: “It would be nice to talk to Dad on the phone today.” Yesterday morning I even caught myself thinking in the old half-annoyed way, “Maybe Mom will call this morning.”

Sometimes I imagine my kids, in the future, thinking the same thing about me.

While I’m writing this, Agent 95 zips into my study and points a finger at me: “It’s my archnemesis, Dadman!”

He’s already learned what I never did: to take it comically.

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February 26, 2006

Two Soul Exercises

1. What will be written on your tombstone — not the name and dates and “beloved so-and-so,” but the real unstated epitaph?

Mine: “I still might be a famous writer someday.”

2. What would be in the index of the book of your life? What subject would have surprisingly many entries? What subject would have surprisingly few?

Mine: Too many entries for “Self–pity” and “Self-absorption.” Too few for “External world, involvement in.”


February 24, 2006

The Museum of the Obscure Local Artist

Two girls chased each other around the fat deep-shading oaks on the grounds of the museum of the obscure local artist. They almost ran into the tall, straight–backed woman with the flowing white hair and floor-length green dress, whom they hadn’t noticed enter the gate.

“Oops, sorry!” They giggled and drew back as if she were an obstacle in the game, like one of the trees.

Her smile, as she looked around at the bright-bladed hilly lawn and the small tan stucco building, had a radiance in it that seemed to pull her head higher, as if she were aiming herself upward into the sky. “Such a joy to come back here. Isn’t this the loveliest place in town?”

“Yeah, as long as you don’t look at the art.”

She blanched—straightened even more. “Surely she was a gifted, accomplished—?”

“No one’s ever heard of her, so what’s the museum for?”

“Yet she taught students?”

More laughter. “Yeah, we saw their stuff too.”

“But surely “—she was beginning to stammer out the syllables—“surely the community feels enriched by this temple to the muses. A place to introduce the young to the wholesome pursuit of art—to cultivate a taste for beauty, a sense of the sublime… “ The voice shaking. “Surely her name deserves to live?”

The girls were rolling their eyes at each other, and having to remind themselves that they were well brought up. The older one approached confidingly. “The guard in there was telling us how she got to have a museum? ‘Cause she came from a rich family and she was the mayor’s girlfriend. When she died she left all this money to the city for a museum just for her.”

The woman’s hand was on her heart, her chest heaving, her eyes wet and pink. “The guard told you that? This is what we pay for? I shall speak with him this minute.”

And she rushed up the hilly lawn with gliding steps that never revealed her feet under the long green dress.

When she was gone, the two girls laughed hilariously, and when they chased each other again, they imitated the lady’s voice: “I shall tag you this minute! Surely you shall not escape my tag!” Panting from running and giggling at the same time, they dropped and rolled on the grass, still calling out, “What a lovely place, what a joy!”

After a minute they got curious and sneaked up to the wood-framed glass door of the museum. Inside, the gray-mustached guard was sitting alone at the little table with its small rack of dusty brochures. The girls burst in: “Wha’d she say? Did she yell at you? Do you know her? Who is she?”

Wide-eyed, the guard looked at them. The muscles of his mouth moved but his mouth did not open. His cheeks were the color of his mustache. He stared hard down the corridor where the exhibit began: no one was there.

The girls laughed and ran out: grownups were so weird.

That night the museum burned to the ground.


February 23, 2006

Your Daily Inspiration

I'm not finished with my next story yet, so in the meantime try this and learn what a great man sounds like.

I received the link this morning in the form of a one-line banner ad on my gmail.

Which reminds me, for those of you who like to email me, I now have a second account which I'm using for personal correspondence:

richardlcohen at gmail dot com

I'm trying to gradually shift the Earthlink account into professional correspondence.

February 22, 2006

In the Fetish District

From his bedroom Mr. Lawson can see the window display of the bondage store. Every night he strains his eyes squinting for a glimpse of whips and leather corsets, chains and buckled leather masks, telescopes and silken cords. Next door to that, the shoe store specializes in steel-toed black work boots and impossibly high-heeled sequined sandals. At the spiritualist church down the street, a few straggling souls drive in from all over town every Sunday morning to communicate with the dead. From the gutted frame of the turreted Victorian on the corner, you can hear boom box music and inconsiderate laughter late at night.

The mail carrier wears thigh-high boots on her route; she chats like old friends with the man whose home is furnished exclusively with Christmas decorations all year long. Mr. Lawson has never spoken to any of his neighbors, but he likes it when he gets the chance to nod at them at the downstairs mailbox. Sometimes he wants to ask one of them a question, but he never has. The answer might reveal new worlds spread out all around him, and he’s not sure he’d like that.

The other day he saw two men, strangers to each other who met in midstreet as they walked their dogs, stop and chat and point with gossipy gestures at the dogs’ attempts to mount each other, and then walk off side by side, the dogs on their leashes still leaping and bumping. Once he saw a man slap money into another man’s palm in exchange for a wrinkled brown lunch bag.

He remembers when he first rented the apartment. “This neighborhood is full of interesting, creative people,” the rental agent said. All he wanted at the time was someplace small and cheap – but now he realizes how true that was.

He leaves the neighborhood as little possible these days. When he has to go to the supermarket or the mall, he stares around in disdain: “What a bunch of squares!”


February 21, 2006

And While I'm At It...

Check out this contest for anti-semitic cartoons done by Jews. It's the brainchild of an Israeli guy and it's intended to show that we can do better than the Iranians at this game. The deadline for submitting cartoons is March 5, and the contest open to Jews only, since this is about Jews making fun of themselves. (But hey, what are they going to do, pull down your pants to verify it?) Non-Jews can provide Jewish jokes in the comments if they wish.

Especially good is the first cartoon: "The Secret Eleventh Commandment."

(Link provided by Be.)

Cute Cartoon

Here's my belated contribution to the controversy about the Danish cartons. It was emailed to me by cartoonist David Cohen -- no relation.

Copyright © 2006 by David Cohen

February 20, 2006

Fly Ash Is Up

Dancing on Fly Ash is a favorite site for those of us who love microfiction. It's been down for redesign for the past few months, but today is the grand opening of its new format, which includes book reviews and other unspecifiied posts as well as stories. Today there's one story from Matt and one story from Josh -- the two proprietors -- and a review of a new Aimee Bender book of short stories.

