My Grandmother’s Honey Cake

A couple of years after my grandfather died I went to visit my grandmother and took a college friend with me. The three of us sat at her table and chatted. My grandmother got up, made coffee and served it with cake she had made.

My friend tasted the cake and said: “Phil, this is Jewish honey cake.”

“Neal,” I answered, “my grandmother is from Crete; this cannot be Jewish honey cake.”

“Phil, I’m a Jew and I know Jewish honey cake. This is Jewish honey cake, and what’s more its very good honey cake.”

“Neal, my grandmother always serves this cake. I’ve been eating it for 20 years. It’s Greek cake.”

“Phil, it’s honey cake, it’s classic Jewish honey cake.”

“Giagia” I said (giagia is Greek for “grandma”) “Neal says this is Jewish honey cake.”

“It is,” she said.

“Giagia, how do you know how to make Jewish honey cake?”

“Do you want to hear a story about how people can change” she asked.

Neal and I looked at each other, then to my grandmother; a moment passed, and my grandmother started to speak:

“Before your father or Bob were born, and Steve was only 3 years old, we lived upstairs in a two-family home. On the first of every month the landlady would come for the rent. I kept the rent money in a cup on a shelf by the kitchen door. When the landlady came I would reach-up and take the money from the cup and give it to her.

One day the landlady came while Steve was in the kitchen. I opened the door and gave her the money. She would always bring a treat for Steve. On this day she brought a bag of donuts. I closed the door and put the bag of donuts in the coal stove and burned them-up.

Steve started to cry because, naturally, he wanted to eat the donuts.

I explained to Steve that the landlady was Jewish, and that the Jews killed Christ, and that therefore we do not eat the landlady’s donuts.”

Neal and I, already silent, became very still.

My grandmother continued: “A few years later I was shopping in the local market. It was the depression. A woman from down the block was in the store, saw me, and came over to say hello. She looked into my cart and saw that I was buying cake. ‘Why are you buying cake?’ she asked me.

‘Because I want my family to have something sweet after dinner.’

‘But it’s very expensive’ she said. ‘Why don’t you make cake?’

‘I don’t know how,’ I told her.

‘She told me to wait, and then she went around the store and started to select ingredients and a pan.”

My grandmother got up and, walking unsteadily on arthritic knees, went to a cabinet, opened the door and took-out a very old and very used 9-inch by 9-inch aluminum baking pan.

‘This pan.’

‘And the woman came to my house and taught me how to make this cake. She was Jewish. She taught me how to make honey cake.

I make this cake about once a month. It reminds me how people can change.”

When my grandmother died I told my family that the only thing that I really wanted of my grandmother’s possessions was her honey cake pan.

This pan:

Photo coming soon

Echoes of a Fight

In school I was always an outcast. I called myself a loner, but the truth is I was an outcast.

My family moved from California to suburban Philadelphia when I was 11, and I was simply never accepted into the social fabric of my new school. I was not invited to birthday parties, to bar mitzvahs, to celebrations generally. On weekends no classmate called to suggest I meet at the playground to play ball.

I went to school. I went home. I had no social life connected to school. This hurt, of course.

Soon after we moved I began writing poems about loneliness. My teachers would read them and cry.

Then I buried myself in science and entered science fairs and won top prizes. To my classmates this made me a geek, and even weirder. And I became more outcast.

In eighth grade I started reading pornography and became obsessed with sex, a fact I could not hide. This made me yet more unacceptable to my classmates. The constant teasing took on a more sinister edge, and became something closer to taunting.

Of course, what I wanted was to expiate my loneliness in sex, which in 8th grade I could not manage. I became bitter, and angry.

One day at lunch I was enjoined by classmates from sitting at a specific table. That table was reserved for, for lack of a better term, the “in-crowd.”

I had had enough, and something snapped in me. I looked at the table from which I was excluded and proclaimed for all to hear: “All the girls in the in-group are sluts and whores.”

This outburst offended and infuriated all at the table. Girls demanded an apology. I refused. They demanded again. I refused again. Anger swelled. Voices were raised. Faces became very red as demands that I back-down increased.

I stood my ground, and repeated my assertion, again and again. It was my moment in the center of it all after years eating my lunch alone, and I was not about to back down.

The class pretty boy, the most popular boy of the in-group, challenged me to a fight after school. I agreed to the fight, and with that the confrontation ended. The matter would be settled after school.

News of my confrontation with the in-group, and that after school there was to be a fight between me and the most popular boy, spread fast.

We were to meet on a field near the school, but out of sight, the better to avoid interference from teachers.

When I got to the field the entire school was there. This was an event: the most popular boy and the outcast were going to have it out.

The greasers were there. They wanted to see the popular boy get whipped. The in-group was there, they wanted to see me get my comeuppance. The unaligned were there, they wanted to see the fight.

It was like going on stage. There was a buzz in the crowd. It was my moment. I was astonished and apprehensive. The boy I was about to fight was several inches taller than I, at least 10 pounds heavier and athletic.

One kid, a hoodlum, came up to me. He was carrying a stick the length of a billy club. He got close and whispered so no one else could hear: “If you get in trouble, look at me. I’ll throw you the stick,” he waved it for emphasis, “and you go fucking animal.”

When the fight started a ring formed around us. There were at least two hundred kids watching and there were no adults.

