We All Live In the Same House
On the weekends I live in Cumberland, Maryland, in an old Victorian house divided into six apartments. The landlord tries to keep the place up—fresh paint, hedges trimmed—to conform to the historic Washington Street milieu. But now that the city has cut down the hundred-year-old maple out front, the rough edges are more visible: Rusty gutters. Sagging porch roof. Broken attic windows patched with cardboard. It’s a very old house. Entropy is starting to show its cracked and broken face.
Upstairs from me a new family has moved in—not replacing the old family but joining it. I don’t know how many human beings now share those four rooms, but several of them are full-of-life kids, and sometimes I feel as if I were living inside a drum. They are slowly expanding into the halls and stairwell. One morning I was checking my mail when a little girl in her pajamas, sitting on the second-to-the-top step, startled me from above.
“Are you my daddy?” she asked.
“I don’t think so, honey,” I said.
“We live in the same house,” she said, air whistling through the gap from a missing front tooth.
She was right about that. Three times already I’d had to knock on their door to tell them their music was too loud and remind them what time it was.
Monday morning on my way to work, I pass the same little girl skipping rope on the front porch while her stepfather or grandfather or uncle is talking on his cellphone. She has tan skin, somewhere between African American and Caucasian, with a hint of Asia in her eyes. I say hello and am halfway to my van, parked on the street, when I hear her call after me, “Are you somebody’s daddy?” I take a few more steps as if I haven’t heard.
Come on. Wake up. What’s important here?
I turn back to her. “Yes, I’m somebody’s daddy,” I say. “Are you somebody’s mommy?”
She and the man laugh. They are both missing front teeth, and I’m caught off guard at how kindly their laughing faces look.
“I have a flower for you,” she calls.
It’s an hour-and-a-half drive from Cumberland to Martinsburg, West Virginia, where I teach at Blue Ridge Community and Technical College. I haven’t slept well all weekend because of a recent breakup. I’m unprepared for the day, running behind, and the little girl upstairs has a flower for me. I return to the porch to accept from her a pink blossom she’s picked off a vine.
“Give it to your little girl,” she says.
“I will. I’ll do that.”
Checking my watch—I can still make it to the Bob Evans restaurant before they stop serving oatmeal—I’m on my way again, but I pause briefly, as has become my habit, at the stump where the hundred-year-old maple used to be. In autumn the tree was a most unusual mix of orange and red and yellow. One of a kind, in my experience, and in a single afternoon it was gone. Fireplace logs and sawdust. Pausing there one more time to lament what cannot be undone, I come within a whisker of tossing the flower onto the grass. My arm is cocked in the toss position before I come to. I look back at the little girl, who is looking straight at me.
Thank God you didn’t do that.
I jump onto the low stump and bow extravagantly to her. She returns my bow and laughs.
The Little Things Are Actually the Big Things
I’m making an effort to drive slowly. I had one grandfather who was dead at my age, of what we called “natural causes” back then. There comes a time when speeding doesn’t make sense, because you’re missing all the little things, and the little things are what you have left. Plus I drive a 1987 Dodge conversion van that gets only thirteen miles per gallon even when I stay below the speed limit. Idealistically I start out with the cruise control on fifty-five, but the moment comes when I push the pedal to pass a truck on a hill, and, lost in the morning news, I’m soon going eighty like the rest of the traffic.
I lose myself in Morning Edition the way some men lose themselves in sports. Lately news of the tanking economy has been downright addictive: the foreclosure of America; every day fresh defeats snatched from the jaws of victory. Even the rich are running scared. Something is wobbling here in Camelot, something deserving of my notice—or so I tell myself, as if news addiction were a kind of good citizenship. Once you’ve heard about one corrupt ship of state going down, Thoreau says (I’ll be teaching him this afternoon), you’ve heard about them all. As for the news itself, Thoreau remarks, “How much more important to know what that is which was never old!”
My addiction somewhat satisfied, and feeling cranky with myself for indulging it one more time, I turn off the radio and push in a Tara Singh cassette, as a kind of news methadone. Singh, who died three years ago, was an Emerson and Thoreau man, a lifetime devotee of spiritual teacher J. Krishnamurti, and a close friend of Helen Schucman, the scribe of A Course in Miracles. For many years I’ve been a student of the Course, a blend of Christianity, Eastern religion, and psychology that Schucman said was dictated to her by a divine voice, sometimes identified as Jesus. That we choose our lives, right down to the little details, is one of the Course’s major themes.
