I left the cabinet door open again. Packages of napkins, paper plates, a box of pop corn. Straws. Plastic cups. Paper towels. All visible.
The cabinet: Blond beechwood, pinkish as the sun sneaks in through the bay window. Like the virus. Like all the amassed threats. This virus. The Red Skull. The Skrulls. The Great World Snake. This virus wears a crown. Wears it as a garland of fear.
A crowned virus that morphs and moves. Poisonous. A changeling. Golem. A wreath of thorns. It is a tail of “the big snake of the world that was coiled in the earth like a worm in an apple … devouring as it went along.”[i] Ultimately killing almost 7 million around the globe.
A Zen koan: Gaze at the packed shelves of indifference. In silence.
Consult the oracle. Read the future in the wrinkled lines of cellophane-wrapped plates. Protein bars. Trail mix. Wash your hands. Wash and wash again.
Wear masks in stores. When we go out. In class. To prevent spread. To safeguard our neighbors. Buy disinfectant. Bottle water Toilet paper. Scarcity modulated by ineffability, and the new signs of spring: Limit two to a customer.
TV blares. News conference. Death toll. The Times runs a partial list of the dead. Sharecropper’s son. Cancer survivor. Liked his bacon and hash browns crispy. Meat cutter. Transgender immigrant activist. Pipe fitter. Marathoner. Saved 56 Jewish families from the Gestapo. Immigrated from a German refugee camp.
A father of a friend. Another’s mother.
Outside the discount store, a guy walks. No mask. Cigarette dangles from lips, hands in pockets. Easy stride. Takes a long drag. Looks at it. Flicks the ash. Like anyone. Tosses the cigarette into the parking lot.
This is freedom, a friend says. You make your own choice. Plandemic. Bio-weapons.
Paging Doctor Benway. Paging Lee the Agent.Viral memes. Internet theories.
What I know is that they were digging trenches on Hart Island. Mass graves for the indigent. The unnamed.
This is not a test. The death count will surpass approach 7 million worldwide, surpass a million here.
Where is Doctor Sax, “fading, choking, mad, maniac, caped, green-faced”[ii] Doctor Sax? The Lone-Ranger? Where are blind Daredevil, raging Hulk, your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man? In the comics, heroes wear masks. On the news, we’re called cowards.
Around the corner. An empty Corona bottle in the grass and weeds. Cap on. Amid crushed cans. Soda bottles. A mask. Scene obscured by overgrown hedges. Twiny brambles. A thing seen and unseen. Corona tossed off. Discarded.
Like Sal sick with fever, “delirious and unconscious.” Dropping into dream.
I looked up out of the dark swirl of my mind and I knew I was on a bed eight thousand feet above sea level, on a roof of the world, and I knew that I had lived a whole life and many others in the poor atomistic husk of my flesh, and I had all the dreams.[iii]
Dean would leave him behind. Break with his friend. And Sal (Jack) forgives him. Call him a rat, “but then I had to understand the impossible complexity of his life, how he had to leave me there, sick, to get on with his wives and woes.”
To get on with the complexity of life. To chase freedom and kicks and burn all the bridges Dean (Neal) will burn. At tremendous cost. A freedom that ends with the real Neal dying alone on a railroad track in Mexico, a freedom that is not really freedom but self regard that leads to isolation.
Freedom, a friend says. That’s what he sees in On The Road. He came to it late. Came to it and had the urge to head out on the road, to hitchhike across the country.
I see sadness. I see contradiction. I see beneath the mythology into the darkness. Beyond all that “raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it.” Jack as Sal. End of the line, of the novel, an epiphany. At that moment when
the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old.[iv]
Yes. The body arrives, grows, breaks down. Systems crash. Impermanence reigns. My mom’s mind gave out and the body followed. My aunt had cancer. My uncle a body in rebellion.
My dad is 85. Outlived them all. Struggles with loneliness since my mom died. Bouts of depression. He’s moving back east, from Vegas. Thankfully. We’ll have more time.