Longtime Fly Ash readers will be excited by this news. Those of you who haven't been there yet -- check it out!

To Read Is To Dream Is To Live

When I read a book that teaches me something about life – or about the mind and soul, which is what I usually mean by “life” – I underline in black ink the passages that reach me most deeply or that seem best-written. Then, when I return to the book for renewed inspiration, I can hop from one underlined passage to the next and cross the river of the writer’s thought.

Sometimes, though, when I pick up the book again after a long time, I reread the underlined passages and they mean nothing; why did I think them worth marking? What could I have been thinking of? For instance in the book Ka, by Roberto Calasso, a beautifully written poststructuralist study (yes, there are such things) of Hindu myth, which makes brilliant connections between ancient rites and legends and the categories of contemporary European thought.

“Not only is the world founded on the residue but the world is the first of all residues, broken off from something immensely more vast that in its overabundance could not bear to remain whole.”

“The tragic is the unique and irreversible act…. Whatever is multiplied is also extenuated.”

I can tease out the intended meaning, but I can’t remember why it stirred me; I can’t get the feeling back. Why do I spend my evenings poring over small print and adding wavery marks on the pages when all these thoughts amount to is a cloud hovering beneath a ceiling? The book has become an empty envelope, marked with the return address of someone I cared about long ago.

I sometimes feel that way about even my dearest father-authors: I’ll go to reread Chekhov or Hemingway and be taken up short in amazement: What is the point of all this? Why does it matter, these people entering rooms and uttering commonplaces and falling in and out of love? It’s like I’m seeing them with the lights turned off.

And then, returning a second time, the lights are back on, and Chekhov is so wise and tenderly comic, and Hindu myth teaches us about what kind of cosmos we’re in…

It’s like falling in love with someone and then deciding you don’t love them anymore and then, after it’s over, remembering that you loved them. Or taking a job and throwing yourself into it excitedly for a few months and then getting bored and jumping to another company and then regretting that you didn’t stay in the first one.

The back-and-forth is a symptom of dreaming. I dreamed the book’s profundity and beauty and then I dreamed its dullness: they switch back and forth like a dream face that turns into a spider. Books and dreams and wakefulness, alternations that conceal the identical.

If we take away the reading time and the music-listening time and the screen-watching time and the fantasizing time and the time of trivial conversation and the time of untruths and the time of vain planning and the time of aimless here-and-there, what’s left? A clear interval, a break in the forest, through which shines the light of… another dream.

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February 19, 2006

Echoing Spaces: Two Prose Poems

1. Library Bathroom
A blue crane on the porcelain bowl marks the maker’s name. The dented brown door is marked with wedge-shaped cuneiform scratches.

The traveling man sets his backpack on the ledge, and shunts from sink to sink looking for soap, each automatic faucet staying on for five seconds after he passes.

The next stall bangs open; big black shoes walk in. He growls to himself, hawks spit into the bowl before sitting.

Wads of white paper on the brown tile floor; the white roll lying sideways on the ground. I set my book down at my feet and sit staring at the cover: Kawabata, First Snow on Fuji.

2. Offices on the Weekend
The pretty downtown houses are all businesses now: “Attorneys at Law,” “Law Offices of,” “Certified In Criminal Defense,” “P.C.,” “L.L.C.” Freshly painted, housekept by weekly contract, flowers replaced every Friday, and the broad polished desks so clean, the latest brief stacked square on the left side of the desk, the wall art blemishless and presentable, the perfect butlering of the files. I stop and look: it must be good to have a place like this to go to, and always know where you’re going to be. The room comes to life before me: the client fidgeting, winding forth her grievances; the lawyer repeating reassurances, making a note, his eyes flicking at the photo of his kids. Palms to glass, I give a longing smile: “Ah, reality!”

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February 17, 2006

Bumper Sticker Patrol, Installment #5

All of you who live in the States have seen those square-shaped, ostentatiously discreet bumper stickers consisting of the capital letter W in white on a black field, with the caption on small letters: “The President.” Some of you may have seen the parodies of it: the same white-on-black design, with the capital letter F and the caption, “The President.”

Here in Texas we have couple of variations of our own. Kinky Friedman, the local musician, mystery writer, and self-promoter, is running for governor this year as a satirical dark horse, the way Norman Mailer once ran for mayor of New York. He’s got a bumper sticker with the same design, but the capital letter is K, and the caption is, “The Governor.” He’s also got a bumper sticker that’s a red, white, and blue Texas flag with a lone star of David, and the caption, “Kinky – Why the Hell Not?” And he’s got one that says, “My governor is a Jewish cowboy,” a takeoff on the Christian bumper sticker, “My boss is a Jewish carpenter.”

Today I saw one that made me smile: the square is University of Texas Longhorn burnt orange instead of black, and the capital letter is V, and the caption is, “The Quarterback.”

February 16, 2006

Deep Listening, Deep Reading, Deep Blogging

I’ve been reading about the practice of deep listening lately, a practice I’ve scorned in the past. (Well, didn’t I scorn just about everything back then?) Deep listening sounds pretty simple: you listen carefully without interrupting, and you maintain eye contact, and you give affirming responses that show that you’ve understood what the person is saying, and that whether or not you agree completely you accept that this is the way the person feels, and that you’re trying to see and feel the issue from the person’s perspective.

I used to think that this wasn’t deep listening, it was shallow listening. It didn’t require any analytic thought on the listener’s part, any give and take, any challenge to both parties to examine their positions. If you just sat there and kept nodding with a small smile, automatically saying, “Yes,” and “I understand,” you could get away with tuning out, as, I believe, a fair percentage of therapists do from time to time.

Actually, though, what I was objecting to, what I was inwardly caricaturing, wasn’t deep listening at all: it was a counterfeit, it was fake deep listening. And there was no reason for me to impugn real deep listening because of that.