I relax my foot on the gas pedal and let the trucks pass me for a while. To wake up and see what is, Singh is saying on the tape, you’ve got to keep life simple and go slowly; the faster you go, the less clearly you see anything. “We all feel there should be peace and goodness in the world,” Singh says. “Many with good intent have become famous by holding these as ideals. But unless their own lives are at peace, they have no integrity.”
What does Singh mean by “at peace”? Is it serenity? Is that the litmus test for seeing what is, and thus knowing who you are? But I have serious doubts about New Age serenity. Smiles, peaceful words, and other outward appearances may hide the truth as easily as express it. It pleases me to remember that Singh could be cranky himself. Thoreau was plenty cranky too, according to the townsfolk of Concord, especially on that day he spent in jail for not paying the poll tax levied to bankroll the land-grab war against Mexico. So could Krishnamurti be cranky when taking questions from his audiences, impatient that they didn’t get it. Jesus must have been feeling cranky when he drove the money-changers out of the temple with a whip. Can one be cranky and “at peace” at the same time?
Helen Schucman was cranky when, in the 1960s, Jesus told her to write down the material that became A Course in Miracles. “Why me?” she asked; she was an agnostic at best.
“Because you’ll do it,” the Voice said. Though she never wholly believed in the Voice, she gave it a capital V when she wrote about it, and for seven exhausting, cranky years she put everything it said down on paper.
I take it as a good sign that she wasn’t a serene person. “At peace” may mean something more like doing what you’re called to do.
Here It Is
Bob Evans is packed. Even in these troubled economic times, we the people still have money to throw around. None of us is going to get out of here for under seven or eight dollars, including tip, for a breakfast we could have made ourselves for pennies. Maybe we won’t be buying a new car every three years from now on, but we are still hungry to be served.
My usual table in the corner is the last one open, and it occurs to me that Doreen, my regular waitress, has been saving it for me. She knows the mornings I come in and where I sit, and we both look forward to our snappy exchanges. There are many single men like me sprinkled around the room, each of us taking up a whole booth or table by himself, eating a family-style breakfast, with the waitress playing the little woman.
I open the blinds as if it were my own living room, and the morning sun streams through the slats, turning dust into beams of light. When Doreen comes to take my order, she closes the blinds again, because the sun is shining in another customer’s eyes.
“It’s spring, and I can’t even look out on it?” I ask. She laughs, thinking I’m just playing the crotchety husband to her bossy wife.
For weeks now Doreen has been glancing sideways at me as I read the Course, which looks like a Bible. This alarms her somewhat—that it looks like a Bible but isn’t.
She has reason to be alarmed. For a “Christian” text, the Course is about as far from the Bible as you can get. For example, in the Course Jesus says he didn’t condemn Judas for betraying him; the idea that he could condemn someone is a gross misinterpretation of who he was. Nor did he ever take a whip to anybody or think of anyone as swine. He suggests that the Crucifixion never happened. Fascination with the Crucifixion, the Course implies, grows out of our unconscious desire to be punished, because we see ourselves as sinful instead of as innocents who make mistakes. The Jesus in the Course can see only the good in everyone. A lot of people misunderstood him, he says, because they saw him through their own dark lens. Any behavior that appears unholy is either a cry of pain or a call for love.
I order a cup of oatmeal, one egg over easy, and whole wheat toast. Doreen asks me, for the first time, what this book is that I’m always reading. I show her the cover: A Course in Miracles.
“Miracles by God?” she asks, her deep brown eyes glowing with suspicion.
“Who else?” I say.
“You’re going through a hard time, aren’t you, honey?” She’s seen me tear up a few times lately, missing my ex-girlfriend Raven, feeling rejected. I can’t always hide it.
“Yes, I am. And the hard time I’m going through is my life.”
She laughs. I can always make her laugh. From her apron she pulls a book of wives’ prayers for their husbands, as if she’s been waiting for the perfect opportunity to spring it on me. Doreen wears a big diamond ring and a wedding band, but from overheard bits of conversations I know that all is not perfect in her home. Another kind of foreclosure crisis.
She leaves the book with me while she attends to other customers. I read a paragraph, substituting “ego” for “Satan” and “mistake” for “sin.” I can’t look down on Doreen if I want
this breakfast arrangement to work out. Now that Raven’s gone, I have to get my feminine connection where I can. See her as your sister, the Course would say. See her as trying to say what you both know but in another language. Give her every benefit of the doubt. Think of her as doing better than anyone would have the right to expect.
Doreen comes back with my oatmeal, scooting around the place as if she were on roller skates, carrying plates of food on her arms. She’ll bring the egg and toast later, so they’ll be hot when I eat them. She picks up another book I’ve brought in: Walden.
“And this guy?” she asks. “What’s he all about?”