I beat the daylights out of that boy. His nose was bloody. His lips were swollen. His shirt ripped and covered in blood. He didn’t quit fast. I would take him down, and he’d struggle back up. I’d take him down again, and he’d struggle back up. But each time he got up he was a little woozier, a little more wobbly. And I kept pounding him.

Eventually he didn’t get up. He lay on the ground, cowering. He wrapped his head with his arms, as if afraid that I was about to kick his head and kill him. His body shook uncontrollably from pain and fear.

I looked down and saw him, a beaten terrified boy, and was overcome. I felt a wave of revulsion, an impulse of remorse, of deep shame. I could not believe what I had done, and I tried to help him up.

The crowd jeered. “Look at Phil trying to be the hero.”

I had forgotten about the two hundred kids watching, all my attention had been on the fight.

But now I saw the crowd. It was a ghastly impression. It’s the faces I remember: vacant and blood thirsty and mesmerized. They loved it. I could have killed that boy and no one would have intervened. We were 13 years old.

I swore that day never to make a fist and hit a man again. And to this day I have not broken that vow.

After that fight the teasing basically stopped. I did not all-of-a-sudden become welcome in my class—quite the contrary, I was not welcome in the in-crowd—but now no one bothered me. The next year my family moved to Europe and I forgot all about my high school until I returned a year later. On returning to town I made friends outside of the high school and simply went back and forth to the school as a kind distasteful necessity. The day I graduated was the last day I spoke to any of my classmates.

35 years after that fight I went to my 30th high school reunion.

I had thought to skip the reunion, just as I had skipped my 25th, 20th, 15th and 10th reunions. This time there was a class website and a near daily stream of imploring e-mails sent mostly by classmates I had hardly known. I had read a few of the e-mails, but not responded to any of them. I thought of the huge energy some of my past contemporaries were putting into planning the event and was both mildly astonished and vaguely amused. I had told a friend over a cup of coffee that I would no more seek-out my high school classmates than I would dig-up last year’s Christmas tree in the town dump.

The Saturday afternoon of the reunion my evening plans fell through, and I decided “what the hell, I’ll go to the reunion.” I found an e-mail with the time and address and, without having RSVPed, got in my car and drove the two and a half hours to the reunion. I arrived mid-party, paid the admittance, and grabbed a beer. Had my weekend plans not fallen-through I certainly would not have attended. After all, I had not kept-up with a single person in my class. I was living in Manhattan, and my time in a suburban Philadelphia high school was something I had not thought about in years, much less missed.

I had not finished my first beer when the boy I had fought 35 years before, now a man of 48, came up to me, half drunk, and said: “Phil, you want to go to the field behind the school and mix it up over the girls?”

“Jon” I said, “that fight changed my life. Remember when I tried to help you up? How everyone jeered and said I was trying to be a hero? I swore then that I would never fight again, and I haven’t.”

I went on to tell him how rattled and ashamed and horrified I was when I looked down at him, bloody, shaking and terrified. How I was revolted I was by the faces of our contemporaries, who were delighted with the spectacle, like Romans at the Coliseum.

Jon looked at me. His face became like putty on the front of his skull. He looked somehow deflated, and he said: “wait here” and left. He returned a few moments later with his wife in tow. “Tell her the story,” he said. And I told the story again. Then we opened fresh beers. Jon starting telling jokes and I started chatting with someone.

A few minutes later Jon reappeared. He had brought someone to me. “Tell them the story” he said, and I told the story.

As the evening wore on Jon came back to me at least 5 times, each time with someone else in tow. Each time he said: “Tell them the story.”

Each time I told the story Jon looked vulnerable and sad but strangely relieved.

As I drove home I thought about the reunion. Sipping beer and chatting with old classmates had brought me no sense of nostalgia for my time in that suburban Philadelphia school. I did have a few business cards in my shirt pocket that I had accepted in conversation, but I knew I wouldn’t be calling anyone from my class. My time there was over long ago, and I would probably never go to another reunion.

Still, I marveled at the exchange I had had with Jon. It seemed to me, as I drove the New Jersey Turnpike back to New York City, that he had carried the humiliation of that fight with him for 35 years, a kind of inner irresolvable loathing and shame. And I had the unmistakable impression that somehow, in hearing me tell the story of our fight again and again from my point of view, that Jon’s pain and humiliation had been washed away.

Miracle on Interstate 80

I have never believed in God. But in March of 1978 God saved my life. Twice.

Somehow, a day or two before spring break of my junior year at Swarthmore College, the subject of Dungeness crabs came-up in conversation. I noted that I had not eaten one since my family had moved away from California in 1967, and that I had loved them.

At the end of the conversation I said: “Tomorrow is the last day of classes before break. I’m going to hitchhike to California and eat a crab.”

The next day I packed my bag and asked a friend to drive me from campus to the Interstate highway a few miles away. He noted that he thought me under-dressed for the cold weather I was sure to encounter.

I decided to take the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Interstate 80 and go west on I-80 across the country to San Francisco. I figured 3 days out, 2 days in California and 3 days back.

