Why Is America So Angry? (September 2013)
Shambhala Sun | September 2013
Why Is America So Angry?
Someday somebody will explain why we're all so mad these days. But for now, says SETH GREENLAND, let's consider what to do about it.
When the guy driving the late-model Volvo with a “War Is Not the Answer” bumper sticker gave me the finger, I knew America had taken a wrong turn. The behavior of this hostile L.A. hippie represented more than a traffic kerfuffle. A Volvo with that kind of bumper sticker is a signifier: college graduate, votes Democratic, listens to NPR, and will think about moving to Canada if a Republican becomes president, or at least attend a dinner party where another guest will talk about it. In other words, we are not dissimilar, and we’re reasonable people, aren’t we, this paragon of liberalism and I? And here he was, my sociocultural doppelgänger, thrusting his middle finger at me, bespectacled, professorial face contorted in rage. Yes, I had accidentally cut him off on Olympic Boulevard—He was in my blind spot, Your Honor!—but did the sixties not happen? Did he not at some point also own a vinyl copy of Sweet Baby James? Are we not brothers?
From the perspective of a blue state resident, it’s easy—and facile—enough to ascribe the anger percolating in America to the political ascendancy of the right. The enviable market share of Fox News and the conservative monopoly of AM talk radio all speak to their dominion. But this is misleading. Perhaps the manner in which they express their rage is more colorful (thank you, Tea Party costume department), but, as my Olympic Boulevard encounter illustrates, anger is everywhere. People talk about the mainstream media’s sense of misguided fairness that makes them treat both sides equally, but here is a fact: America is furious.
The left became unhinged when George W. Bush was elected. Admittedly, given the Florida recount, the worst recession in sixty years, and the most foolish American war since, well, ever, there was something to be angry about. But the hatred expressed toward him was profound; it felt new and stronger than the opprobrium heaped on Reagan when he was in office. Interestingly, even with all of the anger toward Bush, the left pretty much stayed home while he was in the White House. There were a few economic demonstrations and some antiwar activity, but it paled compared to how people hit the streets during, say, the Vietnam era.
Charles Krauthammer dubbed this Bush Derangement Syndrome (BDS)— basically ascribing all the world’s ills to the president— and it has become deeper, crazier, and more active now that the virus has migrated from left to right and its symptoms are projected onto President Obama. How else to explain the Tea Partiers, who had no problem with Bush’s vast spending, claiming Obama’s fiscal habits are a danger to the republic? Or the characterization of this barely left-of-center politician who has treated Wall Street with kid gloves as some kind of socialist class warrior and aspiring tyrant? This epic level of anger is most visible on the level of national politics, but it has trickled all the way to the bottom. By bottom I am referring not only to the guy in the Volvo who gave me the finger but also to the comments section of any website that allows them. The Internet has enabled the anger, allowing it to spin like a Catherine wheel, spreading toxicity everywhere.
Why is America so angry?
Someday, someone will write a book about how we arrived at American apoplexy, but for now let’s be more forward-looking\ and consider what some people are doing about it other than consuming massive levels of prescription medication.
One of the things they’re doing is meditating. This explains the rise of what is known as applied mindfulness, which offers practices to develop the capacity to deal with their anger skillfully. People from many religious backgrounds have engaged with this work without giving up their own spiritual identities. They can celebrate the High Holidays and still meditate each morning without annoying their rabbis. They can sing hymns and eat fruitcake at Christmas while still attending their sitting group. Chances are you or someone you know practices a form of meditation. Major universities are researching the effects of these practices. Young children are being taught mindfulness, and not just the ones on Adderall.
Apart from scale, anger is no different on the national level than it is in preschool.
When little Emma takes Jacob’s toy truck, Jacob’s anger springs from his thwarted need to possess the object. He is thinking about what he wants, or thinks he wants. Emma, of course, is thinking about what she wants. A fundamental Buddhist belief is that all people want to be happy and, at root, all of our actions, even angry ones, come from that fact. So this kid thinks the truck will make him happy, when really what is probably going to make him happier in the long run is having a friendly relationship with Emma.
Mindfulness, as it happens, is a remarkably effective way to deal with anger. Anger is about my needs. When you get angry, here’s what you’re really screeching: What about ME? The Tea Partiers who hate Obama are really upset because THEIR ideas about economics are so much better, and why doesn’t he see that?
