This is a post I drafted seven years ago but did not publish. It involves something that happened to me during the Christmas season. Reading it now, after finding it by chance, I see that I’ve changed, but I’m still glad to have rediscovered this corner of my mind. I fixed some bad syntax, and corrected a few typos, of which I found more as I went along, which suggests to me that when I originally wrote this I had a few beers at hand. Some things do change.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Two Buddhists meditate on “om” for an hour, go into the parking lot, and rear end each other on the way out. They take it very well.
I had originally thought my next post was going to be about Christmas. You see, I was compelled this year, as many Charlie Browns have been compelled before me, to really make the most out of the Christmas season. I had only vague ideas about what this meant. I figured ice skating would be involved. Eating a candy cane. Being pleased to hear “Feliz Navidad” and then being sick of it and then being pleased again. That sort of thing.
I had told this plan to two or three friends of mine, but I always heard warning bells whenever I said it. There’s that moment in the film Ordinary People where the one troubled teen says to the other troubled teen, let’s have the best Christmas ever! And then she kills herself.
I was having a Heineken with an acquaintance in a lobby one day, as we do, and I mentioned that because of work I wouldn’t be going home until the 24th. I said, “It’s kind of nice, because I’ll be home and–boom, it’s all happening.” She nodded, but noted the obvious: with such a compressed schedule, it’s only too likely that come the 26th I will, once again, feel like I’ve missed it somehow, and give myself a dose of the old Ordinary People, if you know what I mean.
So I thought I would write something about how we want our experiences to be meaningful, and while we all know that sets bars too high sometimes, it is at the same time a valuable pursuit. After all, rituals are important, whether they’re self-invented or societal, and I think it’s no coincidence that, birth of Jesus or no, we chose the darkest part of the year to visit family and light lights.
That’s what I was going to write. Then a woman and I backed up our cars at the same time and changed our lives forever.
I mean that in a mundane way, but it is true.
I don’t know about you, but I have dreams where I stab people to death. Occasionally they are people I know. And every time I kill someone in a dream, I get this panic. Not because I think what I’ve done is wrong, but because it’s irrevocable. There is no going back. I instantly feel nostalgia for the life I had before I stabbed whoever to death.
Yesterday I finished “The Kreutzer Sonata” by Leo Tolstoy, where he describes just such a feeling: a man stabs a family member to death, and immediately begins wishing he hadn’t. He even begins to believe he didn’t do it. To me, this irrevocable quality of certain actions relates to the reason we’re transfixed when we knock over a glass full of something. “I watched it fall! I watched it!”
Consider too: we all remember where we were on September 11th. At times like this, we know, either at the moment or after the fact, that Something Has Happened. Something which cannot be undone. And, for better or for worse, we like the idea that we have lived through Things That Happened. It makes us feel more real.
Real: having independent objective existence (Merriam-Webster)
I’m not saying that we like it when innocent people are murdered. I’m not even saying we like it when we smash our taillights. But in a life that is filled with vast passages of emptiness, of staring into space, of holidays that don’t measure up, the Real cuts like a knife.
The most difficult thing for me to detachedly experience, while the cop wrote up our insurance details in her car, was seeing the other meditators leave the building in waves and register what had happened. They would stare–because we love to know What Happened–and they would murmur arpeggios of interest, but they were also clearly happy to not be Real at this particular moment. Still, recapitulating the details will give them a transitory aura of Realness: “Yeah, hon, the session was good, and then two people got into an accident on the way out. The police came! It’s like a joke: two Buddhists meditate on ‘om’ for an hour…”
There was a kind of shame involved, I’m saying, in this Realness. Perhaps it was the involvement of the police. A year and a half ago, I committed an act which is, and will I believe forever be, one of my worst moments. I was walking with friends to go dancing. We were all boozy. Someone made a joke. I playfully pushed that someone. She fell down and cut a gash on her leg.
And a security guard looked over, as if to say, “Do I need to get involved?”
As if to say, “Can you no longer manage the living of your own life?”
–I’m going to leave this space blank for you to meditate on “om” for an hour here, if you’d like.
Actually, every moment, or at least every moment that involves us interacting with another human, is irrevocable, positive or negative, in ways we may not even understand.
I recently had another Heineken in a lobby with another acquaintance, as we do. This is someone toward whom I have felt embarrassed as of late. I’ve never pushed her and gashed her leg, but I’ve been drunk around her, and that drunkenness has helped amplify my natural boorishness from time to time.
So I dreaded a little our lobby rendezvous. And after all that, after all the many things I felt she might have held against me, she blindsided me:
“Remember when you told me I wasn’t interesting?”
