I don’t know why God created me a weak man. I don’t know why he let my failure to win the love of a girl drive me away from normal life and eventually fill my soul with a fear that drove me to despair. Did he create me weak and abnormal and worthless because he knew that it was only by wrapping me in the grip of a deadly fear that I could find him? I took the path to freedom that he allows everyone and it split my soul apart until at one miraculous moment he entered my soul and made it whole. I felt because of his divine act that I had become the self I needed to be, that I would always be with his help truly myself. But the personal security that God gave me did not tie me securely to him. I was still free to do whatever I wished and I went on ahead in life freely not knowing where I was going. I had had special moments meeting God and Ruth and another special moment helping conceive my daughter. Now instead of meaningful moments, I had not much more than an empty soul and moments of pleasure with Cynthia.
I neither liked her nor disliked her as a person. We became good with one another in bed and friends without becoming good friends. Love was so far removed from our love making that I am sure that when I took my pleasure on top of her voluptuous body, every press of my nude body against hers made her sure it was only her body I loved and not her. But it did not bother her too much. She had been in an arranged marriage as a virgin at seventeen with a man she detested and later divorced. She was used to some rough trips in bed if indeed any woman ever gets used to them. She was all about her career as a college professor. She had struggled mightily alone to earn her PhD and she was not about to let anything stop her advancement, especially in her special area, modern French literature. She had all of modern and nineteenth century French writers wrapped up neatly in bundles. In class she opened the appropriate bundle and distributed to her students French literary periods nicely wrapped in prettily simplistic packages. She did not encourage her students to create their own packages and they were all happy, knowing little about the subject, to explore only what was inside hers. Without any doubt, she was attracted to me physically and with my sexual techniques and a particular one she knew, she was off regularly in her pleasure where she needed to go. But my promise for the future as an intellectual and possibly as a writer attracted her much more than my skills in bed. I elaborated for her once after sex my theory about baseball. I found out after a lengthy exposition of the symbolic and metaphysical meanings I was extrapolating from baseball that she understood neither baseball nor Christianity. I did not hold it against her. Most people do not understand either baseball or Christianity. She encouraged me however to write out my ideas. She thought my theory would make a nice piece for the Atlantic Monthly. Cynthia liked to bundle up things in pretty packages. I was a package in her bundle for two months. I broke loose from the strings she had tied around me. On November 21, 1963 when I turned on the television and heard that President Kennedy had been murdered in Dallas, I was again womanless and alone and shocked to the bottom of my bones like every other American.
By 1963 Phil Malkowski’s marriage was nearing a break. He had been financed by his wife’s family to open a BMW auto dealership. He was making money and his wife Judy and his two children were living in an expensive house in the suburbs. But he was drinking too much like me and searching for something more. We both came from loveless broken families and it was catching up with us. He had a girl and he needed an apartment where he could meet with her freely. We decided that Tom Barbieri and Phil and I would share expenses as best we could on an apartment in Brookline not far from where Cynthia lived. It was a luxurious two bedroom apartment well furnished with an elevator that connected directly with a corridor in it. I put in some money as well as Tom who had a full-time teaching job for a year, but Phil paid most of it. We had lots of parties and entertained girls one at a time or in groups. We had, as the expression goes, a blast. I even had a quick reconnection with Cynthia that was soon again disconnected. I was open to everything. I was free and I would soon own a college degree.
I received my degree at the beginning of 1964 and thought actively of finding a good job. I graduated from Suffolk cum laude and because of Cynthia’s influence, I had been elected president of the National Honor Society. I answered an ad by Honeywell, a computer company, that seemed perfect for me. They said that they wanted ten recent college graduates with high academic averages to be trained for computer-related jobs. No technical knowledge of computers was required. On the application I had to account for time in the last eight years during which I had not been a student. I decided to write honestly that I had been a taxi driver. I am sure that and my age of twenty-nine doomed me to be rejected by Honeywell. It hurt me deeply because for the first time I had wanted to be in on the inside of the regular workings of American life. I had chosen before not to be in on it and had enjoyed being free from it and living on the outside at the edges of the economy. I found out it’s one thing to reject regular American life when you don’t want it and quite another thing to be rejected by it when you want in. It hurt. I was willing to sacrifice the freedom in my soul and mind to live as I wanted and to become an object fixed with permanence in a regular job. I wanted to become a regular American. The willingness to work day in and day out at the same job makes anyone an American. I had majored in Economics and was ready and eager to be like every true American one of the factors of production. Honeywell didn’t want me even though I was qualified. The economic system did not allow me to be an economic patriot. It was a whack.
I applied for other trainee jobs with the same result. A kind of death-like mood came over me. Before I had enjoyed being alone and free. Even though I had no money, life and a whole world of cultural and spiritual experiences seemed open to me. I had been miraculously reborn by the power of God. More miracles were possible. But I had agreed to limit my experience by accepting disciplined learning at a college and then I had agreed to limit it even more by searching for a regular job. I had given away a part of myself and the self I now lived with was death-like whereas before it had been life-like. Before I had truly and freely cared nothing about doing anything but now anything I cared to do turned to nothing. I had been in control of myself before but now it seemed like something was in control of me. I had a fate. It felt death-like.
One night while waiting at a cab stand a driver in the cab behind me came to my open window to chat. He was old and well-dressed and explained that he had a good state job and worked as a cab driver once a week to be sure he also received a social security pension when he retired. I told him I had a college degree and could not find a job. We both decided that the best thing for me was to get a job as a teacher. I said I was not qualified to be a teacher but he said he knew how to get me a teaching job. He arranged to meet me one morning at a bar near the Massachusetts State House. The bar was full of men wearing suits and when I met Tom Reilly there he explained they were mostly men like himself with political connections. We walked up to the State House and through the corridors. We went by a wide corridor before a big closed door where men were sitting around on benches waiting. Tom said they were men waiting to talk to politicians to get favors or jobs. He took me into a very large room where he explained the Governor’s Council was located. A man in a suit was seated at the back of the room at a desk. Tom took me up to him and he immediately showed he knew Tom by using his first name when he said hello. Tom gave him quickly information. He gave him my name and said I was a college graduate who could teach several subjects and needed a high school teaching job. The man immediately dialed a number which turned out to be the office of the Superintendent of Boston Schools. A secretary must have answered and said the Superintendent was not available in a manner that indicated she did not know she was talking to a very important man. He gave her in an angry voice his name and commanded her to take down information and give it to the Superintendent. He gave her my name and phone number and qualifications which I had written out for Tom and he had passed to his friend who had the title of Secretary of the Governor’s Council. Tom thanked him and I thanked him. Two weeks later I received a telephone call at our luxury apartment in Brookline. I picked up the phone beside my bed and heard a woman’s voice who asked for me by name and offered me a full-time job teaching in a Boston high school. I had had talks with Tom Barbieri about the death-like mood I was in. He understood my mood because the way the three of us lived at the apartment escaping from regular life drinking and partying had a side to it that was death-like. Tom used the Greek word for death, thanatos, to describe it. Thanatos in Greek mythology is the God of death who is closely linked with Hypnos, sleep, who is the Greek God of sleep. Both of the Greek Gods influenced my answer to the offer on the phone of a teaching job. I said I was not interested and hung up. When I told Tom later that I had been offered a teaching job and refused, he said,“Thanatos”.
I sensed now that I had a college degree that some fate was closing in and taking over my life. I threw away the offer of a full-time job as my way of getting fate off my back. Something within me did not want a regular job to slip into my life and seal me with a fate I did not want. It was not just the job but also where the job led. Economic advancement and marriage. A pleasant and happy way of life that was the slow death of freedom. When freedom is out the door, beauty and imagination and the miraculous world where God is present risk going out the door with it. But I had a college degree. It was a ticket to a better economic future whether I liked it or not. I refused the job offer. Something in my gut had the courage to push fate aside for a while. But fate soon rose up again with a new challenge. Tom had been also fighting against the fate of getting a regular job. It had taken him eight years to receive his degree from Boston University because he was always dropping out of classes and spending half his time across the street drinking and talking at the Dugout bar. Now studying at a university and being free from a regular job had become for him almost complementary activities. He was looking around for opportunities to get into a Master’s Degree program in mathematics. Crocker Easting had used his studies in mathematics to get a good job working for the government tracking satellites. Tom wanted to regain the freedom as a student that he had enjoyed for eight years by now studying for a Master’s degree. While he looked through potential programs, he found one at Boston College that fit me. He brought fate back into my picture. It was not his fault. Sooner or later with a college degree, fate was bound to catch up with me.
