VAST FORWARD

My Mentor, Anthony Bourdain

 

You never know who your teachers are going to be or where you’re going to find them.

I’ve never been one to talk to strangers on planes, in lines, while sitting in a concert hall waiting for the music to begin. It’s not that I’m afraid. I’m just afraid of being bored. I don’t deal well with boredom. Sometimes, I admit, I feel like I’m missing a lot by not engaging in conversation with people I don’t know, so I’ll give it a try. And often, after a few minutes, my most urgent need is to whip out my book and start reading fiercely.

Recently, my husband and I have been watching the TV show, now on Netflix, Anthony Bourdain: Parts UnknownBourdain, of course, is a chef, author, and TV personality who is often a harsh and cruelly witty judge on Top Chef. In Parts Unknown he visits cities around the world, many in challenged countries, and tries many different kinds of food.

It turns out he is a wonderful conversationalist. He treats everybody the same, whether he’s dining from elegant china in a Quebec restaurant or eating street food in Tripoli. He laughs, he asks people what they dream of for their country’s future, he jokes. He tastes all kinds of weird food. He seems really interested.

I decided I want to be more like him.

So a few days ago, I was early for a meeting and there was a young woman—I’ll call her J—whom I’ve known for a couple of years, but have never really spoken to. In truth, she just seemed distant and remote. She’s a friend of another young women, M, whom I am close to, but whenever I’ve spoken with M, J has just stood there silently, staring into the distance. I thought she didn’t like me.

But there she was and there was I, and I thought about what my new mentor, Anthony Bourdain, would do. I walked right up to J and asked her how she was. She answered briefly. I said that her father had told me she’d been having some health problems and how was she doing with that? And then she began to open up a bit. I listened, I asked a few questions, and then I told her I really hoped she would feel better soon.

A couple of hours later, after the meeting ended, she passed by me on the way out the door—and she gave me a hug.

Thank you, Anthony Bourdain.

In the hospital waiting room

Waiting for my husband to undergo a surgical biopsy for bladder cancer this week, I spend a lot of time watching and thinking about the other people in the waiting room. A family of four, including a boy about 13,  sat in silence, both the man and woman bent over and staring at the floor. Then their loved one’s doctor came out and said something to them, and they all straightened and brightened like flowers that had just received rain. In and out came the people, in and out came the doctors. There was a silly TV show on, a morning talk show whose hosts bantered back and forth. A young couple in their twenties arrived and were obviously familiar with the place and the receptionist. Why, I wondered? What brought them there so often? Another man, elderly, seemed to have gotten a news much different from that of the family. His doctor came out and conducted him to a “consultation room” just off the waiting room. I could just imagine the heaviness, the grief of what that man was hearing and considering. A hospital waiting room is a lonely, frightening place. But it is also a place that can wrench your heart wide open for others. (And when Andy’s doctor came out, he was very happy with what he had seen… or rather not seen.)

Moving Vast Forward (forward)

The purpose of Vast Forward, my new blog, is to explore the enchantment in the everyday… especially when it is so easy for that everyday to seem small or dreary or depressing or simply not worth bothering about.

I’ve found, since I was very, very young, that when you sink into the reality of what’s within you and without, you are often swept up by magic. That’s what I hope to track here.

It has been a challenge, my friends, trying to get my WordPress website to talk to my MailChimp account so all this can actually happen… but I believe I have finally done it!

It is my intention that you will start receiving my blogs in the morning after I have written a new one. May it be so! May we journey together from the tiny now to the Great Now!

The golden bough that would have been there anyway

Walking along the old railroad path behind our village, stewing about this and that…

I note that the sun, just about to set, has come out from behind a cloud, and I think, that is a nice way to be accompanied back home.

And suddenly I stop, grabbed by something exquisite. A branch that has fallen off a tree and caught on a bush lies facing the trail, the blunt, broken end facing west. The inner flesh of the tree is pure gold, radiant in this burst of setting sunlight.

I think: this would have been here, this broken branch blazing out into the world, even if I had not been here to witness it. And how amazing that I was.

Letting go of either/or

My little village in northeastern Pennsylvania has its town meeting on the first Monday of the month. Last week, two women attended in order to complain about the mess surrounding the home of their next-door neighbor.

And they’re right. This man really is a collector of many things and apparently a thrower-away of absolutely nothing. His home is a beaten-up trailer. He has a backhoe, a truck, and the skeleton of a car parked in his tiny yard. There is a dumpster (full) in the driveway and all around it are all manner of things from broken chairs to pieces of lumber to dog toys to old Christmas decorations. He responded to an earlier complaint last year by covering some of the piles with tarps.

After the meeting, I went up to one of the women to commiserate with her. “But,” I said, “he’s really a sweet guy.”

She took offense and started telling me about how much worse his place looks from their upstairs window.

I told her, yes, I can imagine. But when we planted all those new trees in town a few years ago, I said, he went round with us and dug all the holes with his backhoe and didn’t charge a thing.

She retorted that many evil people can fool you into thinking they’re good: Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy.

“He’s a nice guy and he’s a slob,” I said.

She would have none of it, so I finally left the conversation. But, really, we don’t have to choose only one way of looking at anything and forcing all other aspects of that person or place or situation into our particular mold. A clear-cut forest is tragic—and it is beautiful. Ezra Pound was Fascist—and he was a great poet. When you see a raven perch on a tree during your mother’s burial service, it is perfectly okay to feel both joy and horrid grief at the same moment.

We can hold wild contraries in our hands. It’s not always about either/or. And, really, it’s a relief to know that the world and all its parts are so marvelously complex.

Vast Forward!

splash

Splash Action!

To insist on a guarantee that something you do when you set out to do it will be successful is to lop off the wild idea, the blooming vision before it’s formed. What we do matters because we are responsible for living up to our own ideals, whether anyone is watching or not. Whether we will be thanked or not.

Shortly after September 11, I led a ceremony in New York near Ground Zero. It was called Attending the City. Toward the end of it I asked everyone present to commit to making an act of beauty for the city within one week. The things people did were so personal! One woman adopted two cats that had belonged to someone who was killed the World Trade Tower fell. A man baked lasagna and took it to his local firehouse, which had lost several firefighters. A poet who had written a poem about the attack posted it on lampposts all around the city. These people acted because they were moved to do so, without hope of reward, simply because they cared about their city and how it was suffering, and they wanted to cheer it up.

What if, like the splash a pebble makes when it’s tossed into a pond, my actions could be beautiful, bold, and dramatic—whether anyone can imagine its trajectory or not?