Living with the Unknown in Ourselves

I was watching the Ken Burns documentary on Ernest Hemingway last night. In the second hour of the program, the narrator was describing the difficulties Hemingway had beginning his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. He had already published a critically acclaimed book of short stories, where each sentence was a work of art. Suddenly, he needed to shift to the length and breadth of detail a novel required. Hemingway told himself, write one true sentence. Then another and another. Which is what he did.

 

Hemingway was both a great artist surrounded by friends and family, as well as a solitary narcissist. There is both a loneliness and a luminosity to words. They can be used to mask as well as unmask, to torture or heal. We have to be totally alone in ourselves to write. Yet, words can fill us with a sense of connection and ecstasy. We might try to hold them to us as if they could warm our bodies with their heat. But when we do so, the words dissolve into air. It’s not the words themselves that warm us but the breath we give them as we speak and listen, and the paths to others they might reveal.

 

Two days ago, in the woods near the top of our hill, maybe 25 feet from a road, my wife and I came upon two circles in the earth. We had never seen these before. The bigger one was about 12 feet across, with a moss and stone foundation and one young oak tree growing inside it. Maybe it was once a silo. And the smaller circle, now a depression in the earth lined with rotted leaves and stones, was maybe once a well.

 

The more we looked, the more we found. There were stacks of old boards, maybe an old wall or roof. Further in the trees was a wood railing on an old porch attached to nothing and leading nowhere. It was like someone had built an entrance without knowing where it led. Even in a forest that we think we knew well, we were surprised. There were histories hidden here we had no knowledge of. What we didn’t know was way more prolific than what we did.

 

The night before we discovered the ruins, I had a dream. It started out understandably enough. I was outdoors at a party, a celebration, but no one was wearing a mask, not even me. I felt naked and more and more afraid. Everyone was acting as if there had never been or wasn’t now a pandemic raging in the land, or maybe they had somehow forgotten. Occasionally someone, usually a former student from when I taught secondary school, called out to me, inviting me to sit with them and talk. I waved and walked on, intent on getting out of there as quickly as I could. But I couldn’t. There were people everywhere.

 

Then everything changed. I was in a new dream, or the old one had transformed itself. I was watching a play, also outdoors. A young, attractive, strong looking woman came on stage. She looked Tibetan. The crowd heard her words, maybe the dream me also heard her. But me, the dreamer, did not. I heard no words, just saw her lips move.

 

Then she left the stage, to return wearing a huge mask….

 

To read the whole article, please go to The Good Men Project.

My Call Home

I celebrated my 19thbirthday in London. It was May 1966, the end of my freshman year at the University of Michigan. The end of the first year I had lived on my own, away from my family, friends and the lifestyle I had grown up with.

 

But I needed to go even further away. I bought a ticket on a flight chartered by the university, which left on May 15th, the day before my birthday. I didn’t have much money and had almost nothing planned, just a general idea of a route to follow, from London to Amsterdam, north to Denmark and Sweden. Then a flight south to Italy, hitchhike through southern France to Spain, and then back to France for a return flight from Paris. Almost four months of traveling with no travel partner, not even a room reserved to stay in while in London.

 

The world was different back then. Despite the assassination of President Kennedy almost three years earlier, the war in Vietnam and the burgeoning opposition to it, the civil rights and other movements, the culture and U. S. government seemed a little more stable then than it does now. The sense that something was off, or wrong, that big changes were needed both nationally and personally, was growing in so many of us, but we hadn’t yet realized what the growing pains meant.

 

All I knew was that my life felt set, predetermined by family and culture. It was a clear and linear progression from public school, to university, career and family, then old age and death. Death and vulnerability were walled away in time. Maybe today, in 2018, many students would be happy to feel their lives secure in such a progression, but all I wanted to do was break it. I wanted to feel free and to see the world outside the little space I already knew….

 

To read the whole story, please click on this link to Heart and Humanity magazine.

**The photo is of me with my brother and mother, in Ann Arbor, at the end of August, 1966, after returning from this trip. I didn’t hitch-hike with the duffel bag.

 

The Boy Who Thought He Was The Messiah

A story I wrote a few years ago:

I was in the third grade when I first thought I might be the Messiah. This was back in the fifties and I was attending one of those elementary schools in Queens, New York that had no name, only a number, PS 46 or 192 or 238. It was the usual type of building, red brick with bars on the windows.

 

The thought came to me soon after an incident in the morning assembly. The principal, like usual, had walked onto the stage at eighty thirty a. m., flanked by two of the oldest teachers in the school, and told us all to bow our heads as he got ready to read us a prayer. This was before the Supreme Court had outlawed this sort of bowing in schools.

 

Seated in the audience, I remembered being told in Hebrew School that Jewish people do not bow their heads, at all, to anyone, except in G-d’s own house and to Him only. Bowing outside of G-d’s house would be to acknowledge a god other than the Almighty.

 

Back then I thought of Him in a very spatial way. He was The Man Upstairs, looking down on us all. And even though I had never met Him, at least not face-to-face, I clearly wanted no trouble with Him. Sure, I was very curious. I mean, He was quite a celebrity and I wanted to know all the details about Him, like what He looked like and if He held a grudge.

 

But none of the answers I was given made any sense. The adults that I talked with obviously knew no more about Him than I did. So, I wouldn’t bow my head. My unbowed head attracted attention. I was taken to the principal’s office and my parents were called.

 

I remember sitting outside his office. The halls were empty, as everyone else was still in the assembly. Despite the isolation, I felt safe, because wasn’t G-d who inhabits the heavens and created the universe larger than a principal who inhabits a dusty eight by ten office? The principal was physical, someone I could touch and see, but who could touch G-d? Who could see eternity? My math teacher couldn’t even define ‘eternity.’ And especially to the limited view of an eight year old, this principal could be defined quite easily.

 

As students and teachers began to crash through the halls to their classrooms, his secretary rushed me into the principal’s office. The move was so abrupt as to be almost violent, and I began to wonder what it was about my action that had brought this on.

 

For a moment I faced doubt. My knees began to shake. I felt I was walking a tightrope of mind, stretched between what I assumed to be Heaven and what I feared to be Hell.

 

Then the principal entered. He tried to look angry and severe but it was too difficult a job for him. Confusion seemed more appropriate. “How could this eight year old boy,” he must have been thinking, “defy my authority, defy my whole idea of what should be happening, defy my whole notion of God?” He didn’t realize that we were talking of two different deities, his and mine. His, I could defy quite easily. But not mine, not the Almighty, Blessed Be He. He was Christian and I was Jewish and I would not let my religion be placed second to any other.

 

I must admit that the whole incident might have arisen from my looking around for something to act up about. You know how life is; it just goes by, day by day, and we read about exciting and courageous deeds that other people do but we don’t see them, not often, not first hand. And to live one? To live a heroic moment, to live as the Hero of G-d—how could I give up the opportunity?….

 

To read the whole story, go to Heart And Humanity magazine.