I was behind schedule almost immediately. Snow on I-80 in central and western Pennsylvania slowed traffic to 20 or 30 miles an hour. I got a series of short rides, which is the worst thing for a hitchhiker. Better to wait at a major exchange for a long ride than take a ride for 50 miles and get left off in a backwater. I knew this from months spent hitchhiking on a semester off, but took rides to get out of the snow. I told myself that getting a long ride in that weather was not likely anyway, but I suspected I was making a strategic error.

Pennsylvania is only 400 miles wide, or about a  7-hour drive. But I did not get to Ohio until past daybreak, about 20 hours after leaving Swarthmore. I was frustrated, only a few years earlier had I hitchhiked from Swarthmore to Ann Arbor Michigan in 17 hours.

I considered turning back, but my luck improved. I got a ride with a trucker all the way through Ohio and into Indiana. Rides with truckers are not like rides in private cars. When a trucker stops to pick-up a hitchhiker he is taking a big risk. A fleet driver can get fired for picking-up a hitchhiker. A private trucker’s insurance might not cover him in an accident if a hitchhiker is in the cab. So when a trucker picks-up a hitchhiker, he usually has a reason besides good will.

Most long-haul truckers go days and days, even weeks, without a real conversation. They buy diesel fuel. They buy meals. But between stopping for fuel and food, they drive for hours and hours alone. Most sleep in their cabs. Theirs is a crushingly lonely existence. And so when a trucker picks up a hitchhiker it is usually because they crave company and crave conversation.

The trucker who took me through Ohio and Indiana needed to talk. He talked about his truck. He talked about hunting, mostly deer hunting. He talked about his kids, three daughters. He talked about the road. By the time he dropped me off in Gary, Indiana in the late afternoon I had gone about 36 hours without sleep, but I was now making time.

Interstate 80 in Gary, Indiana was a tough place to wait for a ride. In 1978 it was the center of the industrial north–now the rust belt–and the sheer number of long-haul trucks on the highway was staggering. The highway had four lanes in each direction. Trucks, separated by only a few car lengths, filled the three right lanes. The sound of all of those trucks was deafening, and in 1978 the air was so dirty my throat burned and my eyes watered. I thought I was in hell.

But I was not in hell for long. I caught a ride out in less than ten minutes, this time in a passenger car with a man maybe 35 years old. He was going across Indiana and Illinois, almost to Iowa. I told him that I had not slept since leaving south east Pennsylvania. He told me not to worry about being social and to sleep. I slept most of the 175 miles, about 3 hours.

He woke me up in the early evening and told me we were getting close to his exit. I knew he was getting off the road just before the Iowa border. I wanted to get off at a major exchange, the better to catch a ride. He noted that it was getting cold, and I opened the window and realized he was right.

I pulled my map out of the outer pocket of my knapsack and asked him his exit number. I started to pay close attention to the signs. One sign indicated a truck stop in 15 miles. His exit appeared to me to be 15 miles away. I figured he was getting off at the exit with the truck stop. He said he wasn’t, and that I should get out an exit or two before his exit because they would have more traffic and because of the cold. I was quite sure I had read the signs correctly, and told him I’d stay with him until he got off the road.

When he pulled over to drop me off it was at an exit in the middle of a cornfield. There was not a building in sight. I got out, he pulled away, and I discovered immediately that it was very, very cold. I had made a terrible mistake. I was underdressed. There was no available shelter. My situation could get critical fast.

Not more than three or four minutes after my last ride had pulled away, a state police trooper stopped his car next to me. He rolled his window down about four inches and asked why I was there. I told him I was hitchhiking to California. “Why?” he asked. “Because I grew-up there. I have not been there in 10 years. I want to eat a crab. I can’t afford bus fare.”

“It’s five degrees now,” he said.  “It’s dropping to minus 10.”  With that he pulled away.

In a few minutes my fingers and toes started to become numb. I dug in my knapsack for my hand-warmer and special fuel sticks and matches. The hand-warmer was a cigarette-pack size metal box that hinged open like a book. Inside was some non-flammable spun glass. The hand-warmer worked by holding a smoldering fuel stick in spun glass. The spun glass allowed air to get to the stick but held it away from the metal sides of the hand warmer. Once lit, the hand warmer fit in a plush drawstring bag. I unwrapped a fuel stick and got a wooden match. I could not light the stick. It was not the wind; the problem was my fingers. They were too stiff with cold to manipulate a match. I realized then that the trooper had told me that I was going to die.

I was loosing feeling in my feet. I started shivering and realized that my core temperature was dropping. I knew that if I just waited for a car to stop, and no car stopped, I would die.

Had this been a road through woods, I would have dragged tree limbs into the road to stop traffic. I considered standing in the roadway and waving my arms to get a car to stop, but realized that I’d be a spectral and frightening figure to most drivers and would probably just get run-over, the more so since the traffic was doing 70 miles per hour plus.

It became clear that I could not wait; to survive I would have to do something. I started walking.

I walked up the exit ramp to the unlighted farm road that crossed the interstate at a right angle: north to the left, south to the right. When I got to the top of the exit ramp I saw a faint light in the distance, maybe a farmhouse, maybe a light on the side of a barn. I could not be sure. In the dark in the open plains your eyes play tricks. One moment you think you see the outline of a house around the light, the next moment the light seems to flicker in a field of black.

I started walking north along the road. The light was to the northwest, across fields. I realize now, after spending time fishing on boats in the ocean, and in the plains hunting pheasants, that that light was several miles away. Had I turned across the field I would have never made it to that light; not just because of the distance, but because pushing through corn fields, even in daylight, is hard.

