Thursday, February 15, 2007

Terra Cognita: A Non-Prayer by Simon

This piece was written a while ago, so no condolences are necessary — the VHJ just wanted to wait a while before laying something this heavy on you. But we've gotten to know each other better and, well, we're ready, dear reader, to take it to another level.

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

– T.S. Eliot

Someone has died and it’s three in the morning. I’m standing in the kitchen, listening to the micro-sounds of the wee hours – the contented hum of the fridge, the sparkly tink of the fluorescent light, some insane bird that should, by rights, have tucked its head under its wing ages ago.

This is life’s backstage, all dusty and functional and quintessentially elsewhere. I open the someday-we’ll-remodel-and-get-rid-of-these cabinet doors and gaze at a world’s tour of spices: Turkish oregano, Hungarian paprika, Jamaican allspice. I wish I’d traveled more. Objects, with their steely lack of affect, provide a helpful reminder that there is no big smiling presence in the sky. There is now and maybe tomorrow. Maybe not tomorrow.

I’m testing out my new embrace of Atheism in the face of loss. It’s surprisingly sturdy. I cannot beseech God to change fate, and the universe’s indifference to my entreaties doesn’t say anything about my worthiness or that of my prayers.

I am setting aside so many dusty myths, and it’s strangely liberating. Julia makes me throw away the things I’ve accumulated but don’t need any longer – this is a thing we do for people we love. We say that it’s alright to let things go. It’s a lot like faith.

I have not only let go of a deity or a caring universe or a cosmic oneness. I have also set adrift the idea of the spirit I’ve toted around. The spirit is not the seat of love or compassion or creativity because it doesn’t exist. We once believed that our connection to others was centered in our hearts, but the heart only pumps our blood. All those things are functions of our mind.

The mind loves, is compassionate, is courageous. Just so, what we call the spirit is a function of mind. The mind believes, dreams, redeems. The mind does it all, and yet we relentlessly downplay its importance. We’re told we’re too cerebral. We’re enjoined to place heart above mind, spirit above mind, even body above mind. But mind is where the action is. Mind is what separates us from creatures that only eat, shit, fuck and die. Mind invented “heart” and “spirit” but these are places within it, not terra incognita but home. It is time for the mind to rediscover its own primacy.

This is why I’ve set aside God and spirit and cosmic whatever. This is the reality I am now embracing: We have only so many days, but each one can be filled with countless real wonders. What miracles do you need? Ravishing flowers of every eye-melting hue push their way out of the shit-covered ground! Hummingbirds dip their needle-beaks into the cups of these flowers, iridescent in the afternoon sunlight! Your loved ones comfort you in your distress. Each year they celebrate your having been born. Your dog looks up at you when your world is in tatters and seems to understand.

There is red wine and bacon and Mozart and Stevie Wonder (well, at least pre-1980s Stevie Wonder). There is the gold-rose sky at twilight, and the Gold-Rose wedding in the banquet hall. There’s a nice lady in a leather apron to spank you until your cares fade away. I have her phone number if you need it.

You want miracles? You’re alive. Your blood circulates. Your mind makes complex decisions, navigates abstract ideas and savors hilarious wit (I make these assumptions because you’ve gotten this far in the blog without trying to put the keyboard in your mouth). Living, for all of its downsides, is preferable to not living. I can only argue for this point; I can’t prove it. But consider the extremes we’ll go to in avoiding death. Every sterling principle goes out the window. Hell, principles take a hike long before that – ever watch Survivor?

What’s this got to do with being a hot Jew, you ask? Where are the Hitler jokes, the sassy, self-referential pirouettes? Why should you read this melancholy twaddle, when you could be howling with derisive laughter at Evan Rachel Wood’s latest fashion gaffe on I honestly don’t have an answer for that, except to say that we Jews – yes, even the hot ones – are like this sometimes. But I might add that secularism, the life of the mind, is as much a Jewish religion as The Jewish Religion – and that now I’m wrapping it around me like a prayer shawl, and it’s keeping me warm.

I grow old … I grow old. I won’t get into how I’ll wear my trousers (and I will dare to eat a peach, though not metaphorically). Let’s just say that trousers will be worn, unless I forget. But my hair will turn ever more gray; my bones will creak and complain; my irritation at reality TV will spike, resulting in crotchety pronouncements about the sorry state of humanity shouted at ever-increasing volume so my spouse can hear them. If all goes as planned, I’ll continue to fall apart until the whole system is kaput. This too, despite my protests to the contrary, is a miracle.

Why? Because it’s what’s supposed to happen. Just as those gorgeous flowers wither and become mulch. Just as the jackhammer hearts of those glittery hummingbirds go still, making way for new hummingbirds. Those closest to us will depart – and while we will believe we feel their spirits, we will just be remembering with our whole selves.

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