There is a fawn eating grass on my neighbor’s lawn. It looks up. Walks off. Maybe senses that I am watching from the window. Yesterday, a turtle dragged its body from the creek across my lawn and then back to the creek, following a logic of its own. A logic foreign to me.
Deer live a dozen or so years. A turtle in this area maybe 30 or more. The rabbits living under the deck seven to 10 years. Bees anywhere from a few weeks to a few years.
My mom was 82 when she died in October. Dan, a mentor and friend, was 77. My brother-in-law Chuck was 59. Death shadows us. Annie was 10 when her mom died, 30 when we lost her dad. Natalie, her dad’s second wife, lived until she was 89. Her son Tommy died at 37. That was 35 years ago. Mukul died in the World Trade Center. Joe was killed on his bike. And suicides and alcohol and drugs, AIDS and Covid, and all the explainable and unexplainable deaths. “They were all my friends, and they died.”
Tony Bennett. Milan Kundera. Cormac McCarthy. Alan Arkin. John Romita. Tina Turner.
I was at Penn State when they shot John Lennon. 1980. Remember reading of Bob Marley’s death from cancer. 1981. Ginsberg died from congestive heart failure and cancer in ‘97. Neal Cassady from drugs and drink in 1968. Ferlinghetti made it to 101, died of lung disease in 2021.
“And I will die, and you will die, and we all will die, and even the stars will fade out one after another in time.”[v] Kerouac drank himself to death at 46, expired the day before my seventh birthday.
It’s hot. A breeze unfurls flags across the street. My dog, Sophie, breaths loudly at the foot of the bed. Loud but shallow. Stirs a bit, but sleeps.
She is nearing 15. A mutt. Parts lab, Akita, Leonberger. You can see it in her face. The black mask turning white. In her build.
She’s down to 76 pounds. Was 95. Kidneys failing. Legs weak. She’s been defecating where she lies. Did it three times this week. Doesn’t tell us she needs to go, but seems to know it is happening.
The vet says to give it the weekend. See if she has one of her rebounds, but it’s becoming clear that she only has so many of them in her. That we are getting closer to the point where we’ll have to make a decision.
Her sister, Rosie, died on New Year’s Day 2022. She lost control of her bowls shortly before midnight and then suffered a stroke in the car on the way to the emergency vet. I stayed with her after sending Annie home. Slept in a room with Rosie overnight as the new year arrived, slept on a thin wooden bench when I slept, alternately petting and talking with Rosie and reading Moby-Dick. It was clear she was done. When Annie returned in the morning, we put Rosie down.
We got Rosie and Sophie together. Sisters from the same litter. Three months after Honey died of a blood illness, two days before my 46th birthday. They were challenging, would fight, Rosie attacking and holding on as Sophie tried to escape. We almost gave Sophie away, but figured out how to partition the house with gates and made it work until Rosie’s death.
Dogs. Honey was part shepherd. About 85 pounds. An athletic demon with separation anxiety and an ability to catch a tennis ball thrown 50 yards in the air on a dead run. Benny, Annie and my first dog together, was part chow, a noisy monster with thick fur whose size obscured the fact that he was one of the fastest dogs I’ve known. Captured two rabbits in the yard without breaking a sweat. Benny had cancer but lived almost to 14, until he gave up, growled at us when we tried to comfort him. That’s how we knew. I slept on the couch next to him on his final night. Our friend Ryk helped me roll Benny onto a plywood board and bring him to the vet, where I watched the last bit of life drain away. Amstel was part sheltie, a smaller dog. Amstel was blind for most of her life, but lived to 10.
“(Y)ou love the loyal, the helpless, the trusting,” Kerouac wrote[vi].
The fawn is back. Stands at the edge of my neighbor’s yard. Eats leaves from the trees that line the creek. Pauses. Seems to watch the kids shooting hoops in the driveway. I’d join them but I feel old today. Older than I usually feel. The accumulated weight of time on my shoulders. I’m 60. Annie is 60. My dad is 85. Sophie is going on 15.
of this painful world.[vii]
My dad says Kaddish everyday. We said it at mom’s gravesite. When she was lowered into the ground. Placed next to her mother in our synagogue’s plot within the Jewish cemetery in sight of the Coca Cola warehouse.
