On the ring finger of my left hand is the bust of Aristotle. On my right wrist is a watch sporting the image of Curious George. I figure the universe is telling me that somewhere between the father of Western philosophy and a mischievous monkey is the secret of life.
So far as I can tell, the universe is forever showering us with loving, useful insight. Whether we stop, look and listen is another matter…speaking for myself.
I’m obliged to be in regular association with a man who usually dislikes just about everything about me. To say that I’m a poor fit in his view of how things ought to be is an understatement. This has been so for a number of years. During the bulk of that time, I grew to find most everything about him worthy of avoidance—until, spurred by pain as we all eventually are, a number of icy realities emerged. I had become what I rejected. The guy was a mirror. Whatever I found lacking in him was something about me I’d yet to forgive. The man was actually God trying to get a rise out of me, asking, “Just what do you think needs to be loved if it isn’t what pisses you off?” I got this intellectually, but I’m a recovering addict and the gratifying buzz of judgment is among my drugs of choice. My initials SR could stand for self-righteous. Actually my initials are SXR—extra self-righteous. Might as well be the best. Anyway, for some reason (divine generosity the most likely), I started to note the humor in my insanity, that and how my passion for Oneness had drawn to me this sacred opportunity to forgive myself for all sorts of destructive choices in this and other lives. Today, my spiritual practice includes seeing my pal as God wearing a mask of huffing and puffing. That and self-forgiveness whenever I find my goat got leads (whether gracefully or kicking and screaming) to an inward bow of gratitude. Other than my guru, my bride and my kids, this man is my most valued acquaintance. One of these days we’re going to realize we’re friends.
I didn’t acquire the ring and watch deliberately. Like everything else in my life, they just sort of appeared. I saw the ring in a dream, an oval cameo, white on lavender, set in gold. A few days later poking around an unfamiliar town I ran across a funky shop—the purveyors of estate jewelry. Only when the proprietor mentioned it did I learn that the cameo’s portrait was of Aristotle, about whom I knew as close to nothing as it is possible to know without assuming he was a rock star.
I take the lazy man’s approach to learning, based on the assumption that when the universe wants me to be aware of something it will place that information in my path. Which is why as I write this, a good half-dozen years after sliding Aristotle on the finger of my heart, I know only two things about him. First, he is one of the springs from which the river of the world’s philosophical thought flows. This means he had a lot to say. I, however, am familiar with virtually none of it. Bringing us to the second thing I know about him, a single platitude I happened across in Bartlett’s or some such reference. Character is revealed through action. While I may have committed it to memory because it’s just five words, its meaning grows within me, nourished by every circumstance, every encounter, every choice. Like a marble in my dancing shoe, Aristotle is transforming me. A snail, by comparison, would be Seabiscuit, if we’re talking speed, but transforming nonetheless.
The moment I saw the monkey in the timepiece kiosk, the watch all but leapt off the counter and handcuffed itself to my wrist, me laughing once again at the zany array of guides the universe provides—this time a kind-hearted simian who could get himself into and out of all manner of rascality without saying a word. Rather the perfect icon of “character being revealed through action,” wouldn’t you say?
If the secret of life lies between Aristotle to my left and Curious George to my right, then, hey, that secret must reside within me. Isn’t this what Jesus and other enlightened ones have been teaching forever? The kingdom of heaven is within sort of thing? I find the universe nothing if not persistent in reminding us of simple truths.
For instance, God masquerades as a plumber in Cleveland. How do I know? Because He gave me a kiss from there.
A Clevelander named Bob had written a lovely letter to my publisher saying how my book of essays and stories, Cool Mind Warm Heart, had been helpful to him and his family at a time of special challenge. I called Bob to thank him for his kind words and found a new friend. Our chat was like two old jazz performers in musical dialogue about our respective gratitude for all we had been privileged to learn about such things as love, surrender, trust, heartache, and the gifts inherent in every moment.
All of a sudden Bob says, “Can I call you back in a few minutes? The plumber has arrived to fix some things that exceed my meager expertise, and I need to point him in the right direction.”
