death. week 8.
city. new york city, antigua
The Mind ………. The World
The Soul ……….. The Body
The Internal ….… The External
All of nature seeks intimacy. Intimacy between mind and world, soul and body, internal and external.
But something goes wrong. Something goes missing. A conflict emerges. An invisible line is crossed and the soul retreats back down into itself, pushing the world back out into the cosmos.
Slowly, over eons, an understanding is come to, trust is built, treaties are signed, deals are struck.
And again, for a moment, peace reigns. An impossible unity is attained. We call this freedom. And love.
Or orgasm. The moment where time ceases its march, the fictions of mind and body dissolving. The trauma of birth is undone. Think of Adam and Eve munching on sweet apples, juice running down their chins, in the garden of complete innocence.
Wouldn’t you love to know what it’s like to be a fetus? To be suspended in warm love? To be warm love? Then get into bed, climb under your covers, and touch yourself. Don’t stop until you meet god.
Tell me, what are the use of thoughts in such moments? What are the use of limbs?
The only possible task is to savor this glimpse into real intimacy.
No wonder all religions ban masturbating. Competition is bad for business.
Intimacy never occurs between two bodies, let alone two souls.
No, true intimacy (every subject’s object) takes place when the Mind itself coincides with all Body. When god becomes man, or as the Hindus prefer, Ayam Atma Brahma - "This Self (Atman) is Brahman (Reality)”.
Perhaps this sounds mystical. I promise it really isn’t.
We’ve got sex all wrong.
Intimacy doesn’t take place between me and you. It can occurs within me. When two sides of myself (re)connect. What are my two sides? My mind and my body, i.e. my internal and external self, or my soul and the world. So many words for something so simple.
Sex is such a feeble attempt at masturbation.
We cry when our self is split into two (when a rupture appears between our internal mind and the external world), and we cry when our self returns into one (when who we are in the world becomes identical with who we are in our mind).
Put differently, intimacy occurs when the external world functions like a perfect mirror, reflecting our deepest self back onto us. Alienation, however, sprouts like hasty weeds in the spaces where we conceal our true nature, either because we are unable or unwilling to meet the world as it is.
What of love between two people?
Intimacy with another subject exists,
But only in order to point the way
Back to ourselves.
It's a proof of concept; never a final product.
A mother’s love
Is like a lighthouse.
Don’t mistake the lighthouse for the destination or you’ll end up with a hole in your ship.
The greatest gift you can give to those you truly love
Is to teach them how to love themselves.
Death. What of death? Love only answers. Death questions.
Death insists on creating problems. Death is the serpent who encourages us to cut off ties with the world and return into ourselves. Or worse, reject ourself in favor of a barren world.
Death burns a path of destruction across our heart
Leaving emptiness in its wake.
An emptiness which offers new discoveries
Whenever we are ready to plant strange seeds.
Through the cycle of life and death
There emerges a shakla v’tarya (give and take)
Between an eternal Inside
And a communal Outside.
After each kiss,
A breath of fresh air.
Love shows us what is possible
When soul and body connect.
Death keeps us breathless,
Wanting more and more.
For many, the world is already enough. There is no serious tension between the world as it is and the world as they wish it to be. The trick, for these lucky few, is simply to seize the moment.
Others, less lucky, enter a world which feels empty, cold, harsh. They live as strangers in their own land, waking up each morning to a new dilemma and burden: to continue living as a slave, or to set to work creating a new world. A better world.
Through painful toil you will eat of the land all the days of your life, is God's curse for Mankind.
And like god, they are forced to create yesh m’ayin, something from nothing. To survive, they must create a world in their own image, or suffer a fate still more painful than death.
We call this work art, and we call these people artists.
When I cannot find myself in the world, I must create a new world. In my image.
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them.
I visited Tzvi yesterday. He’s buried at the United Hebrew Cemetery in Staten Island.
In the 20 or so years since he died, this was the first time that I voluntarily chose to go say hi.
I thought it might be a good idea to ‘formalize’ our relationship, rather than keeping it endlessly submerged in the dark crevices of my own ignorance.
“So, what are we?”
I held a little funeral service with Shlomo. Reading the Hebrew liturgy felt comforting. No, not comforting. It felt appropriate; like my own drop of sorrow had finally joined an ocean of suffering stretching back to the beginning of humanity. My pain was not drowned out in the world’s pain; on the contrary, it found purpose and community, and was then elevated just slightly off of my own shoulders.
