|Oct/Nov 2016 Salon|
I was walking down the Plymouth Road with the Rabbi, and we came upon the Devil. He was standing on the side of the road, and he couldn't catch his breath. He was doubled over and coughing up a lung. He had made his bed, and now he was being asked to lie in it.
He gasped, and he gasped.
"You are so weak," I said. I was enjoying my advantage.
"Mercy!" he cried, convulsing and gasping.
If the Devil asks for mercy, can you trust him? When you are not looking, when you begin to believe the coast is clear, that you can relax your grip, isn't that when the Devil plunges the shank between beautifully articulated ribs?
I panicked. I collapsed in a fit of coughing. Bent over on the side of the road. Couldn't catch my breath. Me and the Devil on the side of the road. Hacking up our lungs.
There was willfulness that connected us. There was a willfulness.
"It's what drew me to you," the Devil said.
"But you made the will something ugly. You reduced it."
"The will? It's what drew you to me," the Devil said.
He was telling the truth. And that sucked.
"We're not so different," he said.
"No. We're not."
I looked at my soul, and it was a microcosm. The world in a snowflake. It was a frozen wasteland. Cold crystal. It was the land of the midnight sun. Speechless. Frozen but heating up. The great refusal.
I looked at my soul, and it was the great break up of language, the crack up in which Hayim Bialik, poet in exile, poet without language—Can these dry bones live? Can life be breathed into this dead language?—leapt from ice floe to ice floe. The break up of language. Pursuing the Name of God. The Name of God. Ever receding. Ever demanding. Dr. Frankenstein pursuing his creature. From ice floe to ice floe. Leaping. Melting. Like word to word, like image to image, like metaphor to metaphor, like hope to hope. Grasshoppers. Fugitives on the run. Golems walking on ice. Completing the sentence. Melting ice. And not the thought. Walking on water. Melting words. Always falling short of uttering the Name of God. In the Holy Silence. As the expanse of frigid water grows, separating ice floe from ice floe. Opening the breach. Global warming. In the climate of the soul.
"Just say it," the Devil said. "Say the Name of God!"
"It is forbidden."
The Devil looked at me. He was so effing lonely. He looked at me.
I met his stare with my own. I gave him the look. I channeled Jimmy Cagney. "Whaddya say? Whaddya know?" I gave him Humphrey Bogart eyes.
But the Devil looked me in my own eye.
"Say the Name of God. Just do it! Do what is forbidden!"
I reached for someone else's eyes and got nothing. I had nothing left but my own eyes. My own gaze. I looked at the Devil with my own eyes. I looked the Devil in the eye. And I said, me and Bartleby the Scrivener, this is what I said: "I'd prefer not to."
"You weren't ever going to have the guts," the Devil exploded, his eyes bulging, his words sputtering. "You never had what it takes!"
I choked on my "No," and I panicked and hunched over on the side of the road. Couldn't catch my breath. Choking on my "Yes." The Plymouth Road. And liked to cough up a lung. Couldn't catch my breath. I gasped and gasped.
Weak. And naked. And broken.
And in the silence. In the great refusal. The Rabbi stepped forward. And created a space in his stepping forward. Tzimtzum. He pronounced the Name of God. The holy Name of God. Ein Sof. The sacred Name that must not be uttered. Ha Shem. Tetragrammaton. Yud. Hey. Vav. Hey.
He did what is forbidden.
And nothing happened. And no one stoned him. We had always already crucified him. And the world was not destroyed. And everybody had to learn to live with having heard the Name of God uttered. Learn to live with the fact that what had been forbidden had been done. Allie allie all come free! And how it had changed nothing.
And in the confusion, I reached for the Devil and gently grasped his neck and drew him close and kissed him full on the mouth.
And knew healing. And St. Francis' leper. And the creation of a New Heaven and a New Earth. In the Yes and No of my salvation. In my dialectic. Todo y Nada. And how it changed everything.
I fell down at the feet of the Rabbi, and he said, "Get up," and he let his eyes linger in mine, and in his eyes I saw God and the Devil, and I saw myself, and I saw the Rabbi. And I saw my brother. And my sister. And the Rabbi said, this is what he said, with impatience: "Get up!"
And so I got up. And we just kept walking.
I was walking down the Plymouth Road with the Rabbi, and we were not alone. We were walking with the Man of Constant Sorrow and the Man of Constant Rage. And I did not know how we had come to be in their company.
And so I turned to the Rabbi and asked him. Asked how we had come in the company of the Man of Constant Sorrow and the Man of Constant Rage.
And the Rabbi lifted his right hand, and with the wave of his cloak, I saw Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. He was dreaming. They were beating a horse. It was brutal.