I’ve tried some deep listening recently, and it turns out to be harder than I expected. I’ve always considered myself a good listener, because I’m fascinated by other people’s personalities, and quiet enough to give them time to talk, and because I can come up with interesting ripostes and interpretations. But I see now that a good deal (not all) of my listening consisted of trying to grab opportunities to make my own points and even to top the other person, using his or her statements as launching pads for my impressive flights. It’s not that I’m such a terrible interrupter – considering the background I come from, in which interruption was the accepted and sometimes the only means of switching speakers in a conversation, I’m far from it – but I’ve been a kind of conversational lurker, sitting back and waiting for my moment to step forward and shine.

In order to listen deeply, I have to change that attitude. I have to genuinely sit quiet – internally quiet as well as externally -- and make listening to the other person’s words my first priority. When responding, I have to refrain from giving unwanted advice or interjecting witticisms or turning the subject toward something I’ve prepared a brilliant remark about. I have to say something affirming and mean it, and in order to mean it I have to listen and think sincerely about the person’s message and show with my face and body, too, that I mean it. And even if I’m basically just mirroring the other person’s message, I need to do it in a way that shows I’ve incorporated it into my thoughts. Those things are simple but not easy, as the saying goes. I’m looking forward to much more practice at deep listening.

It occurred to me the other day that there might be an analogous process in reading: deep reading. I’ve been an instinctively critical reader all my life. When I read something, I want to see where I disagree with the author, poking holes in the logic, mentally parrying and slashing. When reading fiction I don’t pay as much attention to the plot and themes as to how the writer has set out the narrative, and I think about how I would have done it differently, how I would have improved the sentences and the scenes. By doing that, I’ve learned a lot about writing.

Teachers would love me for that kind of active reading; critical thinking is a skill English teachers in this country nowadays are desperately trying to cultivate in students. But I’ve been thinking what a refreshing change it would be for me to just read something and not talk back to the text, not analyze the author. I could try to empathize with the author’s perspective, and if I disagree with it I could set the disagreement aside and see what I could learn. I might contact the author’s spirit in a deeper way, and encounter some unexpected, enriching ideas, by looking steadily and patiently at his or her words rather than imagining my own words in their place.

The analogy with deep listening isn’t perfect, of course. Active, critical reading really is a desirable skill, especially in an age when so many of the messages thrown at us seem false. What I’m saying is that there may be room for another kind of reading skill alongside that: a skill of empathy and tolerance for the author’s chosen words and views, whether or not one believes that they’re the right ones. Not renouncing the critical faculty, but moving it out of my line of vision in order to truly see the object in front of me.

Then I started thinking about whether there could be an analogous form of deep writing: a respectful, responsive exchange between author and reader, both parties exercising patience and empathetic understanding. The answer came to me at once: it’s blogging.

Because of the Comments capacity, this is the form of writing in which the reader listens deeply and responds promptly with words that contribute to a dialogue between equals. There doesn’t have to be agreement or praise, but there needs to be a genuine, sincerely communicated interaction showing that the reader has truly read.

The analogy isn’t perfect here either. It’s totally all right if you just read and don’t respond at all. And disagreement – within the bounds of respect – is expected and welcomed.

But I think what I’m saying is that because of this instant interaction, blogging has the potential to make better writers of us. I think – I hope, anyway -- there’s a kind of natural selection for authenticity in the blogosphere, a pressure against pretence. Even the snarkies seem authentic: they’re showing what they are in all its ugliness. Whereas if you spend two years writing a book that’s mainly intended as a consumer product, with little and late response from thoughtful readers, there’s a pressure to pretend, to pose as an authority, to craft a salable persona, to act as if what you’re writing is the final answer.

One thing everyone knows right away about this post is that it isn’t a final answer to anything.


February 15, 2006

I won't be posting anything new today, folks -- got a lot of work and errands/appointments. See you tomorrow.

February 14, 2006

Meditation As Subway Ride

When I’m meditating, my thoughts are going 17,000 miles per hour, just like they are all the rest of the time. I’ve long since abandoned any hope of stopping their flow or even slowing it appreciably. So what am I to do about them while I’m trying to gain serenity?

I’m watching my breath, easing down to a physiologically slower level – deep, even expansions and contractions of the diaphragm -- but there go those thoughts, completely ignoring my efforts: voom, voom, thinking about the kids, the blog, the state of the world, the state of literature, my posture, my next therapist’s appointment, the tai chi stance I’ve been practicing, the snack I plan to make after meditating – voom, voom, and daydreams mix in and then I have to analyze the daydreams…

Then a useful simile comes to me: the deep slow breathing, the settling of my sitting body to focus on a point below my navel – these things are like standing on the platform of a local subway stop, waiting for the train. And the vooming thoughts are the train going by in the other direction. I hear and see them, but they have no connection with what I’m doing now. I’m not getting on them and I‘m not going to stop them or interfere with them in any way. My head is going that way on that other track, but my breath, my diaphragm, my center, are waiting quietly here.

And the spiritual insights – like this one – they’re the express train speeding by on the center track. It whizzes through and its wind ruffles my hair and its noise distracts me and I look up and glimpse the people zipping by in the lighted windows, but I’m not on that train, even though it’s going to the same place I’m going. Maybe I’ll catch up to some of those passengers when they change trains, but right now I’m just waiting for the local. Deep and slow, and sit up straight. And I’ll get to see the signs and people at the stations where the express train doesn’t stop.

UPDATE -- OR ACTUALLY PS: The very first post I ever wrote on this blog, "The Allegory of Sitting," deals with this issue.


Two Odd Little Dreams

Hypnopompic variety -- occurring at the border preceding waking.

1. At the point of waking this morning, I heard myself snore -- and my dream characters turned and glared at me like librarians scolding a noisy patron, as they vanished.

2. After working all day on an 11th grade literature textbook (teachers' notes on Longfellow poems), I took a nap yesterday afternoon. I dreamed of the exact same page proofs I had been annotating, except that the names were fictionalized. What a lazy unconscious! Waking, I reflected that it might as well have reproduced the pages exactly -- except doing so would have required more work, like finding the exact word instead of settling for an approximation.