He influenced me to apply for a Masters of Arts in Teaching at Boston College. It consisted of five classes in the subject to be taught at the high school level, which for me was French, and 5 classes in education, some of which would be earned the following Summer practice teaching at a local high school. Tom insisted it was perfect for me. He knew that I as well as he would never fit into the regular, non-academic economy. What he especially liked about the program was that it guaranteed to each student a year of practice teaching at a local high school with half a teaching load and half pay. The program inspired my mother as well as Tom. It meant that in spite of her son’s wayward life and academic disinterest, he would end up with a Masters Degree and a job. She agreed to finance my studies. I began in January 1965 by taking graduate French classes at Boston College. I was off to where fate was leading me and I became resigned and even a bit happy that I did not have in my soul the heroic resolution necessary to stop it.
I and a girl named Patricia were the only potential French teachers in the program. We both interviewed for the best teaching position available at an excellent public school in an upscale city at Wellesley High School. I met with the head of the Foreign Language department who conducted the interview in French. I knew I had a better chance for the best job than Patricia because my French was better. My accent was almost perfect since I had worked at imitating Ruth’s native accent. But I blew the interview. My worthlessness that had been gradually sinking below my surface came up and wiped away some of my confidence. I was timid and hesitant speaking French. The problem was that the department head’s French was fluent but it was a combination of Canadian-American French and academic French. I was really good talking French to native French speakers because I was well practiced at fitting in quickly with the rhythm of their expressions which called forth from me fluent responses. I thought too much about what I was saying during the interview in order to be sure to make no errors and my excessive thinking instead caused a few grammatical errors. Patricia got the job at Wellesley High and I received the inferior job at a Catholic private school named Saint Jeromes.
During the summer for eight weeks, both Patricia and I did practice teaching in a French class at Wellesley High under a woman who was a colleague of the Foreign Language Department Head who had rejected me for the teaching job there the following year and had chosen Patricia. She and her department head had written a French textbook together and they were close friends. She assumed since her friend had rejected me that I was more or less unworthy to teach French. She was sometimes upset and concerned that the Boston College program allowed me to sit with Patricia at the rear of her class observing her. She put on for us a tremendous performance. She was a great teacher. She worked over the students and kept them firmly disciplined and on task. Patricia went eventually to the front of her class and taught a ten minute section of the lesson. She gave signs of approval to Patricia but she went through a kind of nervous shuddering when she finally had to allow me after sitting observing her for a week to stand before her class and teach for ten minutes. The poor lady did not understand that she was sending up to the front of her class someone who had already rejected everything regular and conformist in life as trivial and unimportant and was now armed with a firm indifference to the harsh criticism of his first performance as a teacher that she no doubt would soon hand him. When I reached the front of her class, I turned and looked at eyes in young faces looking at me that I not only liked immediately and instinctively but also, much more importantly, I wanted to teach. I started speaking and helping them through the difficulties of a grammatical drill. They all kept their eyes on me. They all paid attention to me. I knew from their positive reaction to me that French could be really taught to them and something within me that was very pleasant emotionally pushed me to do it and was enthusiastic about doing it. The ten minutes went very well. The students were with me. When I went back afterwards to the rear of the class and sat beside Patricia, she whispered to me that she liked the way I had conducted the class.
The positive reaction of students to my teaching on that day and following days when I taught larger and larger segments of the class made me a deadly serious student of the art of teaching. The teacher whom I was working under, Frances, had methods that worked. I paid attention to every detail of her techniques because I became genuinely enthusiastic about the prospect of not only having my own classes in September at another high school but of having a subject that I could teach successfully and that I loved and knew well, the French language. A teacher who knows a subject expertly and loves it genuinely can not fail as a high school teacher even without suitable methods. I had not only those qualifications but also, by the end of the eight weeks I spent working with Frances, advanced methods. Patricia and I and Frances talked French at lunch. Frances became a friend. She admitted by the end of the eight weeks of practice teaching that my French was excellent and that I should never have been rejected as a candidate to teach at her school. She volunteered to recommend me for a regular teaching position at Wellesley High if one became available. I liked students. They all paid attention to me when I stood before them teaching with enthusiasm. Fate was forcing me towards a future that might not be as bad as I thought.
I taught three French classes beginning in September for a year with half pay at a small private high school in Newton, a rich suburban city bordering Boston. The school had about 250 students from grades 7 to 12 and the teachers were Catholic priests. I and two other male teachers from the Boston College program appeared unusual to students among a large body of priests. The students were mostly Irish-Catholic boys whose fathers had fought their way up to success and riches in the tough world of Boston politics and business. They were strong-minded boys whose goals were to be tough and realistic and ready to fight any obstacle. They had generally not received any higher educational or cultural values from their parents. They had money and they were used to enjoying life without making much effort in their studies. The priests who taught them had no discipline problems simply because they were respected naturally as priests. For the three of us, young laymen, our success with them was far from guaranteed. The students played football and hockey and baseball. None of the expensive private schools in the Boston area had high academic standards. Instead they were designed to support students of any academic ability and they all emphasized participating in sports as an important means of development.
I had no idea what kind of an environment I was getting into. Ten weeks previously I was a Boston cab driver and now I was teaching French at an expensive private school. I made friends with one of the other lay teachers in our program, Bob Sommers, and I learned from him most of what was going on around me. He was Catholic from a well-off family and a graduate of Boston College. He knew what was going on. I had no real interest in anything around me except teaching French. It fascinated me. I had the chance to mould the minds of young students forced by circumstances to sit listening to me for fifty minutes each school day. The boys were rough on the finer and more cultural subjects like French. I did not know I might fail because I was a lay teacher and could become the butt of the undisciplined pranks in class of rich students whose fathers supported the school with their money. From the first day of classes, I did not spend any time battling students. I taught them from the first moment I was with them and during every moment afterwards because I knew that what I was teaching them was worthwhile and I loved teaching it. My students had doubting and amused expressions on their faces as I began as though they thought that for some reason I did not understand that I was supposed to merely go through the motions of teaching them French but not really teach it. I cared nothing any longer about cab driving or religion or being worthless or living freely or how much money I had or the talk going on around me behind my back in a small Catholic private school. I cared about teaching them French and nothing else. It was stupid to be so one-sided. I should have known better. I should have proceeded slowly in class. I should have made friends with students and played an academic game with them. We could have all acted calmly and they could have received passing grades easily. I could not operate like that. I was on fire. They could see in my eyes and feel from my words that I loved what I was trying to teach them and nothing nor no one was going to stop me. They caught my fire. I soon had students doing homework seriously that they had never before taken seriously. I took them seriously as students and I took myself seriously as a teacher. One Sunday Phil Malkowski took Tom Barbieri and me and his girlfriend to a rich waterfront restaurant on Boston harbour. We ate large amounts of food and drank bottle after bottle of wine. Then we raced in his car to a wedding 60 miles away in Rhode Island and drank heavily all afternoon into the evening. Afterwards we drove back to the same waterfront restaurant where we had had lunch and had an elaborate dinner with more drinking. At four a.m. the next morning, I got up with a bad hangover and spent an hour and a half at a typewriter writing out a mid-year test for my students that I gave them later that morning. They had studied for the test and I refused to let them down. In the Spring talking to my friend Bob Sommers, he told me that I had had everything working against me at the school but I had succeeded nonetheless and had proved that I was the best teacher the school had.
I had made applications for teaching positions for the following year in public schools. The dean of studies at Saint Jeromes, a priest with a PhD in Education, wrote me an excellent recommendation. I told him about a job offer I received with the highest possible pay at a fine high school. He told me he would like to steal me from the school and get me to come back the next year at his school as a full-time teacher. Bob Sommers, who taught English, had already decided to come back full-time. It was an attractive place to teach because the class sizes were small and the teaching load was just four classes instead of the five normal in public schools. The dean set up an interview for me with the rector of our school. He had the rank of Monsignor and lived at the top floor of the school in expensively furnished rooms. When I sat beside him and we began speaking, I was amazed at the swaths of praise he lavished on me. He revealed that he knew the low level of effort that his teachers and students normally put out without mentioning it specifically. He said it was wonderful that my students were so positive about my teaching and that I had succeeded in making them approach learning so enthusiastically. Then we talked money. I told him I had a job offer at $5800. He said with warm feelings that I deserved such a high salary and that he would pay me the same amount if I returned to teach the following year. At that moment in the talk, all the freedom that I had ever tried to find somehow magically grabbed hold of my mind and soul and I went crazy inside without showing outside to the Monsignor the wild flights of my imagination within myself. I suddenly thought only of Paris. I thought of being there soon, that summer, with money. I thought of all the cafes on the Boulevard Montparnasse that I could sit at watching for pretty girls some of whom had little money. I remembered what Dostoevsky had written about what Russians always did as soon as a lot of money had fallen into their hands. They immediately took a train to Paris. They spent all their money on women and champagne and learned to do the can-can dance. That is what my craziness told me I should do. Go to Paris as soon as possible loaded with money and learn the can-can. I sensed I had power over the Monsignor. I knew it was a small school and that he controlled directly all the money. I said I would agree to come back the following year if he would agree to start the monthly payments of my salary in June rather than September. No public school would ever agree to such a proposition and I expected that he would also not agree. But I was wrong. He agreed. I got set to run off to Paris loaded with money and ready, so to speak, to learn the can-can.