Ten minutes later the phone rings. Bob says, “Speaking of gifts….”
Turns out, mister plumber, whom Bob had never met before, fixed Bob’s drips and whatnot with barely a flick of the wrench.
“Boy,” said Bob, “that was impressive. Thank you. How much do I owe you?”
“Oh, I can’t charge you for this,” said the plumber. “It was nothing.”
Bob, like many of us, was familiar with plumbers for whom it is common practice to charge X just to walk in the door.
“That doesn’t seem fair,” Bob said. “You made an appointment and drove here. It’s only right that I pay you for your time and expense.”
“Well, how ‘bout if you give me lunch money?” the plumber says.
That still didn’t seem enough to Bob, but what could he do? So he takes out his wallet and hands the man a twenty.
The plumber then takes out his own wallet and gives Bob back fifteen bucks.
It’s at this point in our conversation that I feel the heavenly smooch: a chuckle, “Hello playmate, I am here.”
While writing this essay I went to Manhattan for a day of museums and movies. I’m in a cab heading up the West Side Highway and pass Ground Zero to our right. And just as we do, I notice traveling in the lane next to us the back end of an SUV on which are two bumper stickers. In black letters on pink is the statement: “Elvis: the world will never be the same.” Affixed just below it is an American flag with the words “Support Our Troops.”
I’m not sure what the universe is trying to teach me via that odd juxtaposition, which, I admit, doesn’t hinder me in the slightest when it comes to making up a story.
I support our troops because they are willingly meeting themselves in horrific ways few of us will ever encounter. I support them now, and for the rest of their lives. But as a guy who has a soft spot for Elvis and who reflects on the unprecedented nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki of 1945 only occasionally and fleetingly, I do wonder if, 61 years from now, more Americans will note how “the world will never be the same” because of Elvis than because of 9/11.
What would it take to be otherwise, do you suppose?—that generations from now Ground Zero would be, at the very least, as resonate in many human hearts as Elvis, a man whose addictions, pedestrian rock & roll, cheesy movies, and rhinestone ostentation couldn’t obscure his passion for Love with a capital L. Elvis could’ve sung the Samoan phone book and still conveyed the sound of man hungry to be completely naked, completely vulnerable, completely at one with the call of his heart. That hunger, to me, is at the core of his charisma. I hear it most directly in his gospel recordings, soulful expressions of spiritual devotion that may forever be a source of inspiration.
How could Ground Zero be the same?
Maybe by creating a memorial that nods in the direction of West Nickle Mines, Pennsylvania, and the response of the Amish to the murder of five of their daughters and the wounding of five more—all schoolgirls—by a deranged neighbor who then took his own life.
A photograph in the paper the day after September 11, 2001 showed a man with graying hair and grim expression holding high a small, marker-printed placard which read, Someone Will Pay. Compare this to news accounts the day after October 2, 2006 (the date an Amish elder called “Our 9/11”), when it was reported that the grandfather of one of the slain girls, as he stood next to her body, instructed younger relatives about the killer, “We must not think evil of this man.”
Indeed, among the first people the Amish reached out to console was the killer’s widow. “I don’t think there’s anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive,” one resident was quoted as saying. “We don’t need to think about judgment; we need to think about forgiveness and going on.”
In this case, “going on” included razing the schoolhouse where the murders took place and turning the site into pasture.
Imagine if the goal of the Ground Zero memorial were to remind not just those of us living today but also subsequent generations of the harm that is inevitably caused whenever any of us considers someone else to be “the other.” A garden created and maintained in perpetuity by the world’s children might serve that goal by being a “hands in the earth” interactive stimulus of endless reflection on the meaning of life, the requirements of health, the richness of differences, the strength in collaboration, and the power of forgiveness.
Is there a moment when the Divine isn’t whispering in our heart, teaching us, calling us “Beloved,” and wearing a t-shirt that says, “Everyone has the best seat in the house”? Not so far as I can tell.
Whether I stop, look and listen is another matter.