My mother wanted to tell me of my great-grandmother, a woman she barely knew, but who she imagined more fully that life itself would ever have allowed. History, in her hands was malleable, you could shape it in ways never happened. She wanted to tell me but she knew that her grandmother wouldn’t approve of adopting when your womb was perfectly serviceable, certainly not for a man more than a decade older who could not uphold his most sacred obligation. She wanted to tell me, but I am adopted and this woman can be no more than a story of passing relevance to me.
“Every once in a while,” he says and the screeching in my head drowns out what follows. I know what he means of course, that is the easy part, but the gulf between meaning and saying is so broad I can stop and count the traffic of ideas floating by, each seeking its own purchase, each finding none. It could be worse, I know, he could have said “each and every once in a while, and he does that as well, though not in a while,” but even the once was enough. I notice he is gone, and I wonder how much life flowed by while I was otherwise engaged.
When they asked him what did you do during the war he said “I just stood guard.” When they asked him where he said “A station, just a station, like most others, I just stood guard.” When they asked him did you see the trains carrying the bodies crammed into cattle cars he said “I saw many trains, it was just a station, but mostly I looked at the sky, wishing for the sun, but mostly it was gray and there was smoke from the chimneys.” When they asked him why did you wear the lightening bolts he said “I was a ski instructor but I broke my leg so I stood at the station, just a station like most others.” When they asked him did he know of the ovens he said “They made bread which we ate each night when there were no potatoes.” When they asked him about the Jews he said “I knew no Jews; there were none in the town where I stood guard at a station, just a station like most others.” When they asked him what he did after the war he said “I prayed, just prayed for my sins, sins like those of so many others.”
As the plane slowly descends the cemetery appears through a break in the clouds. The headstones are arrayed in neatly ordered geometries, unknown to those who lie beneath, and those who water the always verdant lawns.
Mausoleums cluster in a small village, from which no one ever moves, and rest comes easily to those who lie within.
You have no sense of being on an island standing on the corner waiting for the light, caught cursing those who block the box. It is odd having to look up to see the sky, gray on this day, but here the horizon is only chrome, glass and stone. It is only from the 45th floor that the river brings you to ground.
If I ask you to bring me an atom of oxygen, where will you search for it, how will you isolate it, so that you have captured a single atom that you can bring in response to my request? It may take some time and great effort to satisfy my desire. Or you may simply smile and tell me to breathe and choose the atom I wish from the multitude you have provided.
A reflection on case 3 of Bring Me the Rhinoceros (koans).