“He lived for a couple of years by a pond, by himself, and wrote about the experience.”
“Oh, I love nature,” Doreen says. “Don’t you?”
“Yes,” I say, and while she’s pouring my coffee, I can see several inches down the neck of her blouse. As she turns to the next table, I have the strong impulse to give her a little pat on the behind.
Thank God you didn’t do that.
“Here it is,” Krishnamurti writes in his Notebook. He’s been riding in his car and has stopped to overlook the landscape, and out of nowhere a glow comes over everything. There is no accounting for it. Or maybe you’re eating oatmeal, an egg over easy, and whole-wheat toast at Bob Evans, perusing the Norton Anthology of World Literature, preparing to teach your ten o’clock at Blue Ridge Community and Technical College, and suddenly here it is, a halo encircling the dining area. You hear birds chirping outside the window, whereas before you had been deaf to them. You notice the arrangement of ceiling fans and lamps, and are grateful for their order and rhythm. You are aware of the hairs on the back of your hand; of the hand itself as a foreign land of sorts, each age spot having its own history; and of the watch around your wrist relentlessly ticking. The ordinary is infused with an unnamable significance: an elderly couple reading the newspaper together; a father staring into space, his daughter with Down syndrome adoring him from across the table; waitresses gliding around the room, one of them saying, “Can I bring you an orange juice with those pancakes?”
You take a sip ofcoffee. It’s almost a full cup, yet cold. Just as you think, I should have Doreen pour this out and bring a new cup, Doreen appears to ask if she can pour that out for you and bring you a fresh, hot cup. You’ve never had a waitress ask you that before.
“OK,” you say.
Then, like the Apostle Peter sinking once he notices that he’s walking on the water, the glow fades as quickly as it came, shrinking back into itself. Stay, stay! you want to cry out, but it’s not yours to command. Like a shy spirit, embarrassed of its lightly veiled beauty, it remains only as long as you don’t look at it too closely. It will be neither analyzed nor coerced. Once you say, Stay, it’s already bidding you adieu.
My hand has shrunk back into a hairy old hand again. In my van I have a briefcase full of American-lit compositions to plow through, all of them comparing Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” to “Higher Laws” in Walden. I have asked the students to examine how Thoreau reconciles civic duty with spiritual life. I hope to read some interesting reflections on this subject, but there will be poor comma placement and awkward wording to point out. How much elevated awareness can the task of correcting student essays accommodate? The ego is better at grading essays than the transcendent self. All the levels are necessary. God knows these kids need help with their basic writing skills.
Eat From Any Tree But This One
In World Lit 208 this morning we review the various Middle Eastern Bibles. I tell my students they’ll want to remember for the midterm that it’s the prophet Noah who is emphasized in the Koran—specifically the Noah who warns his fellow men to change their ways—as opposed to the Noah who builds the ark and saves his own family and two of every creature. We review the part of the Noah story in the Koran that doesn’t appear in the Bible at all: Not all of Noah’s family got on the ark. One son refused to listen, and Noah was told by God that this son had to die with the rest of the wicked, who had fallen away from the truth.
The sayings of Jesus are fresh in our minds from studying the New Testament last week—in particular, the Sermon on the Mount and the different versions of the Resurrection. Jesus is a great man in the mind of Mohammed, I remind the students; he just isn’t the Messiah. In Islam the Messiah appears inside you, when you submit your will entirely to God—or, at least, that’s my reading of it. Isn’t that also what Jesus was saying to his disciples, when they were envisioning heaven as something after this life? Wake up, he said. “Look to the fields; are they not ripe with harvest already?”
And how do we attain this ripeness? How would the New Testament interpret that wicked-son-gets-left-behind part of the Noah story? We go over again in class the prodigal-son parable: the greater joy in heaven for the one sheep that’s lost and found again than for the ninety-nine that never stray from the herd. It’s a hard point for the students—for all of us, really—to grasp. The idea of the lost sheep starts with Joseph, whom Christians consider a prefiguration of Christ. It’s as if Joseph couldn’t be Joseph without the years in exile and prison, in which he is stripped of all pride. Or take it all the way back to Adam and Eve. They can’t be the father and mother of humankind if they don’t first become curious about why the forbidden fruit is forbidden.
The students are listening hard today, because we’re reviewing for the midterm, and I take full advantage of the situation. It’s as if God wants us to stray, to fall, I tell them. He wants to cast us out of Eden, out of innocence. It’s like a game He’s playing. He forbids the fruit because He wants us to eat of it. Koran and Bible, New Testament and Old—the message is that innocence can’t be joyously embraced until it’s been lost in pride and found again on our knees.