I dreamed of Paris. I went crazy imagining how different it would be to return there this time with money. My French was a lot better because I had minored in it at Suffolk and had completed two graduate courses at Boston College in French Literature. Love and pleasures and happiness seemed bound to happen. I had a vision of becoming so complete and so fulfilled in some strange new way that my craziness decided me to buy a one-way ticket for the flight to Paris and never come back. It was all an illusion. Even with my improved French, I found it impossible to slip into the interior of French life and communicate meaningfully like a native. I realized sadly that I had been much more at home in Paris six years before when I lived outside most of Parisian life prevented by insufficient knowledge of the language from gaining much ground advancing towards its center. Not having knowledge of a nation’s language can idealize its culture for a foreign visitor. What my knowledge of the language and culture of France allowed me to experience in Paris was not so great as I had imagined and I was often simply bored and alone. I could have instead used my money at home chasing girls among my friends where I now had the means to buy a new car. I had some fun in Paris. I made the rounds of cafes and clubs drinking and dancing. I met a blonde Swiss girl in a club and worked at getting her to bed in Paris unsuccessfully. I followed her to Lucerne in Switzerland and finally had her after spending a lot of money on her financing the chase. I also made it to intimacy with a fifty-year-old beautiful Dutch woman in Amsterdam. She invited me to her house and showed me all the books in her husband’s study that he read studiously. His love of books and his indifference to her escapades at night in the bars of downtown Amsterdam helped give some substance to their marriage. I had two sexual trophies when I reached the last stage of my summer wanderings in Italy. I idealized Italy. I was so uninspired by what I had tasted of real life in Paris, Amsterdam and Lucerne that I let Italy and the Italians charm me. I was not interested in a single thing real in Italian life. I took an Italian ship out of the port of Naples headed for New York the first week in August. The bay of Naples was really beautiful. It was the only real beauty that touched me that summer.
I was living then in Somerville sharing the second-floor floor apartment with my mother whose second husband had died. I did nothing much more with the three weeks left of summer vacation than drink beer, read and watch television. I calculated with a kind of melancholy feeling that since my daughter Rivka’s birth in August 1962, I had been intimate with six women other than her mother. I had also been intimate with Ruth on one of the trips I made to Montreal to visit her. We were still friends and still attracted to each other but neither of us had mentioned reuniting. On another trip to Montreal, I had lunch with Rivka and her mother. Ruth told me that a man had begged her to marry him but she had refused. None of my intimacies with seven women had led anywhere and as I drank my beer and rested ready to go all out teaching French, nothing other than teaching mattered to me. Or, to put it differently, I had a regular job doing something I liked doing and I accepted that that gave me more support than I would ever find with a woman.
My sister Mary lived in the first floor apartment with her husband, Paul Grimes.
Paul told me he had been with Ruth and my daughter earlier that summer at a second home my Mother had bought in New Hampshire. My mother had invited the two of them to come down from Canada for a visit. Paul told me with feeling that the two of them seemed lost and that they needed me to help them manage their lives. I felt touched in my feelings by his honest observation. Then in December during Christmas time, my sister invited the two of them to come to Somerville for a visit and they came. When I entered my sister’s apartment, I saw my five-year-old daughter sitting at a piano. She was beautiful and I imagined that the look in her eye that she gave me when I went close to her and said that I was her father was the look of a child alone and deeply lost. It made me feel alone and deeply lost too. I met with Ruth without any emotions aroused in either of us and the evening went by happily in a group of friendly people celebrating the holidays. My mother arranged for Ruth to sleep in our upstairs apartment in the bedroom across the corridor from mine. When I said good-night to her, I believed I could get in bed and sleep normally. I could not. She was sleeping alone and I was sleeping alone just steps away from her. After lying alone in the darkness for half hour, I got up and crossed the corridor and opened her door. I knelt down beside her bed and stretched out my hands to her pressing her body that I could feel under the blankets. I did not cry but my voice was full of remorse and desire and close to tears. I told her that I needed her. She told me she could not have sex with me because she was in her period but she got up and came with me to my bed. We held one another in the darkness and kissed and remained together until the morning. We did not discuss anything about our future but we both knew we had one together. Two days later she was alright for sex and we joined as often as we could until it was time for her and Rivka to go back to Canada. I drove them back. For all the time we were together in Somerville and were in the car driving, we did not discuss reuniting. Something within me was deeply against marriage. I wanted to begin talking about it with her but I could not. I remember the exact spot on our trip through Vermont where finally the subject of marriage burst out in a simple question by Ruth. She asked it in French so that Rivka in the back seat would not understand. We were just past the city of Saint Albans located on Lake Champlain. I could see part of the large lake off to my left with the sun low in the sky in a beautiful orange glow. “Shall we get married?” Ruth asked. I said, “Yes.”
The flat ground in the backyard of the house in Somerville where I grew up ended next to a steep bank of land that went down seventy-five feet to a cement barrier next to seven parallel railroad tracks. I could look out from the edge of my yard a great distance over roads and the tops of houses. One winter day when I was nine I found myself standing at the edge of my yard looking out at the vast panorama and I did not stop looking standing motionless for a very long time. I felt during those moments that I was, I was, I was, I was, and as I stood motionless I felt this was that I was as myself and strangely for the first time as something other than myself that was also I. Who is standing here I asked myself but I did not use any words to ask myself the question for the very way I was standing motionless not wishing to move as though something new had hold of me was itself the question. I know I stood there wondering what was being and what was my being and I felt deeply some unknown being that was also my being. I was not communicating with some other being separate from myself because if that were the case, my solitude, that I found so intensely mine alone, would have been interrupted and I would have moved from the spot. No, it was myself that made me myself stand motionless but I stood motionless fixed by an overpowering sense of wonder that I myself could wonder so intensely about nothing more than myself. There was something in myself not only mysterious but in fact very mysterious because it was myself. I stood there motionless in the cold without feeling the cold for a long long time. I was looking out beyond the railroad tracks to the stretch of sky and land that went away and away and then further away to form the universe and all the while this view before me made me myself seem more and more expansive because some strange new sense within me was teaching me how expansive was I.
I did not move for so long! I just stood there motionless staring! I was suddenly in a state of superhuman calm that told me without words that I was good and alive and that it was profoundly good that I was alive. That was all. It told me nothing I did not already know. But this knowledge came from nowhere but myself. It did not whack me or hurt me with some certainty that came from outside myself. This kind of knowledge was so deeply in the roots of my being that it was no longer ordinary knowledge. Was I just an idiot? Did everyone already understand that their self was more than just themselves even though they remain most of their lives nothing more than the limited self that they themselves decide they must be? I had a spiritual experience but, watch out, it was just a spiritual experience. Spirit is the Latin word spiritus which is directly related to the verb spirare, to breathe. The Romans felt they were spiritual when they were breathing deeply. My strange breathes of new air that day when I was nine did not give me even a hint that there might also be within myself something that was not myself at all, something that was frightening because it was a nothing that could give itself the power of a something. Compared to the terrors I discovered later within myself, my discovery of myself that day was idiotic. I don’t know why I finally moved from my spot in my yard. But even though I stood there so long motionless and idiotically, I at least learned by the experience that the buried treasure I found in myself was myself and that in the future I should search for more treasure.