Says Kaddish and I listen. Remember. Try to let go of my cynicism. To glory in the power of a god I struggle to believe in. God’s will. God’s kingdom.
Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varach (May His great name be blessed)
l’alam ul’almei almaya (forever and to all eternity)
He creaks along. Aging muscles and joints slowing the gears. Body as machine. A cliche, but cliches grow from truth.
At 21, driving on Sand Hill Road, the engine of my Dodge Dart spit a metal gear into the grass. Threw a rod, they said. Leaky oil pan left machine parts too dry, too hot. Boom. Dead car. Only so much it could handle.
These things have lifespans. All things have lifespans. Man. Machine. All the creatures, big and small.
Sophie lies on the floor in the kitchen as I write. Pants. Still eats. But struggles to walk. To get up. We nudge her. Help her. She’s lost weight from her kidneys. We are near her expiration date — or at it, or maybe beyond it — but she still begs for food. Still engages. Suffers like the rest of us.
This notion is a common one. The Buddhists call it the first Noble Truth, but it has analogues in Judaism, Christianity, and other belief systems. “There is this doctrine in Buddhism of the Three Marks of Existence,” Ginsberg wrote[viii]. The first is that all “existence contains suffering,” he says;
in Yiddish, existence contains tsuris, serious difficulty. Born, as the poet Gregory Corso says, “a hairy bag of water,” there’s going to be some difficulty before you leave your body, some irritability or discomfort. If you don’t like the word “suffering” then you have to accept that existence contains some “discomfort.” The traditional definition is that, being born, the inevitable ultimate consequence is old age, sickness, and death, well described by Kerouac. This is inevitable.
The second is “Impermanence—the transitoriness of our condition; the fact that what we have here is like a dream, in the sense that it is real while it is here.” This impermanence leads into what Ginsberg — essentially quoting Kerouac quoting the Buddhist texts — calls the “third mark of existence” or “anatma,” which means “no permanent self.” The Zen Buddhist approach to openness, or Sunyata, says Ginsberg,is an “open and accommodating space.” Liberation, he might say. Or Jack might.
But there is an escapist element here, a pulling away from the world. Kerouac on his mountain lookout separated from the world. Seeking solace in solitude, but longing for human connection. Needing a drink.
Camus remarks that “Living, naturally, is never easy.” But most of us plug along, “making the gestures commanded by existence,” as much out of habit as anything else.
Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering.[ix]
Yet we persist, he says, because “in a man’s attachment to life there is something stronger than all the ills in the world.” And, he adds, “the body shrinks from annihilating.”
The physical. The body.
This is the challenge. To live knowing we are to die. To thrive knowing our time is finite. A “metaphysical tension or opposition that results from the presence of human consciousness.” We desire order and meaning in what is “an essentially meaningless and indifferent universe.”[x]
Reality is a con[xi], but also real. Very real. Inescapable. Etched in stone.
At the grave site we will recite the 23rd Psalm. Declare fealty to God, who ensures that we ”shall not want.” Abjure all questions. God, we proclaim will “guideth me in straight paths for His name’s sake.”
Yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil;
For Thou are with me.
Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.
Thou hast anointed my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Perhaps, this is the ineffable Heschel describes. The unexplainable. The incompressibility of the world in which we live. An intersection of Zen with Jewish and Christian mysticisms. Zen writers talk about succumbing to the void, to an ego-less sensibility by admitting that the world itself — and all of its pain and joy — are illusory. Heschel and other Jewish writers talk of subsuming ego and giving in to the larger forces of the unknown. Kierkegaard would call this a leap of faith, while Heschel uses the phrase “radical amazement.”