But Young Eve Has a Mind of Her Own
When I get back to my office after class, on my desk is a note from Raven and pictures from our Mexico trip. Raven is the math and yoga instructor here at the college. You didn’t have to be a math wizard to know how our affair was going to add up. Raven is on the wild side of half my age and lives with her equally gorgeous and free-spirited twin sister, Willow. They own the imagination of the male half of Martinsburg. Back where they grew up, in the least-populated county in West Virginia, their grandfather had a gunfight with their father when he was courting their mother. There are bullet holes from this legendary shootout in the walls of the Cave Country Store, the family business on the mother’s side. Those are the sort of frontier genes Raven and Willow come from. Raven has a following of staff and students and townsfolk who arrive from every quarter just to be near her.
I’m not ready yet to look at the smiling pictures of us vacationing in Guanajuato. Her letter is emotionally detached compared to the way we talked to each other fairly recently. She says she never meant to hurt me, that she’s learned so much from our time together. (The ultimate kiss-off: “I have learned so much from you.”) Fuck you, Raven. I turn off the ceiling lights and slide a CD of spiritual music into my computer: Gathering in the Light, by Krishna Das. Raven gave it to me a month ago as a goodbye present. I punch in track number 7, on which Krishna Das sings, “I have found a way to be in the presence of the Lord.”
Yes, I have found a way to be in the presence of the Lord: get my feelings hurt really badly. It never fails. Raven left me for Lance, whom she had originally left to be with me. She and I were naked together for six months; then, rather suddenly, they were back to being naked together. She wasn’t finished being naked with him yet, and now I’m not finished being naked with her. Raven has told me how different it is this time, how much better Lance is at listening to her now—as if I, to whom she is telling this, were not suffering feelings of rejection that go back to childhood and the womb. I thought I was more to her than I was. I always forget how much that common mistake in judgment can hurt, especially when it is abruptly exposed and I am left empty-handed to take it like a man, a little-boy man standing on the edge of the cliff, overlooking the valley of the shadow of death. Friedrich Nietzsche says we don’t sprout wings until we go to the edge of some such cliff. A Course in Miracles says pretty much the same thing. Only then are we ready to contemplate the presence of the Lord. Sitting at my desk like a dutiful student, I let the Course fall open where it will and read:
The world was made that problems could not be esaped. Be not deceived by all the different names its roads are given. They have but one end. And each road is but the means to gain that end, for it is here that all roads will lead, however differently they seem to start; however differently they seem to go…. All of them will lead to death. On some you will travel gaily for a while before the bleakness enters. And on some the thorns are felt at once.
This is supposed to be Jesus talking, I remind myself —a modern Jesus who talks like a philosopher-psychologist. I straighten my back against the chair for a moment of silent meditation, largely because I have nothing else to do and no place else to go. Raven has Lance; I have God. So much thin air. So little tangible evidence. Spiritual succor, like that almost palpable otherworldly moment in Bob Evans this morning, still can’t compete for my attention with a woman’s breasts, a woman’s embrace. I hate that this invisible realm, without sound, sight, touch, smell, or taste, is all I have to reach for when I hurt. It’s better than nothing, I comfort myself. But then, it is nothing: No thing. Non sense.
And even on the edge of a cliff, everyday life continues on its petty pace: You go to sleep. You wake up. You eat and drink. You work. You go on. The Apostle Paul prayed ceaselessly, but I’ve learned that consciously reaching for a spiritual state of mind is as great an obstacle to its attainment as never reaching for it. As Thoreau says in Walden: Nature (he means God) reveals Itself to hunters and fishermen who have gone to the fields and streams to hunt and fish far more readily than It does to poets who have gone to the fields and streams looking for It. For every searcher there comes a point, as it came for Thoreau, when one is more poet than fisherman, and there one is: burdened with the hope, if not the expectation, that God will show His face in an unmistakable way, will strike one blind to this world and bring one peace, even though hope and expectation are the things most in the way.
A little voice within is the best that even Socrates got in the way of information from another world. If he was about to do something wrong or make a mistake, a little voice within would say, Don’t do it. My own little voice might say, Wake up. That’s about it from the other world for me. If I don’t drink a lot of coffee or watch too much TV or take too many phone calls or in general keep myself overly busy, I might get a little vision to go with the little voice, a glimpse of sunshine that has a different hue. Or I might look up at the stars one night and be transported briefly into another part of the universe, where we never grow old and die, and no one is ever alone. A little glimpse of God. But how are such glimpses and voices ever going to compare to the brain-exploding pleasures and heart-fulfilling comforts of a naked man loving a naked woman? I’ve still got a lot of growing to do.