My marriage to Ruth was a blessing but I had had before many deep experiences within myself like that day when I was nine or those days later when fear was raging through me and threatening to rob me of the very sense I had that I was myself. She had not had such experiences and the people around me also had not. I had never been like other people and I did not want to be like them. Now however, married with a full-time job and a daughter, I had to go about among people and learn to act like them in order to get by and bring home regularly a paycheck. In other words, I had to become for part of my time a living pretense. I acted the role that I had to act as best I could but something within me that needed more, that needed some contact with the miraculous and the impossible, robbed me of the full enjoyment of my blessing. I could not give up my belief that life should not happen following the outlines of some regular rational scheme. God, the creator of the universe, had taken a human body and died nailed to a wooden cross. A woman had carried the same God, in the form of the man Jesus Christ, in her womb for nine months. I had said one horrible night in the grip of an uncontrollable fear that I believed that the man, Christ, was the son of God. God had miraculously wiped away all my fear and made me again whole. Anything was possible. I went along in my new life like people around me as though it were perfectly normal to be no more than normal but my experience of God had taught me that something irrational was alive hidden below my surface and everyone’s surface.
Ruth had a position teaching French at a high school in Montreal that, once we had agreed to marry, we decided she should keep for the rest of the school year. I bought a small car and drove up to Montreal every weekend. When I crossed the border into Canada, I always stopped and bought a case of Canadian beer, which was better quality than American, to be well equipped for the weekend. I took a room in a motel and picked up Ruth the next day for a day and night of enjoyments and pleasures. It was wonderful. It was a blessing. She was beautiful and good and mine, but at the beginning of the summer when she and Rivka came to join me, I was sad as the day of our marriage approached. What good existed in my life greater than our marriage? None, but it made me sad. I was giving up my freedom. I was shutting myself off from some unknowable and mysterious experience that might lead me finally to what was truly real in life. Ruth had finally been divorced by a court in Ottawa, Canada. She was free to marry me. Phil Malkowski drove up with his girlfriend to Derry, New Hampshire, near the small town where we were living, to be best man at our wedding before a Justice of the Peace. Afterwards we had dinner and drinks at the farm house in the countryside that my mother let us use for the summer. I was married. I had a wife and a family. I was blessed but I did not feel blessed.
The miraculous and the impossible were happening before my eyes but I could not see the hand of God at work. Knowledge knows nothing about the workings of God either in the universe or in our souls. Knowledge is a form of blindness and it was not letting me see things clearly. How did it happen that I had a full-time well paid job in a private school just a year and a few months after I had been a cab driver and had refused the teaching job that Tom Reilly had helped me get? How did it happen that when my daughter Rivka had been born, I was a cab driver with one year of college and Ruth was a secretary with one year of college, but now we were both college graduates? That summer after our marriage, she applied for a job teaching French in Massachusetts and was hired in a suburban town. How did it happen that as a result we were both working full-time as teachers with good salaries? She had used her time away from me in Montreal to get a college degree. How did that happen? We visited the town, Swampscott, where she was to start teaching in September. It was ten miles north of Boston on the ocean with three beaches and a big old wooden hotel where Calvin Coolidge, President of the United States in the nineteen-twenties, had vacationed summers. We rented a five room well-furnished apartment on the first floor of a house directly on the ocean. It had a long and wide grass lawn surrounded by bushes and rock fences that gave directly through a gate onto a beach. How did that happen? Ruth was absolutely astonished when we examined the sight and she realized she would be living there. In Paris she had grown up and lived until she was fourteen in a one-room apartment with the toilet outside down three flights of stairs. How did that happen? How did she find a good job in a suburban school and a fine house in a beautiful town on the ocean? Knowledge said it was all luck. That’s what I thought too although I did have some doubts. Not enough however to give me the strength in my heart to feel blessed.
Ruth and I one night in July at the house in New Hampshire had had together another one of those odd and unusual sexual moments when we could not sit near each other clothed and had to get at each other nude in bed. I looked at her sitting near me and her beauty that I saw every day regularly had nothing about it anymore that was regular. God’s universe looking at me through her eyes told me for a few seconds that every moment in human life is blessed, that we are all blind men and women seeing nothing of God’s kingdom although we are all in it. Even my sexual need for Ruth was blessed because it freed me of all thoughts about how normal and regular life was forcing me to live inauthentically and filled me with a desire beyond my control to do with her what some mysterious power in the universe demanded be done. My first daughter, Rivka, was conceived at the moment I saw Ruth descending the steps of a bus in Lake George, New York. My second daughter, Rhea, was conceived one night at a farmhouse in Raymond, New Hampshire. When I turned to Ruth to my right as she sat on a sofa, I discovered a person so beautiful that I had to mould my body nude to her body nude. I did not sense that God himself was with me but I did sense that all of his creation was present in what Ruth and I created pressing our nude bodies together. God was with us because he had created me and he had also created the seeds that escaped from me and became living members of Ruth’s body. Ruth and I had not predetermined our joining that day but looking back I believe that God had. The miraculous result was the birth the following May of our second daughter. She was born in a hospital in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s city, Salem, and opened her eyes every day to God’s good and beautiful world in a pretty neighboring town, Swampscott, in a house by the sea.
Thoughts of God and sex with Ruth and life by the sea with my daughters and my job teaching French and my thoughts about the meaning of life as well as a lot of beer drinking were the main elements of my now very regular and happy life. I thought I was living a life completely different from my previous life, especially when I had lived alone in a room on Saint Botolph street and drove a taxi. But was it so different? I still had to drive a car for two hours on school days to and from the city of Newton located a few miles past Boston. I drove only ten hours a week in order to make a better living teaching French but a good part of my weekly work was still driving a car in traffic. I had previously escaped from the regular world by entering my taxi and closing the door to all its people except those willing to pay me money. Now I escaped from the world by entering a classroom and keeping the world of adults off my back for three hours every working day teaching teenagers French. I was the same person. No doubt about it. I still wanted to have nothing to do with the normal world. After driving my taxi, I used to escape back to my room and shut myself off from the world outside free to explore myself aided by the larger world of culture delivered to me by my readings. After teaching French, I escaped now back to a house free again from the alien things in the world outside but now no longer lonely because of my family. It was worse now in the sense that I no longer had loneliness to force me to seek nourishment by communicating only with myself. It was much better living with my family with a new member about to arrive in May but regular work and regular family business left me with much less time to explore myself. Ruth was a wonderful escape in bed from my lonely wanderings in my soul and in the souls of great writers through my readings. I needed both types of pleasures but those of her body combined with other pleasures of the body like food and drink gradually dulled my need for the pleasures of the soul. In short, everything was alright. I was married. I had a world around me to fight and I had a family and a job as weapons to use in the fight. I was like everyone else. I was off to the future leaving my soul behind to fend for itself.
On May 5, 1968 my second daughter, Rhea, was born and took up residence at her house by the sea. A month later on June 6, 1968, Robert Kennedy, a candidate for the Presidency, was assassinated. It was done for a political purpose but since knowledge could find no evidence of a conspiratorial plot behind the scenes, a political assassination found a convenient place in the public mind as merely a murder by one crazy man. A month before Rhea’s birth, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, a great man, a great prophetic mouth hurling into the universe God’s words proclaiming passionately every man’s divine right to live in a just kingdom, was assassinated. Since one man admitted he had committed the murder, knowledge cooly suppressed a laugh and convinced everyone with a straight face that the great man’s death was not the result of any political plot. My daughter slept quietly in her crib for long hours during the summer and did not disturb us often with her cries when for some reason she felt unhappy. Young people all over America, just two or three decennies older than her, were doing what Rhea’s father had done 12 years previously, “dropping out and turning on”. In Boston, the Boston Common in June was occupied and lived on by all kinds of drop-outs and would-be drop-outs, hippies and runaways from suburbia trying to find some deeper meaning in themselves than the meaning American life offered them on the surface. They used drugs to help transport themselves from the regular experiences of the American mind to the drug-induced hallucinations caused by chemically redirecting the pathways of the mind that lead us regularly away from our souls. I was very far from dropping out from any kind of regular behavior that summer of widespread political and spiritual discontent and in my house by the sea my only drug was a great deal of beer. A colleague, a priest from Salem who taught at Saint Jeromes, had a sailboat docked in Salem harbor. I spent many happy days sailing with him out of Salem Harbor. We often sailed out from the same harbor where a century before big Salem sailing ships had left for trade in the East Indies. We sailed along the coast north past the small islands, “Little Misery” and “Big Misery”, well removed from any miseries enjoying the sun’s warmth under the blue sky gliding along over the sea pushed by the wind. Sometimes we sailed south down along the coast and tied up his sailboat at the wharf in Swampscott a few steps away over the sand to the gate that led into my large green lawn before my family’s apartment. We went inside and enjoyed lunch and tea with Ruth who was recovering from her ordeal giving birth and happy to have a summer to rest near cool breezes off the sea.
