With only a couple of nastier exceptions, all of my girlfriends have said goodbye with some version of “I hope you find what you’re looking for.” I hope I never have to hear this loving and so very sad sort of adios again. Which is worse, a going away present or a go-away present? Either way it’s still over, love moving on towards the long sunset, with a painful reminder that I haven’t yet found whatever it is, and that I’m still looking.
My friend Gary asked me the other night whether the first noble truth of Buddhism (dukkha; life is suffering; human consciousness will always be unsatisfied and strive for more) could be equated with the first catechism (the original sin; man’s fall from grace; something like that?) and the answer was: I have no idea, but it does help to know that the Buddha recognized the most fundamental human characteristic as that feeling of dissatisfaction that never goes away. And still: how could love not be enough? The feeling of having to leave because I’m not quite feeling enough is too familiar, sad, and, I suspect, pathetic, immature, and greedy.
The solution I imagine advertised on roadside billboards along the trans-Tibetian highway is Self-Awareness. If we can become aware enough of suffering, and zoom out so that it’s no longer ‘I am suffering and I want it to end‘ then our perception might shift to see that that there is (and will always be) suffering in the world. I think this is what Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead really meant when he wrote “The chase is better than the catch“—that wishing for the suffering to end is the same as wishing for life to end. Better to keep the chase going.
I’m making coffee in the little stove-top machinetta that I still sometimes use, the pressurized steam rising through the finely-ground beans and to form an unctuous pool of caffeinated mud, peppered with vaporized aluminum ions. The scalding chaos of suffering is embraced and expressed through these words; a unique and delicious alchemy occurs, resulting in nothing more or less transcendental than my morning espresso—the story of my life.
Before I learned how to make coffee out of dukkha and boiling water, the story that I believed for most of my life was that I simply had no idea what I was looking for. I followed my intuition as far as the top floor Geography department at UC Berkeley, where it walked right out on me, not to return for more than twenty years. Through the next two decades I suffered with what I felt was the truth: that I had never known what I wanted to do or who I wanted to be. I still found my way gradually forwards, but I was plagued by having no internal compass to lead me beyond my wits’ end. How I wished for a different world, a world where I felt more myself, where I might feel that, even if I was suffering, at least I was at least trying to do what I somehow knew what I wanted to do. I was convinced that (at least some) other people knew, and that since I hadn’t been given that clarity, I was suffering more. The oldest meme of all, no doubt, is “Me Me Me”.
What I had lost track of in those middle years was that I had known—and then forgotten! In fact, I had received a very specific message, and now I remember it well. I was fifteen years old, living on Church Street with my mother in a typical San Francisco over-and-under flat, the kitchen done in black-and-white tile, the “J” streetcar line outside. I had the back room overlooking the yard and the firehouse around the corner. My sister was away at a boarding school from which she was not permitted to escape, and we rented her room to various friends. We kept the back parlor that gave onto my bedroom as an office and sewing room, with an IBM PCjr that I used for homework assignments next to my mom’s old Singer for hemming and pegging the Ben Davis pants that we all favored.
I had already switched from Lowell to McAtteer High, in part because of the local war on drugs, but moreso because of the greater creative opportunities. I was able to take a very inspiring writing class as part of the ALTA program, and I still have the stories that I wrote, carefully preserved through generations of floppy disks and converted from their original Wordstar format. I was reading Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia and Ursula K. LeGuin and writing airy short stories about colonies of sentient trees; very teenage psychedelia. Recently divorced, my mother was enjoying a new life in her early forties and often had interesting people around. One friend of hers became something of an aunt to me, and I shared my message with her: I had seen very clearly that I wanted to be a writer, and that it would happen in later life. “I’ll become a writer in my fifties,” I said to her, “Now I just need some life experience.” She commended me on the clarity of my vision.
If only I hadn’t forgotten for so long! That’s part of the story to come, but it’s hard not to feel that if only I hadn’t buried the lede until my forties that perhaps I would have even more interesting things to write about. What was impossible to see in that original message was the subtly encoded self-destruct instruction designed so that I would forget the whole idea long enough to give me a proper experience of suffering (by which I mean: being alive).
Did I really need that experience to give me something to write about? I would have been happy as a travel writer, an adventurer, a columnist, published in the New Yorker or even just the San Francisco Chronicle. A body of work! The life of an artist! But that was not what was written—and now that I’m here at fifty, I’m grateful that I wasn’t aware of my still-pending mid-life mission the whole time, because I would have been impossibly waiting, somehow accumulating life and unable to say anything about it. Of course, I have no choice but to write the material that I ended up with. Now that I’ve finally been allowed to open the envelope, this is the story I have. There is some hardship in here, but no more any other ordinary disaster.
My point in bringing it up at all is that talking and writing about it sure do help. Expressing what comes through me makes what I’ve felt feel more real, and perhaps even makes some meaning from it. Somewhere in here is the story I was born to tell. I still do hope I find what I’m looking for, but something tells me that might well not be possible. Maybe you will. Good luck.