Last night, I got an email from Keith, a guy with whom I went to college and a guy I haven't seen or had contact with in more than 50 years. He confirmed that he did indeed plan to visit on Oct. 7. Tongue-in-cheek (I hope), he suggested I might have forgotten. But I hadn't forgotten. In fact, I am looking forward to meeting someone I do not know ... whom I did know. There is something bizarre and delicious about it.
I like meeting people I don't know. It's like turning on the TV and discovering a channel I had previously been unaware of ... something brand new but not new at all ... like running into a thought that I thought I hadn't thought and yet there it was, proof of the fact that I had, in fact, thought it somewhere, somehow ... otherwise how could I possibly think it?
In college, Keith and I played billiards, among other things. It was almost -- or perhaps entirely -- a spiritual experience. Both of us were serious. Both of us took pleasure in the formality of the ritual -- the care each took not to talk, not to stand in the line of sight of the other person when he was taking a shot, to remain still during that shot and, when there was a good shot, to tap the cue twice on the floor to indicate approval or praise. No talk, just two taps.
Naturally, each of us wanted to win, but that was not the prime objective. Winning was a facet on the gem we created, a gem that would have been muddied and dimmed if the other facets had been transgressed. This was not some elementary-school teacher's realm in which the thin-tea "good-joooob's" rained down indiscriminately and without much regard to accomplishment. This was not a time for the social praise that amounts to a poor man's blackmail or some ill-conceived compromise: "I'll praise you if you praise me and both of us can feel oh-so-wonderful."
Keith and I could play for hours. We once entered the college pool hall at 8 a.m. and didn't leave until midnight. It was a snow day -- no classes. No classes, but we had our classes to attend. Three balls -- two white, one red -- on a green-felt-topped, pocket-less table.
It was Keith who organized a college-wide billiards tournament, something to include the more-popular pool (with the pockets) and our three-ball game.
And when the finals rolled around, there we were, pitted against each other. Since we were, so to speak, that last men standing, we decided to up the ante -- to create a game that we had never played before: We decided to play 100 points of three-cushion billiards. In three-cushion billiards, the cue ball (the one struck by the player's cue) hits one object ball and then must strike three cushions (table railings) before hitting the second object ball. The game requires some knowledge of angles, the spin on the ball (English), how hard to hit and some defensive strategy about leaving your opponent with a hard shot, assuming you miss.
One hundred points, given our skill level, which was moderate, would take a long time to complete. A very long time. It would require physical energy to stand up for so long. But more, it would require mental energy ... the kind of attention that any athlete ultimately must bring to the game.
We played through the 'serious.' We played through the 'sad.' We played through the 'giggles.' We played through the 'energy' and we played through the 'fatigue.' We played through 'beauty' and we played through 'ugliness.' We played through 'anger' and we played through 'love.' We played through the 'delight' and we played through the 'relief.' We played through the 'focus' and the 'lack of focus.' And no matter how much we played through, still there was more to go. More and more and more.
Going into the game, we both had imagined a lot of ball-busting effort -- that's why we settled on 100 points -- but living through it was an entirely different matter. Wise or pussy-footing imagination was left in the dust. Praise and blame was for pussies. This, in the end, was this ... and there was more and more and more of this. Our rituals stayed with us throughout, but in the end there were no rituals. We were like blackboards that had been wiped clean of all supposition or elevation or success or failure.
And when, in the end, I happened to win, it was not the victory that sprang to mind. I have won very few trophies in my life and the ones I have won have never convinced me in ways that others seem to enjoy. Probably due to upbringing, I have never been very good at relying on the praises of others or very good at using the reliance that others put on victory to further my own cause.
What came to mind was something that happened years later when, after sesshin, or a Zen Buddhist intensive retreat, I was walking home with a young woman who had also attended the sesshin and she began to cry. I asked her why she was crying and she almost wailed, "There's no one to thank!" So I said, "Thank me." So she said, "Thank you." And I said, "You're welcome." And we just kept on walking.
More and more and more and more ... of this. I suppose there's nothing wrong about praise if you have nothing better to do. But really, walking together requires no trophies. It just requires a sure-footed, amen delight. Who would want to sully such a delight?
How could there possibly be more when there is this?