19 Going on Nothing

The year was 1960. I was a third grader in a Catholic school when the Nazi murderer Adolph Eichman was put on trial in Jerusalem. The man in the glass booth wore black horn-rimmed glasses and looked like a bookkeeper. Eichman was hanged. In primary grades, the little I knew of the Holocaust was enough to rattle my bones and demand that my growing mind question just about everything. Later I read Isser Harel’s and Shlomo Shpiro’s account of Eichman’s capture, The House on Garibaldi Street. The Eichman story, as Life magazine saw it, reveals how evil can be rationalized because it has been codified.

Air raid drills were routine at a time in my education when I could actually fit under a school desk. Great protection against nuclear fallout. Yet the horrors of Hiroshima did not seep into my consciousness the way the horrors of Auschwitz did. The Holocaust was a force capable of splitting rock, fracturing human history in two, forever changing our modern world.

Moving toward nothing, but taking along a pen.

It took everything and it took next to nothing to lose faith. I gave up on the Creator, figuring he gave up on us and who could blame him? Maybe we were the rough draft he wadded into a ball and threw out. His created beings were uninspiring at best and beastly at worst. I did not, however, lose faith in the creative process. Poetry not religion fed me. Poetry gives voice and trains its practitioners to take life by the throat, as Robert Frost put it. Poetry helped me name parts, assemble, and take apart. Poetry put emotions into words and even zoomed beyond words. Poetry forced me to see things. But not everything. You think I wanted to look at life that close?

1968: Tet-a-Tet

You can’t say civilizations don’t advance...in every war they kill you a new way (Will Rogers, 1879-1935).

By the time I was a junior in high school, our graduates of the male persuasion got birthday cards from Uncle Sam inviting them to join the party in Southeast Asia. 1968 was a time of assassination, agitation, instigation, hallucination, escalation; sit-ins, building seizing, draft card burning with no time for learning. It might as well have been the Year of the (Dead) Dog. Based on 1960-1971 statistics, 1968 was the watershed year with 536,100 US military personnel stationed in Vietnam. 1968 was also the year of the Communist Tet Offensive (Tet is the Vietnamese New Year) that caught the US and South Vietnamese forces by surprise; the brutality forced many Americans to read their own sons graffiti on the wall: We are the unwilling, led by the unqualified, doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful.

1969 says it all

Mankind might have taken one giant leap on the moon, but mankind wasn’t getting very far down on earth. In 1969 a total of 474,400 personnel was stationed in Nam. On the home front, sex education in schools was attacked by the John Birch Society as a communist ploy; in contrast, The Bitch Manifesto was published by the Redstockings to raise women’s consciousness; at Sir George Williams in Montreal, 200 students smashed computers with axes and set the center on fire to protest racism; buildings were seized at Mass, Howard University, Penn State, UC Berkeley, UW-Madison, and Harvard. Hippies in People’s Park in Berkeley were attacked by police and National Guard. The Chicago 8 Trial began. At a gay bar in Greenwich Village, 2,000 protestors battled 400 police in the Stonewall Uprising, which launched the Gay Liberation Movement. The first Vietnam Moratorium drew 500,000 in DC. 78 Native Americans seized Alcatraz Island. The nation of Woodstock rose, and at Altamont Speedway a man waving a gun charged the stage during the Stones set, and was killed by some Hell's Angels.

Maybe it’s the time of year; yes, and maybe it’s the time of man. And I don’t know who I am. But life is for learning (Joni Mitchell). Looking out at a burning world, this class of 1969 graduate from the subterranean lower-percentile left home for the college of her choice: a commune. I didn’t quite know how to break it to my parents. As far as they could see, I had decided to immigrate to the dark side of the moon.

Bumming a life

Jack Kerouac had this vision of a world full of rucksack wanderers. Dharma bums. The problem with a vision is that it’s usually someone else’s version of reality; an untested ideal that starts with something vaguely clear and ends up with something clearly vague. Kerouac might have worked his vision to worm out of the oppressive system of work, produce, consume (translation: he was unemployed), but life finally caught up with him and beat him at his game. He died in 1969, and missed out on the reality check that very little changes in Bohemia. Dharma bums can be self-righteous in their freedom and free in their self-righteousness. And when they need to buy something from the material world (aka maya, or illusion), they panhandle. Being asked for spare change rubbed raw this feisty proletariat girl.

