Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Cause of Our Discomfort is an Optical Delusion

"Now Besso has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."
Einstein's condolence letter to the widow of Michele Besso,
a friend who died just a month before Einstein

I admit I'm a little nervous about going to Erich's memorial tonight, partly, I suppose, because Erich will be there, but also because I barely know him. I question my purpose. What I do know is it's important to show up, so I will.

          The party was the brainchild of our mutual friend and pragmatist, Dan, who composed this Facebook invitation to tonight's event.
Please join us for an evening of friendship to bring our best to Erich as he completes his life. Sadly, Erich has lung cancer which has spread throughout his bones, his time is short and this gathering will be our way of celebrating our longtime friendships with him. We will reminisce, we will laugh, we may cry, and we will do this with him while we still can.
Main dishes for dinner will be served
You are welcome to bring side dishes, desserts, and drinks
         I love Dan's expression as Erich completes his life, which suggests that some purpose is being fulfilled with his consent. I love it but No, I don't buy it. Dan takes refuge in a very ordered world; my world is full of false starts and meandering middles, loose ends, open ends, ends that are beginnings. I worry a lot that all our lives are incomplete and that only in art (a poem, a painting, a dance) is there a true sense of completion. What if meanings and endings are always contrived? When I write a story and it's going well, there is always a sense it's writing itself, that a meaning independent of my will is being brought forth. It's as close to religion as I'm probably ever going to get, but I may be deluded. I worry about that. 

          Dan told me that a routine x-ray taken a couple of months ago to determine whether Erich had a broken rib showed what looked like cancer, and then another scan confirmed widespread metastasis to his bones. That's how Erich was abruptly diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of lung cancer that will rapidly end his life. Chemo might extend his life for another year, but because the treatment is so much worse than the illness, Erich has opted for hospice. He has months—not years—to live.

          Of course any of us may have only months left—an accident, an aneurysm, these things happen—but because Erich has been given a particular allotment of time, we have to face his mortality.

I bring a big bowl of salad with apricot-ginger dressing to a house packed with friends I haven't seen for decades. There is no chance to hesitate at the front door: the door to the past swings open to the future and before I know it, I'm in.

          The party is very loud and there is a lot of laughter. I can almost make believe it's one of our old high school parties—except where there had been Pink Floyd and pot smoke, teenage lust and a keg of beer, now there are platters of grilled veggies and Persian rice, brown bottles of artisinal beer aligned with suave, blue bottles of sparkling water, and all the familiar faces are age-progressed.

          I look for Erich and find him slumped in a wheelchair in a corner of the dining room, angled slightly away from the crowd that spills into all the other rooms. He is only partly accessible behind the dining table where all the food is laid out. After poking a plastic fork at the mound of potato salad on his paper plate he fiddles with the morphine pump on his lap. Erich's pale face is expressionless and glows, moonlike and almost featureless, under a dull sheen. His black, thick-rimmed glasses are incongruous, giving him the mysterious, almost comical appearance of a man in disguise.

          Before I can make my way over to him, a middle-aged woman appears before me like an oncoming car, blocking my view of Erich. She is small and prissy and, squinting the way myopic people do, she inclines her cheek for an air kiss.

          "You don't remember me, do you?"

          She explains that she is Bernadette, a girl who famously dated the coolest guy in our school—but I can't reconcile the alluring teenage girl her name conjures—the shy beauty in a clingy mini-dress and strawberry lip gloss—with this dusty, beige lady wearing glasses and a baggy sweater.

          As if she's reading my mind, Bernadette explains that she's a lawyer in Westchester now with a husband and two teenage daughters, then nods her head and waits for my disclosure. I forgot to rehearse, so I tell her the truth.

          "I'm an unemployed single parent, living with my elderly mother and two teenagers."

          To her credit, she quickly replies, "That's great!" She smiles so encouragingly, I feel it's my duty to press on.