The hostile left-wing Volvo driver might be shocked to hear it, but he’s not so different from Rush Limbaugh: both lack a filter with which to screen their bile. Meditation practice provides this filter by training us to be nonreactive, to consider our actions, to “check in” and directly experience how we feel physically and emotionally before acting on it. They teach us to see the larger world and our place in it more clearly, and to experience what we are feeling with some degree of awareness.
We don’t need to become Buddhists to deal with our anger but everyone can benefit from what Buddhists have learned from millennia of training. These practices are not a panacea or a cure, but a process through which we learn to see our emotions as dynamic and changing. By undertaking this work, we are less likely to give the finger to the next hapless driver who accidentally cuts us off. Or start a war.
That’s right, Volvo Guy. I’m talking to you.
Seth Greenland is the author of three novels, including The Angry Buddhist, and was a writer-producer on the HBO series Big Love.
IIlustration by André Slob
Q&A: Margaret Cho (September 2013)
Shambhala Sun | September 2013
The Funniest Thing Is a Deep Truth
Q&A with comedian Margaret Cho.
Margaret Cho is Teri in Lifetime’s hit show Drop Dead Diva; she’s a vaudevillian
burlesque dancer who sambaed and waltzed for Dancing with the Stars; she’s a longtime anti-racist, anti-bullying, and gay rights activist. And then there’s her main gig: side-splitting and boundary-pushing stand-up comedy. Her latest show, Mother, takes an untraditional look at motherhood and explores Cho’s sexuality. She says being bisexual is an odd experience: there’s really no representation of it in the media, so she has to make it up as she goes along. “Nothing is sacred,” Cho has quipped about her show, “least of all this Mother.”
Despite the raunchy streak, Cho’s comedy is at heart about compassion. I became interested in interviewing her when I came across her blog post on tonglen, a Buddhist meditation practice that involves breathing in the suffering of others and breathing out compassion and peace. As she describes it, “You’re like an air conditioning filter for the pain and suffering on Earth.”
What was it like growing up as a first-generation Korean American? What’s really beautiful, what’s really funny, and what does it take to be a good actor? These are some of the questions Cho tackled in our interview.
Like most women—maybe most people—you’ve struggled with your body image. Have you reached some peace with that?
I have not reached any peace with that, although now I’m beyond caring, which is maybe peace. I am so sick of thinking about it. There are so many other things that I would rather do than worry about my size. You get bored after forty-whatever years of fretting. You get, like, I’ve got to stop worrying about this because there’s no solution.
How would you define true beauty?
I think it’s peace or tranquility, and also compassion and kindness. It’s being real or authentic. Laughing is an expression of beauty because it can’t be faked. Something is funny when it’s deeply truthful. The funniest thing is a deep truth that is undeniable.
Have you always been funny?
I don’t know, but when I saw that people did comedy and that it was a job, I realized that it would be my job. I just knew that that was what I was supposed to do.
How did you get into it?
I started doing comedy when I was about fourteen. I had a teacher who encouraged me, who saw something in me, and she signed me up for sets at comedy clubs. And then I just kept going. I was in a rush to be an adult. I did not enjoy that period of being an awkward teenager. I did not enjoy school. I did not enjoy my peers. I wanted to be around people who I felt were creative. I kind of escaped my childhood by becoming a comedian.
You seem to be really fearless in your comedy, not afraid of crossing a line or upsetting someone. Where does that bravery come from?
Well, I don’t think privacy is that important. As human beings, we’re capable of experiencing all kinds of suffering. It’s more valuable to share that than maintain this guise of privacy where we have to keep secrets from each other. It really doesn’t matter anyway. Everybody has a body. Everybody has emotions. That experience is more helpful to share than it is to hide. Privacy is something that people want to use to protect themselves, when it’s not an actual protective mechanism. We’ve all felt the same, so we’re never really revealing anything.
You have channeled a lot of very painful experiences into your art. Do you think that there’s truth in the idea of the tortured artist? Does someone have to suffer to be able to create something great?
Everybody suffers, regardless of who we are. If you can utilize your suffering in your art, that’s a great way to express it, but I don’t think anybody is exempt from suffering. It’s the human experience. There is always suffering, but there’s always joy too. So I don’t think that there’s any need for an artist to be tortured because that’s just an identity that you adopt. There really isn’t anything that anyone can do to avoid suffering. It is part of being alive. It’s a value judgment even to call something suffering.