And the Rabbi lifted his left hand, and with the wave of his cloak, I saw Friedrich Nietzsche. He was insane. They were beating a horse. It was brutal.
"Very funny," I said. "But why are they here?"
"They are always here."
"I know. But why are they here now?"
"Because they are always here."
I let that ride for awhile. Let it sink in.
And then after awhile, he said:
"Because you keep beating the horse."
Somewhere, someone pinned a butterfly in a collection.
I stood convicted, and the road held my weight.
"Well, if they're going to walk with us," I said, "we better get to know their names."
The Man of Constant Sorrow turned to me and said, "You can call me Vincent."
The Man of Constant Rage turned to me and said, "Yeah, that works. You can call me Vincent, too."
Once when I was in New York, they had Van Gogh's "Wheat Field with Crows" at MOMA. You felt the painting before you entered the room. And once you did. Enter the room. The painting commanded all attention. It throbbed in person in a way it didn't in reproductions. Sucked all the oxygen.
It was the Word of God. And it was blasphemy. Both/And.
On the Plymouth Road, suddenly Picasso's "Guernica" rose up and pierced me.
I gave the Rabbi the look.
He gave it right back.
"I know what you're doing," I said.
"I know you do," he replied. "Can you maybe just this once listen?" he asked.
"I suppose," I replied.
"Quit beating the horse," he said. "It's not her fault."
Something broke in me on the Plymouth Road. The road I had taken as an alternative to every Main Street I had inherited.
I didn't want to beat the horse any more. I just didn't know how to stop.
I was walking down the Plymouth Road with the Rabbi, and I came upon the Keening Mother. She had lost her children, and she was inconsolable. Her sharpest blows shattered the air, and her pleas for mercy muddied the waters.
She raged. She mourned. But she could not find her way back. She was lost in the howling.
I stopped on the Plymouth Road. Me and the Rabbi. And I tried to console the Keening Mother. But all she could see in me was her loss and her rage. I felt the ground shift beneath my feet. And I felt the power of the undertow. Sucked in. Ground up. Fuel for the rage.
I did not want to end it that way. I did not want to be a bit player in someone else's movie. An extra. Swallowed.
I wanted to live. And could no longer pay her price.
"So what are you going to do about the Keening Mother?" the Rabbi asked.
"I don't like your tone," I said.
"You don't like my tone?"
"So you want I should maybe soften it?"
"Well, I mean... would it kill you to maybe show a little love?"
"Oh. And if I showed you a little love, you could accept it?"
"You're such a jerk."
"She can't let go," the Rabbi said.
"Not my problem," I said.
"So who needs to show a little love now?"
"Jesus Christ! You're such an asshole!"
"Language, Pilgrim," he said, "Language." But his tone was not a provocation. There was a sadness to it. The sadness of the Garden. So alone in Gethsemene.
"She's like fucking Kryptonite," I pleaded.
"You're not Superman."
"No shit Sherlock!"
"She's lost," the Rabbi said.
"So am I!"
The love between us just hung heavy in the air.
All that love. It was suffocating me. It was killing me. It was egging me on, provoking me, agitating me, disrupting me, unfounding me. I was being swallowed.
The Keening Mother stood in the middle of the Plymouth Road and took a spade to it. Tried to dig it under. It was silly and futile.
She was old and frail and a little pathetic. Her sorrow had gone to seed. Her rage was toxic.
The Rabbi looked at me.
I hauled away the dirt she excavated from the Plymouth Road. The Keening Mother. I got a wheel barrow and just carted it away.
"I'm not going to be a patsy!" I screamed at the Rabbi.
"You want a hand with that load?" he asked, tilting his head toward the wheel barrow.
"I can't do this." I said in all candor.
"I know," he said. "Do it anyway."
"I'm never going to get there," I said.
"You've never left there," he said.
Love hung heavy in the air.
I was walking down the Plymouth Road with the Rabbi, and we were not alone. We were walking with Rebbe Menachem Mendel, the Kotzker. One Sabbath eve, the Kotzker had emerged from his study, approached the front of the synagogue, and blown out the Sabbath candles. He flung his kiddush cup to the ground. He removed his yarmulke and declared that "there is neither justice nor judge." He turned and left his people alone in the dark on the Sabbath.
They kept faith for 19 years until he died. The Kotzker left his room only once a year for Bedikah Chametz. His people kept faith until one by one they drifted off to other Rebbes.
"This is Rebbe Menachem," the Rabbi said.
"Good to meet you."
He didn't reply.
"He's kind of shy," the Rabbi said.
We just kept walking.
Our new companion made me uncomfortable. His silence was oppressive. It felt like a provocation.