“Stop trying,” my friend Hania tells me in times like these. “If you could stop trying for even twenty seconds, you’d be new.”
“Should I make a bigger effort to stop trying, then?” I’ll ask, and she’ll laugh. Hania heads my Course discussion group back in Cumberland. She lives the Course. I think at some point her mind became still, and she did stop trying. She sees any un-Christlike behavior—and even un-Christlike thoughts within herself—as a cry of pain, a call for love.
“A still mind is a holy place,” Hania says. “A still mind stops trying for holiness, and then there it is. The ego wants you to think that you’re making progress, when the truth is you’re already perfect.”
“Keep talking, Hania,” I say, when she tells me that. I wish I could believe that sins are just mistakes, that death is but a dream. Show me the wound, I want to protest, like doubting Thomas in the Bible, who demanded proof the Resurrection had occurred. Show me the wound that should have killed you but didn’t. Let me put my fingers, my whole hand, inside it. And then maybe I’ll believe in peace.
There is no wound, Hania is trying to say.
Exactly, I am trying to say.
A loud rap on the door breaks into my meditation. I turn on the overhead light and readjust to the everyday world. It’s Jesse, my worst student. His chest is puffed out, his eyes dark and narrow. He wants to know why he got an F on his English 101 essay.
“Because you didn’t write it,” I say.
“I did write it. Do you want to see the drafts?”
“Because I don’t need to see the drafts to know you didn’t write it.”
“Are you saying I’m lying?”
“I know how you write.”
”I’m taking it to the dean.”
“Good. You can write her a sample paragraph and prove my point.”
Jesse protests, and just as I inhale to tell him off, a thought comes to me: What you see in others is who you think you are.
“Tell you what, Jesse. Come in. Sit down. Let me compose myself for a minute.” He sits, though it’s clear he’s not sure he trusts me. “How’s your girlfriend? I don’t see you two holding hands anymore.”
“Because she’s a liar.”
“I see. What’s your major?”
“And you don’t think writing a college-level essay has anything to do with fighting fires, do you?”
“What do you think?”
“I think you’ve taken English 101 before. A few times. What grade do you need to graduate?”
“I need a D.”
“Tell you what, son. You write me one essay that is yours—it doesn’t even have to be good, just yours—and I’ll give you a D.”
His eyes narrow. Issues of pride and trust are being weighed against each other. “What on?” he asks.
“On why you want to be a firefighter. Five hundred words. Give me an introduction, three body paragraphs with a few concrete details, and a conclusion. And make one of your paragraphs about what attracts you to fire … and include one detail about your girlfriend dumping you.”
“How’s that supposed to fit in?”
“That will be the part that makes the piece worth reading. And there had better be some grammar errors in there.”
The River Is Alive Again
I have one more hour of sunlight for this day of our Lord, April something, 2009. Imagine having a whole calendar, beginning with your birth, that’s lasted more than two thousand years. And all you had to do was love your enemies, do good to those who persecuted you, turn the other cheek—and perhaps be tortured to death on the cross, depending on whether you believe the Bible or A Course in Miracles.
I drive to Harpers Ferry, to the stretch of the Shenandoah River that I like best to walk along. There’s a Linda Ronstadt song on the radio, “I Think I’m Going to Love You for a Long, Long Time.” Fuck that. “A long, long time.” There’s always this initial fuck-that reaction to rising pain, but I’m the one who turned on the radio—to a country oldies station, no less. I feel the heart’s release valves turning, wanting to let loose the hard ache I feel inside. And since experience has taught me that the price of holding feelings in greatly exceeds the price of letting them out, I release mine. I let myself hate Raven for not missing me the way I miss her. And there’s not going to be an end to missing her until I reach the grave or metamorphose into another man. A man with wings, say.
I’ll never fly holding in my emotions. You have to be light to fly. You have to be at peace with whatever life brings you. Holding in your emotions is about as far from “at peace” as you can get. Say a quick and complete yes to mourning, I have learned. Who is more alive than a mourner? Blessed is he who mourns, because—I want to believe; I wish it were true —in proportion to the depth of his mourning is the possibility of his flight. The Resurrection is in the Crucifixion, the Bible hints, though when you are at long last resurrected, the Course teaches, you won’t remember a time when you were not.