February 12, 2006

Ia Ora Te Nature, Part 2

Reading and responding to your comments on my previous post — intelligent and thought-provoking comments that helped me much — I began thinking again of the sidewalk-inscription experience and what I might learn from it and where I might take it and what direction I might glimpse in anything any of you had said…

And it occurred to me to ask myself, “What kind of person runs around looking for a sign, wishing for a sign, and gets a sign clear as day, and then keeps running around, wringing his hands, and wonders, ‘Was it a sign? Was it really a sign? Will other people think it was a sign? And what do you do with a sign, anyway?’”

The answer came to me in a flash of insight: “A shmuck, that’s who.”

Yes, a fool, a clown, a numbskull. Because it was a sign. (Thanks, Natalie.)

I don’t know who or what gave me the sign. I don’t know whether it was God or a time-traveling descendant of mine from the year 4,000 AD or my own unconscious, but I know it’s something aimed right at me that I need to pay attention to.

If you’re skating on a frozen Wisconsin lake and you see a sign, “Thin Ice,” you don’t know who put the sign there – was it the city? a homeowner from the shore? an ice fisherman? Someone who had fallen in and nearly drowned? – nor do you know precisely how reliable the sign is – has the ice frozen harder since it was put up? is the signmaker overly cautious? Was he just playing a joke? – but you know it’s best to skate in a wide path around there, or approach cautiously if you decide to test it. (The thing you can most reliably assume is that you didn’t make the sign yourself, which in this case may only show that the analogy isn’t perfect.)

I don’t know exactly what the sign means, but I can make a couple of common-sense inferences:

• It means that nature is mysteriously alive in ways that go beyond our everyday understanding, and that death is part of its ultimately benevolent mystery
• It means that signs themselves can be meaningful to me, can be part of the way I find meaning in life. This was a metasign, in other words, a breakthrough into sign-reading.

Despite my longtime flirtation with the spiritual, I’ve really been very skeptical and cynical about belief systems most of my life. I was raised that way. My search for things worth believing in has been an effort to overcome that negativism in my upbringing, and it’s been more of a search for things I couldn’t disdain than for things to actively embrace. Active belief has seemed, for too long, beyond my range.

I’ve known people who seemed to live by magical thinking, finding omens and portents in trivial coincidences, making their decisions based on newspaper astrology columns, and so forth, and I’ve disdained that in them. I’ve seen how, in some cases, it led them into wrong turns, fruitless pursuits, self-deception. (On the other hand, I also know people whose lives have taken dramatic, positive turns in the aftermath of signs.)

Of course it’s important to be judicious. But is it judicious to let reflexive disdain keep one from seeing what is there? The truth can choose the humblest, most unlikely means to make itself known to us — if it comes in the form of a Jimmy Buffett song — that doesn’t mean I should dismiss it. All the more intriguing, in fact.

Children believe in things. My ten-year-old, Agent 95, once told me, “I believe in everything.” He believes in the Greek gods, he believes in heaven and hell, he believes in ghosts and witches – describe a fantasy world to him and he’ll accept it unhesitatingly as real.

I used to think that childish belief was merely a delusion to get over, to replace with a rational adult understanding of cause and effect, of demonstrable phenomena. It only occurs to me now, at this late date, that that belief of mine was as unexamined as a child’s belief in Santa Claus. Belief has a function in human life, just as play does. Children play. They play more than adults, but adults, if they know what’s good for them, allow themselves to play too. Good parents don’t prohibit their kids from playing. Play is a necessary preparation for adult work and social behavior, and it’s the foundation for enjoyment of life, without which work and social life would be meaningless.

Analogously, as an adult I need to allow myself to believe. Believe in what? Believe in myself, to begin with: believe that I’m capable of finding authentic, positive meaning in the world around me (I’ve had all too much experience in finding negative meaning) and — what’s always been the hard part — that I can take positive, effective action on it.

And believe in something else, too, even if I feel unworthy to define or describe it. One thing that has always kept me from accepting any specific religion is that I think God is fundamentally incomprehensible to the human mind, and thus theology is mostly arrogant guesswork and culture-bound fantasizing. Nevertheless, I’ve felt, for equally long, that it’s guesswork and fantasizing about something real.

A Buddhist adage I like very much is that all religious doctrines are like fingers pointing at the moon. If we concentrate on looking at the finger, we’re missing the idea. (In modern terms, someone who looks at a finger instead of what the finger is pointing at is autistic.) We need to look at the moon.

But then, a person pointing at the moon can be beautiful. Imagine a crowd of people lining the shores of a lake, all pointing up toward a full moon in a clear winter sky. There is as much reason to point at those people as at the moon. And we see them in the moon’s light.

Once, a dozen or so years ago, I was lying back from a wonderful Greek vacation, and as we flew over a mountain range, the English-speaking young Greek sitting beside me pointed to the tallest one:

“That’s Mount Olympos.”

I was chilled to the core with awe. Flying above the home of the gods.

“Wouldn’t it be great if the gods really lived there?” I said.

And he said: “They do.”

And of course he was right, although not literally. The principle that created the cosmos was not an extended family of incestuous troublemakers hopping from mountaintop to wartorn plain in a little country on an obscure planet with a Bronze Age technology. But the things we thought and wrote about those soap-opera characters were part of what has brought us to parsing out the quarks and creating artificial intelligence and knowing our own genes: part of a long, long inquiry that may one day show us who we really are — and then make us more than that. And Greek religion, with all its silliness and grotesquerie, was pointing (more the mystery cults than the Olympian fables, no doubt) to the same moon that Buddhism and Judaism and Christianity are, even if the pointing finger belonged to someone boisterously inebriated and under-age, reeling with the conceited laughter of the precocious, still half in the grip of nursery tales.

Knowing who posted a sign may be interesting, but it’s not as important as knowing what the sign says. The sign said, “Shmuck, look at the moon!”


February 10, 2006

Ia Ora Te Natura

Taking a walk in the neighborhood yesterday afternoon, I spotted a dead bird in a front yard on Duval at 38th Street. It had a still beauty about it: its feathers were black and glossy, blending to brown at the throat, and I thought at the time that its contour curved like the keel of a sailboat, with its head tucked under. It blended in with the bare brown soil and wood chips it lay on, and it flew me to the same sterile plains of thought that dead birds always do:

• I don’t sense any continuing life, any spirit, coming from that corpse
• I haven’t felt it at the deaths of human beings I’ve known either
• That’s going to be me in a scant few decades at the longest
• Some people point out that we all merge into the rest of the universe, but if I really face the truth, that thought doesn’t give me much comfort; I’d rather be me than anything else
• What am I to do?

