Tag Archives: 9/11
Divine Love, Divine Hate, an essay
Scientists have of late discovered that music stimulates the same areas of the brain as food and sex. That’s why listening to music can bring a chill, raise the small hairs on the back of the neck. That’s why music demands — and gets — our closest attention. You need me, the music calls, you need me to survive, to perpetuate your species. Without me, you will have less well-being, less pleasure and satisfaction. What a design! Food, sex and — music.
The pleasure centers of the brain — the reptilian, primitive intelligence — is not involved in abstract thought but entrusted with the very essence of staying alive. Yet the impulses and desires which originate there find means of expression in our higher intelligence. Food and sex are necessary for survival, so necessary that sometimes it seems as though the whole human world, all human society and culture, can be thought of as nothing more than an interesting mechanism to keep us supplied with food and sex.
The appreciation of music springs from that same primal area of the brain — could this possibly mean there must be a God, after all — a God who gave us another instinct, one for pleasure and beauty, in addition to our basic instincts to survive? Music, a divine invention with no practical purpose. No purpose at all other than to inspire in us joy, mystery, fear and abandon.
Think of all the emotions we can express with food, sex and music: passion, joy, disinterest, experimentation, violence, anger, tenderness, wistfulness, meditation, transcendence. Food, sex and music can be used to communicate, even intensify, all these emotions, yet the trio can also be used to push us past all of these feelings to a region of Godlike rationality and knowledge. Yes, occasionally our existence becomes clear, understood fully until surface complexity falls away into the deeper simplicity of detached understanding. A strangely quiet joy — a joy beyond anything prosaic.
A poetic joy, able to recreate itself in the mind forever. Sometimes the memory of such enlightenment is what keeps us going when the enlightenment itself feels as far away as Uranus or Pluto — as cold, as unreachable. Remembering how once we held it in our bodies and it filled us so there was nothing empty, noting lacking, nothing to fear — not even death. It is a knowledge, a contentment, which infants possess without awareness. To possess this peace with awareness is the greatest achievement, but one which few people are able to sustain for long. We hold it and fall in love with it and in an instant it twists out of our hands and flashes off into the distance like an agile, silvery minnow. Enlightenment as God’s minnow. Look at it too closely, try to keep it too long, and you may never see it again.
I myself have only a rather wobbly faith in God’s existence, but I nonetheless feel pity for people who declare without hesitation that nothing divine exists. What a drab, ugly world their interior castles must be, with only themselves for company.
The divine cannot be ruled out. We cannot know what exists beyond our senses. Certainly people have been enraptured by the idea of divinity — especially, most recently, the notions of divine anger, divine vengeance — modern terrorists have embraced these, but without embracing the corresponding ideas of divine love and divine compassion. Yes, people have fastened their wills on the idea of divine judgment, but they have ignored completely divine forgiveness.
The cockroach is as marvelous a creation as anything — see it scuttle away from the light, a most marvelous mechanism, see it copulate, see it reproduce itself, see it taste its food with pleasure twinkling in its delicate, wavelike feelers. No less miraculous than us. But we have an ability the cockroach does not have — to be self-aware of our divine impulses — our duty as human beings is to dive both below and above our own ordinary human consciousness. To bring all our unconscious knowledge and desires into to the conscious realm — both those desires labeled primitive and those labeled exalted.
Some elements of love are to be found in the roach. It loves its life: flees from danger, attempts to avoid harm, and tries to survive no matter what the odds. This is where the terrorists have failed. They have embraced only half the divine order — divine hate — the half that appeals to them more and suits their political purposes. They need to stretch themselves, accept all things God has created — even those they find distasteful or abhorrent — and leave the judging to God. They need to cultivate in themselves divine compassion and divine love. Terrorists profess they love God, but they do not love God’s creation — therefore that love is flawed, is not really love at all. Their love has turned inside out into hate.
They need to learn from the cockroach, as do we all. We possess vast potential for divine virtue, yet are so capable of falling into the abyss of pride. These terrorists have fallen, and they are trying to pull us down with them. We must not surrender to only part of the divine order. We must catch ourselves with the feelers of the insect before we tumble too far.