I had walked less than fifty yards, and had not yet turned into the field, when a truck came up the exit ramp, crossed the farm road, continued onto the entrance ramp and stopped.

As fast as I could I ran up to the truck, to the driver’s side.

“May I have a ride, please?”

“I’m only going 2 exits up the road. I’m waiting here for another truck.”

“Please. I’m very cold. Please.”

“I suppose so,” he said. And I walked around to the passenger side of the truck and climbed in.

When I sat down the driver could see I was in trouble and he turned-up the heat. “How the hell you get stuck here?” he asked. I told him about my miscalculation with the location of the truck stop.

I asked him why he had stopped in this God forsaken place, and he said:

“I left New York yesterday morning together with another truck from this same company. We stayed within eyesight of each other the whole way, even in the traffic around New York City. Somehow I got ahead of him here, 20 miles from the end of our trip. I can’t figure out how this happened, there is no traffic on this road. Anyway, I called him on the CB radio, and told him I’d wait for him here.”

I am not a man who looks for supernatural explanations. But when this driver told me that he had no idea how he got separated from the other truck after a thousand miles of driving together, I was dumb stuck. All of a sudden it seemed to me that there was only one explanation: God had separated the trucks so that one would have to stop where I was stranded. God had intervened so that I would not freeze to death.

In a few minutes the other truck pulled up behind us. The driver turned to me and said: “I’m only going two exits down the road. At the first one there is a gas station. The second exit is just like this one. Where do you want to get off?”

It turned out that the gas station was the evening hangout for the local farm boys. They asked me about my trip. I told them that I had started in Philadelphia. That I just had a close call with the cold. That I was headed to California. One kid, about my age, looked out vaguely into the distance and said: “I’ve never been outside of Illinois or Iowa.” That was 34 years before this writing and I can almost see that kid’s face. I can certainly still hear his words.

Around midnight two cars pulled-in to the gas station to fill up. Both cars had skis on the roof. College kids got out of the cars. I tuned to the farm boys with whom I had been chatting for a couple of hours and said: “That looks like college kids going to Colorado. I think this is my ride.”

It was my ride. And it was college kids going to Colorado. They were planning to drive straight through.  I got in one of the cars and continued west.

I pulled out my map. They would be on I-80 all the way across Iowa and more than three quarters of the way across Nebraska. Just west of Big Springs they would turn southwest on I-76 into Colorado. I was traveling with kids my age, in a warm car with conversation and snacks, and I was set for 650 miles.

I was exhausted and would have slept for most of it but in western Iowa we hit an ice storm. There were spinouts every mile or so. There were trucks on their sides next to the road. The kid driving the car I was in was driving too fast. I was scared, and afraid to sleep.

I asked him to slow-down, but he only humored me. “As long as I stay on the crown of the road we’ll be OK” he said. I wasn’t so sure. I could feel the wheels slip and grab, slip and grab as we headed west at fifty miles an hour or faster. I was terrified, but eventually I fell asleep.

The morning broke sunny and clear. The road conditions improved. By mid morning we were doing at least 80 miles an hour.

As we got near the split with I-76 I was determined to dress more warmly. I was not afraid to stand on the side of the road because I would be hitchhiking at midday, in the sun, in 20-degree weather. I put on all the clothing I had: long johns, two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks, and several layers under my coat.

As I dressed I realized that what I should have done the night before was walk to the overpass at the exit, climb up the bank and into the crawl space just under the roadway to get out of the wind, and put on all the clothing I was now putting on. I realized that in my fear the night before I was afraid to undress and dress.

I thought I had been stupid to miss-read the signs. Stupid not to listen to the man who knew the road. But I realized now that when I was most alone and most in need of my wits, I had been too afraid to stop and put on the clothing I had in my knapsack. These thoughts were hard to digest, and I did not linger on them. But in the years since I have suffered with the memory of how inept I was in that critical condition. And I have learned that the most dangerous paralysis is the kind that hides in movement.

The junction of I-80 and I-76 is in the middle of a cornfield. I-80, the road between New York City and San Francisco, runs dead east west here. I-76 begins at I-80 and runs south and west into Colorado.

The cars stopped. I got out. I was rested, fed, warm, and dressed for the cold. I was not afraid.

Sometimes when you are hitchhiking the road can be magic. You put out your thumb; the first or second or third car stops. You and the driver have a touching conversation and share a cup of coffee at a truck stop. You ride together for hundreds of miles and get out of the car feeling light and fresh and in love with living moment-to-moment.

But sometimes hitchhiking can be spooky. This was a spooky moment. I was not waiting long when a truck swerved at me. Had I not jumped back just when I did I would have been clipped and killed.

I had been standing near the edge of the road, but now I moved closer to the guardrail so that I could jump over it if I needed to dodge another maniac.

I remember what happened next very clearly, as if it happened in slow motion.  Another truck approached. Sometimes you can feel malicious intent, and I felt it in this approaching truck. I got right up against the guardrail, ready to jump. The truck came by, too close but not close enough to make me jump. I saw the driver clearly. He had on no shirt. He was looking at me, not the road.

When you hitchhike a lot you learn that most drivers look at the road and see hitchhikers only in a glance. When a driver stares at you it is very disconcerting. You feel very vulnerable and alone on the side of the road.