A lot of people who might not consider themselves traditional comedy fans attend your shows. Why do you think that is?
I think that people who come see me are generally people who feel unsafe in comedy clubs. Comedy can be very sexist. It can be very racist or rely on racial stereotypes. It can be very homophobic. It can be very hurtful, used to put people down or hurt people’s feelings, and I’ve never really bought into that. I think that’s what people like about what I do. It’s not about resorting to things like racism, sexism, or homophobia, or hurting people in order to get some kind of idea across.
Your dad writes joke books in Korean, but you don’t find his jokes funny. Why not?
I think he’s a bit wordy. His jokes are in story form and they’re
And why doesn’t he think yours are funny?
He thinks they’re too dirty and that I shouldn’t be talking about sex like that. My parents never told me where babies come from, so they’re under the impression that I don’t know yet. They would rather that I don’t talk so much about sex because they think that I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Can you speak Korean?
No, I can’t. My father was deported from the United States when I was four, and when he returned he was determined that my brother and I not have any kind of Korean accent whatsoever, so that we would not be perceived as foreigners. He would speak to us in Korean, but we would have to answer in English. It was so traumatizing that although I can understand the language very well, I cannot speak it at all. My father now has his citizenship and it’s impossible for him to be deported, and I was born here, so I’m not going to get deported. But I feel like if I start speaking Korean someone is going to get deported.
You often mimic your parents’ accents in your stand-up. Do they mind that?
No, they like it. They think it’s really funny.
How do you keep your routine fresh when you’re doing a lot of shows?
Shows are really a dialogue between you and the audience. In live performance, there’s such a level of unpredictability that you have to be so on top of it and really engaged. My shows tend to change a lot every day.
That means the shows are fresh because they really are fresh?
Yes, I think so.
You act as well now. What do you think is the key to being a good actor?
I think it’s really about being able to be compassionate and slip into somebody else’s skin. To be able to understand what it is to look at their life from the inside.
No Time to Meditate? (September 2013)
Shambhala Sun | September 2013
No Time to Meditate?
We think we don't have time, but we do. TINA WELLING on the real reason we don't meditate.
Recently I attended a nine-day Vipassana meditation retreat. The schedule included small group interviews with the guiding teacher. Seven of us sat in a circle and took turns talking about our experiences at the retreat and our meditation practice at home. We each had different experiences of the retreat, but every one of us told the same basic story about practice at home: no time to meditate.
Nora was attending the retreat to pick up her sitting practice after ignoring it for a couple of years. “I don’t know what happened,” she said, “but I haven’t sat much since I last came on retreat. I’d made a special promise to myself then that I would sit every evening for thirty minutes, but once I left here, I just couldn’t find the time. I hope I do better after this retreat.”
Each of us reported how we had failed to maintain a regular sitting practice due to lack of time. I was no exception. But the nice thing about group interviews is that there’s always someone you can tag as being worse at finding time than you.
For me it was Ralph, the longtime owner of a regional country club. I’ve attended retreats with him for six years. Ralph retired four years ago, specifically to have more time for his practice. Still, he reported, he couldn’t fit in a daily sit. Ralph had come to each of the sits during the retreat so far and promptly fallen asleep. I could hear his breathing from across the room. He had done the same thing during the years he was running his club. Clearly, the guy was as exhausted by his retirement as he was by his work.
During the interview session, Ralph said, “I can’t find time to sit at home. Here I’ve been sleeping during the sits and it feels good. Like I’m in a safe place, napping like a little kid, and resting deeply.” (Most little kids don’t snore, but I didn’t mention that.) No Internet access or cell phone signal penetrated the granite mountains of the canyon holding our retreat center. Was that what Ralph had meant by “safe”? Safe from interruptions and demands? I was a bit startled to hear his confession; even more startled to hear what seemed like a justification. As if this sleep was what we all hoped for from Ralph. As if that were the reason the sangha rented the hunting lodge, draped Tibetan scarves over the dead-animal heads mounted on the walls, lit candles, and turned a place that celebrated death into one that honored life.
Yeah, I felt smug.
At least I didn’t sleep.