“Birth is the direct cause of all pain and death,” Kerouac writes[xii]. His road sadness, looking back across America, has turned to disenchantment. His “vanity,” as he says, the vanity of his family being that there may be more to seek in life.
He in a hospital bed. Thrombophlebitis after weeks of Benzedrine and other drugs. The young Dulouz proclaims “life is a brute creation, beautiful and cruel, that when you see a springtime bud covered with rain dew, how can you believe it’s beautiful when you know the moisture is just there to encourage the bud to flower out just so’s it can fall of sere dead dry in the fall?”
The world’s crises, the “wars and social catastrophes,” are not caused by men so much as by life, he says. By the “cruel nature of bestial creation.” It is a
mean heartless creation emanated by a God of Wrath, Jehovah, Yaweh, No-Name, who will pat you kindly on the head and say ‘Now you’re being good’ when you pray, but when you’re begging for mercy anyway say like a soldier hung by one leg from a tree trunk in today’s Vietnam, when Yaweh’s really got you out in the back of the barn even in ordinary torture of fatal illness like my Pa’s then, he won’t listen, he will what away at. Your lil behind with the long stick of what they called ‘Original Sin’ in the Theological Christian dogmatic sects but what I call ‘Original Sacrifice’.[xiii]
The body counts will rise. From nothing to a half million, to a million. More. We repeat the numbers. Again and again. As talismans, perhaps. Incantations. Prayers. Then forget.
Small protests pop up, pressed on by talk radio and social media. Use the language of liberty. Freedom. “My body, my choice.” Surround state capital buildings. Hospitals. Block nurses from entering.
Their signs: “I need a haircut.” “When Tyranny Becomes Law Rebellion Becomes Duty.” “Free NJ.” “Masks Aren’t For Your Protection, They’re a Sign of Your Submission.” Refusal is freedom. Refusal and denial. Their definition is false.
“If a man can only obey and not disobey,” Fromm says[xiv], “he is a slave; if he can only disobey and not obey, he is a rebel (not a revolutionary); he acts out of anger, disappointment, resentment, yet not in the name of a conviction or a principle.”
True rebellion involves the understanding of real choice. Understanding the costs of the decisions we make. To us. To others.
The “act of rebellion is not, essentially, an egoistic act,” Camus says[xv], but a demand for respect and an identification “with a natural community.” With man. Not as an object, but as a thinking, feeling being. Disobedience can be driven by selfishness. Ego. Or it can derive from principle. Choice.
I choose to wear a mask at this moment in our history. I choose to follow guidelines — not because I fear the rule. But because I have concern for others. Because I am part of a larger entity worth preserving. Because I am free, and freedom is worthless without connection.
We achieve freedom only by understanding our facticity, DeBeauvoir says. Our being in the world. And “in the world” means taking account of others. Respecting others. Not denying we exist among men and women, among others. We are not solitary beings. Not purely individual.
Freedom, she says, may begin with the individual, but individualism is not enough. Freedom means little if there is no one to share it with. If others are prevented from accessing it. If our freedom makes others less free.
The right declares “my body, my choice.” But only in regard to masks and vaccines. This does not apply to issues of abortion, birth control, gay and lesbian sex, transitioning, drug use, etc. “My body” is all that matters. Not yours. Not others’. Vaccination, they say, is an individual choice. Even as the impact is more broadly social. But framing this as purely personal erases the broader “good” these vaccines protect. Breaks our bonds with our neighbors.
Ethically, says Kriszta Sajber[xvi], this creates an imperative to act. “When someone medically eligible with access to vaccinations does not accept a vaccine, they reserve to themselves the right to harm others,” she says. But there is no “right to harm others” and, therefore ethically, “no one has a ‘right’ to refuse a vaccine” that has proven effective.
Covid denial. Gun massacres. Fentanyl overdoses. The assault on women, the trans community, every minority or vulnerable group. Inflation. War. Wildfires. Are we losing control. Are events barreling like a runaway train? These threats are real. Present. But we are paralyzed. By doubt and fear. Shrink into our own cocoons.
