The Author Reading Aloud
After my young wife died during childbirth I was left without direction or purpose. We had been a family. We were building a home together, a life. Though her parents disapproved my wife had seen something in me no one else ever noticed before.
I’d been working at a job site some thousand miles away. Though I worried about her she allayed my concerns by assuring me it would be months before she gave birth. Since we needed the money I left her there in the care of her family.
When they told me what had happened I was consumed with guilt. At their funeral I was sure everyone was looking at me knowing it was my fault my wife and my son lay dead. In every spoken word I heard her name. In every waking moment I longed for the peace sleep would bring. In every dream I saw her. She was standing in a doorway waving goodbye. When I called out she turned away as she closed the door softly.
I drank to find solace in forgetfulness. For a time I did. But I would always sober up and the memories would come rushing back. So I drank more. Though I knew she would never approve I also knew she was gone. So I drank.
I found myself lost in a strange city on a chilly autumn night. A store window showed me my reflection. I looked disheveled, hungry, and alone. A black cat sitting on an orange pumpkin grinned at me. There were dusty bottles in the store window too with dirt and junk piled in the corners as if someone was going to fix it up but then grew tired and stopped.
Standing there staring at myself I smelled something bad; it was me. I hadn’t bathed in weeks. I felt ashamed of how I had deteriorated. Looking about me the street was empty. It pleased me to be alone in such misery.
I walked on. I came to an old church with a rusty padlock on the door. A hand-written sign taped to the door said closed. It must have been closed a long time; the sign looked faded and weather-beaten. I recalled my uncle’s church as being bigger but I was young then and the whole world seemed bigger.
I walked around back to the alleyway to test the back door. It too was padlocked but a window up high was broken out. By turning a rusty metal garbage can upside down I was able to stand on it and gain entry.
The old church was darkened; a nearby streetlamp threw enough light in the window that as my eyes adjusted I could make out overturned and broken pews with trash—empty wine bottles, discarded food containers, old clothing—covering the floor. I kicked aside the garbage to turn an unbroken pew right side up as I lay out my bedroll on it. I fell into a troubled sleep.
I dreamed it was springtime and I was a boy again suffering under one of my uncle’s rages. As the crack of his words dissipated he looked at me a long time, a sad kind of look; as if he knew whatever he said would be lost upon me, as if he were gauging whether or not to waste any more of his energy. And then he thundered that I would go to hell for my sins.
Waking I could still hear his words echoing through the abandoned church where I found myself. I wondered if hell was where I was. Listening to the rats scurrying under the pew where I lay it seemed as if it might be. I remembered how I wanted to tell my uncle that once I got to hell my sins would no longer matter. It dawned on me that if I was in hell then all my sins had been absolved.
The guilt I had carried with me for so long began to evaporate as I realized the world does not reside outside of me. The world is me. Looking up through the gaping fissures in the roof of that old church at the autumn stars wheeling through the heavens I realized they did not exist on their own apart from me. Though that night of my grieving seemed never-ending I realized when the dark is long it is because I make it so.
When those who are loved pass away they are bitterly lamented. Mourning taken to its absolute depths should stop there, however. The living glory in life, not in death; the virtuous take their mourning to the extreme and then let it go in order to go on living.
The good, the clean, and the careful people of the world are thieves of virtue. Having never suffered great loss they have yet to achieve their desires so they are full of anxiety. Once their desires are achieved they are full of anxiety that they should lose them. When they are anxious they will lose the things of their desires there is little they will not do.
I left my wandering and my drunken ways. I cleaned myself up. I took a new wife and found a job someone of my nature could perform well. Together we grew a new family of laughing babies and happy times. I never forgot but I ceased to wallow in my memories; instead I learned to revel in the moment.
Now I am an old man; once again I find myself alone in the world, without family, with no purpose, and without any clear direction. Since I have the mystery to comfort me, however, I know my non-purpose and non-direction as signs of it and not of my misery.
Without leaving my mat I know the whole world. Without gazing at the sky I see the ways of heaven. The farther I travel the less I know. From a distance I appear stern. When approached I am mild-mannered. When listened to my words are firm and decided.
I see without looking. I listen without hearing. I know without learning. I work without doing.
This is the way of the mystery.