Though if I’d been more honest, I’d have confessed to the group how much of my meditation time—both on retreat and at home—is taken up with plotting new novels. Plotting doesn’t make noise like sleeping can. No snoring is involved. I did once burst into a muffled guffaw at a funny line of dialogue I’d thought up, though. I pretended it was a cough I couldn’t hold back.
On my better mornings at home, I wake and let my dogs, Zoe and Elliot, outside for a minute and then bring them into my writing cabin. There I have my meditation cushion and shawl tucked beneath the east window. The pups curl up at my knees and wait until I bring my hands together before my chin and dip my head, marking the end of my sit. Then it’s a crazy rush for the door and the breakfast bowls.
However, I’d hate to count how many mornings at home my dogs and I go straight to the breakfast bowls, do not pass meditation cushion. I hang my excuse on Zoe and Elliot: they’re just too hungry for me to put off breakfast forty minutes because of meditation.
My dogs haven’t disputed that decision yet.
We meditators often complain about not having time to sit, and when I do, I often think of the poet William Stafford. Whether he was home or traveling, Bill woke every morning at four or five to write. I accompanied him years ago on one of his poetry tours in the West and heard him read many of those poems that arose from his early morning routine. In his book of essays, Crossing Unmarked Snow, he admits that when people complained to him that they couldn’t find time to write, “I have to avert my eyes, not to look accusingly at them.” Because he knew that all of us have the same amount of time he did.
I imagine spiritual teachers feel the same way when they hear us complain, “I just can’t find time to meditate.”
After the group interview, I realized that I had no basis for my smugness about Ralph. I couldn’t know what was going on in his life or psyche, nor in anyone else’s. And if the retreat gave Ralph deep rest and renewed Nora’s meditation vows once again, I was happy their needs were met. I hoped my own need to be steadier with my meditation schedule would be met as well.
As the retreat continued, I realized that time was a false issue. The struggle is really about something else. Typically, one part of us wants to meditate and another part wants another thing. In my case: to head straight for the breakfast bowl.
When I fell in love with my husband, I was not divided about my goal to spend time with him. And I’ve never heard anyone else complain, “Gee, I just can’t find the time to be in love.” So I decided that perhaps sitting could be viewed as falling in love with wakefulness. I liked the idea. Once a day or more I could give over my time and attention to just that: me, awake.
The problem was in the unconscious messages to myself that suggested I should be doing something other than meditating. Our culture supports “doing,” not “being.” Like many of us, I came from a tradition in which meditating was an alien act that suggested rejection of the religion of my family and society. Even now, decades after our country has been introduced to meditation, too little is understood about it. As a meditator, I have been charged with everything from seeking escape to worshipping elephants. When you’re in the minority, it takes an extra push to step over the bump of being different. This is the value of communities\ and group retreats.
In the end, I decided it would be a good idea to examine my personal issues regarding time. A couple of hooks rose right away. One, I was a dreamer as a child—I still am, although I get to call myself a novelist now—so I was often caught staring out windows and reprimanded by teachers for “wasting time.” Another was a phrase my father often used to hurry me along as I was growing up. “Time is money,” he’d say. Well, it’s not. And I’ll have to work with that.
During our final sit on the last day of retreat, I wished for each of us to find our way out of this struggle with time and, as with falling in love, view our sitting practice
as one of the great joys of life.
Tina Welling is the author of Writing Wild: A Creative Partnership with Nature, which will be published in the spring of 2014. She leads writing and journaling workshops wherever invited.
The Great Vow (September 2013)
Shambhala Sun | September 2013
The Great Vow
Our motivation determines our success on the spiritual path, says SAKYONG MIPHAM RINPOCHE. And the greatest of all is the vow to save all sentient beings.
In Buddhism, it is motivation that defines what kind of practitioner we are. Simply put, the greater our motivation on the path, the greater our potential.
Traditionally, there are said to be three kinds of motivation: small, medium, and large. Within the small, there are three categories: the small of the small, the middle of the small, and the great of the small. This is also a way of describing our evolution as practitioners, and a teaching about how we relate to our lives.
There is motivation in whatever we do. In general, small motivation is when our goal is simply to be happy and content in this lifetime. When this is our motivation, we are not particularly concerned about what happened before we were born or what happens after we die. Our goal is simply to make ourselves comfortable in this lifetime.
