Saturday, July 30, 2005

I Sit In A Chair and Read the Newspapers


by Carl Sandburg

I sit in a chair and read the newspapers.

Millions of men go to war, acres of them are buried, guns and ships broken, cities burned, villages sent up in smoke, and children where cows are killed off amid hoarse barbecues vanish like finger-rings of smoke in a north wind.

I sit in a chair and read the newspapers.

A Good Solution

Last winter, I discovered that my blanket was too long at the top and too short at the bottom. I had an extra foot of blanket tucked up under my chin and my feet were sticking out from under the blanket at the bottom of the bed. So I asked Gail to cut a foot off the top of the blanket and sew it onto the bottom, which she did. Now everything is fine.

Oh, by the way, I must remember to set my clocks back an hour this fall...

Thursday, July 28, 2005

My Talk With God

It started just after midnight, Monday February 14th. First came the shortness of breath, followed in moments by the rales. I woke up Gail and informed her of what was happening. She wasn’t even out of bed when the gurgling started. My breaths became shorter and shorter.
I knew I was in a world of shit.
I threw on my shoes and a jacket and headed for the car. By the time I got there it was painfully obvious that I had only minutes before my window of life would close completely, perhaps forever. North Shore-Long Island Jewish hospital (the *good* hospital) was 20 minutes away. Fortunately, I was less than a mile from the Nassau University Medical Center (the county hospital). Gail dialed 911 while I struggled to keep breathing. I was literally drowning in my own body fluids.
The cops were there in minutes. I was unconscious when I arrived at the hospital and the doctors were fast, efficient, and very young! I thought to myself, “I hope they know what they’re doing…” But I knew right away that I wasn’t going to die. I watched intently as they went about their business, like they had done it a thousand times before. Not like on ER! No shouting, no rushing, no emotion. The breathing tube was inserted, the IV installed, the Foley in place, the respirator hooked up. It was only a matter of minutes. This is all still clear in my consciousness. After all, I was standing right there watching them the whole time.
I began to notice that the room was getting very bright, like someone had opened the window and the warm sunlight was streaming in. It got so bright that I could no longer see anyone in the room. I began to walk towards the one figure I could still see, down the corridor in front of me. As I approached, the figure did not become clearer, but more amorphous. A great wave swept over me, a sensation of complete peace, joy and contentment. As I approached the figure, it stepped aside and I looked into the beyond.
I saw a young man nervously trying to get up the courage to ask a pretty girl on a date. I saw an old man, sitting quietly in front of his beloved wife’s casket, his head buried in his hands. I saw a young father, scolding his son for writing on the wall with a crayon. I saw a soldier, pinned down in a trench, praying to God that he would live to see his daughter get married. I saw my mother, walking across the street in Brooklyn to the neighborhood hospital, where she would give me life. I tried to understand what I was seeing.
And then, God spoke to me.
“This thing you call time, is an artifact, composed of eidetic simulacra. Imagine that you are wandering over the surface of the earth for all eternity. Every point on the earth’s surface exists simultaneously, even though you are not present at all locations. So it is with time. Every point exists simultaneously, even though you are not there. The human mind creates beginnings and ends. There is no past, no present, no future. It’s all the same thing. Every moment, every event, every joy, every tragedy exists simultaneously. Only in your world, your mind, your reality is time linear, with beginnings and ends.”
I pondered this for a while, trying to absorb this simple yet profound truth. Then I spoke to God.
“I want to go back. Send me back to Afghanistan. I’ll assemble an army, I’ll hunt down Osama bin Laden and convince him of the error of his ways. I’ll teach him about love and tolerance and humanity. I’ll save all those innocent people.”
But God said no. “You’ll strike up a conversation with him. He’ll try to convince you that his actions are justified. You’ll listen and be convinced. You’ll join his cause and become an Ayatollah like Cat Stevens and move to Iran.”
“Send me back. Send me back to Memphis. I’ll find Elvis, I’ll take away his drugs. I’ll tell him that we love him. I know that he will listen”.
But God said no. “You’ll ask him if you can ride in his plane, come to Graceland and eat peanut butter and banana sandwiches. You’ll fall in love with his daughter and want to marry her.”
I sensed that I was losing and that I would soon be beaten. I tried one last time. “Send me back to Calvary. I’ll talk to the Romans and convince them not to kill Jesus. If they don’t listen, I’ll help him escape, hide him in the desert. If they hurt him, I’ll treat his wounds, nurse him back to health, follow his teachings.”
But again, God said no. “You would listen to his teachings, but you would not follow them. You would call yourself a Christian and claim to follow the precept ‘Resist not evil: but whoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also’, but you would make war on innocent women and children for the flimsiest of reasons. You would call yourself a Christian and you would claim to follow the example of Jesus to ‘judge not, lest ye be judged’, yet you would be filled with moral indignation and self righteousness and permit envy and hate to be acted out under the guise of virtue. You would believe in your heart that ‘if thou wilt be perfect, go and sell what thou hast, and give to the poor’, yet you would allow children in poor countries to go to sleep hungry, perhaps to die of malnutrition while you gather up to yourself great wealth, far beyond your simple needs.”
God continued on. “I will not send you back in time because time belongs only to me. This is why I am who I am and you are who you are. All you have is now. That is the difference between us. Eternity belongs to me and I reserve it for myself. It is, you might say, the one real advantage that I have over you. You cannot change what you call the past and you cannot affect what you call the future. Now belongs to you. Do you want it?
“Yes I do.”
I turned slowly and began to walk back down the corridor. The bright light began to fade until it became almost impossible to see anything. Soon it was totally dark. I heard a voice calling my name and I slowly opened my eyes. It was Gail, standing at the side of my bed.