Suffering makes me feel isolated. I feel personally attacked by the world, so I turn inward, licking my wounds in the silence of my own soul. “Fuck you, I don’t need you. Anyhow, I always knew I couldn’t trust anyone other than myself.” Reciting those few chapters of Psalms at my brother’s grave, I found that more than anything else, suffering is what unites us. The world shares in my suffering, just as a mother and infant share the pain of giving birth.
Why am I so reluctant to share my burden? Why do I insist on carrying it all alone? I found it exceedingly difficult to invite Shlomo to the cemetery with me.
I think it was a good idea though. He got to experience an entirely different side of my life, my family, my heart. Hopefully, this helped bring us closer together.
As we sat at the grass just beside Tzvi’s grave, Shlomo broke the silence by expressing his gratitude to Tzvi (whom he’d never met) for bringing us together in this way.
He said that he wishes Tzvi could see me through his eyes.
I thought that was very sweet. I told him so.
In return, I shared that the only way I could imagine building a better relationship with Tzvi now that he’s no longer physically in my life, is to take better care of those who Tzvi loved and who loved him. Our family. Nature. Animals.
Sitting beside his grave, pulling at the green grass that draws its life from his decaying flesh (there truly is nothing as alive as the grass atop a grave), I realized that I hadn’t really been a great brother to Tzvi all these years.
Mostly, I’d ignored him. Felt embarrassed by him. My brother who died. I treated him like a problem, a hole, a wound in my heart and in my family.
The thing is that he is actually a blessing. I am the one who insists on being wounded.
Some homework: Consider ways to rebuild my relationship with my older brother.
More specifically: Spend the coming week in shiva / mourning.
Sit on the floor. Say Kaddish each evening. Say goodbye to the brother I never really knew, and begin to say hello to… something new?
Find the love buried deep in that pain. Six feet under.
Some thoughts from Antigua, Guatemala.
I’ve been saying Kaddish each evening for over a week now. Sometimes it seems that the quickest path to my brother runs through a millennium of jewish history. I suppose that sometimes an instant is best approached through eternity.
While I'll never be able to see Tzvi’s death as anything but absurd, the Kaddish does help me re-contextualize it (over and over again), moving slowly from my death to Death itself. The Kaddish forces me to return, like generations before me, to the familiar (and familial) misery of Jewish existence.
The god of Abraham, god of Isaac, god of Jacob, the god of my forefathers, and the god of my foremothers is that very same god that took Tzvi away. We’ve all been there. It runs in the family.
I went to shul Friday night and said Kaddish in front of a minyan. And the congregation answered in unison, “Amen.”
During my darkest moments these past few months, when my world spun topsy turvy and my mind filled with black rot and each moment brought with it a fresh insanity, my one north star remained my family.
When the world grows cold dark and empty, and even that faintest flicker of hope is extinguished, the mind (like the body) thrashes around, seeking to grasp onto something. Anything. Anything but nothing.
I held onto my family. Whatever else, I have my family. I lose myself far too often, but I never ever lose my family. I hold them tightly in the good times, and even more tightly in the dark times.
Family and death are equally absurd. To be the product and prequel of that which we are not. And although that absurdity renders all of history meaningless, it also imbues it with a certain ineradicable strength.
When all meaning gets washed away, as it so reliably does, only the meaningless can remain. Is meaninglessness enough? Family insists that it is.
Whatever the future may bring, and whatever the mistakes of the past have been, history pardons all sin. History, and history alone, justifies all suffering. Our one true mother, history can never and will never forsake us. It stands forever ready, forever willing to welcome us home into its infinite embrace.
It is I alone who seeks to avoid history, reject my past and overcome my future, and in so doing I enter into sin.
Throughout my greatest achievements and my deepest disappointments, family remains unmoved. To have family is to have faith. And faith alone will follow me down into the depths of hell.
As part of my ‘curriculum of death’, I’ve been reading Rilke’s prose and poetry. He writes my own thoughts better than I ever could. He is already the writer — and the thinker and feeler — that I wish to one day be.
It’s hard to find inspiration without the temptation to copy.
In those brief moments when I come into contact with my self, I inevitably feel suspended between love and death. Like two streams feeding a single river.
The Italian poet Leopardi writes that “when love is born deep down in the heart, simultaneously a languid and weary desire to die is felt in the breast.” Eh, you probably don’t believe him. At first, I didn’t either. But next time you feel penetrated by love, take a moment to notice if there is not indeed some suicidal ingredient mixed in together with that divine concoction.
On their own, both love and death present themselves as a perfect puzzle. In the face of each, one is left clueless, breathless, dumb. In the face of each, submission becomes the only option.
But taken together, love and death each respond to the other’s inscrutable mystery.