Gary Percesepe

Notes from Buffalo: City of Neighbors

I’m mov­ing again. Mostly, this means pack­ing up books. I picked up a pack of 25 small box­es at U-Haul the oth­er day, a spe­cial they were run­ning, $.99 per box, per­fect price for an ex-aca­d­e­m­ic who is trim­ming his col­lec­tion, let­ting go book by book, cat­e­go­ry by cat­e­go­ry. First to go will be the “sec­ondary lit­er­a­ture,” books that earned their keep because of that next phi­los­o­phy book I thought I’d write. It turns out that writ­ing four phi­los­o­phy books is my lim­it. There will not be anoth­er. Philosophy, gone. It feels fine. The “pri­ma­ry source” stuff can stay, mean­ing the big book of Plato and the Aristotle with the fan­cy cov­er, Heidegger in trans­la­tion, Derrida in French and English, OK. They can stay. They’ll go with me, wher­ev­er I end up next.

I don’t yet know where that will be. The job I came here for has evap­o­rat­ed. The church that employed me is run­ning $41,000 behind, and count­ing. They won’t be able to meet their bud­get with­out cuts. They trimmed the “dis­cre­tionary spend­ing” in the bud­get line by line, with me in the room, watch­ing. It was sort of awk­ward, but they were so earnest! So sweet­ly try­ing! “Can we cut Christian Ed by $200? Sure, we can. What about con­fer­ence expens­es this year? Oh, yes. Of course. $500 here, anoth­er $150 there. Progress. But after an hour they had axed only $3,000, and it was clear this wasn’t going to work. They would have to cut staff. I was the new guy. Sheepishly, they looked my way. I smiled and said, “It’s OK, I under­stand.” Two weeks lat­er, I was gone. With one month of sev­er­ance pay. Which runs out at the end of this month. In a few weeks I won’t have a job, income, health insur­ance, or a house. I gave notice to my land­lord, so he could find anoth­er ten­ant in time, allow­ing me to break my lease. He found one. Which is good, right? I will even get my deposit back. A small, good thing, as Ray Carver once said.

People in Buffalo do what they have to do. It’s a qual­i­ty I admire. They also help each oth­er when­ev­er they can. It’s a prod­uct of the harsh win­ters, I’m con­vinced. Late one night, return­ing home after a movie, my car spun out on a ramp going onto the 190. I hit the brakes, then tried to rock my way out, but the car lurched side­ways, stop­ping inch­es from a con­crete medi­an. My high per­for­mance run-flat tires are appar­ent­ly use­less in snow. Four guys jumped out of a pick­up and pushed me up the ramp. Three of them peeled away as I called out my thanks, the car inch­ing for­ward, but one guy kept push­ing, even as I hit the high­way. I thought he was going to get killed. I honked and screamed, “I’m good!” He let me go. Without help, no one can make it. This win­ter, I swear it has snowed every day. I live a mile from Lake Erie, our own pri­vate snow­mak­ing machine, at the mouth of the Niagara River, a short dis­tance from the Peace Bridge. I will miss see­ing the bridge, lit blue at night, laced with lights like a Christmas tree on its side.

You would think I’d be sad about los­ing my job, or at least con­cerned, and I am. But not too much. Part of this I attribute to liv­ing in Buffalo. Where peo­ple do what they need to do. People here want to help you. Already, folks from the church are scour­ing around to find hous­ing for me, tak­ing me out for break­fast, or lunch. Or din­ner. Sending me home with meals. At Buffalo restau­rants, the por­tions are huge. I have yet to fin­ish a meal. I pack up what’s left and take it home. I have a refrig­er­a­tor full of unfin­ished restau­rant food. People seem grate­ful that you live here, that you actu­al­ly came here, as a des­ti­na­tion. You came to Buffalo, man! You chose this!

I did. And I’m glad that I did. I’m not try­ing to roman­ti­cize my time here, or pre­tend that there is not human suf­fer­ing out there, peo­ple with­out my priv­i­lege or my net­work of friends that will car­ry me through. But some­thing feels dif­fer­ent to me here. Maybe the change is in me. What do you real­ly require to be human? It’s an old ques­tion.

I don’t need all the books. Or all this fur­ni­ture. I used to live in an old Victorian house with twen­ty-six rooms. I’m down to one bed­room, a kitchen and bath. A long hall­way. I’m giv­ing stuff away. I don’t need to be anx­ious, or afraid. I’m giv­ing that up too. Part of being a writer, for me, meant liv­ing in all three tens­es at once. The past is nev­er real­ly gone, not even past, thought Faulkner. I’m re-think­ing that. I’m let­ting go of my past, and giv­ing up all ideas about the future, that mid­dle class obses­sion. I’m hap­py now. The rest doesn’t real­ly mat­ter.