That summer Ruth’s father, Kiva Gold, came down from Montreal to meet his second granddaughter for the first time with a friend, a woman from Paris. Ruth’s mother had died five years previously on the same day as President Kennedy’s assassination. Kiva had been a wandering Jew and was now living in retirement in Montreal with Ruth’s sister Esther. He had been born in Poland in an area controlled by Russia. He had learned Russian in schools and had gone alone from Poland to Germany to escape being drafted into the Russian army. From Germany where he learned his fourth language after Yiddish, Polish and Russian, he walked over the border into France and stayed there living in poverty but creating a family until its four members emigrated to Canada in 1948. He had survived the German occupation of France by living and fighting in a French resistance group called a marquis. He was a solid, no-nonsense man, self-educated, who spoke six languages and had seen the world. His daughter’s house by the sea, the pretty home of his two granddaughters, must have delighted him but he was from a generation that hard knocks had schooled not to express delight. He had a nice stay with us. His friend, Madame Larue, was the widow of a French General. We laughed and talked happily in French while America was exploding off somewhere far distant from our happy summer by the sea.
Most American high schools fail because most teachers do not know, or are not actively trying to know, the subject they teach and worse most do not love the subject they teach. The administrators of high schools fail consistently to place students in classes where they fit appropriately with their level of intelligence and with their level of potential interest in a subject. The result is a kind of organized debacle. Teachers, students and administrators are jumbled together in a confused mass and all are busy trying to create some type of organized meaning out of the jumble rather than concentrating all of them all the time on the business of learning. Saint Jeromes where I taught jumbled together the three ingredients like other schools. No one cared that the education of young men was going badly or ever tried to improve it to at least reach the higher level of failure of other high schools where some administrators falsely promoted their moderate achievements as outstanding. Everything at Saint Jeromes went on with just enough sparse and careless organization to take away the uneasiness that sometimes pervaded us that everything might be coming apart.
At the top of the hill in Newton, where the school was located, stood a large brick building that held a big gym beside four classrooms for the lower school. Outside next to the building was the hockey rink. Successful Catholic men with money and construction skills had devoted their time to building it. Saint Jerome’s hockey teams played hockey teams from public schools with much larger numbers of students and beat them all. Hockey was the heart of Saint Jeromes and the hockey rink at the top of the hill overlooking the school’s main building below was the symbol of the school’s greatness, the only one since it was far below greatness in any other area, especially in education.
A narrow public street ran up the hill on one side and continued to the other side of the hill splitting the school’s property before it descended. Before the street stood a massive old New England mansion with three floors. Inside the main door on the left was a large chapel and to the right the school’s office. The rest of the three floors, except for the Rector’s suite of rooms and one other room occupied by one of the priests, was used for classrooms. Behind the main building was a large flat field with on the left a fenced backstop for a baseball field and to the right a football field. Beyond the far end of the field was another old New England mansion with enough rooms to house many priests. There were two parking lots near the main building and that was it except for a large building down to the right of the main building that served as the refectory where teachers and students were served lunch. It was a small private Catholic school for students from rich families. The hockey rink located at the highest point of the property was its heart. One day a student that I was friendly with told me that on the back side of the main building below on the slope leading down to the athletic field was a cement-filled pole helping to prop up the building. He told me smiling broadly that if he and other students got together and pulled out the pole, that the whole building would collapse. Of course he was kidding. There was no danger of a collapse. The hockey team, aided by good baseball, football and basketball teams, held the school together. The athletic teams proved that groups of young men could be well organized to reach good ends. At least some things at our school were successfully organized.
I had just four small classes and our school was open only 150 days a year instead of 185 as in a public school. Everyone accepted that I was as a layman a regular member of the community because they believed I was an excellent teacher, but I had to do more than just teach successfully to fit in and keep my place. I had to project some kind of personal style of behavior that expressed a good attitude towards the religious life of the community and I also had to learn to act as a fully developed, mature man to give students a model for their development to manhood. In other words, I could not just be myself. My religious life was very open to new and even miraculous experiences. In conversations with priests, I did sometimes introduce some unusual notions I had about Christianity but I realized quickly that they were unwilling to travel with me down some untried religious path. In fact, everything went on in my personal dealings with priests just as if they and I had little interest in religion. They were parish priests. They were a means provided to Catholics to become religious through the sacraments they offered. In their contact with me, they did not usually reveal any of their religious beliefs. We discussed regular subjects of the day just as did ordinary people. They may have assumed I was a practicing Catholic but no priest ever questioned me about the subject. They let me alone. It was nonetheless for me an awkward situation spiritually. Religious ceremonies were always going on that I had to attend with students in the chapel. I had sometimes to attend masses at school but I never received communion. I was always indifferent to the religious ceremonies going on around me while at the same time secretly I felt that God was always somehow present in my soul. I pretended interest in masses at school but my belief that God had found me and would never leave me was no pretense. It was me, it was a me that was linked to God permanently even though this me could never be me publically at school.
I had never before thought of acting only in a manly way. My inner experiences had long ago taught me that the wholeness I sometimes experienced in myself because of God’s influence was neither male nor female nor a combination of the two. It was obvious to me that every person has male and female characteristics but I had discovered that wholeness is what is true and worthwhile and that division between male and the female characteristics or their combination is secondary. For me, even a person born male or female who chooses to act as a male or a female as he or she is supposed to act has made a bad choice. It is bad for anyone to act exclusively as a male or exclusively as a female because it drastically limits the full potentiality of personality unnecessarily. I wanted wholeness and it made no sense to me to repress either the male or female side of my being. I had been sometimes when very young the victim of bullies who discovered something mild or soft in my nature that aroused something brutal in their nature. But I refused to repress or hide this part of me. Men can decide if they wish that they are exclusively male but it is not true. They are less manly when they accept that there is something unmanly and feminine in their nature but they are better persons because of it. The fathers of Saint Jeromes boys wanted their sons to become tough, athletic men strong enough to beat their way to victory in the human jungle. The thought that their son might turn out to be an asshole aroused horror in their souls. They paid my salary. I had a teaching job with more freedom and leisure than I would have had as a college professor. I had to learn to act at school exclusively as a man. I had never before cultivated some type of behavior that excluded other types of possible behavior. But it was vital for my security in my job that I develop some consistency in my actions in the community. Also, secretly, I was my own man anyway and any techniques of manly behavior that I expressed could never alter who I was in my authentic inner being.
I ate lunch every day surrounded by priests at the head table in the refectory served to us by students. Twice a year in the same refectory at night we hosted their fathers. The gathering was supposed to be about education but it was not. We teachers mingled among fathers holding a drink like them from the open bar until a bell rang and we occupied the tables for dinner that their sons had sat at for lunch. Catholic businessmen and lawyers, advisors and supporters of the school financially and legally, sat at the head table with our Rector and the priest who was our chief administrator. Drinking a few strong drinks before sitting at a table with fathers helped me handle the evening well socially and it usually worked out that the time passed pleasantly. I could not express myself truly in our conversations but neither did any of the men I talked and joked with at a table eating dinner. They were out only for economic success, had attained it and were not bothered at all that the price they paid to reach the top of the economic heap had eliminated from the bargain the freedom to go on lengthy wanderings in their souls. The conduct and talk of the priests I worked with expressed on a personal level with me no religious beliefs and almost all our students valued only becoming as one-sidedly male as they could be. But I fit in as best I could days with teachers and students and on father’s nights rubbing elbows with fathers. When I had left a day’s work in my taxi, I would go back to my room and my loneliness. When I left work at Saint Jeromes, I went home to my family. I no longer ever felt lonely. If living in my family meant I could no longer also live in God’s kingdom, my heart told me to leave God’s kingdom and live with my family. It was years before I learned that the heart that connected me to my family was also the only means to truly connect myself with God.