But forget the wings for now. Stop flapping so hard. Just fall, drop, die. I was brought up to think that a stoic public posture, even while falling off a cliff with only one’s arms to flap, is an admirable quality in a man. Thank God for the privacy of my Dodge Ram conversion van in times like these. In my Cumberland apartment noises travel through the walls and ceilings and floors. I know the intimate habits of my neighbors better than I want to: breakfast-table manners, bedroom habits. God knows what they must hear coming from my apartment in times like these that bring me to my knees in prayer. It’s not some New Age prayer to the Universe or the Higher Self I’m talking about, but “Dear Father in heaven … Precious Jesus, take my hand…. Holy Spirit, I need Your comfort.” I remind God, if He exists, that I’m not feeling sorry for myself. I’m just cleaning up the vessel. Letting out some excess poison, if you will. Lightening the load. Though the pain can be fierce now and then, I feel my wings getting stronger. Every decade. One of these centuries soon, I am going to fly.
The river this April is alive with flying things: ducks and other waterfowl. I see a blue heron and a kingfisher. The water level is especially high due to spring rain and melted snow. My emotional well now emptied and already starting to fill back up, I feel a deep gratitude for nothing in particular. I walk slowly and stop at overlooks. As a younger man, when something broke inside me, I tried to go faster. Now I try to slow down. If I slow down, I have to cry and pray. If I slow down, I know I can’t make it on my own.
It starts to rain pretty hard, and I scoot under the high bridge that carries the evening rush-hour commuters over the river from West Virginia into Virginia and vice versa. I was in that bumper-to-bumper traffic back in the days when I used to drive home every evening, before I started sleeping in my van on weeknights. I would barely notice these grand rivers, at best give a passing glance downward, a fleeting thought about how tragic and ruinous is the disconnect of humanity from rivers and soil and feelings, and thus from God, if He exists as something more than rivers and soil and feelings.
Gratefully I see, by the sliver of blue sky in the low west, that it will be a passing shower. Because of the rain, I’m the only one here today smelling the river, hearing the river. Raven and I used to come here and smell and hear the river together. Once or twice we came here and, love intoxicated, became the river. How’s God supposed to compete with that?
Two young ducks getting their first wings skim just above the water, stretching and landing. What do they care about rain? If they had human throats, they would cry out with joy.
Is it any great mystery why the human race is so slow to come to self-awareness, this precious but costly evolutionary development that started thousands of years ago with Adam and Eve becoming aware of their own nakedness; this naked self-awareness perch on which we still quiver, afraid to take wing, afraid to know we die—or, if you listen to the Course, afraid to know we don’t.
Yes, Oh God, Yes and Yes
As the economy tanks, Blue Ridge Community and Technical College is doing a booming business. “If there’s no work, might as well go back to school,” people are saying to themselves. Community college was created for the meek to inherit.
The student body is growing so fast there aren’t enough rooms for night classes. I teach Intro to Lit in a science lab at the local high school. Tonight, for the first hour, we’re discussing the play The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams. I stand behind one of those deep chemistry-lab sinks with the high, curved faucets and call the roll. There are thirty-two students in my class, which used to be capped at twenty-four. We haul in desks from another room.
To encourage participation, I have the class write a couple of paragraphs describing the character Laura’s relationship with Jim, her gentleman caller. Then I ask them to come up front and read the paragraphs out loud. There are some pretty good ones, especially Jennifer’s: “Poor and slightly crippled Laura gets one kiss from Jim,” she reads, “who tells her he knows what her trouble is. She has an inferiority complex. He had one, too. But now Jim’s going into television. He’s going to get in on the ground floor of TV. The play is set in St. Louis in the Depression of the thirties. Although he’s already engaged to Betty, Jim feels that kiss with Laura, nonetheless, and Laura too says, ‘Yes!’ to it, and to the broken horn on her unicorn, her favorite piece in the menagerie, which he steps on while they dance.”
I ask the class whether that kiss was worth it. Won’t Laura just hurt all the more, having had a taste of what she’s been starving for? Is it likely that Laura, being poor and shy and slightly crippled, will ever be kissed again? It’s the age-old question of whether it’s better to have kissed and lost than never to have kissed at all.
At the break I slip out to the van for a smoke. There’s but a trace of light left in the sky. I don’t smoke during the day, so by 7:30 I’m dying for one. I never used to believe those ads about a cigarette tasting so good you’d walk a mile for it. Now I do. On the radio the country oldies station is playing ”I’ll Go to My Grave Loving You,” by the Statler Brothers. I observe myself reach for the pack on the dash, shake one out, and scratch a match with one hand, like a conversion-van cowboy. I take the smoke in, nostrils open, mouth closed. Here it comes, the little pop in my lungs, next to the heart: Like a feeling. Like a friend. Like a recognition. I desire to be next to my wound, since I cannot be next to Raven. That’s what an unfiltered cigarette is really all about. You think you’re going to keep loving her for a long, long time, because you’ll take the wound over nothing.