It helps that I’ve fall­en in love. With a woman that I can feel, even when she’s not with me. I’m say­ing I can feel her love, even when she is not present, her absence fills every room. I nev­er expect­ed to fall in love again. Maybe I’d giv­en up. Maybe giv­ing up is what I need­ed to learn all along.

I grew up near New York City, and the city always seemed home to me, in a way that made liv­ing every­where else a per­pet­u­al exile. After my divorce, my world shrank small enough to drown in a bath­tub. All I could think about was get­ting back to the city. I was con­vinced I need­ed to move to New York City in the next ten min­utes. I don’t feel that way any­more. I don’t feel that I need to do any­thing, real­ly.

In the Buddhist tra­di­tion there is a won­der­ful sto­ry about a monk who asked the mas­ter to speak to him about Zen. This monk was rid­dled with ques­tions about Buddhist teach­ing and prac­tice, with a felt need to know more. The mas­ter replied, “Have you fin­ished your break­fast?” “Yes, mas­ter, I have fin­ished my break­fast,” said the monk. “Then go and wash your bowl,” the mas­ter replied.

Go and wash your bowl!” This is the same as say­ing, “Go, and live a real­ized life!” Faith, it seems to me now, is all about move­ment. Have you fin­ished your break­fast, this morn­ing? Then go and wash your bowl. Wash out the bowl of your life with­out fear, and with­out wor­ry. Your wor­ry can­not accom­plish much. Your wor­ry is unskill­ful liv­ing.

Thich Naht Hahn shares the sto­ry of the sec­ond arrow. When an arrow strikes you, you feel pain. If a sec­ond arrow comes and strikes you in the same spot, the pain will be ten times worse. The Buddha advised that when you have some pain in your body or your mind, breathe in and out and rec­og­nize the sig­nif­i­cance of that pain, but don’t exag­ger­ate its impor­tance. After being struck by the arrow, if you stop to wor­ry, to be fear­ful, to protest or com­plain, then you mag­ni­fy the pain. If you are angry about the pain, then you mag­ni­fy the pain ten times or more. Your wor­ry is the sec­ond arrow. You should pro­tect your­self and not allow the sec­ond arrow to come, because the sec­ond arrow comes from you.

There are some who walk the earth who have been lib­er­at­ed from fear. We know them when we meet them; when we are ready, they appear in our lives. They are not per­fect, but they have mas­tered the prac­tice of “a non-anx­ious pres­ence.” It is good for us to dwell in the pres­ence of these wise ones, who have mas­tered their fear by learn­ing to smile at it, and name it. Freedom from fear is the great­est gift of all. Non-fear, a non-anx­ious pres­ence, is the great­est gift we can offer to those we love. We can­not offer this gift if we do not pos­sess it our­selves. Everyone can learn to smile, to smile at our fears, and to get up and go wash their bowl, to walk fear­less­ly on a true path of life, a path with heart. This is the way of hap­pi­ness. Thomas Jefferson believed that the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness is the right of every American, freely adapt­ing a teach­ing of John Locke (who had empha­sized prop­er­ty), but he left the choice of that pur­suit to each indi­vid­ual. Maybe hap­pi­ness sim­ply means feel­ing you are on the right path every moment. Living in the present moment, unafraid of the future, not haunt­ed by the past. Maybe hap­pi­ness is pos­si­ble only when one stops run­ning away from one­self, when one refus­es to be dri­ven by one’s fears, when one choos­es to live mind­ful­ly, and to inhab­it ful­ly the present moment, that moment when one can smile at one­self and say with con­fi­dence, “I don’t need to be some­one else, any­one else: I am already a won­der of life.”

*

The woman who loves me, the woman whom I love, laughs at me when I arrive at her door with hat and gloves. She laughs at me when I dri­ve my car with gloved hands. Weeks of this: us, laugh­ing. Then one day, I came to her house hat­less, with ungloved hands. We walked out to my car and I drove us to din­ner in a blind­ing snow­storm. I’d parked my BMW and bought an eleven year old Jeep, all-wheel dri­ve, for $3,700. The car crunched effort­less­ly through the drift­ing snow. She grabbed my bare hand as I was dri­ving and said to me words I’d secret­ly longed to hear. “You’re a Buffalonian.”

Gary Percesepe is an edi­tor at New World Writing.