I got through the authoritarian rule of President Nixon’s presidency, which featured the continuation of the war in Vietnam along with his merciless massive bombings of Cambodia, by cultivating as much indifference to politics as I could aided by work, family, food, sex, alcohol, television, baseball, vacations and travel. Just like the hippies of the period, I dropped out except that I was forced to teach French a few hours a day for 150 days a year. My family was my commune. Our lives were enriched by the regular economy and also by the good feelings we gave one another. In the summer of 1969, we vacationed with my sister Mary and her husband, Paul Grimes, at a cottage they rented beside a lake in New Hampshire. While there one night. we watched on television an American astronaut walk on the moon. Paul Grimes had convinced me that we both had to give up smoking. He was already trying to kick the cigarette habit and I vowed that night as a man walked on the moon to do the same. I had been smoking regularly for 25 years and stopping was extremely difficult. But I stopped. I went flat out without cigarettes. I suffered a very painful withdrawal but I succeeded. Knowledge of course said it had been purely the result of my strong character, but I still did not believe in knowledge. I had never judged my character strong and so I had my doubts. Putting a man on the moon was a miraculous achievement of science. Freeing me forever from addiction to cigarettes was also a momentous event, less miraculous perhaps than the moonwalk but still with at least a touch of the miraculous.
We took a very pleasant ride every summer through beautiful scenery in New Hampshire and Vermont to Montreal in Canada. For the world exposition in Montreal in 1969, we rented a furnished apartment for a month in downtown Montreal to visit exposition events and sites. Other years during summers, we spent a week crammed into Ruth’s father and sister’s Montreal apartment in a district within walking distance of Mount Royal. It gives its name to the city of Montreal and at its top we often visited a pretty park with ducks and a pond. The biggest thing in 1971 was our purchase of a six-room house in Swampscott. It was located at a short distance from the ocean. It guaranteed to us a residence at a fixed price per month for years to come and a fixed location for our daughters to go to school through high school. In 1972, the four of us took a chartered flight to France in July and rented for the rest of the month a small furnished apartment in Paris. We spent the whole month of August at Frejus-Plage in the south of France on the seacoast about twenty miles from Cannes and near other well known towns and cities. In 1976 I stopped drinking. My drinking had gone beyond my control. I was drinking every day and I had reached the point where the drug was giving me no pleasure and satisfying only my craving for it. It was another very painful escape from an addiction. I was thankful to God for my success because I was incapable of believing it resulted only from my strong character. In 1977 we again spent two months in France, July at an apartment in Paris and August at one in Biarritz. It was amazing to me that I could spend two months in France without drinking wine. But I did.
I was free of drugs about the time when circumstances forced me to become again a student. In 1977 Ruth and I both had to take courses to learn Spanish which was being introduced more and more in high schools and was lessening the numbers of students studying French. If we wanted our jobs to remain secure, he had to become qualified to teach Spanish. In September, Ruth and I both took a course in Spanish at the Harvard Extension School. I discovered from the experience the great number of courses meeting in the late afternoon or at night offered by Harvard University. Anyone could earn college credits for a small tuition in courses offered mainly by Harvard professors. We both took another course in Spanish in the Spring of 1978. By then I had decided with a great deal of excitement and enthusiasm on a bold new plan for my teaching career. Since I had to learn another foreign language to teach to be secure in my job, it made sense to also begin studying Latin which I had already studied in High School. It was not, like Spanish, for me a new subject. I needed only six courses in Spanish to become certified to teach it so I decided also to take 6 courses and become certified to teach Latin. I did not smoke or drink any longer. I knew I had enough discipline and time to make myself a French/Spanish/ Latin teacher. It was a good thing that I was on a path to become a teacher qualified in three languages. In May of 1978, after thirteen years of teaching with maximum effort at Saint Jeromes, the man recently appointed Rector at Saint Jeromes fired me.
I had been vulnerable. No doubt about it. I was a lay teacher with a good salary working among priests earning half my salary in a religious school. The only other full-time regular lay teacher was the hockey coach. His job was more secure than mine as a very successful hockey coach but neither of us had any job security. It would have been reasonable for me to have worked one or two years at Saint Jeromes and then have taken a job in a public school and been placed towards the lower end of a salary scale with tenure after three years. I was unreasonable. I enjoyed teaching and getting great results so much that I concentrated only on the creativity that I experienced often in the classroom. I was indifferent to what others in our community thought of me and I was indifferent also to job security and the development of my teaching career to perhaps earn more money.When I produced good results and succeeded in getting students to work with me, I experienced creativity and freedom. I did not care what others in our community thought of me. If the priest teachers were envious of my success or my higher salary, so be it. I was a force in the school. I made such a strong impression on students that the class of 1973 dedicated their yearbook to me. Previously only priests earned such an honor. In 1974 the hockey coach and I met with the priest who administered the school and a layman in the insurance business who was a friend of the school. They assured us in a friendly meeting that they valued both of us and that they were going to do everything possible to keep us on the faculty permanently. They made us feel secure. Saint Jeromes was the first community I had ever felt genuinely a part of. That day they made the hockey coach and me feel we were secure members of the Saint Jerome’s family. I got kicked out four years later. It was a hard whack.
The priest who fired me was a short thin man who wore sometimes a white robe and had a dry sense of humour that I found somewhat snide. He cultivated friendships with rich ladies in our community. A lot of extracurricular social activities were open to him and he took advantage of them all to put himself at the side of people with power. He took over the room that became available on the third floor of the main building. He lived there and often met there privately with students. No doubt he gave students help and advice with their problems. In those years, we were well before the scandals that broke out later revealing the sexual abuse of boys by Catholic priests. He had a sign pinned to the door of his room that I read once. “I love the Christ in you”, it said. He told me in an interview I had with him about my firing that I had not developed any close relationships with students. That was why he was firing me. He was right. My students had total respect for me and I had total respect for them. That was enough. It was not my job to love them or even love the Christ in them as he did. My students were tough young men. I could not get very close to them and also teach them. He had some way of making them his boys but I did not want my boys in class to become my boys personally. That would not have been right either for them or for me. I had started a cross-country team and had coached it for eight years without any addition to my salary. Once I went with eight boys a Saturday afternoon in the school van to a cross-country race at a beautiful private school campus. We had worked very hard preparing for the race. We won it and were exhausted, I along with them because I ran at full speed to two points on the course to cheer them on as they ran past me. We were all hungry because we had not eaten since breakfast. We stopped on the way home and bought submarine sandwiches and drinks. We ate sitting in the van happy together and at peace. I loved being there sitting with them proud of what they had done, what we had done together, and I felt happy in a spiritual and pure way because they were also happy being with me and with one another feeling the same happiness in the same pure way. It was as close as I wanted to get to students. Close personal relationships are not automatically good, especially between adult men and vulnerable boys.
I told the priest at the interview I had with him that his firing me was an evil thing.
It was a whack. It was like waking up from a pleasant dream where everything was orderly and in its proper place and finding myself in a world where everything was unbalanced and even frightening because it offered no longer security for me or my family. I felt again for the first time in thirteen years totally worthless. It was very much as I had felt when I abandoned my life at Tufts College and stepped off from a secure course into the unknown. I had gained then a wonderful balance within myself by my born-again experience but now a priest who professed the same religion as myself had thrown me out of the secure precincts of his religious community to deal again with life on my own.
I interviewed for teaching jobs in public schools all summer and failed to find one. It was difficult to find a job teaching only French classes because some jobs required someone to teach both French and Spanish. I was not yet certified in Spanish and when I had to speak Spanish at an interview, I did not do well. Still there were jobs open teaching just French and I was well qualified. The problem was that in the Greater Boston area, an area with many colleges and many educated people, there was a big supply of people who wished to teach French and had no experience. Such people fit at the bottom of the pay scale whereas I with thirteen years of experience had to be placed ,according to teacher union contracts, at a spot on the scale with a much higher salary. The business office at public schools influenced who should be hired by superintendents of schools more than did the need for highly qualified teachers. The rock that held my family secure was Ruth’s tenured job at her school. But I kept looking. I found a job in September at a low salary teaching English as a second language in a small private school in Boston on Boylston Street near the Boston Public Library.
By then we were over the first whacks of my sudden unemployment. I at least had found a job and I was determined to keep interviewing until I found a better one. But one result of my predicament was that I now had to study Latin and take enough courses to become certified. My family could not leave the Boston area because Ruth’s job was in Swampscott and my daughters were in school there. I had to find a regular teaching job that I could commute to from Swampscott. The key to my success in finding one was Latin. Jobs were available teaching Latin and few people could teach it. Also most Latin jobs were combined with another language. They were usually Latin/French or Latin/Spanish. The result of it all was that I had to become a regular student at Harvard and I studied there at night for several years.
