Last year, my dear friend Mori Rothman visited me in Lone, Pine California about three weeks before I finished walking. At one point, we posted up in a cafe and passed a laptop back and forth between each other, a silent conversation that lasted upwards of four hours. We shared it on our respective blogs.
As an activist, a pacifist, and a conscientious objector, Mori has inspired me for years, and as a friend he’s been a beloved source of reflection. So, when he visited me again last week, it just made sense to sit down for another blogalogue, to reflect and check-in. Many thanks, my friend, and much love. Visit Mori’s blog!
Andrew: The last time we were in the same place together, we were underneath the Sierras in eastern California. I was three weeks from finishing my walk, you were a few months from imprisonment for protesting mandatory military service in Israel, a good many twists and turns in the road ahead for both of us. Here we are again one year later, a rainy day on Cape Cod, the grey ocean churning outside this coffee shop window. What’s new? What’s been learned? Who are we now? Where are we going?
Mori: Yes! That’s my answer to those four questions. Yes, and a bit more. First off, it is, as always, an incredible blessing to see you and spend time with you, Andrew. In addition to being so deeply happy to speak with you, run with you, philosophize and analyze and comprehend and uncomprehend with you, I am looking forward to taking this opportunity to distill some of the learning we’ve each done over the past year. I am a big fan of posterity. And presterity. And just plain sterity. A learning I’ve done: I still desperately love making up words. You? What is something that comes to your mind when I ask you what you’ve learned over the past year? Maybe we’ll start with that.
Andrew: This year. A few things come up. First, endings: coming to terms with them, embracing them, thanking them. I’m thinking of the end of the walk at Half Moon Bay, not quite one year ago yet. In the weeks before I got there, I felt such fear about it. So many little questions – what will I do next? that kind of thing – but also bigger ones. Scarier ones. Like, the death one. It all felt like a dry run for the end of my life, and that freaked me out. And it freaked me out that I was freaking out. As it turned out, the last 24 hours were beautiful, at peace and full of gratitude. But the whole thing made me realize that if I want to translate that peace and gratitude into my outside-the-walk life, I have some work to do.
I was talking recently with a friend who’s a nurse, and he was telling me about his patients with dementia. He said there are two types: the ones who are just happy and the ones who are afraid. I want to be happy, man. You know? I don’t want to be afraid. Then, when it comes, and now, too.
Mori: I hear that, deeply. I had a similar thought a few months ago- not about death, per se, but about endings (which I guess is ultimately about death, in a certain way, isn’t it?). It was actually watching the end of a marathon. There seemed to be two ways people crossed the finish line: there were the Grinning Finishers, who looked exhausted but elated, joyful, proud, and the Frowning Finishers, people who looked angry, afraid, their faces contorted into grimaces or scowls. And it didn’t seem to correlate with time or with fitness. There were older people coming in beaming, and young, fit folks who seemed miserable. A few principles I think connect for me here: One is from Buddhism, the idea that life includes pain, period. The question becomes to what extent do we choose to allow that pain to cause us suffering. The other is redefining what it means to succeed or “do well,” when we are at the end of our lives, or the end of our run, what will allow us to look back and smile and say, I’ve done well? What’s something you think that you’ve done well over this past year?
Andrew: I like the distinction there, between pain and suffering, that the former doesn’t necessarily have to become the latter. The choice in that. And redefining success, I like that one, too. You said as we ran this morning that every run is a good run: if it hurts, it’s your body communicating something to your mind, and if it feels good, the same. It’s all communication – everywhere, all the time – and maybe the trick, then, is to listen. The more that’s heard, the more is known, the more informed choices can be. I think I’ve done alright on that this year, listening, trying to remember there’s so much to be heard, so much I’m not hearing, and to just quiet myself and open the old ears. I still forget, though. Maybe someday I’ll forget to forget and just remember.
How about you, my friend? What have you done well this year?
Mori: It’s a hard question. I think that I did well in acting according to what I believed, in refusing to serve in the army, and going to jail for a short while, and doing it from a place of love. But more than that, I think that I’ve done well taking a few steps back since then, asking questions about my choices, about my politics, about politics, about the world (while maintaining a constant torch that I think we all have somewhere inside of us and that knows and cannot unknow the simple and Simply True fact that all people are equal and holy and deserve to be treated equally and holy-ly). And trying to remember that I have a lot to learn, and that I need to keep on learning, and that I am a bit under 24 years old. And that it is OK to take some days or months to be quiet and be with struggle that cannot be solved simply (because the important struggles are never simple) and to learn, that the world and the beautiful people in it are teaching always, constantly. And I’ve written a few poems I’ve been proud of, and put a lot of myself into working on and throwing myself into my connections with the people who I mean the most to and who mean the most to me. There are plenty of things I’ve done less well in, as well. This is still pretty theoretical. We are storytellers. We need to ground these ideas in a few stories. Tell me a story.
Andrew: I think you just defined success for me: “To learn that the world and the beautiful people in it are teaching always, constantly.” There’s a liberating detachment in this perspective, one that doesn’t allow the painful things to bind themselves to us as shame, anger, disappointment, or frustration. It’s levity, I think, and happiness, too, maybe.
This idea that everyone is teaching always and constantly is fine and good, but in the real world, outside the theoretical, it falls flat, right? Like you said, we need stories, evidence that everything is learning, even the painful stuff. I consider my own short life, moments when I’ve been stung. I think of my dad and some of the experiences I shared with him during my parents’ divorce and the years that followed. Then, it was nothing but pain. Now, I see it was a potent classroom. Empathy. Forgiveness. Humility. Acceptance. Love. I got to practice all these things, to grow, and that’s thanks to my dad. In so many ways, he’s my teacher.
A story from you? And perhaps a closing? Our time is precious and brief.
Mori: A story. A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the airport with my partner. We were arguing lightly about something, and sharing a meal from a chain restaurant. The food tasted mediocre. I looked over to the counter, and saw a man in a navy blue one-piece jumpsuit. He was sitting on the red-plush swivel stool. His hair was attached to his head in various whites and grays, strands like palm ferns. A black felt yarmulkeh stood puffed and expectant. His skin was creased and lower jaw pushed outwards, holding out little spikes of silver that lifted and fell as he chewed, and pointed up as he smiled. And he smiled and chewed. And I began to smile as I chewed. It’s probably overstating and overdrawing on the poetic subtext, but it is important for me to write it anyway: I really loved him at that moment.
I don’t think I have a great conclusion for this one. I don’t think there’s a need for a great conclusion. God willing, we have many more of these to write. Meanwhile, I love you and am so grateful for your friendship and guidance. Onwards?
Andrew: Onwards, my friend. So much love and many thanks for you. Until next time.