As the truck past the driver raised one hand and showed me his middle finger.

This was not magic. This was spooky.

I continued to wait, and wait. Then things got spookier.

A pick-up truck traveling north and east on I-76 merged onto the eastbound lanes of I-80, then pulled over, maybe 75 yards away. I could see that the driver was starring at me, and I could feel his malevolence. I could also see gun racks in the back window of the pick-up truck. It was clear to me that the driver was toying with the idea of shooting me.

If you hitchhike a lot you learn many things. One thing you learn is that drivers of Cadillacs do not pick-up hitchhikers. I’ve hitchhiked in or through about 40 states, and I have ridden in a Cadillac twice.

The situation was desperate. I was not making-up what I was feeling. I needed a ride.

I kept one eye on the pickup truck, watching for a barrel to emerge from a window, and one eye on the approaching traffic. There was a lull in the traffic. My heart started to beat faster.

A Cadillac approached. I prayed. I really, really prayed. I whispered my prayer out loud: “please stop, please, please stop…”

The Cadillac stopped. Another Cadillac pulled over in front of it. A Lincoln stopped behind it.

I ran to the Lincoln and tried to open the back door to toss in my bag. The door was locked. I tried the front door; also locked. I looked to the driver. He was slumped down in his seat and had a short-brimmed cap pulled down all the way to the top of his sunglasses. With a slightly aggressive gesture he waived me to the Cadillac in front of him.

I glanced at the pick-up truck as I ran to the Cadillac but I could not get a read. I was really afraid I might get shot so I ran fast.

I kept my head down as I opened the back door to the Cadillac. The driver said: “Put your bag in. Don’t scratch the leather with your knapsack.”  I loaded my bag and got in the front seat.

“Thanks” I said. “My name’s Phil,” and I offered him my hand. Over the years I had developed this introduction to break-though a driver’s natural—and sometimes palpable—apprehension in the first moments of a new ride. Usually my friendly politeness and extended hand did just that. But this drill I had developed had another purpose as well. If the driver did not respond with his hand and a friendly “hello,” I was put on guard and I would be especially attentive. Drivers fear wacko hitchhikers; and hitchhikers fear wacko drivers. Since most people with malicious intent do not have an organic impulse for friendly greetings, this was my first way of getting a sense of who had just picked me up.

The driver grunted a “hi,” put his foot to the floor and pulled into the left lane. In a few seconds we were going 80 miles per hour.  He looked up into his rearview mirror and said: “Where’s my niggers?”

Now, instead of being alone on the side of a road, and maybe in the crosshairs of a scope, I was in a very new top-of-the-line Cadillac. The seat was soft and comfortable, the air was warm, the ride smooth. I had no idea what was going on.

It turned out my driver was a used car dealer from Portland, Oregon. He had purchased 10 luxury cars at auction in Chicago and was caravanning them back to Portland with hired drivers. He was lonely and bored and wanted conversation.

It all seemed surreal. My fear ebbed. I relaxed. I was in the fanciest car I had ever been in. I was headed west at 80 miles an hour. And I was very, very grateful.

Later, as I thought about it, it became clearer and clearer to me just how close I had come to dying, twice. Maybe the truck driver who rescued me in Illinois was just a man who got separated from his partner. Maybe the used car dealer who rescued me—and I’m quite sure he rescued me—in Nebraska was just a tired and bored used car dealer looking for conversation. But maybe not: maybe these two men were angels sent by God to save my life.

Or maybe it was not God at all. Maybe human beings are connected in ways we do not understand, and mostly never suspect. Maybe that’s how I knew the approaching truck driver was malicious. Maybe when we emit something—an energy, a vibration—that others receive, and respond to. Maybe the truck driver in Illinois somehow stopped his truck 50 yards from me because he heard my distress call. Maybe the used car dealer heard my distress call.

But as I settled into the ride my mind was not on supernatural intervention. I was not pondering the possibility that human beings can be influenced and motivated by strangers at distance. My mind was on the conversation that had begun. This man lit Pall Malls one from the butt of the other. His lips bled onto his cigarettes. He confessed to me how he over-charged buyers, and he told me that now, in his second marriage entered into in his sixties, he had for the first time tasted the wonder of erotic love.

I told him of my adventures on the road and my time in college. Again and I told him how beautiful I thought the scenery was. Again and again he responded that he had never really paid much attention to it before. We were an old man and a young man from different worlds, informed by different symbols, speaking freely and never at a loss for conversation. We somehow heard each other.

As it got dark he told me that he was planning to drive straight through to Portland. I asked how he could do that, given that the trip still had about thirteen hundred miles to go.

“Open the glove box” he said. I opened it. “See that aspirin bottle?” he asked. “It’s Benzedrine. We’ll make it. No problem. I do it twice a year.”

I looked at the bottle, then back to the old guy, then back to the bottle. I thought to myself: “Jesus, this guy could fall asleep and crash at 80 miles and hour.” That thought changed my plans, I’d go to San Francisco via Portland. If this guy falls asleep, I thought to myself, I’ll grab the wheel.

The caravan of used luxury cars pulled into the used car lot in Portland 80 hours after I had left Swarthmore.

I walked to Reid College, went to the student union, and fell asleep on a couch.