Sometimes it comes in handy to forget who you are. Good advice for someone living with a blur of rootless strangers and drifters whose last names you never caught, and who freely took on names like Cosmic River, Breanna, Cassidy, Chakra, Deja and Vu, Balbo Shrooms, Cloey and Coriander, Sky Larrisa, Energi and Shamica Sativa. And a name that still makes me laugh: Bhakti Bob (Sanskrit for Adevotion). Coming back to the commune after slaving all day in a factory, I would drag my bike up two flights of stairs, lock my bike, lock my room, and then climb out of the window to sit on the roof to smoke. Why did I bother with this drain-ditch Walden Pond social experiment? Why did I live in this crazy house? The answer to that is stolen from Ring Lardner: Shut up she explained.

Is nothing an entity?

I scorned the Weatherman Faction and Yippie cave dwellers living next door. You dudes keep talking about how we got to get it together, but that’s just political rhetoric. All you do is raise your fist and yell and smoke dope. Slowly it dawned on me that I believed in absolutely nothing. At the center, I lacked a center. It’s not like in the 1960s there was a shortage of causes! I just watched, throwing a look that could barb wire. I was not quite ready to admit to myself that observing isn’t living. Buried somewhere underneath the nothing was conflict and buried underneath that was terra incognita the unexplored country called my soul and somewhere buried in there was a longing that went unnamed.

Moving away or toward self?

After a year, I moved out of the commune. To get away from all that love. Loving, like learning, if it’s true, depends on receptivity and reciprocity. More often than not, love is what anybody says it is to his or her advantage. But now came a new form of misery: me, myself, and I. Living alone made for one intense torturous thought life. Can a person change? Why are we naturals at evil? Are we trapped in our karma? Why does everything spoil so quickly? Why isn’t God obvious? The search for answers was complicated by emotional violence. Did I see too much? Did I know too much of the wrong things? Why do we do each other? Some of my angry outbursts in the commune had shocked me. What was I really capable of? In various forms and expressions, I had seen evil, but was not in a hurry to look within and face my own.

I and Tao

In the evenings after work, it was a bad habit of mine to sit at the kitchen table and smoke. Nervous energy and restlessness were nothing new to me; did I dare venture inside? Did I have the stomach for self-knowledge? How do we find ourselves, and how can we know the way? According to Lao Tzu, without stirring abroad, one can know the whole world; without looking out of the window, one can see the way of heaven. Sounds good so far. Except for the bizarre punch line: The further one goes the less one knows. I wasn’t in the mood for a Tao joke.

Augustine said that if you would attain to what you are not yet, you must always be displeased by what you are. For where you were pleased with yourself there you have remained. But once you have said, It is enough, you are lost. Keep adding, keep walking, keep advancing, and do not stop, do not turn back, do not turn back from the straight road. I wasn’t in the mood for a religious philosopher’s joke. One source says keep going, but you’ll know less and less; the other says keep going, keep going, you must keep going. But for what?

Did I miss something here?

What is the point? More than any circumstance, stray thought, sage’s proverb, crisis, personal conversation, or fragment of a book it was the utterance, What’s it all mean? That worked me over, and finally did me in. The way I figured it, the moment you achieved nirvana bearing in mind that might take thousands of lifetimes to move up to a higher consciousness you disappear! The God-realized enlightened one leaves the body, and merges into the godhead. Bliss consciousness. Moksha. I want to know what happens to you as you.

Sorry. A working class kid doesn’t buy that. It’s like asking a laborer to bust his butt for 80 hours a week for nothing. Why should you keep getting shoved around for all this supposed lousy karma? Ultimately, what do you get out of it? Nothing! And where/when does it finally end? It’s a horrible thought, but what does this line of thinking say about the 6 million who died in the Holocaust, one million of them being children? How do you match up these unconvincing explanations of the obligatory necessity of working out your karma with victims of Nazi or Stalin’s butchery? What happens to compassion? If I see someone suffering, I don’t need to get involved. Tough luck. Your karma must suck. And to top it off, you should go through countless,
undoubtedly painful recycling just so your self can go past go and advance to annihilation? Is this where reincarnation finally dumps you?

How can you not want to be?

I’m not talking about what goes around comes around, you know, those times when you get yours for being rotten to others. I’m talking about being trapped in a system for life with no way out, no matter what you do.