If our motivation is the small of the small, we are worldly people who are not engaged in a spiritual path of any kind. The world is the way it is, and there is no need for further exploration. We’re here and we’re going to try to have a good life. Our thinking revolves around getting what we want, and we use purely worldly means to make ourselves content and happy.
If our motivation is a little bigger than that—the middling of the small—we add some spiritual elements to the project of making ourselves content. Some interest or faith arises; perhaps happiness is deeper than just getting what we want from the world. There is something about hearing spiritual teachings that quenches our thirst, so we turn our mind in that direction.
However, our basic motivation is still wanting to be satisfied in this life, and we are very much interested in worldly endeavors.
People with the large of the small motivation operate within the same basic framework—we are primarily interested in personal happiness. However, we’ve seen the pitfalls of samsara. We’ve discovered that on the wheel of suffering, all our attempts to make ourselves happy are thwarted. Passing through one relationship after another, being sick, losing friends and family to death—all these have opened our eyes. And we realize it’s not just us. Pain, suffering, and karma are the basic nature of samsara.
At this point, we are starting to be concerned about the next lifetime. We see there is more to life than just satisfying our immediate desires. We think, “At first I just cared about this lifetime, but maybe there’s something more than that. If that’s true, maybe I should start practicing. If I am the product of a previous lifetime, maybe I should do something now that will benefit future lifetimes.” We do not want to plant bad karmic seeds, so we stop creating situations that take us in that direction. We no longer denigrate our mind and body or cause harm to others.
At this point, we have entered the medium motivation. The cyclic nature of samsara has taught us a few lessons. It’s not that samsara is always bad, but it goes on forever. Things may be good for a while, but then they get worse, so the mind can never really rest. So we are intent on getting out of that cycle. We understand that it inevitably brings pain, and we seek liberation from the round of birth and death. However, at this stage we do not care for others in the way that we care for ourselves. We see suffering, we have renunciation, and we seek liberation—but only for ourselves.
Finally, we have great motivation. Seeing that all sentient beings suffer in the same ways that we do, we seek release from the misery of cyclic existence not only for ourselves but for them as well. We realize that only people who are free from confusion themselves can help others achieve ultimate happiness. We take the welfare of all beings as our responsibility. We strive for unsurpassed enlightenment as the means to bring about that same enlightenment in all sentient beings. This is the view, meditation, and conduct of the Mahayana. This motivation is what it means to be a bodhisattva.
In this culture, it can be hard for us to believe in the reality of multiple lifetimes. However, we can ask ourselves, “What if it is true?” Exploring the possibility of past and future lifetimes begins to shift how we look at things. We see how expansive the mind can be. We have seen the horrors of samsara, and the whole situation has become very vivid. We ask ourselves, “Where am I coming from? What do I think is real? Do I think samsara is real, and do I really think it is going to last forever?” Unless we ask questions like this now, we won’t know what to believe at the moment of death. So we turn our mind toward doing something in this lifetime that will help the next life.
In meditation there’s sometimes a tendency to regard thinking as no good. However, contemplative meditation, in which we focus on particular concepts such as karma or suffering, can change how we think, literally. By contemplating motivation, we slowly but surely change our mental and emotional approach to what we are trying to accomplish in life.
If we get up from our meditation session and find nothing has changed, we have to ask ourselves if we are doing the practice correctly. There is no point to practice if we continue thinking in the same way.
Since we’re bound to be thinking anyway, we might as well be thinking about motivation. That can be very constructive, because as we contemplate our motivation, it grows bigger. The bigger the motivation, the bigger our heart and mind become. As our motivation grows, we become less speedy, less needy, less determined; we’re a little less worried about everything going wrong. We’re able to help others. Whether we believe in past and future lifetimes or not, it is always true that the bigger the motivation, the greater our potential for true happiness.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s new book is The Shambhala Principle: Discovering Humanity’s Hidden Treasure, published by Harmony.
Photo by Liza Matthews
In a Room Beside the Sea (September 2013)
In a Room Beside the Sea
Outside there's a radiant Greek sun, but inside there's work to do. What happens when BONNIE FRIEDMAN opens the shutters?
“Hurry up!” shouted the cicadas.
The whole island rang with their celestial clamor, the endless choirs of them sounding like a million stopwatches being wound in front of a million microphones.