The next day, around noon, I cashed a traveler’s check at the college bursar’s office. I asked the clerk the day’s date. “March 6,” she said.

“March 6,” I replied back to her, that’s my birthday. The student waiting in line behind me said, “Oh happy birthday. How old are you?”

“Twenty-one” I answered. “Oh bull shit,” she said. No one forgets their twenty-first birthday.”

On Spiritual Practice

This essay was first published under the title “Expertise” in May of 2013 in the annual journal of Brooklyn Aikikai. I am very grateful to the dojo’s sensei, Mr. Robert Savocca, for inviting me to publish a piece in his dojo’s premier issue.

In his 2008 book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell identifies a precondition of expertise. He argues that it takes 10,000 hours to master a discipline. If you want to be good piano player you must practice 10,000 hours; if you want to want to be a good computer programmer you must program for 10,000 hours; if you want to be a good carpenter you must build for 10,000 hours; if you want to earn a black-belt you must be on the mat for 10,000 hours. How long is 10,000 hours? If you work a 40-hour week, 50 weeks a year, it is 5 years. At two hours a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year, it takes 20 years to accumulate 10,000 hours.

The point, of course, is that (pick your term) expertise/ realization/ understanding/ insight/ proficiency/ mastery requires practice, a lot of practice.

This is no doubt true of all human enterprise, but I don’t think Gladwell’s formulation applies to spiritual matters. Or, more precisely, I don’t think there is a linear correlation between practice and realization. This statement is not at all radical. In the 19th century a Zen master named Sengai painted a now famous cartoon of smiling frog on a lily pad. The caption reads: “If by seated meditation one becomes a Buddha…” Sengai leaves it to the reader to finish the sentence: “then all frogs on lily pads are Buddhas.”

Today pictures of smiling frogs hang in meditation halls and zendos across the planet.

Clearly Sengai is telling us that besides accepting the forms left to us by generations of seekers, something else is necessary: we need to be intelligent and we need to be hungry. The Buddha did not just happen to sit under the bodhi tree for eight days any more than Paul just happened to take the road to Damascus. The Buddha and Paul paid for their realizations not in eight days under a tree nor in thirty days on a road, but by staying in front of their unknowing for years until, depending on the story, they sat or walked until they broke-through to a new understanding. The notion that realization will just come to me, in an unpaid for bolt from above, is stupid at best, spiritually decadent at worst.

The Sufis, known for aphorisms rather than paintings, have a formulation as rattling as Sengai’s:

All are doomed save those who know;

All who know are lost save those who practice;

All who practice are adrift save those who practice with right intention;

And all who practice with right intention are in grave danger.

It is of course glib to mix metaphors and ask: “Can a frog have right intention?” But it is not at all glib to ask what practice is. In fact, if I don’t ask the question: “What is practice,” and confront what I find in my life, I will live thinking I know until I die, like a smiling frog on a lily pad.

If we look we see practice—or what passes for it—all around us. We see members of various religions adopt specific costumes and diets and hair cuts as integral parts of their daily practice. We see women with yoga mats stuffed into their knapsacks on the subway and on the street. We meet vegetarians who tell us that they forsake meat in the name of world peace. We see people cross themselves before eating. We see church parking lots full on Sundays. At sunset during Ramadan we see men gathered around plates of dates. We see self-appointed true believers shave the beards of others they deem apostates. We see all manner of unspeakable violence visited on members of one religion by members of another, on the scale of individual horrors and on the scale of vast populations, all carried out in the name of practice. George Sydney, in his autobiographical novel For the Love of Dying, tells us that American chaplains deployed in the Korean War taught young soldiers struggling with having become killers that if they killed not for killing’s sake, but with knowledge of the justice of the cause, then their killing was not murder, but an act of Christian love.

No doubt these chaplains had 10,000 hours of practice. But I don’t think Mr. Jesus would have seen these chaplains as ministers of his teaching. On the contrary, I think his judgment would have been harsh: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Mathew 7, 15-16 KJV

And, I don’t think it is a stretch to add: We shall know ourselves by our fruits. Our “fruits” derive from our being, from who we actually are ontologically. And our practice exists—depending on the metaphors we adopt—to transform our being, to bring us closer to God, to realize our true nature, to find the Way, to arrive at the Promised Land.

And here’s the rub: I can measure what it means to play the flute well, to program a computer well, to cook well, to dance well, to draw well. Any of these I can accomplish in 10,000 hours if I have the energy and inclination and the time before I die. But I have no idea what it means to be closer to God, to transform my being, to find my true nature, to arrive at the Promised Land. The fact is the object of my practice is my own perfection, my own evolution, my own transformation—to use the alchemical metaphor—from a man of lead into a man of gold. And I have no idea what this really means, the realization of my coarseness and my hunger for a finer life notwithstanding.

So, in the face of this fact a subtle and generally unnoticed movement takes place: the object of my practice is concretized. Put poetically: the ineffable is inexorably materialized. And put simply: since what we seek is mysterious and unknown, we seek-out instead the known and the defined and the easily grasped.  This impulse to replace the unknown with the known, the mysterious with the defined, and the magical with the mechanical is an elemental fact of how we live and make sense of the world. Analogous reductions are useful for many things, like transforming wind into electricity and the wish for justice into campaign contributions. But in the realm of spiritual practice such reductions enjoin the possibility of a deeper understanding because they move us from higher worlds to lower worlds, from the sacred to the generic.