At the job in September at the small school on Boylston Street, I taught foreign students English from twelve to four every day. Then, three days a week , I walked up the street to Massachusetts Avenue and took a bus across the Charles River and then further along Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge to Harvard Square. I was forty-three years old and I was again a student. At least I was studying to gain knowledge in a restricted area, foreign languages. I was not eager to gain knowledge in other subject areas because I did not believe it could be truly gained. By this time my reasoning about knowledge told me that one should love some subject and study it as far as possible and try to become expert in it. But if one did, I was sure a student would reach an ultimate point in any subject that would teach definitively that the subject was unknowable. Knowledge leads us on and makes us love what it offers but if we follow its charms all the way to the object it entices us towards, we find there is nothing there. We reach a kind of black hole that teaches us we will never really know anything. The education towards the black hole however is valuable and worthwhile. If we follow some subject far enough to learn we will never know it, then we at least know that so-called experts in various areas of knowledge really have found like we nothing for their efforts. I already knew enough French to know I would never know French but it did not dissuade me at all from now trying to learn Latin.
My Latin class was a full-year course that met for two hours one night a week for the whole academic year. It was an introductory course in Latin but it covered all the grammar of Latin. Since I had not studied Latin for twenty-five years, I needed the review. About 70 students met in the first class in September and by the last class in May there were only five of us left. It demanded a great deal of home study and for someone who knew no Latin to begin with it was very difficult. It was not much of a challenge to me and I worked at doing my homework faithfully and with great enthusiasm. I enjoyed it. I memorized again all my forms and as the course progressed, I began reading and translating Latin sentences of greater and greater complexity.
I loved being in Harvard Square three nights a week and studying at Harvard. The square had all types of shops and restaurants and was full of young students and people from all over. The atmosphere was very positive and almost festive because the people you passed in the street somehow seemed to be all going somewhere to do something unusual but creative and important. Once I passed through the opening in the wall around Harvard Yard and was on the inside and on my way to class, I felt excited and uplifted in my spirit. Studying Latin at Harvard struck a chord in my being. It began giving me the sense that I was doing something worthwhile that was sure to give my teaching career a new and exciting new development. Some instrument in my mind began playing the comforting and peaceful melody that had sounded once before in my spirit when I was very young and very alone at the Boston Latin School. Nothing had seemed so real to me in the seventh grade as Latin. It sucked me into a special world of strange new words with strange forms that became just as real in my mind as my own native language. It had given me a whole new well ordered and peaceful place to go to in my being. Now at Harvard in my Latin class, I was rediscovering at moments this lost place where I had once been young and at peace. I never had any personal conversation with anyone at Harvard and never made any friends there but I did not care. I loved both being there and being alone. I walked along on the many paths in Harvard Yard a stranger to everyone but I was perfectly at home with myself. I had my Latin textbook with me and my completed homework and I was on my way to a class to sit in a crowd silently, ready and eager to show when called on that I fit perfectly with the Latin language by translating a passage correctly. I was letting Harvard do its job. It was educating me in a subject that I loved because it had long ago seized a place for itself in my soul.
All the Latin classes I took after the first one were translations in class of works by great Latin authors. I plunged into the readings and prepared to translate them in class. I worked very hard learning word by word how to understand long passages in Latin that were structurally much more complicated than anything in English. I began to understand that Shakespeare had constructed his wonderful poetic phrases partly by imitating Latin writers, especially Ovid.
I took a one-year job in a Junior high school teaching French and Spanish. I did not like it. I made a point of earning outstanding letters of recommendation from administrators to use to find a better job. I became more and more convinced that, with my experience teaching all levels of French and certification in Spanish along with future certification in Latin, I would certainly find a high-school job. Then in the summer of 1980, the ineptitude of the Rector at Saint Jeromes who had fired me caused him to be fired. A friend who was teaching English at the school contacted me and told me the foreign language department was unravelling. He said that my former students in French had named their new French teacher “Napoleon” and that some days they had locked him in their classroom in a closet. In a word, my firmer approach to teaching was needed. He told me I should contact the new temporary head of school and I would have my job back. There had been a shakeup at school. I got back my job and was named department head in foreign languages.
Back at Saint Jeromes, I had a new attitude and a much freer manner of behavior among administrators and teachers. A new Rector was hired, a middle-aged priest from Baltimore. He hired a young layman, a PhD from the Harvard School of education, to administer the school. I did not like being supervised by them. There were now five young lay teachers and I joked and talked freely with them. I respected everyone but I could not help acting with a kind of free and easy going superiority. I did not overplay my importance as someone who was in his 14th year and was a department head, but still I did not downplay it either. I was certified now in Spanish and I had completed three courses in Latin at Harvard. Even though I had not found a regular job in a public school, I did not fear failure if I had to try again to find one.
An afternoon in September of 1980, I went to Harvard to register for classes and experienced deep perplexity and great hesitation about my choice of subjects. I had spent the whole preceding year reading great Latin authors. I was now thinking about studying Latin further, not only to become a high-school Latin teacher but also to become a classical scholar. The thought and history and literature of the ancient world had found a home in me and I wanted to immerse myself in ancient culture with my whole mind and soul. But I could not become a genuine classicist without studying and learning Ancient Greek. I knew how difficult Ancient Greek was with many more regular and irregular forms of words than Latin. I had decided to sign up that afternoon for an Introduction to Ancient Greek class. I was so enthusiastic about classical studies that I knew that once I started studying Greek, I would not stop. I hesitated about signing up for the class. I was perplexed. I was about to commit myself to exploring deeply and extensively the culture and languages of the ancient world which was pagan. Important Christian writings were in Latin or Greek but still I would be devoting most of my time to a literature that was not Christian and in many respects antichristian. What should I do? Should I register for the Greek class? My mind was as though split up the middle. I was starting down a path that required a great deal of study and I would be on it for many years in my future. It was a very difficult decision. All I had to do was not register for the Greek course and walk away free. But not knowing Greek would mean I could never become a true classicist and I would deprive myself of all the wonderful readings in the Ancient Greek language that were known to be at the summit of human language and culture. My classical studies were already giving me a sense that I was doing something genuinely worthwhile that was making me feel genuinely worthwhile. I signed up for the course.
Harvard University became my church. A Latin course one night and a Greek course another night were like going, so to speak, to pagan masses. It was not really religious but still it was something close to it. The huge complex of Harvard buildings and the Harvard Yard containing the great Widener library with millions of books was like a kind of Vatican City of knowledge. It was its own intellectual nation. I was always touched and moved by the contact I had with teachers and students pursuing knowledge at the highest possible levels in various subjects. They were like priests who had become Monsignors of learning and were eager to attain the rank of Cardinal and sit in the college of Cardinals with a Pope. But Harvard was a Vatican City with no Pope. No one could be elected in a society of such advanced learners to a position that granted one human the right to announce the ultimate truth about anything. I really believe the great thing about Harvard was that it was an organisation that constructed temples of learning in every area of knowledge without reaching ever in any of the areas some conclusive truths. No knowledge ever reaches an ultimate truth and Harvard was a kind of divine institution of learning established to eternally let anyone who wished seek truth through knowledge and fail. I knew I was never going to know Latin and certainly never know Ancient Greek. But trying as hard as you can to find out you can never know anything is a divine adventure. Harvard offered knowledge and also freed students from knowledge by proving to the best of them that it does not exist. I worked eagerly at my studies at Harvard to try to reach along with other avid learners the purified heights where truth and knowledge finally part company.
One day I discovered in the Extension School booklet that I was eligible to become admitted to a program of studies that lead to a certificate. I had not completed work at Boston College in the master’s degree program. I was not interested in studying for any degree but I learned that once admitted to the certificate program, I would have all regular benefits for Harvard students. It cost me only a small amount of money to be admitted and I received a student identification card that included full privileges in the grand Widener library. The great building with eight huge classical columns across its front was a temple. I walked for the first time up its several steps and inside and up the marble staircase of its vestibule to the entrance to its stacks like a priest of learning without a cassock. There were eight floors of stacks and an elevator to ease my search to touch and to open one book with my hands out of the millions that were waiting around me sitting silently in the semi-darkness ready to speak once my eyes looked at and began reading their words. I was in Widener’s stacks often. The thousands of books I walked by spoke to me in the silence. They told me that no one would ever read all of them but once I opened one and began reading, they disappeared as millions of books and reappeared before my eyes transubstantiated to two white printed pages. The great library held millions of books sitting each one unopened on its shelves in order to allow two eyes to look for a few seconds occasionally at one page. I stepped up to the altar regularly and did my part. I opened book after book for years. I regularly received the communion that Widener library offered.