I cannot blame anyone who feels the need to destroy the terrorists. I feel that need myself, the blood lust of anger and retribution. But we must find a response pleasing to the divine. That is what prayer is — thinking about what a divinely perfect being might do, waiting for the small voice to tell us the right way to handle this new permutation of evil — without ourselves falling under its wicked spell.
This is what all religious searching has been aimed at. Whether we believe God exists or not — we can imagine God, as God might exist. Sometimes it is better to die than to kill the blameless. We can feel such things in our deepest selves, and these places are just as important to reach with the conscious mind as the highest levels of abstract thought.
We can imagine God, we can love God, we can honor God, and that is what matters most, not whether God truly exists. Good and evil, love and hate, right and wrong, call it whatever you like. It is our uniquely human gift, our uniquely human burden. Did we ask for this? Be careful what you wish for, goes the old admonition. Would I rather be my dog, or my cat? Sometimes I envy their peace of mind. They don’t know about world wars. But my most divine pleasures, feeling them and knowing that I am pleased, and knowing why — in this way I have my cake and eat it, too. The lure of that apple in the garden is a lovely allegory, whether it happened or not — we invented it. This is the quality of our humanity which we can never give back, no matter how much we might want to.
Heavenly Dances, Heavenly Intimacies, a short story
“Isn’t there any heaven where old beautiful dances, old beautiful intimacies prolong themselves?”
Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier
How can I be “dead” to any of the men I once loved? They are not “dead” to me. Not even H. How can I be “dead” to H.? They — even H. — are each as alive as when I was with them; as alive as the first time they touched me, whether tentatively or with confidence; whether softly or roughly; whether with passion or mere lust. It is shocking and appalling how H. lurched so radically to the right after 9/11. He began that journey to the Tea-Party-Mad-Hatter-Neocon-Bill-Buckley-Wall-Street-Apologist-Fringe-Brainless-Faux-News-Right when Ronald Reagan was shot; I was with him the very night it happened. We had a short affair, right then, because we started thinking the end of the world had arrived and we decided, like the crazy college students we were, to get married to celebrate our courage in the face of chaos! I realized very early on (but still way too late!) I was embarrassed to be seen in public with him. Did you ever start seeing, and marry someone whom you later realized you were embarrassed to be seen with? Perhaps the person in question was “dorky,” “geeky,” dressed “badly,” or had questionable “taste.” H. readily admits he was a “dork” in high school. He was on the debate team; need I say more? When you can’t bear to be seen in your lover’s/spouse’s/significant other’s/partner’s company, things usually don’t work out.
Still, I put in ten dutiful years, trying to make amends for my mistake in marrying H. The second he started making the big bucks, he dumped me. He left me for my best friend! I guess I deserved it, not taking control of my own life & filing for divorce two weeks after we married. And I guess I deserved how my ex-best-friend S. ruined me, as she subsequently did. She was in charge of the whole group we had socialized with: dictating how everyone in our “circle” should think, speak, act, or react. H. was dead wrong about most everything, but, to his credit, he was dead right about her. At the time I thought him merely woman-hating, but I see now, even though he did hate women, there was something more than simply being a “woman” he hated about her. He was covering up the fact he loved her by pretending to hate her. Now, I have no desire to see her, not ever again. She is definitely “dead” to me. Yes, I understand intellectually, a living death (call it shunning) can happen to anyone.
The upshot of all this boring history? I’ve been waiting for something a long time. I can’t blame anyone but myself for my unhappiness, not anymore. There is something dispirited inside me, something empty, drained, and beaten — something sick, something tired, something that has surrendered. I gave up, when? When my first ex-husband arbitrarily said no to children, breaking his solemn vow. When I realized I couldn’t find happiness outside myself — not with an old love, not with a new love, not with any of my subsequent husbands, my friends, my eventual children, or my family. Yes, to casual acquaintances and virtual strangers I am “happy, happier than I’ve ever been.” And it’s true! I’ve never been this happy, this contented, in my life. Yes, there are still problems. My oldest son is still half the world away, fighting an endless war on behalf of my “country.” My youngest son still has an ignorant, racist, rabidly conservative father. I am getting old. My face is melting. My neck is turning into a wattle. I am drooping.
