Thursday, December 26, 2013

At Year's End

I suppose rabbis are supposed to nod at the arrival of a new secular year without endorsing the concept overly.  And partially I do feel that way. Rosh Hashanah is in the fall. Some years, like this one, the Jewish year actually begins in late summer. For us—and for me too—the whole concept of a new year’s holiday is evocative of Indian summer, of leaves not yet quite ready to begin changing colors, of still walking to shul without a coat, let alone wearing gloves or a scarf. And yet…the secular New Year does mean something to me. I may have been born in 5713—I actually was born in 5713—but that is not the year that springs to mind when someone asks me for the year of my birth. Nor do I think of 5726 as the year of my bar-mitzvah or 5740 as the year of my marriage. Those numbers are correct. But, for all I feel myself steeped in Jewish culture in most ways, I still find it far more amazing to think that we’re about to cross the line to 2014 than it seemed remarkable to me last September to think that the world had made it to 5774 without blowing itself up or, I’m still allowing myself hopefully to think, ruining its climate to the point of no return.

And so, as we prepare to cross the line yet again, this time into 2014, I’d like to offer my readers a reverie on the passage of time…but in a specific key.

In 1995, Moonstone Press (then located in Goderich, Ontario) published my first book of essays, Travels on the Private Zodiac.  The idea of the lead essay was that the ancients were right and wrong in their astrological thinking. Wrong, because the specific lay-out of the planets and stars in the sky at the moment any of us is born does not really have any effect on the courses our lives subsequently take. But they were also right, although not in the way they themselves would have explained the concept.

In my understanding of the private zodiac, we are influenced throughout our lives by the people into contact with whom we come. Some of these people are in close-by orbit—our parents and our siblings, then eventually (at least ideally) our spouses and children. In slightly more distant orbit is a different cast of characters—not the true intimates whose gravitational pull constantly and continually affects our own trajectories through the heavens profoundly, but those others whose presence in our lives affects who we become and what we do a bit less irresistibly as do the people in the first group. These are our grandparents and our elementary school teachers, our neighbors and our parents’ best friends, our rabbis (or some other variety of clergyperson) and our camp counselors, our housekeepers and our coaches. And then there is a third group as well, this one populated by people who affect our courses through life not as meaningfully as our teachers or our neighbors, but whose influence is still discernible and real. These are our elected officials and our high school principals, the professors who lecture to us in college and the authors whose books we find the most moving and influential, the performers whom we only know through their artistry and yet whose work feels as though it affects us profoundly and, at least in some cases, mightily as we decide how to live our lives. Those are the nearer planets and the distant stars that encircle our lives along our private zodiacs.

And then there are comets.

At the end of August in 1998, I flew from New York to Vancouver via Montreal. It wasn’t my usual route. I didn’t usually fly Air Canada at all in those days—there were already direct flights on Cathay Pacific by then—but my father had taken a sudden turn for the worse and I needed to get to New York quickly and the easiest flight to arrange was the one I ended up taking. I had come to New York expecting the scene to be truly grim, but things had improved in the day or two before I arrived and my visit ended up being far more upbeat than I had anticipated it was going to be. And so I flew home—this was even before we moved to California, when we were still living on Lulu Island in Richmond, British Columbia—via Montreal. I had to change planes too, which I found irritating. But then, finally, I was on the flight home. It was late in the evening. The flight was only half-full. I had an aisle seat—I always want aisle seats on airplanes for some reason—so there was the window seat to my left and the aisle itself to my right. For a while, I thought I would have both seats to myself, but then, just before they closed the doors, a young man appeared and sat down next to me.

I am not one of those people who feels any sort of need to strike up conversations with people to whom I am related solely by contiguity, which group certainly includes people I find myself seated next to on busses and trains. And that is true a thousand times over on flights that can last for twenty times as long as a train ride into Manhattan. But still, I’m not an unfriendly person. (I heard that! Maybe you just don’t know me well enough.) And this young man was clearly unhappy. He looked hale and physically well, but also beaten down and sad. In my usual way, I smiled affably at him and then began to read. The stewardess demonstrated, presumably for travelers who had never been in a car, how to fasten a seatbelt. There was that helpful video outlining all the safety features of our aircraft (but which to me personally really just serves as a kind of a catalogue of all the terrible things that can happen on airplane flights).  Eventually, we were in the air. The fasten-your-seatbelt sign blinked off. Beverages were served. I tried to read for a while, then gave in and, turning slightly to my left (and already sensing I was making a huge mistake), I said, “Heading to Vancouver?”