Then I thought, “I’ve had this train of thought a thousand times before, since adolescence. What’s new? How can I take this thought further? ‘There’s nothing here’ seems shallow by now. Maybe it’s true and maybe it’s not, but a mere intuition aroused by the sight of death doesn’t prove anything. What is being concealed from me – or revealed in a way I can’t understand? Can I think my way through to it?”

The only thing to do is to keep walking, so I did that, head down in thought (scroll down to paragraph 8 at linked post). A couple of blocks later, still thinking about the bird, I saw the following inscription engraved into the sidewalk, obviously made with a stick or other implement when the wet cement was laid down years ago:


I stopped. I thought it might be Italian or Latin, maybe Greek; something about nature, and “ora” might refer to praying. By the way, my favorite place on earth is called Ia, also spelled Oia: a Greek island village I stayed at a dozen years ago and will stay at again this coming May. And looking at the inscription, I thought to myself, Holy flukin’ elimination, if this turns out to be a sign then I don’t know what. And I had to cut my walk short and rush home and do a Google search.

On the way I passed the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest, a beautiful building in limestone and glass. I’m fond of Episcopalians: both my wives have belonged to that denomination, and my father-in-law is an Episcopal priest. Most of the church services I’ve ever been to have been Episcopal. Passing by the long, low window of their ground-level dining room, I felt like, “Man, if I’m getting some kind of sign, and this is part of it, I’d better throw myself through their window and prostrate myself on their floor.” Fortunately I didn’t, I walked home fast and made that Google search.

The lines turn out to be in Tahitian and they’re easy to find online, because they’re from the lyrics of a Jimmy Buffett song, "One Particular Harbor." The translation, by Mike A. Hall of the University of Georgia, “Church of Buffett - Orthodox – ‘Music Director’ Athens Branch,” reads:


“Nature lives.” The dead bird on the same stretch of pavement, and my wish for a new way to think about it.

The obvious interpretations are:

1. Coincidence. The writer of the sidewalk message did not know me, but he or she did write it in the hope that someone would read it and be touched, and so I’m responding to that impulse but not through any uncanny or mystical guidance. Dead birds are fairly common sights, and the conjunction of bird and inscription could be predicted at a certain level of probability. To think otherwise is to succumb to the understandable human flaw of seeing patterns where they are not.

2. Saying “mere coincidence” is all very well, but at some point anecdotal evidence becomes overwhelming, unignorable, and to dismiss it we have to assume that present science knows everything about the nature of causality, the structure of time, and the possibility of connection between apparently disparate events. And we know that present science is actively engaged in demolishing exactly those easy mechanistic reassurances of nothingness.

Well, ladies and gents, what thinkest thou? Which is more likely: that belief is credulity, or that disbelief is willful blindness? And are there other, less obvious interpretations?


February 09, 2006

Necessary Art for Our Time

Good and Happy has a cute pre-Easter card featuring a newborn chick who talks Valley Girl -- but what really makes it is the disclaimer with arrow. We in the western world must henceforth slap this disclaimer onto all works of figurative art. Also see this one.

Generals on their Knees

His ancient enemy is dying: the general who overwhelmed his army, executed his officers, sacked his city, raped his womenfolk, castrated his sons, enslaved his family, and kept him alive in humiliation to see it all. Now the losing general receives a messenger from his conqueror: “He asks you, as an act of honor toward a dying man, to forgive him.”

Laughter, and the messenger is thrown out. The following week another messenger comes: “He is in his final agony. He begs you, if you forgive him he will free your family, restore your lands, and bequeath you half his treasure.”

“I forgive him.”

“Will you pray for him as well?”

The losing general descends on his creaky, stiff knees. “You see, I’m doing it.”

The winning general dies the next day. Laughing, the newly freed loser calls for a feast, and carouses for seven days with his bruised and haggard daughters, his halfbreed grandchildren, and his sterile sons.

But something nags at him. “If I forgave him, why did he still die?” His forgiveness feels impotent. Was that a last cunning humiliation imposed on him by his conqueror? When forgiving an enemy, you want the act to have power.

He dwells on it continually as his family spends his treasure, as neglect ruins his lands. What is the lack, the weakness in him, that makes his forgiveness futile? It teases him, it mocks him: “Your words mean nothing anymore.”

The reason comes to him: his forgiveness didn’t work because it was a lie. He will have to forgive sincerely in order for it have effect.

“I forgive you,” he prays to the ghost of his enemy. “Forgive me that I didn’t mean it before.”

The treasure is all spent. The lands lie parched and bare. The losing general spends his days wandering his courtyard in a torn, trailing robe grimed with sand and dyed with old bloodstains.

He prays all the time now: “Forgive me, that I could not forgive you. Please let me forgive you now.” Over and over he begs the man who overwhelmed his army, executed his officers, sacked his city, raped his womenfolk, castrated his sons, and enslaved his family to forgive him.“I too have done those things. Forgive me.”

His tears dampen the robe and mottle the sand. He knows the dead general has no power to forgive him. He longs for the day when they will be together again, not on a battlefield this time, but in a green vale by a cool spring, served by lovely maidens. He daydreams of their great reunion -– their allied victory -- till it becomes the only thing he can think about.

His family has fled his house; one last remaining servant brings him bowls of millet with withered cooked leaves. He spends all his days on his knees, mumbling.

One day he finds his old enemy kneeling beside him in a clean white robe. And from then on they pray in unison, “Forgive me, forgive me,” to whom they do not know, with what effect they cannot guess.


February 08, 2006

Today's Earworm, Installment #3

“Be True to Your School” by the Beach Boys

When some loud bragger tries to put me down
And says his school is great
I tell him right away
Now what’s the matter buddy
Ain’t you heard of my school
It’s number one in the state

It goes without saying that I always thought this song was a dippy piece of cornball fluff and an embarrassing display of conformist mindlessness, but now I hear it through the ears of Agent 97, a nine-year-old Beach Boys fan, and I hear a glamorous promise of what being a teenager will be like; and returning to my own perspective I hear a wistful vignette of soon-to-be-lost youth, a touching and fragile effort at self-assertion dependent upon the most fleeting of identities, and an elliptical glimpse at the purest American experience. Sigh!