It was a casual joke I had made once and didn’t think twice about. And yet this is what had stuck. So while I was worried about my own baggage, she was carting around hers. And they weren’t even the same label. [I mean…also I’m an asshole. –DG, 2020 version]
Now imagine Hugh Grant narrating over some slo-mo footage of people at airports. “Real actually is…all around.” A blessing and a burden.
I’ve been reading, very slowly, The Religions of Man by Huston Smith. I got it out of the trash at Sarah Lawrence. Just recently I finished the section on Hinduism. There is a passage, and I can’t find it so you have to trust me, that describes how you should see your persona as distinct from the inner part of you that is god, that is Atman. To practice, the yogis tell us, you should try seeing yourself from a bird’s eye view, and narrating: “There’s Daniel eating another peanut butter sandwich. There’s Daniel backing into another car. There’s Daniel casually saying something that will remain forever as scar tissue on another person’s heart.”
I’ve tried it a bit recently, though I haven’t yet tried it during sex, which I feel might be a healthy occupation. It can’t hurt to make one’s sense of self-worth less tied to the ebb and flow of libidinous success. “Kreutzer Sonata” is also about a man trying to see his wife as something other than his possession, trying to see her as a human in her own right. It’s like being Rosencrantz and trying to realize someone else is Hamlet. Everyone is Hamlet.
Mike Daisey, who has had his own problems dealing with the Real, described once in a monologue why Paris Hilton, and other celebrities, might be closer to Hindu detachment than the rest of us:
“When you’re f—ing Paris Hilton, you’re f—ing her, you’re f—ing her, thinking, ‘Oh my god, I’m f—ing Paris Hilton.’ And that realization takes you out of the moment. You can never fully be in that moment, because you’re thinking about what that moment signifies. And Paris Hilton? What’s Paris Hilton thinking? Paris Hilton is thinking, ‘Oh my god, oh my god: I’m Paris Hilton.'”
You can watch here, and coincidentally this is the moment when a group of people famously (as famous goes for one-man-show standards) walked out of his show en masse. Maybe it was a little too transcendent for them.
This is an age where more and more we can be defined by a single one of our actions. A recent example would be Justine Sacco, whose pre-flight tweet about catching AIDS in Africa found her jobless and globally despised by the time she landed. That’s going to haunt her forever. But maybe those in the public eye are ultimately the lucky ones. Life goes on. “Life finds a way,” as Jeff Goldblum tells us, even when we are embarrassed and ashamed. So celebrities and the infamous might have a headstart to enlightenment: “That’s not me. This scandal is not the real me. Nothing can touch the real me.”
(Yes it’s possible the real Sacco is racist and hateful, but even that can change.)
I never really finished the post. All I had after writing about Justine Sacco–and who remembers her now?–were some loose ends I’d jotted down, either to use or not use. It’s fitting enough not to have a real ending on this post, so I’ll leave the notes in too.
Note 1) a quote from Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
And what if I’m not successful? What if I’m just another person in the middle of the pack? What if there’s only the middle of the pack? Then I have to see everyone differently.
Note 2) What I overheard the lady who collided with me say to an onlooker:
Onlooker: “And you just had the meditation?”
Lady: “That’s why we can…handle it.”
Note 3) Me remembering that my elementary school teacher, instead of putting you in time out, would put you in what he called “the no-fault zone.” I wasn’t sure what it meant then (in 1993) and I’m not sure now (in 2013 and 2020).
Note 4) My musing on the fact that post-accident theater involves a “structured improvisation where you both avoid saying anything that could construe you’re at fault. I really want to say, boy I am sorry this happened right now – just acknowledge that we had killed our Buddha buzz – but I couldn’t. I tried to say it with my eyes, and by politely calling her ‘ma’am.'”
Okay okay I can’t help offering this as a coda. This hadn’t happened yet when I drafted the post, but after I picked up the pieces of my broken Honda Civic, I eventually found a guy who was willing to repair my car over Christmas. It was super expensive, and I had to pay in cash, but as recompense, and over my repeated “oh that’s all right”s, he loaded me and my travel bag into his red sports car and drove me, at high speeds, to LaGuardia. He was a small, old Italian man, hunched over the wheel, and at one point–I think I had to explain signage at a toll booth to him–he said, quite calmly, by way of explanation, “I can’t see so good anymore.” He didn’t seem to think this perilous condition was anything he had to apologize for. Maybe that’s the punchline of the joke I was stuck in. Two Buddhists meditate on “om” for an hour, hit each other on the way out of the parking lot, and realize they have nothing to apologize for. They’d already let it go.