We walked awhile in unease.
"He doesn't want anything from you," the Rabbi said.
I looked at Menachem, and he looked at me.
We just walked awhile. Keeping company.
Once when I was young, someone I cared about traveled to Assisi and came back to me with a St. Francis metal. It was blessed by the Pope. JP II. I treasured it. (Hadn't Francis himself appeared to me in dreams when I was trying to make up my mind, one way or the other, to enter the Ministry?) Later, when I was not quite so young, someone else, who had demanded it of me as a proof of my devotion, threw it out the window of a car on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago in a moment of pique.
Without thinking, without thought, I struck out and hit her. Blew out the Sabbath Candles.
We just walked in silence. I, the Rabbi, and the Kotzker, had nothing to say.
"All that is thought should not be said," Menachem said after a while, said it to no one. "All that is said should not be written, all that is written should not be published, and all that is published should not be read."
The sharp smell of extinguished candles was large in the air and in our noses. It just costs so much to say. It just costs so much to be.
"If you meet the Buddha on the road," the Rabbi said, with a twinkle in his eye, "slay him."
We were too tired to laugh.
About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, 'Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' But Peter said, 'By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.' The voice said to him again, a second time, 'What God has made clean, you must not call profane.' This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. —Acts 10:9-19 NRSV
We were walking down the Plymouth Road, the Rabbi and I, and we came upon the Pearl of Great Price. We're talking the Holy Grail here. The thing of value for which you give everything. And it was disgusting.
I mean, it was right there, in the middle of the Plymouth Road, the Pearl of Great Price, stopping traffic, and it was effing vile. There was retching and gagging. And great shows of disapproval. But the ugly thing was still just there. In the middle of the road. And it filled us with revulsion.
"Okay. Now what?" I asked the Rabbi.
"It's your call, Pilgrim."
"This is a test, isn't it?"
"Why are you so obsessed with tests? Everything is a test with you!"
"Everything's a test with YOU!" I said with too much heat.
"I know you are, but what am I?"
He was baiting me. Trying to get my goat.
"That thing's effing disgusting!"
"It's the Pearl of Great Price. Can you swallow it?"
"I'm sorry," I said with as much shade as I could provide, "you want me to swallow it?"
"Yes," he said, infuriatingly refusing to react to my shade.
"Don't that just beat all?" I screamed, trying to nail him to the wall.
"It's the effing Pearl of Great Price," he said with unnerving calm. "What are you going to do?"
Then the Rabbi took off his mask and winked at me. Very theatrically.
"It can't be swallowed, can it?" I asked.
"You're a real jerk, you know that?"
"I've been told that."
"It's going to swallow me, isn't it?" I asked.
"Already has done," he said.
"It's the Pearl of Great Price," I said.
"This is what I'm saying," he said.
"What the hey? Bring it on."
I swallowed the Pearl of Great Price and was swallowed.
"This is my body," he said.
"Very funny," I replied.
"Broken for you."
"Still not funny," I said.
And then we laughed.
After having left, and then returned, to the Plymouth Road it was not a surprise that the road I had returned to was not the road I had left. The road had become more personal, at the exact point at which what had been confined to the personal, was becoming more public.
Which is to say, the Plymouth Road, after I had returned, was full of fellow travelers, who came from alien imaginations. Strangers from a strange land with strange ideas of home. Diversity is a bitch.
The alt road was clogged with seekers and pilgrims. Refugees and immigrants. And some of them were, quite frankly, toxic and dangerous. Love fought it out with hate. And everybody had a concealed weapon permit on the Plymouth Road.
How strange to share your pilgrimage with souls who either didn't want to get to where you thought and hoped and prayed you were going, or more disturbingly, didn't want to get where you wanted to get at all, but indeed, envisioned a different city on a hill, a city in which you could not inhabit, or breath, or move, or have your being. Because hate is toxic. And is no home at all.
But they were on the road. And they were pilgrims. Just like you.
There was a circle to be squared. An eye of the needle to be threaded.
How can you love what wants to destroy love? And how can you love when that thing that wants to destroy love is in you? I mean. We were on the same. Effing. Road. The Plymouth Road. The cold, hard mirror. The humiliating promise of something more. Through a glass darkly.
It was a confusing time on the Plymouth Road. Pilgrims hung on by the skin of their teeth. Hate made its case. Love was mocked and jeered in courtyards and circular drives. The hate in us warred with the love in us. The personal was public. The public was personal.
One step was love. The next was hate. And yet, as much as depended upon a red wheelbarrow depended upon each and every pilgrim on the Plymouth Road. And we just kept walking. One step. And then another. One step. And then another.
