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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