This movement, from the ineffable to the concrete, takes many spiritually insidious forms. For example, when my body becomes still in seated meditation I quickly discover that I cannot escape what Korean Buddhists call “the chirping of cicadas,” that is the endless loop of associative and spurious inner-talking that passes for consciousness and upon which, to a large extent, I base my ego.  Faced with this fact I have a choice: on one hand I can suffer that I am mostly unconscious living meat on a meditation cushion, a realization that can be utterly undoing if I take it in. But, on the other hand, if I switch the focus from my ontology to something simple and measurable like time, I can boast to myself and others about how many hours I sit each day. And presto I am no longer a lost soul seeking a finer insight; I am instead a senior seeker with a deep practice.

In just this way, by attending mass every Sunday for a year, I can earn an award from my pastor for my manifest devotion to Christ and his teaching. Or I can wear special clothing to show all those who see me that I am a reverent member of a clan-that-is-better-than-you. Or, if I am some kind of clergy, I can get a special hat, or robe, or belt or title. By adding-up my time on the way, or by wearing a costume or haircut or beard, or by changing my diet or by embracing some other concrete form I no longer have to face the mystery of metanoia; instead I “repent” by counting Hail Marys. (Footnote: A particularly interesting essay on metanoia was written by Maurice Nicoll and is included as the fifth chapter of his posthumously published book: “The Mark”)

And so, after 30 years of chanting/ sitting/ praying/ seeking in a community I can claim eldership for my long involvement that I label “practice,” my inner nullity, my “fruits,” notwithstanding. Now I can approach my death like a smiling frog, confident of my transformation conferred automatically by years on the lily pad.

Practice that defines itself by forms, I suggest, is not practice at all: it’s a balm against the terror of getting older. Such “practice” has nothing to do with the inner suffering attendant to the alchemical transformation of lead into gold; instead it is all about getting a gold crown and earning a “place.”

If the substitution of the known for the unknown is not a practice that leads to transformation, what sort of practice does?  And what is an intelligent approach?

Clearly what is intelligent is not simply the accumulation of hours and years. Nor is it enough to say that the time must be well-spent in sincere search. Practice, if it is to be liberating, must have another aspect. Practice must be in the direction of increased consciousness, which I propose derives from a new capacity of seeing.

To my mind practice cannot be separated from life itself. Life is lived only now, only moment-to-moment. I believe that if practice is to be transformative it must, like living itself, become a moment-to-moment enterprise of seeing. What use is it to me if on the cushion I find a special energy that animates me, if on standing I become again and again a venal, ordinary man?

Yes, of course, at the beginning, and for a number of years, glimpses of a finer possibility are signposts that suggest that I’m on the right path, but a practice that yields only glimpses after 30 years is neutered.

The practice on the cushion, the practice in church, the practice separated from life has meaning only if it becomes a practice in life, in the moment.

When I realize that my practice is not transformative, that I’m living only for glimpses, I realize then that my practice cannot be separated from my quotidian existence. If in the exchange of money for a bus ticket I am simply a juggler paper and metal discs I do not exist as a man.

In the face of such an impression there can be a strong impulse to retreat to the cushion in search of a moment of presence. But to my mind the stronger response to this impression is to struggle to watch, and in the watching become more than a robotic handler of paper and coins. In fact, it is the practice of watching that brings me into the present. It is the practice of watching that must become my actual practice. In a word, I must learn to “see.” And my practice must become seeing.

This is not new, in some traditions growing the capacity to see is called “developing a third eye.” Zen Buddhists teach that real living is “moment-to-moment Zen.” In the English translations of the New Testament the seeing I am describing is called “watching.”

I am not a Buddhist, I am a Christian, and so the vocabulary that I use to describe practice derives from the New Testament. Probably, given what the church has done to the teaching of Jesus, few people who describe themselves as “Christians” would ever guess that the essence of the teaching of Jesus is to find enlightenment (The Kingdom of God) through watching.

Of course the modern church does not teach “watching” as the key to enlightenment. The modern church teaches some sort of mind-numbing gibberish about taking Jesus as a “personal savior” and through that relationship gaining eternal life in heaven, or something like that. The modern church—and I lump all the denominations together—has nothing to do, or very little to do, with the teaching of Jesus. In fact, many who call themselves Christians would label me a heretic for suggesting that the Kingdom of God is enlightenment and not a concrete post-death reality where the righteous live eternally in bliss. I am not at all concerned with “Christians” of this sort and I refer them to this:

Jesus said, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.” Gospel of Thomas, Saying 3, Lambdin translation.

“The Kingdom of God,” contrary to Sunday school notions, is not some external reward for being very, very nice or, in the absence of nice, a reward for those who feel very badly about not being nice and pray for forgiveness. Such notions, while they anesthetize hundreds of millions against the horror of facing a death defined by eternal obliteration, are of no spiritual value whatsoever. The Kingdom of Heaven, I submit again, is enlightenment in the here and now attained by the practice of watching in the here and now.