Lyricist Mike Love – who deserves more credit than he gets, although not as much as he thinks he deserves, for the Beach Boys’ success – knew his subject and wrote about it from the inside and knew how to express its essence in the fewest and simplest words so that they would be memorable. The lines burst with adolescent male insecurity and mousy bravado, like the muscles of a skinny boy who’s been lifting weights.

And now my mental jukebox is changing discs: “Little surfer, little one/ Will you love me, little surfer girl/ Surfer girl, my little surfer girl, woo-oooh…”

This goes out to everyone out there who’s true to their school and to their surfer girl or boy, and may you remain in that state throughout a long and sun-filled life.

PS: Agent 95 prefers Nine Inch Nails and says that the Beach Boys are “good, but too light and springy.” Both kids come together, of course, in loving the Beatles: the perfect intersection of Nine Inch Nails and the Beach Boys and just about everything else in pop music.


February 07, 2006

Blogger Problem

Blogger's been down for maintenance several times in the past couple of weeks, and today it's not letting comments show up on my blog. I've gotten 11 automatic email notifications about comments on today's Dostoevsky post, and only the first two have shown up. That's frustrating, because a fun conversation about the Shekhinah was starting to develop.

Please bear with it and I hope all the comments, which include a couple of responses by me, show up before long. And feel free to add new comments in the assumption that they'll show up eventually.

UPDATE: I'm finding that all the comments show up on Safari but not on Firefox. I've been having trouble with Firefox ever since I downloaded their latest "improved" version a couple of weeks ago.

If Dostoevsky Had Google

This is the way it all happened, ladies and gentlemen, and if it didn't, may the Tsar himself seize all my estates! I was reading a long, intricate post by Camassia (a practice I recommend) about the relationship between power and freedom in the secular and Christian viewpoints: the secularist, she says, believes that power brings freedom and the powerless are unfree, while the religious believe that temporal power can be a form of spiritual slavery. In the Comments section, I found something tangential to Camassia’s subject that made me want to comment: someone had cited one of my favorite quotations and attributed it, I thought, to the wrong person.

“The line between good and evil is drawn not between nations or parties, but through every human heart.” – Dostoevsky.

That’s the way I had read it years ago and have remembered it ever since – it’s from The Diary of a Writer, a book notable for its foaming rages of Jew-hating as well as for a few jewels in the mud. In any event, Camassia’s commenter attributed those words of wisdom to Solzhenitsyn.

It got me on my literary high horse, if you must know, and I immediately did a Google search for “line between good and evil through every human heart,” trying to prove it came from Dostoevsky. I came up with thousands of hits, but they all (that is, the twenty or so sources I clicked) attributed the statement to Solzhenitsyn. It had evidently become one of those famous nostrums, those joyously bouncing verbal balloons, that one finds repeated in sermons and at conferences and in articles and inspirational writings, sometimes with no attribution at all, as if it had been floating in the air for any passerby to snatch. Solzhenitsyn really had said it, in The Gulag Archipelago, but that didn’t mean that Dostoevsky hadn’t said it before him, if you see what I'm talking about. (Solzhenitsyn didn’t credit it to any predecessor, but, well, you know how people are.)

Indignant, I began googling all the Dostoevsky quotation sites I found, plus general quotation books, but my special quote wasn’t on any of them. I ask you, if we’re beyond even the infinitesimal, the miniscule wisdom of getting a quotation source right, what hope can there be for persuading garret-dwelling students not to murder their landladies? Despite the lack of evidence, I believed -- indeed, believed because of the lack of evidence. The omission was mere ignorance, of course, blameless ignorance, yes, but what is every sin at bottom but a refusal to see the truth?

My heart quickened, and thoughts – God keep you from such thoughts, dear reader! -- raced through my head like a fever, and with each click of the Return button, each new line typed onto the search bar, I could feel my blood pressure squeezing tighter, my temperature rising -- I wanted to rush out into the street and grab some poor unaware pedestrian and recite him my quotation and, shaking him by the collar in my fervor, demand, “Who do you think would have said that, Solzhenitsyn, or Dostoevsky? Dostoevsky, of course, can there be any doubt, my esteemed friend? Solzhenitsyn couldn’t have thought of it -- he was the enemy of a specific party, an entire national government, which he associated with evil -- but he knew Dostoevsky was right, and couldn’t resist, in the same no one can resist swiping a nice ripe cherry from the top of the fruit bin in the market, God preserve us. He was Dostoevsky’s younger brother, and he must have said to himself, ‘Fyodor won’t mind…’”

Yes, dear friends, that’s what passed through my whirling noggin in those hectic moments, as if a different personality were taking me over, a demonic twin, a mirror likeness glimpsed at a street corner; and it occurred to me – I can’t deny it – to think, “Heavens above, I'm turning into Dusty himself! This must be what it felt like to be Dostoevsky – at least as translated by Constance Garnett! How could he possibly have entertained a sensible thought with his mind in a state like this?” If our beloved author were alive today, he’d be jabbing the Return button like a man possessed, commenting scandalously wherever he landed, linking, posting, haranguing, cajoling, perspiring, mumbling, wiping his brow, seeking out the websites of all the mad tormented prophets of the Web – I tell you, he wouldn't be able to stop! And do you think he’d let a misattributed quotation go unchallenged? No, my friends, he would plunge deep into the Web and find the websites of the most despised and insulted, the sites of saintly whores and angelic orphans and quaking gamblers, and he’d finally sink so deep he’d unearth the Website of the Holy Spirit, the Shekhina itself, and raise it up to us and crow, “Ha, gentlemen! But I feel a fit coming on!”

Understand me, I could scarcely keep pace with my frantic thoughts, and at each new site without a Dostoevsky attribution, my pulse quickened in frustration at this mistreatment of the just. And then the truth came to me, the way truth always comes to those who search, like a kopeck coin that sits unnoticed on the pavement of Nevsky Prospect just waiting to announce itself to the one who is always looking down meekly, always gazing at his feet in wry humiliation: If the quote made me feel Dostoevskian, then Dostoevsky must indeed have said it!