And so it began. He wasn’t going to Vancouver at all, it turned out, just going to change planes there for a JAL flight to Tokyo. He was, he said, planning to spend a year teaching English in Osaka, which experience he was hoping would help him get over the events of the previous few months. I asked if he wanted to talk about it. And talk about it he did. The story began with a young woman who had unexpectedly become pregnant. My seatmate, being both a gentleman and the future father, proposed marriage. She gratefully accepted. A date was set. And then, unexpectedly, she lost the baby. He stayed with her, not only accompanying her to the hospital, but spending the night sleeping in a chair in her room and only returning home to wash up and put on clean clothes the next morning.  A day or two later, she was discharged from the hospital. And the day after that she broke off their engagement, making it clear that she had only agreed to marry him because she felt trapped by circumstance…but now that her “circumstance” had changed—apparently, in her estimation for the better—she saw no reason to carry on with their engagement. Or, for that matter, with their relationship. The next week, the young man, a graduate of McGill with a degree in education, signed on for a year in Osaka. This had all happened the previous March, two-thirds of the way through his first year of teaching. The young woman began dating someone new almost immediately. He found himself carrying on with his life, but slipping into a bad state nevertheless. He was, he said, drinking almost daily and smoking way too much pot. He had actually gone to school—he taught English in some suburban high school near Montreal, he said—he had gone to school stoned a few times, but hadn’t been caught. He stopped going to the gym, stopped sleeping well at night, began to put on weight. He stopped doing the laundry, just stopping off at the local K-Mart to buy more underwear and socks when he ran out. He was, he admitted, a mess.

I listened. Every so often, I prompted him to continue by asking a pertinent question. But mostly he spoke and I listened. It took him hours to tell the whole story. (Trust me, I’ve left out a lot of the details.) I wasn’t bored. I had no place to go. I listened and then, when he was finally done, I told him what I thought. I made some suggestions, pointed out that changes of scenery generally only solve problems related to scenery. I suggested “real” counseling (as opposed to the kind you get on airplanes from strangers), but I also tried to encourage him. He was, after all, only twenty-five years old and his entire adult life was still in front of him. I tried to be kind and encouraging. By the time we finally landed in Vancouver, he was my best friend.

I never saw him again. We didn’t exchange e-mail addresses. (Did I even have one in 1998? Maybe I did!) I didn’t give him my telephone number or encourage him to stop by for a visit the next time he flew home through Vancouver. When the stewardess said we could unbuckle our seatbelts and retrieve our baggage from the overhead bins, he shook my hand and thanked me for listening. I wished him well, offered him a final few words of avuncular advice. And then I turned and got my bag and that was that.

On the private zodiac, we were comets streaking past each other, each burning semi-brightly for a moment before vanishing forever into the darkness.  We didn’t need more. I felt I had done a mitzvah, a kindness. He seemed stronger and better for having unburdened himself. It was what it was, no more but also no less. I don’t need to know what happened. I hope he had a good year in Osaka, then went home, forgot how bad things had once been, found someone to love, settled down, built a life. I can’t remember his name. (Other than Halley’s, how many comets actually have names?) But he remains, even after all these years, part of my story. Just a tiny part, to be sure. If I were a book, he’d be a footnote. Or part of a footnote. But he is a presence, or a kind of a presence, in my life nonetheless.

I wish him well as 2014 dawns, whoever he was and wherever he ended up. I always end up feeling a bit global, even a bit cosmic, as new years begin. I’m thinking about the planets and stars I can see in the sky, those still there and those whose light is still there even though they themselves are long gone. I’m thinking about the distant stars too, the ones that are just pinpoints of light in the nighttime sky. And I’m thinking about the comets as well…and finding myself able to wish them all well even without knowing what trajectories they followed after brushing up against me for a moment before continuing on into the night.

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