(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2012)
“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” T.S. Eliot
Several recent conversations with friends focused on how might we counter the cyber takeover of our society while at the same time fomenting positive change and a more vibrant local community; and the answer seems to be to invite people over to share a meal and talk.
“Four things come not back: the spoken word; the sped arrow; time past; the neglected opportunity.” Omar Ibn Al-Halif
A friend wrote that in an effort to regain the souls of her husband and children she instituted a rule that cell phones and cyber pads were not allowed at the dining table. The initial response to this rule was that her children and husband wolfed their meals and rushed back to their devices. So she instituted a second rule that dinner had to last half an hour. After a week of dismal dining experiences filled with complaints, her children and husband adjusted to the brief nightly respite from tweeting and staring into little screens and “there have even been some nights when the family lingers at the table after the half hour is up because we are so engrossed in conversation.”
“Any genuine philosophy leads to action and from action back again to wonder, to the enduring fact of mystery.” Henry Miller
One of my favorite Isaac Bashevis Singer short stories is about an outwardly successful man, pious and wealthy, who is not very nice to his wife and children and other people. He rigorously follows the religious and civil rules of his society and continuously wins the economic battle, but no one likes him. Eventually this man’s sons and daughters want nothing to do with him, his wife is perpetually distressed by what a sourpuss he is, and he finds himself more and more isolated and unhappy. So he goes on a journey to a famous spiritual teacher and explains his situation (as he perceives it) to the teacher, and the teacher whispers a little something in the man’s ear.
Having gained the sage’s advice, the man returns to his home and is so changed that his wife and children and business associates can hardly believe he is the same person. In just a few days, this tight-fisted, judgmental, self-righteous egotist has become a generous, open-minded, loving, humble sweetie pie ready to lend an ear to anyone who needs a good listener, a hand to anyone who needs help. And as the years go by, the man becomes so loving and wise that he is regarded as a saint.
One day the man’s oldest son, who previously hated his father and now adores him, asks his father what the spiritual teacher whispered to him all those years ago that so transformed him. And the man reveals that the teacher suggested he pretend to be generous and loving and open-minded, and to continue pretending until the pretense became his habit and transformed him.
“What this world needs is a new kind of army—the army of the kind.” Cleveland Amory
I recently had a visit from a friend who arrived armed with an Iphone, an Ipad, and a Kindle reader. “I don’t know how I ever got along without these,” he said as he searched for something on the screen of his phone.
“I remember you without those,” I told him, “and you seemed to be getting along pretty well.”
“I’m a thousand times better organized now,” he said, continuing to scroll around on his phone. “Much more connected to everything. No more waiting to get news or books or movies. Everything I want fits on these three devices with room to spare.”
He gave me a tour of several apps on his Ipad, took photos of this and that with his Iphone, instantly posted the photos on three social network web sites, and then downloaded an e-book version of my novel Under the Table Books onto his Kindle.
“See,” he said, grinning triumphantly. “We did all that in no time at all.”
And because I love the guy I said, “Amazing! Truly amazing.”
“The twin elements of a life lived intelligently are fidelity and spontaneity.” Edward Hoagland
The late great Juliette White of Albion was a master of the spontaneous dinner party. Sometimes she would invite us the day before the party; sometimes she’d call an hour before the food was ready. To our question, “What can we bring?” she might reply, “Just yourselves,” or “Salad” or “Anything.” Of the twenty or so spontaneous dinner parties I attended at Juliette’s, the largest number of people in attendance was ten, the smallest number was six. The most remarkable thing to me about these gatherings was that there was nothing remarkable about them, yet I always felt I was taking part in Holy Communion.
Humility (from Buddha In A Teacup)
Thomas is seventy-seven. His wife Denise died unexpectedly in her sleep a year and a month ago.
Thomas’s work—the completion of the seventh and final volume of an exhaustive history of the English language—has not progressed a word since Denise’s death. An oppressive sorrow has lain upon Thomas for these thirteen months, and he has little hope of living beyond his grief.
A tall, lean Englishman with pale blue eyes and red hair going gray, Thomas is roused from his stupor at the kitchen table—his bagel and tea untouched—by loud rapping on the front door. His first thought is to ignore the summons, but the rapping persists, so he reluctantly rises and goes to the door.
“Yes?” he says, frowning curiously at an enormous young man with dark brown skin, a shaved head, and muscular arms covered with tattoos.
“I’m Oz,” says the young man, holding out a piece of paper to Thomas. “You the tutor?”
“I don’t believe so.” Thomas peers at the paper and realizes through a fog of despair that his daughter Maureen must have gone ahead and fulfilled her threat to sign him up for after school duty.
“Got the address right,” says Oz, his voice deep and sonorous. “Seven seven six.”
“I stand corrected.” Thomas chuckles at his daughter’s audacity. “Come in.”
“Like a library,” says Oz, stopping on the threshold to gaze around the living room, every inch of wall given over to bookshelves. “You read all these books?”
“Most of them more than once.” Thomas scans the thousands of volumes for any he might have skipped.
“Smells old in here.” Oz wrinkles his nose. “You got a sunny room?”
“The kitchen,” says Thomas, leading the way. “I’ll make a fresh pot of green tea.”
“I ain’t never had no green tea,” says Oz, pausing in the hallway to look at a picture of Thomas as a young Oxford scholar. “Get a buzz?”
“There is some caffeine in green tea,” Thomas replies, gesturing to the kitchen table. “Make yourself at home.”
“Coffee jitters me bad,” says Oz, taking a seat from which he can observe Thomas. “Green tea don’t do that, do it?”
“No, it’s more subtle.” Thomas fills the kettle. “It invigorates in a wholly different way than coffee.”
“You show more accent than your daughter,” says Oz, nodding his approval of the cheerful room. “Me likes.”
“Oh, so you do know my daughter.” Thomas sets the kettle atop the flame. “That was my supposition.”
“Word,” says Oz, grinning at Thomas. “She chose me special just for you.”
“Why is that, do you suppose?” Thomas peruses his collection of teas and decides on a pungent green from Taiwan.
“She flunked me twice.” Oz nods slowly. “But she knows I’m not stupid.”
“No, you’re obviously exceedingly intelligent.” Thomas clears away his lunch dishes. “May I offer you something to eat?”
“No.” Oz looks glumly at the floor and cracks his knuckles. “How come you use that word? Exceedingly? Means more than enough, yeah? Like you think I’m very smart. Which I am, but…how come you think so?”
“The way you take things in.” Thomas sits down opposite Oz. “The way you listen and respond. We’ve been in real conversation from our very first moment together, and that’s quite rare in my experience.”
Oz nods. “You write books?”
“I have written books,” says Thomas, studying Oz’s handsome face, the chiseled cheeks and jaw, “though I doubt I will ever write another.”
“How come?” asks Oz, hearing sorrow in Thomas’s voice. “Must be nice to write a good book.”
“I have lost my inspiration,” says Thomas, thinking of Denise and how everything he wrote, he wrote for her. “I’m old now. Tired.”
“So why you want to be a tutor?” Oz rises to quiet the whistling kettle.
Thomas is about to reply that he doesn’t want to be a tutor, that this is all his daughter’s doing, that he’s very sorry but he’s just not up to it. Instead, after a thoughtful pause, he says, “Perhaps I can still be useful to someone.”
“Someone maybe like me,” says Oz, shaking dry tealeaves into his hand to inspect them. “You wanna show me how to make this drink?”
“Ah,” says Thomas, raising a knowing finger. “The art of tea.”