Kerouac receded into Buddhism, Catholicism, and alcohol. Grew angry and resentful. Became a red-faced bore. He sought refuge, rather than change. Even as Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, his friends and comrades challenged the power of the corporate state, that impersonal monster, a moloch of massive proportions. “Western industrial culture,” wrote Merton[xvii], had “simultaneously reached the climax of an entire totalitarian rationality of organization and of complete absurdity and self-contradiction.” The corporation man has won, or has seemed to, and now “the majority persist in seeing only the rational machinery against which no protest avails: because after all, it is ‘rational,’ and it is ‘a fact.’”
A fact we still live with. That causes our inertia, our failure to act in the face of planetary disaster. The problem is too big, the argument goes, so we should put it out of our mind — which, in Camus’ framework, means succumbing to the absurd.
God bless, he says to me. I dropped some bills into the insulated lunch tote in his violin case. He plays a classical piece. A familiar melody. I don’t know it. Plays a pop tune from the radio. I think it’s Katy Perry. People walk by. Cars pass.
I snap a picture. From a distance. Obscure his face. His identity. He doesn’t want to talk. Let’s the small hand-written sign tell his story. I have his photo, though. Outline of a man in distress. Could be one of the millions in need at the tail end of Covid. Lost his job. Has kids. Rent to pay. Busking for small bills and loose change outside the box stores on Route 1.
One of the “permanent scars on the job market.” The AP[xviii] says a third of the jobs lost in the United States to the COVID-19 pandemic will not “come back.” Even with the relief package. Even with the vaccines.
I ask him what happened. He looks at me. Puzzled. It’s hard to hear me through my mask. Amid the traffic and wind.
I want to write something about you, I say. About what happened. He shakes his head. No, he says. He speaks an English shaded in a Central European hue.
You lost your job, I say. I’m sorry, he tells me. He looks at me. Thank you, he says. God bless, he repeats. His eyes are sad.
He plays a single note as I walk off. He holds it. Lets it hover. It fades into the traffic noise and chatter, rises again. A familiar melody. “I see trees of green, red roses, too.”
[i] On The Road
[ii] Doctor Sax
[iii] On The Road.
[iv] On The Road.
[v] Desolation Angels
[vi] Vanity of Dulouz
[vii] Basho. “Untitled.” The Penguin Book of Zen Poetry, Edited and translated. Lucien Stryk and Takeshita Ikemoto, Penguin Books, 1985, p. 87
[ix] Camus, Albert. “The Myth of Sisyphus.” The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, Vintage, 1955, p. 5-6.
[xi] Bernstein, Charles. “Why I Am Not a Buddhist, with commentary.” Jacket 2, 12 Jan. 2015, https://jacket2.org/commentary/why-i-am-not-a-buddhist. Accessed 24 Aug. 2023
[xii] Vanity of Dulouz, p. 265)
[xiii] Vanity of Dulouz, p. 265
[xiv] Fromm, Erich. On Disobedience
[xv] Camus, Albert, The Rebel.
[xvi] Sajber, Krista, qtd. by Sarah Tuxbury. “What Research Surrounding COVID Vaccination Ethics Tells Us.” University of Michigan-Dearborn News, 20 Sept. 2021, https://umdearborn.edu/news/what-research-surrounding-covid-vaccination-ethics-tells-us. Accessed 24 Aug. 2023
[xvii] Thomas Merton (p. 140-141, Zen and the Birds of Appetite):
[xviii] Wiseman, Paul, and Alexandra Olson. “Why the pandemic left long-term scars on global job market.” AP, 13 March 2021,https://apnews.com/article/dde22861a596aba14351a13163d42560. Accessed 24 Aug. 2023
Hank Kalet is a poet, essayist, and journalist in New Jersey. He is at work on a book on the rereading of Jack Kerouac and the Beats as he enters his 60s. He was shortlisted for the 2019 Adelaide Literary Award and won the James Baldwin Prize from Taint Taint Taint in 2022.