Friday, November 23, 2012

My Sufi - A Lesson in Breathing

I wasn’t breathing deeply enough today.  Off and on since my morning shower I did that thing where you remind yourself to breathe, which makes you aware of the necessity of breathing, which you have to admit, is creepy.  We had about a dozen visitors on our schedule, including a young professor discussing her linguistics research, a journalist writing a piece on the outcome of the US elections, a documentarian concerned with the expanding carbon bubble, a teacher from Illinois planning an audio-conference for his high school class, and others.  It might have looked like an ordinary afternoon, but there is never an ordinary day in our office, and this unpredictability causes me to hold my breath.  Planning details of Noam’s upcoming travel kept me from thinking about my breathing for small bursts of time, but still, every once in a while I was acutely aware of a physical need to deepen my in breath, extend the out. 

Near day's end, our final visitor arrived a half hour earlier than scheduled.  I looked up to see him enter the office to hang up his jacket before Glenn, our office assistant, ushered him back out the door to our small waiting area.  In retrospect, the scene reminded me of the Saturday Night Live skit where God comes into the waiting room, and the receptionist asks, “And you would be…?”  “God,” he says.  “And you would be here to talk about…?” “Well, I’m here to talk about eternity.” And the receptionist says, “Ok, have a seat with the others. He's running a little late.”  I worry that asking visitors, especially those who travel long distances, to turn around and wait outside is disrespectful, but our tiny inside hallway is at the center of activity just outside Noam’s office.

I tried to ignore my breathing issue and glanced at our schedule – our last visitor’s name was listed as, “Sufi L…”  I opened the door to welcome him inside, and noticed he had brought along a young female companion.   Noam exited the doorway as they entered, creating a log jam, nodding and promising to return in just a few minutes, after a brief walk.   Roxy remained under her desk during this briefly chaotic moment, which was unusual, because she greets all of our visitors.

Standing just inside the doorway, Sufi first introduced the woman - his assistant.  I greeted her and turned back to him.  When I took his hand, or he took mine, something coursed through me so unexpectedly that I almost lost my footing.  I felt suddenly at ease, like all of my tension had surged from my body.  I took a good look at Sufi’s thick, closely cropped curly hair, clear and ageless face, and into his dark, almost black, eyes, and I realized my error – he was a Sufi, as in the practice of Sufism, which is, to my limited knowledge, a spiritual journey toward truth.    Holding onto his hand, I felt what I’ve heard people describe as a peaceful quiet, or “nothingness.”  Well, nothingness except that I noticed he was very clean shaven.  I would have expected a Sufi to have a beard.  I do need to breathe more.  In fact, this was the first thing my Sufi told me. 

Sure, he had come to talk with Noam about a crucial issue, but he had me at the handshake.  Noam has met with presidents, prime ministers, and ambassadors.  He’s had discussions with physicists and mathematicians, authors, activists and mill workers, academics and artists.  Popular actors, prisoners and pirates, and circus performers fill his schedule.  I e-mail back and forth with everyone requesting to meet with Noam, and sometimes we go off on a personal tangent, but it had been a while since I had the luxury of more than a cursory face-to-face with one of Noam's visitors.

“My” people are wonderful, bright and well-meaning souls on the fringe.  I correspond with homeless people with brilliant and creative ideas, megalomaniacs who want to save the world but can’t productively organize themselves, and others, like the desperate, sweet bipolar man who has lived for years in mental facilities, and is convinced that only Noam Chomsky can release him from his current hellhole.  These are the people I intercept at the front line, managing their numerous and lengthy pleas, to keep Noam from drowning in their loquaciousness.
I said to the Sufi, “The energy around you is startlingly calm.”  His assistant nodded.  “I’ve been working with him for only a week, and I have felt this too,” she said, and I realized then that she was also his student.  Sufi’s smile had the pureness of a newborn baby.  I’m a lousy meditator, a busy, thinking meditator, but for him, I would have listened to the silence.  “Can you feel my frenetic energy?” I asked him, finally letting go of his hand. 

“Yes,” he said.  He wasn’t mincing his words

“You need to breathe more,” he said.  So there it was – or there it was again.  I hadn’t yet mastered the art of breathing and doing my job at the same time.  “Breathe, and be aware.  Stay awake.  Be aware of what happens between the breaths,” he said.  “That is where the ____ is” and I nodded, astonished that we were discussing my breathing, which had been on my mind all day.  As I recalled this moment later, I couldn’t remember what he said was there, between the breaths.  Peace?  Deeper meaning?  The correct spelling of hors d’oeuvres? This was one of the many times I wanted to replay a conversation from a magical, omnipresent tape recorder. I knew that Noam would return any minute, so I walked them both into his office and offered them water, which they accepted, and I left them briefly to fill two cups from the water cooler.