Ten rubles on the red!

Chapter Two
I had been just about to sit and meditate when I got sidetracked by that Camassian post, and now my breath was heaving so that I couldn’t possibly sit quietly and rest. I had to lie down for almost half an hour just getting my pulse and respiration back to normal. Then I sat on a cushion and was able to meditate for a while – but even then I couldn’t launch directly into clear-minded watching of my breath. I had to keep my frothed-up brain occupied with words in order to settle it further, so I repeated inwardly to myself, over and over, a prayer I like that’s slightly adapted from St. Francis:

Lord, make us instruments of Thy peace.
Where there is hate, let us sow love,
Where there is anger, let us sow forgiveness,
Where there is doubt, let us sow faith,
Where there is despair, let us sow hope,
Where there is sadness, let us sow joy.

The funny things is, you know, I usually remember to use that prayer only when I’m feeling rotten; when I’m feeling good, it slips out of my mind, along with every other spiritual need.

But this time I remembered it even though I felt good, and I matched the words to the rhythm of my breath in a way I’d never thought of before, a discovery, because a discovery, readers of mine, doesn’t have to bring forth a new continent or unleash a new force of nature, it can unleash nothing more powerful than a few words addressed to an unknown hearer.

And after ten minutes or so of that, my dear people, I was able to drop the words, to go beneath them and with silent brain follow my breath and fall into a deep – alas, not the deepest, for there were still debts to pay and manuscripts to crank out at top speed for eagerly clamoring, beseeching editors – but all in all, I must admit, a fairly deep and respectable trance.

You see, Solzhenitsyn could never have made me feel like that.


February 06, 2006

Mr. Gobley: Really Pro-Life

This weekend Mr. Gobley posted a poem in response to an anecdote about a teenage girl who threatened suicide. I think it deserves to be passed around and shown to anyone else who might feel similar urges.

My Science Fair Project

I spent most of this weekend working on my elementary school science fair project – fifth grade, to be precise. It was a field study of the feral parakeets who nest in the tops of the light towers on the university athletic fields in our neighborhood. They may be descended from released pet parakeets or from South American parakeets who migrated north or from a group of crated birds who escaped from JFK Airport in 1967. I first saw them a couple of years ago and told my son I thought it would be a great science fair project, but he wasn’t convinced. This year he finally agreed with me, and about a month before the project deadline he agreed to accompany me to the fields as I performed my observations.

I discovered a good half-dozen nests on those towers –- big, long, rectangular nests made of twigs, with several pairs of birds in each nest – and I called attention to significant activity as my helpful son jotted down notes. After a number of repeat visits, I worked mainly at home, suggesting content for an introductory essay as well as finding information sources about the birds. I edited, typed, and proofread the notes and the essay. I also typed up a list of references in which I was listed as a helper. Then came time to lay out the report on display board, a task my wife took over with our son’s sometimes eager, sometimes anguished participation. My wife was otherwise occupied through most of the project, though, because she had a science fair project of her own to work on – for third grade.

This was some weekend of hard schoolwork! I learned a lot about how to stick to a task even though I wanted to go outside and play. Tomorrow we’ll hand in the parakeet project, and next weekend it will be judged.

I hope I win first place!


February 03, 2006

Two Sketches of Sameness

If you happen by McDonald’s on a Thursday morning, Agent 95 will be the one with an Egg McMuffin meal and milk, Agent 97 will be the one with hotcakes (no sausage) and milk, and I’ll be the one sitting at their table with a sausage biscuit and orange juice. It’s a ritual we’ve instituted, and many weeks we see the same people there: the burly man taking his two daughters to private school; the clean, articulate homeless woman at the corner table holding court with homeless men; and the Mexican-American counter workers, always making me repeat the word “milk” in my Yankee accent because I didn’t say “coffee.” Agent 97 always putting on too much syrup and almost spilling it off the Styrofoam plate, and always cutting pieces so large he has to struggle not to spit them out. Agent 95 always eating the hash browns first and leaving a quarter of his sandwich, a bite-marked crescent.

I looked at us and asked, “Do you think we’ll ever order anything different?”

“Not likely,” said 95.

“I doubt it,” said 97. “Maybe if we enter a parallel universe.”

And they resumed the same excited conversation as every other time, about the powers of video game characters and the current Happy Meal toys.

2. Happy Groundhog Day
I received a mass “Happy Groundhog Day” email yesterday from someone who’s known my family and me recreationally for half a dozen years. It contained a link to an admiring critical essay about the movie Groundhog Day, a favorite of mine and of almost everyone who’s seen it. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray wakes up every morning to find that it’s still February 2nd, as it was the day before. Trapped in a nightmare, he tries to change fate and make a new day arrive, but something always goes wrong – until the happy ending.

I emailed a thank-you, and the sender replied, “For some reason I was thinking of you when I sent it to everyone, and you’re the first one to email me back.”

Of course, I thought. My life is the same every day: I try to coexist with myself and my loved ones, I try to do my tasks to make a living and keep up a household, I try to form a few simple sentences into a clear picture. And I took the thought with me for a little while as I went about those tasks.

But who am I kidding, and who is Groundhog Day kidding? Nothing ever stays the same.

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February 02, 2006

Synchronicity: The Psalm-Reader and the Peacenik

Does synchronicity seek out people who believe in it, the way lightning seeks a lightning rod? Or do they, seeking it, find it where it isn’t, like prospectors deceived by the glint of sunlight on sand?

Here’s a true anecdote I heard of that happened in Austin just a couple of days ago:

A young woman, a convert to a rather rigid fundamentalist version of Christianity, was sitting in her apartment reading Psalms. Suddenly she felt a powerful, almost overwhelming impulse: something inside her was telling her she had to go out and head downtown. She walked downtown and came upon a peace rally, where she began talking to a man about her experience. He, a religious believer of a different kind, began talking to her about the cause of peace, and she became an enthusiastic participant in the rally. Almost immediately, they struck up a nonsexual mentor-protegee relationship, and with his encouragement the brimstone wrathfulness of her beliefs is softening, opening up room for something bigger and more loving. He sees it – perhaps they both do – as a God-given opportunity for cult deprogramming.