The more I thought about these things, the more I realized how deeply I wanted to live. The urge to exist, this drive for life is not raw egoism it’s a natural response. My life might be a bummer a great deal of my waking hours, but I did not want to cease. How can you not want to be? Life wants to live.

Listen, in all fairness, I’m pretty sure my simplistic explanation is full of holes. But when I was 19 going on nothing this was the dilemma I faced: I live, I die, zen what? Do I become compost? Do I disappear? Do I recycle? Do I go to heaven? (Fat chance.) Do I go to hell? (5’ll get you 10). But how can you know? You can’t. I couldn’t get past that. All along I had thought reincarnation the most logical of the choices. But now it didn’t look so good.

In the past year or two, I had met my share of con artists. I looked down at the musty book I had picked up for a buck at a used bookstore. The thought occurred to me that maybe the sage or guru who wrote this book about the path to life wasn’t any more enlightened than our second shift forklift operator. I threw the book into the trash, and decided that believing in nothing required no fuss, no mess, and little work. There was a remote possibility that something real would come along. Something credible. Authentic. Desirous. But the way my life had played out to this point, I wasn’t holding my breath. Any discussion about enlightenment put my teeth on edge. Like my conversation with a drummer from the east coast.

A spirited argument

Steve was a poli-sci major who lived in the basement of a commune two doors down. One evening Steve came to my room, shut the door, and announced the love of his life: Meher Baba.
" Read this. You gotta read this. Then you’ll know."
" Know what?"
" Baba is it. He’s it. Here’s a spiritual teacher who didn’t speak for 42 years."
" But he wrote books?" I looked at the book as if it might go off. Gingerly I accepted it, and began flipping through it. At least there were some pictures with captions.
" Yes. All the wisdom he gained, I believe, he gained from silence. Wisdom emerges from silence. Baba didn’t say that exactly, though. I did."
I was glad Steve clarified that. I didn’t want Baba to be credited with anything that made sense. Yet Steve didn’t make much sense either.
" How can you go on about silence when you live on this comic book street full of bands and loud mouth subversives? Who can hear themselves think?...not that there’s anything worth thinking about...ultimately."

" Inner silence is also a discipline, especially as we are surrounded by a maya-drugged humanity." Steve persisted. "You have to listen to the silence."
" Ah, Steve, here. I don’t believe in chunky gurus or spindly bodhisattvas who say they’re God. At least the honest ones set themselves on fire."
" Baba never said he was God. Your western consciousness is getting in the way. Every living thing is a partial manifestation of God. There is nothing but God and all this is nothing but illusion. There is only God."
" Look, you’re Jewish so maybe you wouldn’t know this. But look. Here. This picture." I pointed at the caption." He’s saying stuff Jesus said. About himself. Does this Baba guy think he’s Jesus? Is he God’s other son?"
Steve paused but looked at me beatifically, as one exercising great patience with a plodding, lesser intelligent carnal being.
This time I persisted. "How can you believe in Baba but not Jesus? All hippies like Jesus. And at least Jesus is from the neighborhood."
" The whole world is our neighborhood as you say. But I caution you against provincialism. You have to transcend. Get beyond locality. Your thoughts confine you. And I sense great conflict and turmoil in your soul."
I shifted to one foot. "Steve. Look. As a rule, I don’t believe 99.9 percent of the men I meet. But there ain’t no question. All religious men are full of it."
" Including your Jesus?
" He ain’t my Jesus, as you say. But. No. No. I guess I don’t line him up on the same shelf. He’s different."
" Meaning..."
" I don’t know how to explain it. I don’t know what I mean, if you wanna know the truth. Look, I basically believe in nothing, so don’t ask, okay Steve?"
" I think you’re predisposed and set in your prejudices. Baba is no mere man. And you should not hasten to pass judgment," Steve pointed at me. "You just don’t understand enlightenment. Jesus was enlightened. Undoubtedly. But he wasn’t the only enlightened one. Other enlightened ones have followed since, sparking new emanations, unveiling hidden secrets, and manifesting spiritual power. Enlightened ones always appear. In every age. Baba is an avatar."
Steve’s intensity and oratory talent was unmistakable. Had he taken a different path, he would’ve had people weeping and writing out checks to buy Israel Bonds. Then he seemed to land back on earth, and bore his eyes into mine, touching my forehead with his forehead. "When you decide to open your mind, the truth, you will find, is here.
He stepped back, still staring at me, and his black stone eyes glimmered like star wheels. How could I be sure he didn’t just polish off a pan of hash brownies? Then Steve wafted away.