I returned, and handing the Sufi his water, he said to me, “We feel it in here, too.”

“What do you feel?” I asked, giving the other cup to his assistant, and turning again toward him.

“Truth,” he said.  “Truth and goodness.”

 I felt like I had fallen into a pot of pure spiritual gold. The Sufi’s face softened as he looked right at me and said gently, “This is your bliss.  You were born to do this work.”  

His sureness was so stunning that I felt disconnected from the world for a moment. I needed to hear him say it again, but feared that I might pierce his spiritual aura with my unwitting questioning. “Do you mean I was born to work with Professor Chomsky, to work here in this office?”  “Yes,” he said, smiling over at his student, while I wondered what they knew that I didn’t.  I love my job, but to say I was born to do it was a whole other thing.

“You will have no regrets about being here.  When you look back on your time here, there will be no regrets,” he said.  I wanted to believe him; don’t we all need reassurance that we’re spending our days in a meaningful way?

I was fascinated by this Sufi, but the more responsible part of me was becoming concerned at the length of Noam’s absence.  It crossed my mind to go and see if he’d been captured in the hallway, but the selfish part of me decided to stay put for just a few minutes more, as the discussion shifted to one of hopelessness, compassion, and kindness.

Sufi told me he had shown up unannounced at our door several years ago and asked if he could just come in and shake Noam’s hand.  “You let me do it,” he said, “And it was wonderful.  I just ran in and shook his hand and thanked him for all of the good work he does, and I left.” 

“So I was kind to you?” I asked.  “I always try to be kind, but some days it’s difficult to be kind every moment, to every person.”

“Don’t try to be kind,” he said.  “When you try to be kind, then it isn’t real.  You are kind,” he told me.  I was going to assume he meant me, personally, that I was kind, and not just everyone, although I like to believe that we are all basically kind.  I need to remind myself of this some days, when kindness has trouble surfacing from the bottom of a long to-do list. Around this point in the conversation, it hit me that I had stolen one of Noam’s people.  I suppose it wasn’t stealing, exactly.  It was more like borrowing.  A fringe benefit of my employment. This said, I couldn’t shake the feeling that  I was breaking one of the Ten Commandments, translated as:  Thou shalt not covet thy boss’s Sufi.  But I spend a lot of time keeping difficult and demanding people away from Noam, and it had been a while since I spent any significant time with one of his visitors. I needed this Sufi.  I earned him. 

My Sufi was beginning to tell me about his breathing meditation when Noam walked in and broke the spell.  I suppose for the Sufi, the spell was just beginning in earnest. I introduced Noam to the Sufi and his assistant, who were still standing, taking in the books, pictures, posters, and atmosphere of the office.  Noam apologized for his lateness, though I wanted to thank him for it.  As I turned to close the door, I saw the Sufi offering Noam a long, low bow, his hands clasped in front of his chest, his body bent as in supplication.  I felt I was witnessing something deeply personal, and heard Noam ask them to be seated just before the door latch clicked softly into the strike plate.

An hour passed.  I hated to end their session, but since it is part of my job, I knocked on Noam’s office door, opening it to give him a nod. He knows the routine.  Noam wore a new hat and shawl, gifts from the Sufi, and the Sufi’s assistant was taking pictures of the two of them, their hands on one another’s shoulders. I stood and watched from the doorway while everyone said their goodbyes. Outside Noam’s office the Sufi asked me, “May I also have my picture taken with you?” Standing next to the Sufi, our arms around each other like old friends, I noticed that he was shorter than my five feet eight inches. This pleased me, as it somehow made him more accessible, and I felt more grounded.

By now Roxy had surfaced from underneath my desk and walked over to the doorway, where I was standing with the Sufi and his assistant.  Roxy stood at my feet, and it crossed my mind that the Sufi might not like dogs, or may even fear dogs.  As I was thinking this, Roxy looked up at the Sufi and scratched at his pant leg with her front paw.  I was mortified – my dog was scratching a Sufi. I apologized, but the Sufi told me not to worry.  “They are our brothers and sisters,” he said, referring I assumed to the entire animal kingdom. I held Roxy up, mostly so she would stop pawing his leg, and both the Sufi and his assistant marveled at her eyes, which I always thought had the look of an old soul.  I took in a deep, automatic breath when the Sufi bent his head down and kissed the soft, curly fur on the back of Roxy's neck.  My dog had been blessed.  And I was no longer feeling dizzy.  I had begun to breathe again.