“You’re alive! You’re alive!” they clattered at me. This island was famous for these chorusing insects, as it was for its honey, which Herodotus himself had acclaimed. But I knew of neither when I’d agreed to come. I had work—work that had nothing to do with this place—that I desperately needed to complete. It was my tenure year. If I didn’t publish a book, I would lose my job.
Still, who could turn down a month in Greece? So every morning I sat with the blue shutters latched closed, hunched in a darkened room beside the unseen sea. There I tried to summon the Bronx, where my book was set.
Discipline had always been my strong suit. Yet I couldn’t help hearing, through the air conditioning, the serenade of the cicadas. It grew louder and louder—at their peak they could rival a blowtorch—and then, in an instant, fell to a stage whisper. Always, though, they maintained that distinctly upsetting urgency, which also possessed the rooster one town over who screamed his guts out as if we were asleep while our houses were on fire. “Cock-a-doodle-do!” he screeched all day long. “It’s day!” Didn’t we hear?
But I did hear! Yet I couldn’t tell what it meant I should do.
Did it mean I ought to devote myself all day long to my manuscript, which was all that stood between me and being fired from a truly excellent job the likes of which I would almost certainly never be offered again? Or did it mean I should get out and live, at least for a month, as if there were no tomorrow?
“You’re alive!” came the maddening scream as I sat at my desk, and I shook my head, flummoxed. Every day, I felt like I was living the day wrong.
At three I stepped out. The Greek sun flooded the white walls and floors and carried the scent of the sea. I immediately felt like an idiot. All this was going on, and I was in my cave, playing with shadows. This is reality, the sunlight seemed to say. Look! It was a radiance purer than any light I’d seen—purer than the sheen of Florida, the stark, caliper-precise air of Maine. I could have been out in that light, enjoying it, enjoying Greece!
One afternoon at three, I saw that the apples on the spindly tree opposite my door had grown. Could it be? We’d been here just two weeks! Still, they were the size of golf balls when we first came, and now they were as big as flashlight lenses. Also, the black kitten, who had been the size of a suitcase handle, was visibly bigger. Only the honeysuckle blossoms were unaltered, and the bulky grandmother in her long dress who sat outside on a chair, smiling, saying, “Kalimera!” as if she thought I spoke Greek.
In the Bronx, where I grew up, I’d never seen things grow. The tree leaves would be big. At another time they would be tiny, or gone. Now I stared at the apples when I opened the door each afternoon, and my eyes searched out the black kitten, which the bulky grandmother fed as if he were a chicken—a scattering of kibble on the flagstones. If we came back next year (we should be so lucky), would he remember us? (I secretly fed him tidbits each night, and he came running now whenever he saw me.) In a year, would the kitten we loved have vanished, subsumed into a bland black cat of ordinary size and girth? An odd sentiment possessed me as I walked across the courtyard; I felt that it would be entirely reasonable to devote the next two weeks to simply staring at this cat while he grew.
Even the sea had changed during the course of those two weeks, growing warmer, easier to slip into, ever more beckoning. My husband and I found a different beach almost every day and plunged into the ever-moving sea. At night we ate tomato salad and drank the white wine sold everywhere on the island, and dark fell as fast as a yanked curtain. “Beware the quick fall of night,” advised a local walk book. The gigantic sunlit hours were beguiling, dangerous, promising to last much longer than they in fact did. Hiking in the countryside, one could easily be stranded in the wilds, in the dark. We eyed the sun warily whenever we set out on foot during the shimmering afternoons.
By the time I lay in bed at night, exhausted, I had the feeling I’d accomplished a very great deal simply from having swum and smelled and seen, despite the fact that the Bronx book wasn’t going particularly well. It was about my parents, and somehow I couldn’t figure out the right ratio of scene to introspection. The proportions were always off. By bedtime, though, a feeling of well-being pervaded. The moon one night was the precise saffron color of the sheen inside the honeydew melons that grew on the island. It was enormous, swollen in the sky, and then a few nights later it was a wisp. One night I became a girl strapped to a plank headed quickly toward the tenure buzz saw. How it whined in my ears! When I woke up, I realized I was hearing the cicadas singing.
At the start of the third week, I realized that if I didn’t write down what had happened the day before, I would begin to lose it. In a few days, its details would be gone.