When I was by myself I retreaded the conversation. No denying it. I felt an animosity toward Christianity in particular and what I call the fakery and manipulative hocus-pocus of religion in general. Yet it bothered me that some egomaniac was going around asking children to come to him as if he was Jesus hiking around the Galilee. In a strange way I think I could have handled it better if this guru on the side was into fast women and gaudy cars. It was his messianic complex that made me uneasy, though I didn’t know why. And it bugged me that Steve picked up on my inner conflict. I didn’t know it showed.

How down can you go?

Either I was thinking too much or not enough. My analytical skills were not very sharp because of my age, limited experience, lack of tools, no objective distance from the subject matter, and no reliable mentors. Intuitively I could debone this fish called my life. Even I could see that my poetry got noticeably darker. I couldn’t dismiss the world as illusion, for I was too concretely vested and grounded in reality. Yet how can you really know something when all you have are perceptions? Are there absolutes? It rattled me that I could be wrong about a great many things. Evil is a running sore that won’t heal. Sure it sounded grandiose, but we believed we could and we ought to change our world. But it was the same old dreary place.

Was this progress or regression? I moved from atheist to agnostic to a belief in nothing (treated in my mind like an essence). Then there was that unnamed longing. Against my will, I flirted with the idea of many gods. Two of the most popular LPs at this time were Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew and Santana’s Abraxas. Staring at the artwork on both jackets, along with ingesting the music in an apartment illuminated with one black candle zoomed my head into a funk. What unfurled on my mind’s landscape was a dark dimension. Is there a Devil? I became conscious of a parallel world, and the chilling reality that we were only separated from this other dimension by something as flimsy as a window pane.

Enough! As if dropping down from Mars, I landed on my wary parent’s doorstep, and moved back home to a regiment of eight hours at work; eight hours in my room where I holed up listening to jazz and numbing myself in the Janis Joplin tradition of Southern Comfort whiskey. Janis Joplin had just died (October 4, 1970); several weeks earlier Jimi Hendrix died (September 17, 1970). The story of life is quicker than the wink of an eye. That was a lyric fragment he was working on the night before Hendrix choked on his own vomit. Something inside of me had died too, leaving me a shell of my former shell.

A new year, a new life

December 31, 1970. I got off the bus from downtown after cashing my check. With my carpet bag full of dough, I was ready to party with my fellow factory workers. As the night wore on, I was faced with a major problem: I didn’t have a car; everyone I knew, or at this point, vaguely remembered, all seemed to have disappeared. It was very late, and I wasn’t feeling any pain. How do I get home? Catch a bus and pass out in the aisle and get rolled? Catch a ride home with another drunk? Hitch-hike? I decided to walk it off. But 10 miles in 15-degree weather? As long as I kept moving, I was fine. Despite the beauty of the moon drenching the glistening, powdery snow, I felt like I was on a death march into the new year. In my head, I did a painful review of the year going out. Into the cavernous silence, I cried out: God, I’m sick of fighting. Show me your way. And get me home. Don’t let me die in the snow.

Early in January 1971, I got my answer. At last I was confronted with a book that read and sized up me. Even though the person who gave me a Bible shared a similar 1960s odyssey, I was only half listening when I was struck by something he said: You can trust the man who died for you. Why on earth would someone die for me? Working backwards to answer that brought me to Jesus and his way out of the karmic rut. How many of us are like Nicodemus who snuck out to see Jesus in the dead of the night. Thank God I stooped to that!

Rabbi, we realize that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could show the signs that you show unless God were with him.
Believe me, returned Jesus, when I assure you that a man cannot see the kingdom of God without being born again.
And how can a man who has grown old possibly be born? replied Nicodemus. Surely he cannot go into his mother’s womb a second time to be born?
I do assure you, said Jesus, that unless a man is born from water and from spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Flesh gives birth to flesh and spirit gives birth to spirit: you must not be surprised that I told you that all of you must be born again. The wind blows where it likes, you can hear the sound of it but you have no idea where it comes from or where it goes. Nor can you tell how a man is born by the wind of the Spirit.

For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost, but should have eternal life. God has not sent his Son into the world to pass sentence upon it, but to save it through him (John 3:1-8; 16-17).

To take a journey with aka xallie saperstein, click on the Footnotes poetry manuscript.