Now, there’s no reason to postulate a mystical or supernatural force behind this in order to call it synchronicity. Let’s assume that the young woman went out of her apartment for perfectly natural psychological reasons: she was bored and frustrated, she sensed something unkind and unfulfilling and unconvincing in her sectarian faith, and she was too young to sit at home alone all evening reading Psalms, so she got up and took a walk. But being of a supernatural inclination, she attributed it to an unseen mystical force. Then, by chance, she met a man who was ready to pull stray souls into his magnetic field, ready to make a convert out of someone’s previous convert.

If it hadn’t happened, no one would have been the wiser. But it did happen, and so they were wiser.

Let’s say that statistically it was more likely not to have happened; but in this case probability took the less likely route, and something meaningful happened.

My point is that events with the potential for life-changing meaning occur all the time, but for the most part it is the people who are already open to such meaning who find it. The task of being human is to find meaning. Some people overdo it, and crash into omens everywhere, and, veering from one half-glimpsed sign to another, remain permanently off course. But equally sad never to see such signs, and never know what wondrous voyages you could have taken while walking down the street.

The choice between believing it’s synchronicity and believing it’s coincidence doesn’t have to be exclusive. Etymologically the two words mean much the same thing. The young woman’s experience was a co-incidence, an occurrence of two events together, and it was a syn-chronicity, a joining together at the same time.

It’s like playing the lottery: the chances of coincidence between your lottery number and the winning number are small, but if you don’t pick a number they’re nonexistent. To find any gold at all, you may have to be decived by a lot of glints of sunlight.


February 01, 2006

Lifeboats and Mentors

A month ago my reading list was a scholar’s recreation, leisurely and enticing, the equivalent of a boat ride on the Thames: indulging my anglophilia, I had an end-table’s worth of Pepys and Sir Thomas Browne, of Langland and Spenser, of Boswell’s Johnson and Peter Ackroyd’s London that I planned would keep me busy for at least a year. Those books are still here smiling at me, like friends calling me to a badminton game, but I’ve set them aside because something’s happened – the ship struck something, the deckside games are abandoned.

New books appear on top of the stack: Thich Nhat Hanh’s Taming the Tiger Within, James Hillman’s InterViews and ReVisioning Psychology. These books are my lifeboats. They were recommended to me by a suddenly dear friend and spirit brother whom I’ll call Zack. (The Hillmans were simultaneously recommended by a steadfast blogfriend whom I thank again.)

Zack is someone I’ve wanted to be friends with for a long time, but never got close to in the past because of differences in our habits, temperaments, obsessions. A couple of years older than me, he’s had experiences that make me shudder. I’m not going to tell you much of his story, because first of all I haven’t asked his permission, and second he’s in the process of telling in himself in memoiristic sketches that will someday make a true and moving book. Suffice it to say that after a childhood of multiple abuses and a stint in the Marines, he became converted to nonviolence and devoted his working life to activism in the causes of peace and economic justice, until he made an unexpected turnaround and became a serious student of religion. He and his wife moved away from Austin a couple of years ago, then broke up (not without a great deal of tenderness and regret), and one day this fall I found him knocking on my door, telling me he’d tried several times before with no answer but had persisted for reasons he himself didn’t completely understand. He came into my house and told me of his past and present life, and wept. The weeping was part of a new healing in him, and it was an act he was justly proud of and something he does as unashamedly, and publicly, as he uses profanity. He lives in the countryside now and we didn’t see each other again till last month, but when we did, the experience was equally moving and we looked each other in the eye and said we loved each other.

That was the day before my big explosion. I remember talking to him in his car: the subject of suicide came up in the context of someone he knew, and I said I didn’t think I would ever have the nerve to do that, aside from the fact that I was thoroughly contented and had overcome the demons that plagued my youth. The next day, I came very close to committing marital suicide. Zack learned about it as you did: from my blog.

Yesterday the two of us met for breakfast and talked about everything we had time for; and it’s going to become a Tuesday morning ritual, my Tuesdays with Zack. He recommends meditation practices to me; I get the name of his therapist; I listen to his stories and encourage him in his writing. He’s big on eye contact: look at yourself straight on in the mirror, he tells me, for as long as you can (something I’ve never managed to do for more than half a minute in the past); sit hand in hand with your spouse and look into each other’s eyes till you weep yourselves out. He’s “not being prescriptive” toward me, he says self-mockingly, but it’s okay, I can use wise prescriptions these days. Zack has taken me on as a mission, and we both marvel that we came along for each other at this time.

I’ve never really had a mentor. I was the oldest of three brothers, and I was effectively propagandized against looking to my father for guidance; an older brother was something I sorely lacked. A couple of teachers and professors tried to reach out to me in high school and college, but at that age I saw all authorities, especially teachers, as enemies – my father was a teacher. Now, in middle age, I amazes me that I’ve learned how to make friends with men whose differences from me become, not causes for disdain, but starting points for fellowship. There are at least three men in this world who are a bit older than me and who, we’ve told each other, are brothers of mine, and, more than once in each case, we’ve said we love each other.

Zack himself had a pivotal experience with a mentor just a week or two ago. His older hippie buddy, now in his seventies, drove in from halfway across the continent to cadge sympathy, in a life that has turned out to be a lonely, aged version of the stoner of thirty years ago. Zack, seeing exactly what he didn’t want to turn into, sent his old friend away.

Zack, a wounded healer, is working toward to setting aside his myth of his own victimhood. He tells me that he sees his life — a life of decades-long posttraumatic stress — as a blessing through and through. Goodness pervades the universe, he tells me; evil is weak, and all manner of things will be well. We are not who we think we are, we are not just our personalities: “Richard Cohen” is a real thing to be cherished, yes, but when that character learns to step aside, the divine will enter and speak.

Listening, I know I need to hear this. I’m ready to do all kinds of things I’ve evaded for a long time: join groups, for instance, and really do therapy, and overcome skepticism, and maybe even admit that I believe in something. Mornings in a coffeehouse have become an adventure – just as they were in Pepys’ day.

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