          "It's better than it sounds, Bernie. The divorce really is so much better than the marriage, and I think I'm gradually getting over the weirdness of returning to the house I grew up in, you know? But that first year was pretty rough—"

          What I would suddenly like to share with her is how important the writing process is to me, how lucky I feel when I sit down all alone at home, like a slacker, and write. I want to ask her what makes her feel like she's manifesting an otherwise inchoate personal truth and connecting to something larger. And, I want to tell her that when I'm writing, despite looking like I'm a lonely drain on society, I feel—on the contrary—spiritually in touch with every being, past, present, and future, living and dead.

          "Well," says Bernadette, "Westchester is actually very similar to Princeton, very affluent and a really nice place to bring up kids." We smile at each other's discomfort and begin scanning the room.

I wonder if Erich shares some of our deeper discomfort, which we mask with the superficial anxiety about public success and failure. It's easy to ask, "What do you do for a living?" but the answer doesn't necessarily reveal what's important about who we are or what connects us. We don't dare ask: Have we loved and been loved enough? Have we made a positive difference? Is there meaning? What matters?

Mr. Robert S. Marcus
Political Director
World Jewish Congress

Dear Mr. Marcus:

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us "Universe," a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.

With my best wishes,

Sincerely yours,

Albert Einstein 

          Robert Marcus had written a letter to Einstein asking for his consolation and guidance on the death of his young son, who had recently died of polio. The letter was written only five years before Einstein's own death, and it is clear from the draft in his archive that he gave his reply great consideration.

          What is at first so shocking about Einstein's letter is the absence of comfort he offers to a grieving father. The letter stands as an impersonal abstraction in the face of raw grief.

          But as it turns out, Robert Marcus was not only a father and a Zionist, he was also a rabbi who had served as a Jewish chaplain during World War II. Einstein must have been writing to the rabbi; his formula for peace of mind can only be followed by someone willing to approach personal anguish through the prism of  larger questions of existence.

          I think of this odd letter now when I notice Erich huddled in murmured conversation, and wonder if he would take any comfort at all from Einstein's advice. He is talking with a woman he had a crush on when they were teenagers. I strain to hear them.

          "Do you think I could have your email address? I would like to write to you."

          "Sure, sure," she nods. "My business cards are upstairs in my handbag, so I'll make sure you get one before I leave. That would be great."

          I realize I'm shocked by this small request for intimacy. The inflection of Erich's voice hints at something, like a request for an extension. His pale, blurry eyes behind the thick lenses are focused now with intense curiosity and the mask of his face is animated. None of us knows that Erich will be dead in three weeks.

More than 20 of us sit in a circle in Dan's living room while one of the techno-geeks sets a camera on a tripod to record anyone who cares to speak. Friends tell how they first met Erich and share funny stories. Memory after memory weaves us together in our circle. Erich interrupts.

          "There's something I'd like to say now—turn that camera over here, will you?" Erich clears his throat. His speech is slurred and he is almost inaudible.

          "As you all know, I'm in a strange place now," he shakes his head. "A very strange place." His lips are working even when he is silent, like he's conjuring.

          As he speaks, Erich hands the morphine pump to Dan, who sits beside him, and he manages to partly stand up from his wheelchair. Erich leans out in the attitude of a figurehead on a ship's prow, cutting the water.

          The words don't make sense at first, but gradually it becomes clear that Erich is doing some kind of performance art, reciting a poem or making it up on the spot. He sings certain words for emphasis, like an angry preacher; his voice rises and rings, gathering strength. Erich doesn't blink while he draws out the quivering notes in his sputtering vibrato. With his right hand extended, his fingers coax the air like a diviner eeking out every last molecule of breath. His last words are

          Dancing into the sunshine 
          of your awareness
          because you have become
          the president of the surface of the sun—

          Dancing as if tomorrow
          the dance
          but yet remains the telescope
          turned in upon itself
          for all eternity.

Erich sinks back into his chair, expressionless again, and he shrugs. He smiles a little sheepishly, just before a spontaneous eruption of applause.


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