Still, I cannot imagine any of them, the men I have loved or made love to, being dead to me the way my former best friend, S., is dead to me. Yet that is how they must feel about me, the way I feel about her. Wanting her removed from my memories. Wanting never to have met her. Not missing anything about her. She wants to see me, I heard from a mutual friend I still speak to. I don’t want to see her, or even see the mutual friend. I don’t even want to get as close as that! Because of reasons. Top secret, NSA, DOD, CIA, FBI, SEC, IRS, FDLE, GPD, ACSO reasons! No further comment!
MINN. MAN LEAVES N.Y.C. NEARLY 1M
BY SCOTT SHIFREL / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 2001, 12:00 AM
Joe Tomeczko was a little old man who often carried around a paper bag, took buses everywhere and tried to earn a few bucks by doing odd jobs for neighbors and friends. But another side of the 86-year-old Polish immigrant was discovered after he died in Minneapolis on Oct. 14 and left nearly $1 million to the City of New York. “He wanted to somehow honor the victims of the World Trade Center disaster,” said his attorney, William Wangensteen, who helped Tomeczko change his will after Sept. 11. “He felt a real kinship for the whole city and was very saddened by what happened,”
I Love You, Joe Temeczko
I am sorry you died with your heart broken,
but you were on the way to mending it in your
usual fashion, doggedly, with persistence,
never giving up, no matter how hard and dry
the bones they gave you to gnaw on,
your only nourishment. I love you for that,
and for your dapper air, your ascots,
the beautiful women in your embrace,
before you lost it all, and came to America.
The war drove you from your Polish home,
to this shore, under the gaze of that beautiful,
but blank-eyed lady, the statue in the poster
next to your bed, where you slept with dreams,
and nightmares, even children can comprehend.
You felt this country’s warm embrace, you said,
and so made yourself at home here, a peddler
at heart, selling, selling useful things to everyone
you met. A chandelier to your lawyer, soap to your
grocer, tools and services to neighbors. But your greatest
service you gave away for free. “I learned a lot about
persistence from him,” says the man next door, the one
you trusted to handle what was done with your small,
strong body and your possessions after you died. Joe,
my friend, my teacher, generous and demanding, no one
you touched or didn’t touch is unmoved by your spirit.
You expected the best from people, and in the end
that’s exactly what you received. Yes, once again
you’ve beat me up the stairs, but I am following
close behind. My dear, dead darling,
accept this small kiss from these unworthy lips of mine,
gently, and wherever you are, or aren’t, know
how much I love you, and always will.
Notes from September 18, 2001: Richard
That morning, I heard my three-year-old daughter wake up and say with delight, “It’s not dark out anymore.” I went in and saw her already sitting up in bed — the brilliant sunlight streaming in through the pink, translucent curtain of her bedroom — and saw how her head was haloed, as usual, by what resembled the pale, disorderly golden floss some people put on their Christmas trees. Angel hair — she was a tousled, blinking pink-and-gold person, recently emerged from babyhood.
“That’s right,” I said. “It’s not dark out anymore. Good morning.” She flopped back down and remained lying in her bed, even after I folded her white net safety-rail down. “What a beautiful girl,” I said, smiling down at her.
“I can’t get up,” she said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“I can’t get up because I’m dead.”
My heart darted out of my chest, chirping and flapping and shedding feathers like a startled wren but somehow I managed to feign businesslike nonchalance and smile reassuringly. “You’re not dead.” The effects of the terrorist attacks one week ago had filtered all the way down to toddlers far away in Florida.
Well, later that morning, after dropping her at her baby-sitter’s, I stopped at a mini-market at S.E. 9th Street and University Avenue to get a bottle of water. As I pulled up, there was a guy tottering oddly across the sidewalk in front of the market, very tall and skinny, and his long, skinny pink tongue hung out like a dog’s, quivering with each stride. I hoped — no, prayed — that he would not speak to me. He stood in front of me at the counter to purchase a bottle of cheap wine with some very tattered, dirty money. His coins were coated with sand and dirt, and the clerk swept them into a pile then covered them with a napkin as he left the store. I paid for my water. Several middle-aged men stood talking energetically while their lottery tickets printed out.
After paying for the water, I walked to my car and there stood a tall, picturesque man, vibrant and attractive even though missing most of his teeth. He wore a black cap with stars embroidered along the front: three black stars, on a vivid yellow ribbon band. A paler yellow jumpsuit, a long beaded necklace — and long, luxuriant dreadlocks. He wore a couple of rings on his hands, a small silver nose-ring, and a gold earring in his left ear. He was quite handsome, though at the same time I could tell he’d recently been through some very hard times, and probably had been in those bad times for a quite a while.
