|Jan/Feb 2016 Salon|
I was walking down the Plymouth Road. The Rabbi was there too. The Rabbi is always there, even when he's not. We were walking down the Plymouth Road, having already arrived in Plymouth, and found ourselves still walking, walking in place. And the road deepened. The Plymouth Road opened up, until there was the way back and the way forward, and then, the way down and the way up. And it was all the same road.
And I panicked. I raged. We had arrived. There was no other place to go or to be, no matter how long I kept walking. We were closer to home than to lost. I watched myself parade before myself all up and down the road. The Poor Wayfaring Stranger. And the disguise was wearing thin. I was coming undone, but not entirely.
In the middle of the Plymouth Road there was a pearl of great price. And there was no way around it, there was no way over it. There was no way under it.
It just sat there in the middle of the road, at the intersection of the way back and the way forward. At the intersection of the way down and the way up. A caution. A warrant. A tease. A license.
I flung myself in the dust. I gnashed my teeth. I ripped at my clothing and cursed the day I was born. I made a spectacle of myself.
"There's no other way," the Rabbi said, "you're just going to have to swallow it."
I was walking down the Plymouth Road and I choked on what I had sold my entire life in trying to attain. I thrashed in the middle of the road, all rage and despair, in the dirt where everyone walked, and I heaved and I retched. It was impossible to reach, to grasp, to possess. I could not allow myself to move just one more inch. Here on the Plymouth Road.
I died quite theatrically in the arms of the Rabbi and was born again and then died, and then born again.
"You're still going to have to swallow it," he said with the eyes of a man of constant sorrow.
"Jesus Christ! You just can't cut a guy any slack, can you?"
"Language, Pilgrim," he said, "language".
It was an old joke, but it was comforting.
The pearl just sat there in the middle of the road.
It's hard to know if the times you are living in are particularly effed up or that you are just now, in the times you are living, noticing what has always been the case. We cannot pull ourselves up by our boot straps, because that is like climbing a ladder to bite yourself on the forehead.
Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav told a tale. It seems the entire harvest of a kingdom had become infected by a malignant toxin. All who ate of the crop became insane. The king and his vizier, alone, refrained from the eating of the bread of the flour made from the tainted harvest.
It soon became clear, however, that the distance between the king and his subjects, between sanity and insanity, kept the king from effective rule.
The king called his vizier and proposed to him a solution. They would both eat of the tainted crop and descend into madness—that they might relate and rule. But the king proposed that a mark should be made on the forehead of both the king and vizier—thereby, when they would look upon each other, they would remember that they were insane.
And so it goes.
We are living in the time of the plague. It is not particularly novel—we have all been raving for years—except to one who has bitten his own forehead by climbing a ladder.
Meanwhile, it's official, word's come down from the CDC, Deranged White People Syndrome has gone viral.
Given half the chance, in these times of froth and spittle, in which we live, these days of damnation and disease, cowardice and cupidity—in this particular America—I would abandon each and every responsibility. And yet, standing in my high pulpit each and every sabbath morn—a city on a hill cannot be hid—I inevitably, compulsively, search each and every forehead for some sign, some way back home, some Hail-Mary reminder.
That we are effing insane.
And me in the mirror of that high pulpit, bite marks on my forehead, still believing in sanity, two steps to the door ahead of judgement, one step ahead of the tar and feathers—without privilege nor alibi—am forever a prisoner of grace.
Just like Cain.
Your eyes snap wide open for an instant, and you spend the rest of your life pushing stones uphill trying to get those lids to just let the light in. And then you do your time in Rikers, on a nickel's worth of blinding flashes that emerge beneath heavy shades, when the window is open and the wind is blowing. And what the hell are you doing sleeping in broad daylight in the first place?
The light shines and is not overcome by the darkness.
O but the darkness! It is so sweet, my friends, it is so sweet. To sleep!
To sleep there must be a light to darkness—a light that only shines in its being extinguished. Something holds on.
Even dogs dream.
Night or day. Awake or asleep. The eyes wide open shine in the dark and in the light. Every saint a sinner and every criminal a neighbor.
O my tyger! O my lamb! The seer behind the seeing.
Every morning and every surrender to the reign of terror, the reign of terror of waking, of waking to every moment of rest and every morning of relinquishing and cowboying up; for each and every moment, I always emerge to the sounds of dogs barking and the return of the great beast that shadows my every move.
Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life.
It is relentless.
For all my blindness, I am always seen.
And always seeing.
I dreamed I was in the darkness before there was light. And in the dream I understood that this was impossible because there is no darkness before there was light—and so, in the dream, had to understand that this darkness I dreamed I was in before the light was nothing but a reflection of what it felt like to be in the dark and far from the light; although it was strangely peaceful to be in the darkness before there was light, and know that it was a lie—as if perhaps the dream itself were pointing to what lay beyond itself.
And that's what struck me: that the dream meant to point to its own limitations, that the dream meant to acknowledge its own inadequacies to make present what remained absent in it's very existence. And the fact that in the dream I knew that I was dreaming, and that what I was dreaming of wasn't what the dream was making present, but was nonetheless being made painfully aware of in its absence...made me wake up.
And there was light, and there was darkness, and it was good.
The first day.
There is a harrowing passage in Jean Cocteau's "Diary of an Opium Addict" in which he describes the pain of withdrawal and healing. One line echoes: "The tree must suffer the rising of the sap in the spring."
He's an addict. He mourns the healing. The returning of vitality, of life.
This healing he describes, it's harrowing, but it's also indulgent. It gives him a license to bask just one more time in the broken promise, in the bejeweled and benighted promise. Of the poppy.
At once, everything is revealed. Revealed in suffering: The love. The hunger. The gratitude. And the secret "no" that empowers grown men, far from home, to wake up from the dream of being swine—and become men.
And always at the same time, the deep debt all men owe to the dream. That, too.
We dream in the darkness, but it is only for the lack of light. And who is to say that our dreams are other than the light overcoming darkness—even as they always fall short?
Failed attempts at being who we are.
It hurts. It hurts so good.
And the light that shines in the darkness.
It's enough to give a man pause.
And to betray his dark lover.
I am under strict orders not to tell you my joy. I do not have clearance. But I am impatient in time. Aware that it is not unlimited.
I am not among the rebel angels. Although I have been charged with being for the party of Satan, without knowing it.
Let's just get down to brass tacks. If I could with impunity, without the yoke of responsibility. If I could. If I could.
I would tear this old building down.
And in doing so, sell my joy.
What happens to freedom when a man learns to love his chains?
But my joy is bigger than that. Bigger than my life. Bigger than my chains.
My joy—despite my every inclination—is not for sale.
I am either being enlightened or am enchanted. Either way, in joy a man can't hear himself think for the barking of the dogs of morning. He just keeps walking.
He just keeps waking up.
Up early and watching the fishing boat lights pass across the dark Lake Michigan horizon like a series of broken mirror shards. The lake is very loud this morning but the lights are silent, reflecting something louder than light and surf. I wish all those fishermen well. But I wish the fish well, too, hoping they might find food that will not pierce them. Something louder than bombs. More silent than light.