Geezer Wisdom

I was driving to the Polo Fields to do my five miles at a geezer pace, having dropped in at Alvin's for a quick conversation with some fellow geezers who gather there. I didn't stay long, being on my way to exercise, but long enough to express my anger that my daughter was smoking cigarettes. "Listen," Alvin said, "If that's the worst thing you've got to worry about you're lucky. Her peers will take care of that, because smoking is frowned on by almost everybody now." From the corner another geezer said, "That's right, people give you dirty looks on the street for smoking cigarettes."

So I was driving my extra hot latte over to do battle with time and distance and I was thinking that one of the things I have learned about my past is that my friends usually gave me pretty good advice. Most of the trouble I got into was when I went against it. Your friends are not emotionally involved, and they can see the situation from the outside, with more objectivity. And what nails your ass to the cross is a loss of objectivity, as for example when you fall in love with somebody who is not good for you.

So I called the home phone and she said, "Yea?"

"I just talked to the geezers," I said, "and the consensus is that I'm being too hard on you. I don't want you to smoke, and you know that, but you're grown now and I can't make you do anything. All I can do is tell you that smoking is bad for your health."

She laughed. "I can read that on the pack."

There is a vicious animal inside of me that snarls at sarcasm, but I have learned to hit it with a hot shot and keep it at a distance. And when I do that and stop trying to control everything, I realize that she is pretty funny, actually. She just isn't me. She is, however, so much like me in a lot of ways that it scares the devil out of me.

I remember a bit William Burroughs did about the American businessman who looked at himself in the mirror every morning, when he was shaving, and had to admit, "Other people are different from me, and I really don't like them very much."

I also remember a playwright talking about her play on a public radio program, and commenting on how difficult it was for her to learn that other people are not her. "I used to think that everybody was different on the surface, but underneath we're the same," she said. "Then I had a black girlfriend who came home with me for a vacation, and we talked about that. She made me realize that my view was naive. The surface more often reflects the difference beneath it."

As I was jogging around the track I was thinking about my morning meditation. I was thinking about how my daughter agreed yesterday to do it with me, and so I was considering what might be a good subject today.

What came to my mind was what seems to me the most important single issue that is causing the social destruction in the country, in families, and in personalities. And that issue is the attempt to focus on the "end" instead of the "means." They cannot be separated, and from the war in Iraq to the bombing of Lebanon to the packing of the court to the loss of Congressional oversight to children taking drugs which destroy their brains, it is all symptomatic of this one issue. The issue is the mistaken idea that if you think your cause is just, you can do whatever you want to advance it.

And so I began to think of how I would start the mediation today. I was making a sort of spoke outline, connecting some different ideas. The first was the Zen saying, "When you cut the bread, cut the bread." It sounds simplistic but it carries in it the instruction to pay attention to what you do in the moment, and bring your full consciousness to it, and don't get ahead of yourself.

This is the attitude with which I jog, knowing that if I begin to think about finishing, or how far I have to go, instead of staying in the moment and concentrating on being where I am right now, I will get tired. By staying focused, I can vary my pace and not wear myself out. I know that in a few weeks if I stay on my schedule, I'll go faster without trying, or run further without tiring, or both.

The second spoke which came to mind was an experiment done with zen monks. It had to do with the sounding of a bell at a predictable interval. An ordinary person hears the bell the first time and the second time, but once there is the opportunity to habituate the sound, they start to hear it less. The brain center where they register it lights up with decreasing intensity. But the zen master hears the bell the same way, every time. He or she doesn't habituate it and lose consciousness of it.

The third spoke was the nature of memory, and how there are two aspects to it. There is the registering of memory and there is the recall of it. The more something is habituated the more it drops into unconsciousness, until it can move beyond the power of recall. In the story of Beowulf, after his battles with Grendel and with Grendel's mother, he has many other battles. There are disturbances down beneath the surface, and he has to go down and fight battle after battle, until eventually, one time, he doesn't come back.

When I was driving back home there was a program on the radio, and a man was talking about the present state of the political system. He addressed my favorite issue, the separation between the ends and the means in partisan politics. The administration is so partisan that it has effectively shut half the country out of power, moving partisans even onto the Supreme Court. And anybody who tries to do anything about it is maligned, marginalized, and destroyed.

It seems so obvious to me, and to a lot of other people, that even the idea of separating means and ends is fallacious. It postulates a situation in which there is a separation between what you do now and what you get later on, as if there is going to be an "end." There isn't any end, there is just the seed and the flower which grows from it, and no matter what you do you can't grow anything from that seed that isn't contained in it already.

When you cut the bread, cut the bread. When you treat others with respect, when you honor them not because they are a reflection of you, but because it is in your nature to love God as a mystery you cannot ever know, you will not end up with the entire world hating your guts.

When my daughter was just a baby I taught her a poem, and she could recite it perfectly. It was "Abu Ben Adam," and it goes like this:

Abu Ben Adam, may his tribe increase,
awoke one night from a deep dream of peace
and saw within the moonlight in his room,
making it rich like a lilly in bloom,
an angel writing in a book of gold.
Exceeding peace had make Ben Adam bold
and to the vision in the room he said,
"What writest thou?"
The angel raised her head,
and with a look made of all sweet accord,
answered, "The names of those who love the Lord."
"And is mine one?" asked Abu.
"Nay, not so," replied the angel.
Abu spoke more low but cheerily still and said,
"I pray thee then, write me as one who loves his fellow men."
The angel wrote and vanished.
The next night she came again
with a great wakening light
and showed the names of those whom love of God had blessed,
and lo, Ben Adam's name led all the rest.

At some point she didn't remember the poem anymore, but I know that is a matter of recall, not of memory. It is there, to be always in memory, sometimes in the shadow and sometimes in the light, like most memory.

When I got home, sweaty and fragrant, she waved her hand to indicate I was too ripe to be close to, and said she was going with Bianca to try acupuncture.

"How about our morning meditation?"

"I've only got fifteen minutes," she said, "and I have to take a shower."

And there she went, leaving me with my imagination, in which I give her all the tools she needs, all the fatherly guidance that can save her from the dangers we see laying like quicksand across the landscape as our children move out from under our control, and toward independence, dependence, success, failure, into the unknown. And I think about lyrics from a Neil Young song,

"You can really learn a lot that way. It will change you in the middle of the day. Though your confidence may be shattered, it doesn't matter.."

Posted: Fri - August 11, 2006 at 11:41 AM