And so I began my workday noting the day before: the tiny white church of Agia Sophia erected inside a cave high in the mountainside; a single bat winging overhead and the icons staring with enormous, commanding, compassionate eyes that seemed to see into your depths. The mountain pool we swam in, where spiders hung in the vacant air. The Athenian man with the curlicue beard who showed us his garden, encouraging us to inhale the aroma of the tomatoes. “Even though they are green! You see?” he demanded, as if the goodness of life were implicit in that scent.
All this I wrote, and other things. Every day there was more Greece, less Bronx. Some days there was no Bronx at all. “You are ruining your life!” some part of me screamed, desperate as those cicadas. “You need to be working on your Bronx book!” “I refuse to lose this life experience. I accept the consequences,” the rest of me replied, a trifle glibly, for I was afraid even though I’d made my choice.
Some lines from Kazantzakis came to me: “I should fill my soul with flesh. I should fill my flesh with soul.” Yes, I felt, now I understood what he meant. Quarantined from the experiences of the body, the mind becomes arid—and prone to self-deception and bewildering self-doubt.
I’d always lived as if temporal things were of secondary importance: the haziness or glitter of the stars, the precise taste of cherries on my tongue, or my 91-yearold mother’s voice on the phone (for I called her just twice, for a few minutes, in all that month), exclaiming, “Oh, I love you! I love you!” over and over. What a fool I was. My Bronx book could be no more eloquent than that! Why had I made it so complicated?
The final week I quit the writing desk at noon, leaping up, eager to get going. Toward dusk that last week, after a blazing day, I came upon a bulky figure rinsing herself off with a hose toward the back of the property. It was the old grandmother! There she stood in her one-piece, her hair streaming. She’d gone swimming in the sea! She gave me a radiant smile that I could hardly return, I was so moved. She’d gone swimming! She’d gone swimming! It was as if my own sister, immobilized by MS for many years, had actually gotten up and enjoyed! It was as if all those we think are lost to happiness still have a chance—and they will snatch it!
This was more beautiful than the kitten scarfing up the scraps of silvery fish I’d brought him, more beautiful even than the brimming moon itself completing its stately procession across the sky.
I was happy for the first time in years, I realized. All the tenure-track writing, with its endless second-guessing, had filled me with misery. But now a sense of peace and happiness welled up. Greece was giving me what I hadn’t known I lacked. Every day there was more Greece, less Bronx. Some days there was no Bronx at all. “You are ruining your life!” some part of me screamed.
I simply wrote what had happened the day before, and its significance seemed to stream through without my having to go searching. A certain loneliness that had haunted me for years, I noticed, had vanished.
I was aware that the lotus-eaters were natives of Greece, their story conveying the lure of these exquisite islands. Still, all that last week I fed myself on the native honey. Who cared if I developed a craving for it and couldn’t obtain it once home? “Today, today,” sang the cicadas, and I sang it too. Here was the very honey praised by Herodotus, its flavor due to the wild thyme that grows on the mountaintops. I was tasting what he’d tasted! It had a sequence of flavors: first rum, then blazing sweetness, then an herbal note. And the jar glowed like a lantern as I wrote, for I’d opened the shutters at last.
“All exotic places are alike,” said the man who ran the local gym. Perhaps they convey to the visitor the secret message that he or she most wants to hear. Mine had to do with discovering that I was part of life itself. I’d shut the door against that knowledge years earlier. No wonder I was writing a book about my parents. I wanted to have them forever. But now I saw with my own eyes that things really grew, and so, it followed, they must perish. This too was okay, although I’d shut my door years earlier precisely so I would never discover this.
The value of life is life, I suddenly felt. Darkness falls fast, after all. I recalled the enormous eyes of the icons in the cave, gazing outward, waiting to rendezvous with the traveler who set foot from the glare of day into the shadowy dark. I see those eyes even now, gazing and gazing at the beauty before them: the growing leaves at the mouth of the cave, the little bat, wheeling, the solitary traveler who, tired, worrying about the failing light, finally steps into the sacred darkness and finds himself or herself met by a compassionate, intimate gaze, as if nature itself were saying at every point, Don’t worry, you are not alone, I am one with you, you are part of the infinite, there is hope for you yet.
Bonnie Friedman is the author of The Thief of Happiness and Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life.
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