For a second, I worried, because of the other man, and that man’s obvious level of dissociation with the world (I really had prayed to avoid him), but in a second of observing this man, I knew I was on much more solid ground. I wouldn’t be talking to a total lunatic. He held out to me a book — a Bible — and said he had just seen someone throw it in the trash, and God had told him to get it out and now pass it on to me. I took the book from him, bedraggled and slightly crusted on the cover with God-knows-what. I felt instantly ashamed for worrying what germs might be on the cover of the old, battered Bible, but I forced myself to disregard that, and act untroubled.
During our brief chat, he told me he was a Vietnam veteran. He pulled out a battered leather wallet and showed me his VA Hospital ID, which I knew to be genuine, as I have seen others: his picture was on it, and his name and date of birth. He was born Christmas Day, 1947. I cannot remember his last name, only his first name, Richard, the same as my father’s. I looked at the ID and then back at his face, and what I saw was an honorable man, intelligence shining out through his eyes, but also in his eyes a sadness that probably ran deeper than I could ever imagine. His radiance and his sorrow ran through me like a knife, because of my very-realistic fear we’ll now be in another war – one which will kill many young men and destroy the spirits of many more. I was suddenly and inexplicably paralyzed by grief for him, as a veteran, as a street person, as someone now obviously fairly troubled in life. I saw him as he must have been, all those years ago, young and strong and relatively unscarred, and the breath caught in my chest, seeing him both then and now in the very same instant.
After a few moments, he asked very gently and politely if I had any money I could give him to buy some coffee. I was so happy he asked for something, so I could give him something. Ordinarily, I would give someone in this situation a few dollars, but I gave him $20 — I just wanted to give him something. Nobody can give him back what he lost, and money is a poor substitute for what he lost, but it’s a substitute nonetheless. Money and kindness are all we can really give. He went inside, and I buckled my seatbelt, turned on the car, grabbed the steering wheel, but then sank down over it, clutching it, sobbing for the first time in a long time, not caring in the slightest who saw me or heard me. It felt like a release; I only wish it had gone on longer. He came out with his coffee, saw me hunched over sobbing, and got alarmed — he knocked on my window.
“Are you okay?” he asked. Genuine concern; sincere compassion. I can detect those things in other people from the slightest of nonverbal cues, unguarded genuineness and sincerity are so rare in this world. His sincerity made it better, but also worse at the same time.
“I’m okay,” I choked out between sobs. “It’s just this whole thing.” He didn’t have to ask what I meant, because of course he already knew. The power of these events to affect us has crossed every kind of barrier — sex, race, socioeconomic status, education level, sanity level — we’re all family right now. I rolled down the window and he embraced me. I was grateful for the human compassion, pure and simple. His smell was strong and complicated, some of the notes pleasant, some sour, but oh, so real and human and I drank it in, all of it, the bitter and the sweet, a primal metaphor for this crazy life itself. He asked, tentatively and graciously, could he sit with me a while.
“Yes,” I answered. “Please.”
He started to talk, and I listened, giving him my fullest attention. I bonded with him in a way I’ve never bonded with any stranger in such a short time. I guess we spent about an hour together. Richard, from West Virginia. He is a Vietnam veteran, former Marine, former POW. He talked generally about what he was trained to do in the Marines, but said he didn’t want to tell me anything too specific about his experiences during the war — he said women shouldn’t ever hear such things. We talked about everything there is for human beings to talk about and he read to me from the Psalms and Matthew. So devout, so earnest, he held my hand in his while he read Scripture, ministering to me like a Sister.
In fact, he had been in the past a minister, he said, and from his familiarity with the chapters of the Bible I knew he wasn’t exaggerating. He has two living daughters, now grown, and another daughter who died at age two, just two years ago, from a heart ailment. He has his deceased baby’s name tattooed on his shoulder, plus three scars from cigarette burns — two for each of her birthdays, and a third for the day she died. He cried twice with me, once while talking about her — Zaidyn — and a second time while talking about how his stepfather used to beat his mother, years ago. He told me he still calls his mother “Mommy” when he calls her on the phone.
