Well, it had to happen sometime and yesterday proved to be the day. I knew a time would come when writing even a piddling newspaper column would outflank me, undo me, and force me to forget about the column in the way that other things have been crow-barred into oblivion. It's not that what follows (rough-cut column) is the last of my attempts to write a column. I can only say, the experience brought me up short and said "no."
On Monday, having roughed out a column topic, I had to go to the dentist with a very tender tooth. He attacked with Novocaine and his own good skills. I got out of the chair minus the pain, but feeling run-over by the experience. By Tuesday, when I had planned to tweak and rewrite or even find a new topic if necessary, the column stared at me and I simply had no mind for it: I didn't like it and I didn't know how to make it so that I did like it. Finally, after trying a different topic and finding my mind equally flummoxed, I just gave up and threw myself on the mercy of the editor ... tweak it or 86 it: I simply didn't have what it took either to care or to write. So ... no column in the paper today, the day on which I generally see something I submitted in print.
So it goes.
Hard on the heels of a newly-minted 76th birthday, an email arrived that asked conversationally, "What do you think of atheism?" It was not a peculiar question since I do not make a secret of my interest in religion or spiritual life or whatever you want to call it.
I wrote back, "Atheism is about as good as any other religion and carries with it the same imperative: Just don't be lazy."
But then I reconsidered what I had written: What might I have thought if I received such an answer 45 years ago when I first committed to the course I chose? And I decided that I would give myself a birthday present and indulge in a look back: What the hell -- when you're 76, you can be excused for swimming in the past in the same way that the more up-to-date can be forgiven for clawing at the future.
So this column is a birthday present of sorts.
I once calculated that I had read more than 500,000 pages before I decided to get serious about spiritual life. I began with only two provisos: 1. I wanted to know if religion's promises were true. "True" meant true for me: True for anyone else was not good enough. 2. If whatever religion was did not reach into the bawdiest barroom brawl, I wanted nothing to do with it.
And so I set out. I got up at 3:30 in the morning so I would have time to read before getting to work at 7:30. I gobbled information -- first in Hinduism and later settling on Buddhism. I went through the obligatory phases of ecumenism ("Truth is one, wise men call it by many names"), imagining I knew what happened after death and doing my failed best to stop cussing. I flunked out of a Zen monastery where I learned to eat oatmeal with chop sticks and occasionally went barefoot in the snow. I polished the halos of those I imagined had them. I lived through three sex scandals. I learned all sorts of ways to assert and believe in paradox. I gnashed my teeth. I imagined I wasn't allowed to get angry. I wept. I laughed. And -- oh yeah -- I worried about getting horny. More often than not, progress seemed to be measured as three-steps-forward-two-steps-back.
There were experiences that blew me away. There were times as flavorless as wet cardboard. I learned to chant and bow. I had a robe. But once you have the gizmos and gadgets, two words remain: "Now what?"
Spiritual life was no walk in the park. It seemed to operate on the razor's edge of things. It was so sharp that the difference between nuthouse-crazy and unparalleled clarity was sometimes hard to see. This was no world for those who made themselves cozy and safe behind sandbags full of belief. No sissies need apply.
The years slipped by. Sitting on my Zen meditation cushion became less wondrous and, some might say (but not I), more wonderful. I got married. My wife and I had three children. I built a small meditation hall in my Northampton backyard and invited others in. Not many came: Zen is too simple and too hard.
And then, a little at a time, the years of practice, half-baked and otherwise, started to fade away. Like shards of some Antarctic shelf, first the chanting sheared off. Then the meditation. Unused incense sticks gathered dust. Then spiritual discussions became tiresome and redundant.
At first, this train of events frightened me. All those years, all that effort, all that intensity -- it had to have meaning and importance, didn't it? I had worked so hard to build it. Wouldn't I be punished like some wayward Catholic? There had to be something more, something virtuous and serene and assured and approving. But the dwindling sensation refused to be categorized or maintained. There had to be a payoff, but no one rang my doorbell with an outsized check.
And then, smooth as wet soap, I relaxed. Or perhaps I just got lazy. Or perhaps some dime dropped. What could be more appropriate than throwing yourself at something that then wanders away, like a happy, playful puppy?
If the best anyone could do for something s/he loved was to cling to it and protect it and save it ... C'mon: Don't be lazy.
Things come and things go. Not just some things. All things. Or perhaps "go" is too strong a word; maybe it's the solemnity that goes. This is not a threat and it is not a salvation. It's just a fact. Animal husbandry, poker, atheism, religion, stock trading, transmission changes, holiness .... get curious, love it, turn up the heat, dive in, cool off, climb out, dry off. Come again another day if you like. Or not.
I once enjoyed an email exchange with a Benedictine monastery. Since I live in a Christian country, it's important to understand a little of Christianity, so I asked him softball questions until I got around to what I really wanted to ask:
"It seems to me that only God can pray to God," I wrote to him. "What do you think?"
And I never heard from him again.