And then along comes the Course, which says the wound isn’t you at all and to pay as little attention to it as possible. Don’t let it grow deeper roots by watering it, cuddling it, talking to it. Or, if you can’t ignore it, live beside it. But, at all costs, don’t live in it. Turn off the sad country songs. Throwaway the cigarettes.
Jennifer shows up at my open van door, startling me a little. “Rumor has it that you’re living in this van,” she says, peeking into the back, where I have the seat pulled down into a bed.
“Is that true?”
“Not exactly,” I say.
“You’re such a hippie. My dad was a hippie.”
I can’t help but wonder if Jennifer could deliver me from my mourning. She’s pretty enough. Smart. Creative. It would be such a relief to stroke her long crow-black hair. She’s not a kid just starting out in life. She’s divorced with a couple of kids of her own. One of them has Asperger’s syndrome.
Back in class after the break we discuss the short story “How I Met My Husband,” by Alice Munro, in which plain Edie, sweet sixteen, gets not just a kiss but one long, hot dry hump from a sexy older guy. On a cot. In his tent. He promises to write to her, and she waits for a letter that never comes. The husband in the story turns out to be the mailman who never delivers the hoped-for letter, and not the man in the tent, on the cot, to whom she said, “Yes, oh God, yes and yes.”
A Manual For Living In a Conversion Van
After the workday is over, I meet my old friend Mike for a drink at either Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesday, or the Orioles Nest, a sports bar off Queen Street and 1-81. Lately we’ve been meeting at the sports bar, because I’ve been sleeping in its parking lot.
When we’re not flirting with Amber, our favorite bartender, Mike and I have philosophical talks. He distrusts this new spiritual path I’m on, thinks I’m growing soft in the head.
He had hoped for more from me. More intellectual honesty. Do I need to find God now that I’m getting older and having to face death?
“Yes,” I say, and we let it go at that and return to flirting with Amber. Mike tells her that he and I were in a couple of threesomes together. Way back when. In the old hippie days.
“You guys,” she says, half in disgust. Then she wants to hear about it.
The owner of the sports bar knows I sleep in the parking lot on weeknights. He doesn’t seem to mind. I’m a curiosity—the homeless professor. He thinks I must be one of a kind, but I’m not so sure. Anyway, I’m not even a professor. More like an adjunct instructor. I’d move closer to work, but I could never afford to live in Martinsburg now that it’s becoming a D.C. bedroom community. And sleeping four nights a week in my van saves time, as well, because I don’t have to drive an hour and a half back “home” to sleep in my bed in Cumberland, with the little girl upstairs skipping rope.
“Time is money,” says Ben Franklin. “Time is life,” Thoreau says, and it cannot be wasted without injuring eternity.
Plus I like sleeping in my van. I see it as a form of camping, of getting closer to nature. I have to keep a concerned eye on the weather, for example. This past winter it got down to ten degrees, and I had to be ready: long johns, two layers of clothes, a sleeping bag, a comforter, and a couple of blankets on top of that. Then I was as cozy as a bunny until about 4 A .M ., which is about time for me to start my day anyway. My face can get pretty red when the temperature drops toward the single digits: like the face of a homeless person, I noticed one morning, brushing my teeth in front of the restroom mirror at the Waffle House.
I’ve heard it said that the homeless often grow to like that life, and I can understand why. Mahavira, founder of the Jain tradition, chose to go naked; Buddha, to beg. There’s a young
woman in Cumberland who sleeps on the street every night, even in the depths of winter. People are always trying to rescue her, but she doesn’t want to be saved. Think of Jesus: the foxes had their holes and the birds their nests, but he had no pillow on which to lay his head. It’s a good thing to be homeless, he seems to have been saying. Too much comfort and safety can be anathema to seekers. The closer to the streets and the stars one lives, the less safe one is. And the less safe one is, the more alert. And the more alert, the more one learns.
One thing you learn is never to sleep naked. On a hot night you may be tempted to, but you never want to be naked when a cop raps his baton on your window at 3 A.M. Police forces are growing more alert themselves to the conversion-van lifestyle. As a conversion-van camper I can tell you: the less attention you attract, the better.
I’m building up a fund of knowledge that, in these increasingly troubled economic times, adjunct instructors all over the country may soon find they need. In between preparing lectures on Thoreau and first kisses, I’m writing a short pamphlet on the ins and outs of conversion-van living, to save new initiates a lot of unnecessary grief. Never use a reading light, for example. A reading light draws attention to the fact that someone is in the vehicle. Instead situate your van so that you can read by a parking-lot light or a streetlight. There are lights everywhere, and you’re going to want to park in a well-lit place anyway, because parking in dark places invites suspicion. People are less likely to take note of something right in front of their eyes.
