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.