I was in the super market checkout lane today with a cart full of stuff for Thanksgiving dinner when I had a sudden hard memory of a day–many days–long ago-when I went to the ACME in south Philly with $5 in my purse trying to feed myself for a few days. (Canned beans is cheap and extremely nutritious. Add some tomatoes and Indian spices and you’ve got a feast.) A memory is hard when it won’t leave after you’ve seen it. It sits and sits, drains from the “mind’s eye” into the heart and arms and muscles and just won’t leave. A hard memory pins you down and stares you in your face. I had to do some surreptitious Lamaze breathing to keep myself from crying in front of the checkout guy. My nose watered, my right eye began to drip (I don’t know why it does that), and I kept my sentences short and didn’t make much eye contact. Into the parking lot, still leaky.
Sweet Jesus, why can’t everyone have food enough to not go hungry? I just can’t understand it. So simple and so absolutely fucking impossible.
These days, I am blown away by the mystery of everything. Nothing makes any sense–do you see that? Elizabeth Kolbert, in her astounding book The Sixth Extinction posits a theory–or someone she meets posits the theory–that humans have a “madness gene”–it takes us to the moon and causes us to wipe each other out; it creates the Internet and motivates us to bleed the earth of every resource.
Reality–whatever that is–seems to be like some psychedelic dream. If you look at a shape, it shifts and melts into something else. Every curve moves, every line floats, every color is not quite. Just when you think you are following something with some clarity, a new tuck is revealed, a new shade, a different look, and the whole picture is changed. There’s no holding on to any part of it for even a second.
A friend of mine posted a Sanskrit prayer on facebook. A prayer to say before eating. It translates roughly to: This is an offering to Brahma (the creator). The act of offering is Brahma. The food is Brahma. The one who eats is Brahma. In fact, there is nothing else. The Course in Miracles says, (I saw this quote on facebook–all hail fb) Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Herein lies the peace of god. Someone else on fb quoted someone else saying something like–keep your eye on the big picture but work with the small. Maybe my giving $5 to the NJ Food Pantry is working with the small, while I keep in mind that the poor is mother, the rich is mother, the food is mother, the taste is mother, the hunger is mother, the greed is mother, the breaking heart is mother.
Or, shit happens, I have no idea why, but I feel it in my gut and it rips my heart out-I hope that it makes sense somewhere. You will argue, perhaps, that it does makes sense–human beings are rotten and greedy and evil. Yes, of course. But also almost saint-like in their generosity and intelligence. If I try to follow any argument about any of it, none of it holds together.
The fact is that the reason I don’t want anyone to go hungry is that I can’t stand the pain in my chest when I think about it. The trap is that I think that I need to do something about their hunger so that I don’t need to feel my pain. The truth is that I want everyone to be happy because I don’t want to feel any pain. But what if the whole point is to feel that pain? I don’t know why-it’s a mystery, remember? What if the pain is the thing? But then I start to feel grateful that someone else is hungry so that I can feel my pain, and that’s just fucked up. The woman on the street who cannot feed her children could be me. I feel that. And I want to vomit with fear. The minute I feel grateful that I am not her, I feel sick with myself-with my fat-cat gratitude for having so much.
The soma-drinking Hindus kept their eyes on the big dance-none of this exists, only god is real, but the work of taking care of the world is god. The post-soma Hindus remembered the first part and forgot the second. Who cares, since nothing exists anyway.
All these mental exercises notwithstanding, I am very grateful that I can still feel so bad about people suffering every day. It feels terrible, and I often worry that I will lose my job or somehow be ostracized by the mainstream because I cannot keep it together when the pain comes on. Nevertheless, I am glad that I can feel so deeply. I am going to try to have the courage to say to the young guy at the supermarket checkout–isn’t it really sad that I can buy so much and some other people cannot? Maybe we will cry together. Or he might look at me funny. I want to try to do that anyway. The Lamaze breathing is good for giving birth–I’ve heard–but maybe letting out one big fucking yell is better.
Feed the hungry–somebody–god or human. It sucks to be poor.