This morning I start writing quickly. I’m impatient with Sher, her final words building to some austere Zen crescendo of non-meaning, hidding meaning, inverse meaning. She says the ritual of a Zen meal is scrupulously structured, which sounds like ruthlessly structured, and I imagine all these people sitting around a plank table, grimly chewing each bite a hundred times, observing the food as it melts from flavor to pulp and then down the throat, nobody laughing, why laugh. And then I get that itchy feeling and I fold up the book and start writing. Only a few more pages to go and then I’m done with her. Which is not to say that I don’t learn something from this, or that the time is wasted. But I need more distractions, I need more fun. Can’t we learn to pay attention without sucking all the waste from our lives? Do we have to live in the woods on nothing, friendless, like Thoreau, in order to write about a bird?
This morning I read Gail Sher. God it’s hard going. She is austere and clear, disciplined and skillful. She wastes no time consoling or entertaining, tolerates no waffling or hesitation. Whenever she calls somebody Roshi, at the end of the name, like Ben Stein-Roshi, I immediately conjure a person that I wouldn’t enjoy, who is so deliberate about the way they brush their teeth and make their bed that they never have any fun, every single moment of their life a spiritual exercise, an opportunity to pay attention, an admonition to not Waste Time. And yet I keep reading, because she has these beautiful nuggets that appear, every twenty pages or so. I read one passage today where she named all the perfect obscure English words that we never use, and the words were so beautiful I had to circle them, read them aloud: cuirass, haruspication, flocculence. Meretricious. Nullifidian. Farrago.
And then she said, the writing is the person, can only be as deep as the person themself. If you are not fit, if you are not thoughtful, if your life is full of evasions and tricks, then your writing will be too. It struck me that you can really see that in her work—here is a woman who writes kneeling before a square of cloth, upon which she places a square of paper, beside which she puts a sharp pencil and a pen (I imagine a quill, or a fountain pen, something that has to be dipped carefully into a pot of ink to produce its lines), and you can see that practice in the hard polished nuggets of truth she writes, truth that you have to stare at for a long time in order to see into its dark center. Sometimes, once or twice, you can stare until your eyes cross and see nothing, and you want to get up and go find somebody to ask, “do you have any idea what this means?”
I thought about that dark, polished stone of hard wisdom a lot– we write what we are, and if we want to change the writing we need to change the person. That is secondary to the problem of practice—practice is the given, without that you have nothing. But the only control we have over the material itself is the way that we practice, which turns out to be nothing more or less than the way we live.
Lynette, with her maroon winter jacket, rust colored corduroy slacks, neat suede snow boots, and pink knit hat. Her skin the color of light coffee, a bright slash of pink lipstick, everything about her pressed, and impeccable. She says the doctor says she is healing very well, the bones knitting together as they should.
When she fell and broke her femur, and they carried her out of the house, she clutched my hand and said yes, she would like me to come to the hospital with her. And I put my name on the list of people they should call, and they called me and said that they had done the surgery, and she was doing very well. Later we came to visit her, with flowers, and she was already sitting up, wanting to get herself back home.
Who will lift her out of bed? Who will decide that she can’t be trusted with the stove, or her medications, or the stairs? Who will sell her house, and sort through the boxes of clothes, and letters, and bills, fold up the cover of her car, unplug the heater that keeps the radiator from freezing, and tow the car away? Where will she go?
We were talking, at Martha and Rob’s, about how we ignore the end of life in this country, how we can’t bear to think about old people. Roger Fisher, the brilliant Harvard professor who taught me when I was a freshman, the man who brokered negotiations between Israel and Palestine, advised presidents, tottering along the sidewalk, stooped and silver, quivering on his cane, living in the retirement home next to Jesse’s school, a place where they organize recreational activities in the afternoon—pottery painting, bingo, movies. I heard an advertisement this afternoon for a retirement home, promising activities that promote growth. It seemed deceitfully cheerful. And I wondered: is it consoling to paint pottery, after you have sat with presidents and kings, advising them on foreign policy?