It takes some trial and error to find the right spot. I didn’t just start out in the Orioles Nest parking lot. I tried several other locations first. Wal-Mart, for example. I liked it there well enough—the all-night bathrooms, the anonymity—but then the big-boy security guards started to buzz me a couple of times a night, to let me know they had me on their radar. Early one morning they followed me out of the parking lot and tailed me for a few miles through town.
You have to believe in yourself in such moments, I say in my pamphlet, when you’re tempted to feel that you don’t belong in this world. You simply have to say to yourself, Wal-Mart is a no-go for right now, and not return there for a while. But you don’t internalize the authorities on your tail as something wrong with you.
After several more failed locations, I settled on the Nest. For the time being I’m comfortable here. The bar doesn’t close until 3 A.M., and the diner next door opens at 5:30. I park at the border of the two lots, and thus, from the point of view of the night patrols, there are only a couple of hours when my van’s presence is odd. And in those couple of hours it will likely be perceived as a vehicle left behind by somebody who had too much to drink and got a ride home with his buddies. Even with unemployment pushing double digits, people still go out drinking and need rides home.
But no parking place is ever perfect, and there will always be a time to move on. At the Nest I may grow tired of the heavy rumble of trucks going north and south on 1-81. Plus there’s the occasional closing-time fistfight in the parking lot, sometimes within a few feet of my van’s window. I don’t particularly like to hear the sound of a fist landing on someone’s jaw, the cry of hurt. Last summer, on a Saturday night when I was back in Cumberland, there was a double homicide in this very parking lot. But for now I’m comfortable. There’s a pasture just beyond a fence and cows grazing in it. If there were a pond, I could be at Walden. The sound of the traffic on 1-81 could be the wind in the trees. Thoreau’s ten-by-fifteen-foot hut was not all that much bigger than my six-by-ten-foot van. Now that spring has come again, I often spend some morning time sitting in the sunshine with the side doors open, facing the rising sun, in some vague communion with the cows. I grew up on a farm back in Michigan, where we milked the cows by hand, my father and I. My formative years were in some ways closer to biblical times than to the twenty-first century. I might as well have been a Hindu farm boy. It’s not a great stretch of the imagination for me now to think myself sitting next to a field of grazing gods.
Plus the bed where I will sleep tonight is a mere fifty yards from where I am jawing with Mike and Amber. When I’m ready to say good night, I’m already home. Nothing left to do except say my prayers on my knees, crawl inside my sleeping bag, and read myself to sleep with a good book. Something spiritual. Tonight I pick an old favorite, The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James. It was published more than a hundred years ago but could have been written yesterday. I’m presently on the chapter “The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness.” So much in this chapter reminds me of the Course that I wonder if Helen Schucman might have read it, too.
To recognize our own divinity and our intimate relationship to the Universal is to attach the belts of our machinery to the powerhouse of the Universe. One needs to remain in hell no longer than one chooses to; we can rise to any heaven we ourselves choose; and when we choose so to rise, all the higher powers of the Universe combine to help us heavenward.
Within a page I’m already falling asleep. Allah, Krishna, William James—God bless everybody. In my mind the people who have appeared to me this day, in thought or in flesh, run onto a stage to take a bow. There’s Raven, with whom You’re well pleased. Always have been; always will be. I concentrate on seeing her through Your eyes for a minute. She takes a very deep bow. Fuck you, Raven. She always could make me laugh. There’s Mike, Your beloved son. Jesse. Amber. Henry David Thoreau. Hania. Jennifer. Doreen. Lance. Noah and the son he left behind. All holding hands in a long line and bowing. Jesus. Tara Singh. Joseph. Mohammed. The prodigal son and his jealous brother. The little girl upstairs. Adam and Eve. All the great stories mixing with the lives we try to live.
What more does a man really need, if he can stretch his legs entirely out and know that tomorrow morning breakfast will be brought to him at his table. Then a job to go to. A paycheck. Why would I not like living in my van on weeknights? I experience more moments of grace and gratitude here than anyplace else.
Of the two, gratitude comes easier. You can be thankful whenever you stop to think about it. Grace, it seems, you have to wait for. Grace has to come to you; it never happens while you’re thinking directly about it. But it has come before and will come again, in the little gaps in your thinking. Watch those gaps between the thoughts, Krishnamurti taught. That’s where the real stuff is. A moment comes when you disappear into the crack between two thoughts, and the distance between what you are seeing and who you are no longer exists. Here it is, you say to yourself. Becoming has become being. Jesus loves the little children of the world.