Similarly, the Hebrew idea of the “Promised Land” is not a geographical place on the earth but, like the Kingdom of Heaven, is a metaphor for enlightenment. The Israelite’s journey out of “Egypt” into the “Wilderness” and finally to the “Promised Land” is a metaphor for the spiritual search. It starts in “Egypt” which is a symbol of ordinary life devoid of meaning or, in the language of Exodus: “slavery.” Egypt, built on sand, symbolizes the instability of ordinary life. The “Wilderness” is the state of being in question, of seeking, of unknowing. Eating unleavened bread in the wilderness represents living a life only partially informed with a greater meaning. The text of Exodus states that the Israelites “went up out of Egypt.” Wandering lost in the wilderness—a metaphor immediately meaningful to anyone who has searched—is on a higher spiritual level than the instability and absurdity of ordinary life, thus “up out of Egypt.” Wandering in the “wilderness” for for thirty years, daunting as it is, is a precondition to finding the Promised Land, that is to enlightenment.

In the Gospels Jesus is very clear that seeking and finding is for very few. It is only the institutional church, founded by Paul, that teaches general salvation. Jesus states: “…for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. Matthew 7:13-14 KJV

My spiritual questions led me to the academic study of religion, to the Gurdjieff Work and to Mount Athos. On Mount Athos the monks endeavor to be present to their lives moment-to-moment while simultaneously praying ceaselessly. The practice of watching moment-to-moment they call “nipsis,” and define thus: “watching innerly and outerly simultaneously, soberly.”

George Gurdjieff made no secret of the origin of his teaching: he said that his work was “esoteric Christianity.” To my mind Gurdjieff’s genius was to strip the near-secret Athonite practice of its devotional element, and bring a teaching based on nipsis, which he called “self-observation,” to the secular west.

The academic study of religion brought me some knowledge, but no help with the questions that plagued me and brought me to the study of religion in the first place.

I think that most–after many years in search of a vivifying practice that can be lived day-to-day, moment-to-moment–will eventually hear an organic cry for help issue from their depths. This cry appears almost unexpectedly. If this cry is directed at others, it can only lead so far. But when the ache for being and understanding becomes unendurable the appeal for help becomes an action we call prayer. Practice leads to prayer. It is not the other way around, as anyone who has an existential struggle has realized.

The word “prayer,” unfortunately, is so freighted with diverse associations and evokes such strong reactions–positive and negative–that its essential meaning is obscured. The premise behind prayer, and a spiritual sensibility generally, is that we live in a hierarchical universe. The world we live in is one world. There are higher and lower worlds. Prayer is an attempt to make a connection between worlds with the aim of informing a lower world with the intelligence and energy of a higher world.

The most important Christian prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, follows exactly this structure. It opens: “Our Father who art in Heaven” which is the acknowledgement of levels, and continues “Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven” which is the hope that the higher inform the lower.

The impulse to pray appears when I feel that the energy and intelligence available to me as I am is exhausted, and nothing will help except something entirely different, higher and currently unknown.

The Athonite prayer, with which the monks try to stay in contact ceaselessly, is this: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me.” I think this prayer, powerful as it is, has lost its energy for a modern man. Invoking the intercession of the dead, and maybe the never existing, is not compelling to the cultured and educated of our time.  A modern man must find a different mode of prayer.

There are no one-size-fits-all approaches or prayers. But I will share my approach.

In the Gospel of Thomas, an Essene text discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945, a question is posed to Jesus: “Rabbi, what is the secret?”  And Jesus answers: “The secret is a movement and a rest.” In the Lambdin translation the saying is rendered: “If they ask you, ‘What is the sign of your father in you?’, say to them, ‘It is movement and repose.'” (Saying 50)

I have found that the wish for presence is constantly undone by the action of living. I wish to be in one instant, and become hypnotized and lost in the next. All who try to become present discover this.

The movement and a rest that Jesus teaches, like the “push and a pause” that Gurdjieff teaches, is the method I follow. I engage into the flow of life, into the current of doing. In that engagement I lose myself. Then I return, I receive the impression of what is by watching innerly and outerly. In time the movement out and the movement in become like a kind spiritual breathing: I vanish, I return; I’m dispersed, I’m collected.

This approach, this method, I find very helpful, but it is not the end of the story. The energy I need for return wanes, and an organic wish appears to connect to more potent energies with the hope that they may help. It is at this point, in my experience, that prayer has meaning.

Which prayer? I can think of no better prayer than Jesus’ last: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? But it may be that the primal prayer that best expresses my longing is one word long: “Please.”

The point of practice, I submit, is not to see God. The point of practice is to see what is.

What is, like the Kingdom of Heaven, is within you and without you. The practice of watching reveals not only my inner life to me, it also brings a larger clarity. As I begin to see myself more clearly, I also begin to see others more clearly: their motivations, their fears, their attachments, their relationships one with another. Practice brings understanding.

But does practice lead to the growth of the soul? To immortality? To objective meaning? I don’t know. But I do know from experience that there is an ontological difference between a man with a real practice and a man without one. I have seen again and again that a man of practice gathers inner quiet and, when the situation is tense, is capable of response over reaction. Put somewhat differently, a man with a practice struggles to be. A man without practice simply assumes that he exists.

Daily practice is the work, not willy-nilly but over a lifetime, to come into being in order to participate more consciously in life. To some this last sentence is gibberish. To others who have tasted their nothingness, and are ready to pay for their transformation, it is their touchstone.