To be continued…

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

On the Button - Chomsky and Zinn

            When the MIT version of the Gangnam Style video here went viral, I was thinking, wouldn’t it have been great if Noam, one of the world’s major pacifists, had said something more significant than “Oppan Chomsky Style.”  Over five million people would have heard and thought about his words less than two weeks before the election.  What ran through my head were some Beatles’ song lyrics popular during the peace movement of the 60’s and 70’s, at the height of the Vietnam War, when a country of peace activists wanted American’s political leaders to withdraw all troops from Vietnam.  I was about to write the lyrics: All we are saying, is give peace a chance, in an e-mail to Noam when Glenn dumped a box on my desk from our friend Roger Leisner, a photographer, videographer, and very vocal supporter of the legalization of marijuana and hemp. Roger is a great character, and one hell of a dedicated activist.
            Roger has sent us hundreds of photos - hard copies and dvd's - of Noam lecturing or talking with other activists, including politically astute filmmakers, academics, and authors, as well as peace, hunger, and human rights action groups. We have in our archives photos of labor organizers, doctors, and playwrights - people like Howard Zinn, Mel King, Edward Said, Michael Moore, Daniel Berrigan, Paul Farmer, Dorie Ladner, and scores of other local and global activists.  Though some are deceased, most are still with us and continue to correspond with Noam, and many of them have become his personal friends.  I have several framed pictures of Noam and Howard Zinn in our office, taken by Leisner at various events over the years.  The peace movement lost one of its long-time leaders when Zinn, political historian and author of A People's History of the US, died in 2010. 
        Noam and his wife Carol were close friends with Howard and his wife, Roz.  In the fledgling years of the movement, when they got together and talked politics, there was another conversation going on between Carol, a Harvard professor, and Roz, a talented artist, as they commiserated on the possibility that their husbands could end up doing significant jail time for their political actions.  Noam and Howard fought on the front lines of the antiwar rallies from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan and conflicts in between. Things changed for Noam and Howard when both Carol and  Roz were diagnosed with cancer, each making her own personal decision about the way she would live out her life. Roz Zinn died early in 2008, followed by Carol Chomsky in late 2008.  Carol’s death was of course devastating to Noam, and Howard’s death in 2010 brought for him another layer of sadness. Noam was now the only one left standing of the vibrant and dedicated foursome of friends who had shared the early days of political activism, making hefty personal sacrifices along the way.  I think of Noam and Howard as two of the original peace activists.  
            I don’t know what’s in here, Glenn said, rattling the box. 
            “It sounds like more buttons,” I said.  Roger had included political buttons in past mailings, the largest package coming during the beginning of the Occupy Movement. Most of the buttons in that mailing said simply “Occupy,” some bearing the name of a city, and still others the faces of Noam and Howard.  I opened the box and spilled its contents onto my desk – about thirty more political buttons .  The first one I picked up depicted a single black fist, which stood for black power in the sixties, and now more generally for solidarity, support, resistance, defiance, and strength.  Another caught my eye: “I was never aware of any other option but to question everything - Noam Chomsky.”  That spoke to me, and I started to pin it to my jacket while reading another: “Dissent is the highest form of Patriotism – Howard Zinn.  I felt like a kid in a candy shop.  I decided that wearing Noam’s politics on my clothing might not be as effective as hanging the button on an office poster, so I pinned it to a wall hanging hand-delivered to us by a Colombian artisan, and fastened the Zinn button onto my jacket. 
            I added another to my desk lamp, and was sweeping the rest back into the box when I noticed a button that had been hidden under the others.  It was striking – red, orange and yellow colors inside the spaces of a thick, black peace sign.  I took my glasses off to take a better look.  Really?  The top half read, “All we are saying is,” and the bottom, “Give Peace a Chance.”  I had serious goose bumps.
            This sort of thing happens to me a lot.  Call it déjà vu, call it coincidence, call it Kismet.  It's what the Sufi calls “The Truth”.  This one I had no problem pinning on, and I wore it for the rest of the day, and during the weekend at a dinner with my activist friends in Maine, and the next morning, when I voted.
            We have been mercilessly bombarded by muckraking multimedia ads which will be thankfully put to rest soon.  Why can’t these candidates and their speech writers just say this simple, positive truth:  The most important thing is to give peace a chance.  It would save a lot of lives.  And there are plenty of places where that money could be spent.  One of Noam’s quotes – to me the most salient - is printed on a small black and red poster sent to us by a high school student, who made it for a class project. It is taped to our glass library door near my desk. It says:  “We can be fairly confident that either there will be a world without war, or there won’t be a world."
This November, I voted for the one who looks like he cares even a little bit more than the other that there will be a world to which we can bring peace.