But we walked on the Plymouth Road. Each and every one of us. And we just kept walking. And some of us walked and climbed. Jacob's Ladder. Some of us walked and climbed. But none of us knew which ones were actually climbing. In fact, all of us, thought we were the ones climbing. And were sure that the others weren't. Jacob's Ladder. But not all of us were.
Or maybe none of us were.
Or all of us.
But we walked.
Each and every one of us afraid of the thing that walked in us.
The thing that walked in us.
The Rabbi proved to be a real mensch. He did not lie about the cost. But he demanded. He asserted. He revealed. That the light shined in the darkness and was not overcome. And I believed him.
I was walking down the Plymouth Road with the Rabbi, and we were tired, and the ground opened up beneath us until we had to leap each to our own side. A fissure opened up on the Plymouth Road, and my real life presented itself. Structural problems. I couldn't be here and there at the same time. I was a man with responsibilities. I carried a rickety structure on my back in the shape of a steeple, in Lansing, with my wife, as the fissure widened, and I saw the Rabbi fade away, and he was on his side and I was on my own. My real life. With all my responsibilities. With my wife. And everyone I loved and held dear and felt responsible for. My stepson. A rickety structure always threatening to collapse. And the Rabbi just receded.
There was a moment. A clearing in time. A choice. I could panic. Like I always had. I could replay the scene. Endlessly. I could lose myself in the loop. Or I could just wait it out. Let the moment be what it was. A photograph ripped from the movie. Let it play itself out. Rip the moment from time. Stay firm. Eyes on the prize. Let it go. I seized the moment. And released it.
When the fissure closed up and the Rabbi came back, he looked pleased with me. He didn't say anything. I carried my steeple on my back, my rickety structure, my real life, on the Plymouth Road. Just like my father, carrying a country on his back. Sisyphus. The Rabbi pretended he didn't notice.
But I saw his smile. That's the thing about the Rabbi. He always made sure you saw his smile.
"You hungry?" he asked.
"I could eat."
"Mexican?" he asked.
"El Oasis Taco Truck?"
"On Michigan Ave?
"Sounds good," I said.
"They have Mexican Coke. Real cane sugar."
"Always," he said.
The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand
He wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.
I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.
—St. John of the Cross, "On a Dark Night," 1588 or 1589
I want to quote here each and every lyric of Kris Kristofferson's song "To Beat the Devil." I want to so bad.
I was walking down the Plymouth Road with the Rabbi, and I was tired. Dead-dried-dessicated-bone tired. Heavy. I was so tired and so heavy that the road would not hold my weight. Gravity would not cooperate. I raised and cupped my hands like a diver—I knew I was going somewhere—but instead of ascending, I descended. Bottom dropped out. I just dropped.
And as I fell, I accelerated. And as I accelerated, I began to heat up. And pretty soon there were flames. And I blazed. As I plummeted. As I fell. As I dropped. I blazed.
Something about friction.
Everything I've ever read that stuck with me, every image that stopped the works like a wrench in the gears, every hook from every pop song, every kindness that ever terrified me, every weirdo and every dork, every landing stuck, every kiss, every charming turn of the wrist, every single one of Vincent Van Gogh's holy shoes, every moment of Grace, every God-swallowed moment in my falling life, my plummeting life, my enflamed, my entorched, my descending life, swaddled me and scorched me and reduced me to cinders.
I just kept falling, and there was no end to the falling until the falling itself just became the environment in which you lived and moved and had your being. Until the reduction itself, the very cinderness of it all, became just the next thing from which you're going to be reduced, one more stop on the eternal underground railroad.
And so the falling itself ceased to be falling. And in fact, it became ascending. Or might as well have been. Ascending? Descending? It was just the space in which you made your peace with time and raised your children and loved your wife and tried to do something good.
One more light of the world.
"Looking good, Pilgrim!" the Rabbi said.
"Feeling good, Rabbi!" I said.
Thumbs ups all around.
"I'm not going to feel my tiredness like this all the time, am I?" I asked the Rabbi.
"Might as well enjoy it."
"That would be my advice," the Rabbi said.
We didn't laugh because we didn't have to. There is something deeper than laughter. Don't get me wrong. It's still funny. It's just deeper than laughter. Deeper than tears.
The other side of reduction is expansion. You exhale. You inhale. You exhale. You inhale. You kiss the Devil.
"Hey, Pilgrim," the Rabbi said, "you hear about the guy who said he bit himself on the forehead?"
"He stood on a chair."
"That's not funny."
"Yes it is."
"Okay. You're right. It's kind of funny."
We didn't even have to laugh on the Plymouth Road. It was just understood.