The Attic

I visited my old neighborhood recently, where my mother still lives, and there by some unseen, yet strongly felt force I was drawn to the old attic. I hadn't realized how many things were stored there, things that I had imagined had been disposed of long ago. And yet, there they were. It is a delightful, yet frightening experience to revisit the old memories and to look back upon the path that has been followed to bring us to our present place. Each tattered remnant marks with crystalline clarity a point where life could easily have taken a different turn, and by doing so, have produced a different outcome.

One cannot help wondering if these paths were bound to be taken, as set down by the hand of fate, or chosen as a result of carefully reasoned free will and unerring judgment. Also, one cannot help wondering if it really makes any difference at all which is the truth. What is clear however, is that I have spent the better part of my life meandering from side to side, widening the banks of my river, but never cutting deeper into the channel. I do not hope to break any new ground at this point, only to deepen what is already there.

All of these things that I see connect me to the rest of the world and to the events in which my life is intertwined with the lives of others. But standing here, I sense that I am completely alone in the world. I have drifted through peoples lives, like a river flows through its channel, touching each rock and branch, exploring each swirling eddy and current, but leaving no hint or evidence that I had ever been there. My goodness, there's a lot of dust on these old memories. Once, they had meaning and value and were carefully stored here when their usefulness was over, as the great flow of life advanced to newer and uncharted regions. But now, their only value is to me, insofar as what they represent. They are the stations of my life, where my train has passed, and I, the lonely passenger, looking out the window into the mist, feel unable to draw their attention.

(uncle eddie, mom, grandma, 1923)

I'm sitting by my daughter's bedside in the pediatric ward of the hospital. She has just come down from the recovery room and I am waiting for her to wake up. In the bed across the way, a young boy, around 14 years old is asleep. His father sits at his side, his eyes half closed in weariness. It seems like he has been there a long time. After a while he begins to stir and gets up and walks over to the window. We exchange a brief glance and I sense the recognition in his eyes. Then the surprise. "Mr. Wagner!" he says. "Do you remember me?"

Unfortunately, I don't. "I was in your class in 9th grade". I struggled with the face but I could not produce the name. "Billy Daniels" he went on, "I was in your 4th period science class at Island Trees Junior High". Good God almighty, I thought, that was almost 25 years ago. He must be 40 by now, just ten years younger than me. We talked for a while about my daughter's accident and he told me about his son's knee, which he damaged playing soccer.

Then he asked me if I was still teaching. He seemed happy to hear that I still was.
"I'm a teacher too", he said, obviously proud to be able to tell me this. "Do you remember that story that you told us about the zoroastrian temples along the Jersey Turnpike?" He began to laugh like a kid. "Well, I still tell that story to my students! And it's just as funny now as it was when I first heard it".
I still tell that story to my students too.
"And do you remember telling me that you hoped that someday I would become a teacher and you hoped I would have a student just like me?" Sure I remembered. I say that all the time when students aggravate me. "Well, I did, and you were right. I've got plenty that are just like I was. And I never forget that. And that makes all the difference".

They say that life is like a river that flows deep and wide. But I think that it's more like a chain, and each one of us is a link to the past and to the future. I began to realize that every kid that ever sat in my room carries a little piece of me with them when they leave. And every one of them is forever a part of me... and I am a part of them.