“Do you think that’s stupid?” he asked. “For a grown man to say, Mommy?”
“Absolutely not,” I answered. “I think it’s wonderful. I think more grown men should.”
He has been barred from our local homeless shelter, St. Francis house, for two years for giving food he obtained there to someone else. It’s a rule there, you’re not supposed to do that, share your rations. What a dehumanizing policy. It’s our basic need, to share. Damn them for that. He lived in Jamaica at some point for five years, his grandfather was born there. One of his grandmothers was a full-blooded Cherokee. He had played conga drums with Bob Marley.
I felt, I think, something like the presence of what human beings call the Divine. Divine love. I comforted him, he comforted me. I gave him another $20, all I had left in my wallet. He blessed me, I blessed him back with all my heart.
He still played conga drums around town. He knew of Ajamu Mutima, another drummer. “Another tall, skinny dude with dreads,” he said, laughing. As Richard and I spoke, I thought often of my father, and my stepmother Dorothy (his African-American wife), and of the rich heritage from Africa we all need to embrace.
He spoke of his lost two-year-old saying to him “I love you, Dada.” As a fellow parent, I knew how precious those words were. His pain at her loss, I felt it palpably, physically.
He knew when to end the interaction, and for that too, I was grateful, as I was overwhelmed and needed to go off and write it all down so I would never forget. Though I didn’t want to break our contact, I somehow understood it had to be broken, because it had been so miraculous, we had gotten so much from each other, we didn’t want anything to detract from the miracle. We didn’t want to descend into ordinariness with each other. He didn’t want it to end, either, but he was gracious enough to know to end it. Restraint can be admirable; sometimes, less is indeed more. But we were both reluctant to leave each other, and when I started the car and put it in reverse, he approached the window one more time. And that, too, was perfect.
Because he asked me, at the end, the question that made it all even more clear, more passionate and more profound. The question that made it, well, I don’t use this word much, but there is no other word to use in English — perfect.
“Did you feel it, too?” he asked me. He looked at me, searching my face with his deep brown eyes, eyes that held the world in that moment. Eyes I wanted to fall into.
I knew precisely what he meant, and I had indeed felt it. He had asked a question I couldn’t even have begun to formulate, so overcome was I with my feelings. “Yes,” I answered. “Yes,” I repeated, nodding to him with absolute recognition, and with that he leaned in and embraced me with joyous intensity for one final moment. I returned his affection as I would return my own child’s, or my mother’s. I am profoundly grateful, and I will never forget him. It’s true, Mystery can manifest in the most unlikely ways. We fell together like long-lost twins, then slowly let each other go. Without saying much of anything but “Did you feel it, too,” and “yes,” we both knew without doubt that he was a noble person with an eternal soul, and so was I, and we had finally found each other for all eternity in a single hour. The force resonating through our bodies was Divine.
The Getaway Plan (Late Fall, 2001)
I am on the phone
with my neighbor
who has the most delicate
blue eyes in all the world
jeweled inside tissue-thin lids
listening to her evacuation plan
my own words
my chest is tight
my ribcage bound with steel
bands of dread
three days’ worth of food
she tells me
and don’t forget your
while I’m trying to decide
what the word important
my three-year-old cries
for gummi bears
she’s had too much
candy already this night
because when she kneels
and cries, begging for more
I can’t say no
what terrifies me most
is a vision of her
as she might end up, should the world
melt around us
and leave us where mothers and babies
get ground into dust
a place with no pity
where her eyes stop shining
with tears for candy
a place where her eyes
stop shining altogether
my 78-year-old neighbor
a beautiful woman
with glowing silver hair
that caresses her neck
like my grandmother’s once did
tells me exactly what I should pack
so we can leave immediately
just in case they blow up
the three nuclear reactors
in our state
the closest just 70 miles away
she’s got maps of the wind currents
so we’ll know which road to take
she says Florida will never
be habitable again
and I think of the gopher tortoise
who lives out near the barn
how when I mow the field
I so carefully avoid its burrow
because it’s endangered
I see it crossing the dirt road
every couple of days
our eyes always meet but
I’m sure it won’t remember me
after I’m gone
and all the while she talks
I am trying to breathe
and act as though
I am going to keep my children
safe from harm
but there’s something wrong
with my chest
it’s those steel bands