I discovered 20 years ahead in my future when I was teaching Latin in a High School in Virginia what is truly real. I will try to explain my discovery bit by bit referring to it here and there as I go along with my story. What happened in my past before my discovery seems to me mostly worthless. If I had it to do over again and I were free not to do what I did, I would choose not to have experienced any of it except for three things that happened to me briefly, momentarily. It was worthwhile and real when I kissed Anne-Marie in the drive-in movie and the same, worthwhile and real, when I was joined with Ruth and was filling her with the seeds that created my two daughters. The rest of my life was nothing. The experience of God was a something but I did nothing with the self that God restored to me. By my actions, I turned the possibility of some relationship to God into a nothing that merely combined with my other nothings. Naturally I would not choose not to have been saved by God. But I had nothing to do with it. He did it. The things that were worthwhile in my life happened either by sharing my life momentarily with God or with two women. Everything else I did was worthless.
Our struggle all our lives to create a strong and useful self is weak and useless. I was weak and fearful and worthless, as I have admitted, and others are strong and brave and worthwhile. They are real because they fight and overcome. I agree that they carve out an identity for themselves but I claim that whatever they become by their strong efforts is based, like my weak efforts, on nothing. We are worthless by our very nature or, to put it differently, we are all a nothing driven by fear to make ourselves a something. I was not completely unsuccessful participating like others in the swindle to present myself to others in the world as a something. My hand in the swindle went on and on dishonestly. When I discovered the truly real at sixty, I became certain that my worthlessness was always forcing me to escape it by tricking myself into becoming a trickster playing tricks on myself designed to falsify the real. I found at sixty that there is something real. It is not me and unfortunately it is revealed only by an unusual experience that is difficult to express in a believable way and is unknowable.
Our knowledge is limited to our rational and mental experience but this experience is not what is truly real and so our knowledge is worthless. We get by using this knowledge anyway because it is too terrible to admit we know nothing. Everything we can find out seems to make us stronger. Look at me and listen to what I know! Even if we succeed in massing together a great deal of material from human thought and experience into a great book brimming with erudite knowledge, someone will skilfully amass, if given the chance, an opposite knowledge. Everything we know is wrong. When we finally learn everything that can be learned about something, we arrive at where we started with nothing. My mind consented, gave way and allowed me to use the part of my being that finally at sixty gave me an experience of the real. But the experience was not the kind that can be tested by processes in the mind and pronounced true. I have in fact spoken of this experience to sympathetic and friendly people. Their minds assimilated my thoughts about it and immediately rejected it as unreal. I will describe the experience later and declare the reality of its existence but I know it will be of no use. No one will accept the most important experience in my life as real. Their minds will not let them.
So we go on seeking security in our knowledge or whatever other inventions our minds will allow us to accept as real to hide our nothingness. In my forties, I went on just like everyone else getting by with this or that taste of pleasure here or there, sometimes positively excited about where my life was going. I was going towards the only thing real and I did not know it. It was many years ahead in my future.
The impossibility of our union with another being gives us a hint of what is real. We can desire another being, we can love another being but we can never achieve a union that makes us truly become the other and at the same time remain truly ourselves. We want to lose ourselves and find ourselves in the other but we always remain only ourselves and inwardly alone. The two momentary unions of Ruth and myself that produced my two daughters were certainly the closest we ever came to the kind of union that we all need. We lost our normal selves and sought passionately with our bodies to become the other whom our pleasure forced us to grip tightly in our arms as though we wished not only to press against another body but actually become the being in the other body. When our pleasure ended, I pulled out of her my member that for a few moments had been also hers. I had put everything within her that I could but in the end it proved I did not have the real means to be myself and also be her. We lay beside one another disunited and conscious that yielding our bodies to one another yielded not a bit of what was in ourselves that might produce a divine experience if joined. Secretly within her a living seed from me had united fully with another living seed in order to become eventually a human life and discover then in the great warp of universal time that union with another human being is logically and scientifically impossible. Ruth and I rested nude beside one another. Our bodies had done all that the universe will let them do to transform our seeds to a new being when one of them overcame isolation and death by union with another living seed, a permanent union of being with being that became impossible for us once we were born.
In the early summer of 1983, a living being born from our joining, my youngest daughter Rhea, was diagnosed as having a tumor growing in her brain. It turned out to be a great tumor, the size of a golf ball, but at least it was operable. Ruth never left the Children's Hospital in Boston sleeping there every night for months. Rhea had three operations. During the first we sat the three of us for five hours in a waiting room knowing every moment with dread that her young brain was open and that doctors were trying to cut away bad parts of her brain that were wrapped around good parts. She survived the operation but the tumor was so big they decided to close the brain and open it again several days later when she had recovered some strength. The second operation was long also with more long hours of dreadful waiting for news. The head surgeon told me afterwards that he had taken out as much of the tumor as he could. We waited with her daily watching her hoping she would regain her strength after her ordeal which was just as though her brain had suffered, like a soldier in a war, a severe wound. She was unable to recover. One night she stopped breathing and they rushed her to the operating room for emergency treatment. She regained her breathing but fell totally asleep in a coma. When we were able to visit her in the ICU, the intensive care unit, she had a hole in her throat that allowed her to breathe through a tube. We stood around her, Ruth, Rivka and I, watching the beautiful brown eyes of a fifteen-year-old girl looking straight ahead seeing nothing. She no longer had any idea who she was or where she was. She did not know the three of us were there. The doctors had done all they could. One of them said that the stroke she suffered was so severe that because her brain had had no oxygen for several minutes, she would never afterwards be able to learn beyond the level of someone in the third grade. We did not care about anything in the universe except whether or not she would one day come back from her coma and see us. No one will ever convince me after looking for days at my daughter in such a condition that the universe where we all seek happiness gives a damn about us. Rhea was off somewhere completely alone defenseless and if there was not someone or something alive where she was with the power to overcome the evil that had a death grip on her heart, then she was nothing because she, alone and powerless, lacked the power to be anything. Knowledge, even the beneficial kind the doctors used, no longer helped give meaning to her being. She was off from us far away in a place where it is impossible and unnecessary to know anything.
A great spiritual thinker, Dostoevsky, created a man, Ivan in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, who became an atheist because he was so deeply touched and enraged by the sufferings of children. Ruth and I and Rivka witnessed all summer and late into the fall children at Children’s Hospital in terrible, deadly conditions. A little girl named Lazara with a thin wasted body and big eyes glowing with hope and life waited among us week after week for death and finally did die. A large group of wealthy Indians, over a dozen, dressed in magnificent clothes arrived from India with a mother and her baby that they hoped a world-famous Boston hospital could save. The baby died and the gloom and despair I saw on all their faces must have arisen from a profound suffering in their hearts. But I did not share Ivan Karamazov’s belief that the sufferings of children means that there is no God. Everyone eventually suffers cruelly from some sudden whack that fate gives them. My daughter’s suffering proved to me that there must be a God. Every day when I was in despair I said to myself something I had read that John the Baptist says in the gospel, “God is able out of these stones to raise up children to Abraham”. I felt because of the suffering of children around me that there is no hope for any of us unless a God exists who can do anything. God is able to raise up children out of stones! Our worthlessness should make us seek God and seek what is impossible but instead it forces us to seek only what is possible in order to be happy. Ernest Hemingway was not as profound a thinker as Dostoevsky but he was closer to the truth when he wrote about the inevitability of something arriving in the lives of all of us that will break us. “If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” We can think that God might exist or he might not exist. We can think something we know might be true or it might not be true. But the only thing truly certain is that all of us will one day break. Then we will know in an instant if there is anything truly real. Then our being will find perhaps at last another being that it can unite with totally and also remain totally itself. Then we will know if we must be worthless for eternity or only for when we are alive.
Rhea opened her eyes one day and saw us. She came back to us from nowhere. Wherever she had been when she was nowhere did not disturb her when she was back at the place she had left. It was like she had been asleep for a very long time and woke up after dreaming sweet things forgetting with wakefulness where she had been or what she had dreamed. She spent weeks then in a rehabilitation hospital until she had recovered enough of her former self to return home. She had to have a permanent shunt, a tube attached to her brain hidden below her skin, to guard her permanently from a build up of water in her brain that could be fatal. She suffered from a ringing in her ears and headaches but she recovered. She was able to go back to her high school and graduate with her class. Her body and her mind sought equilibrium in their own healthy functioning. Ruth, Rivka and I sought the same kind of equilibrium too. Our worthlessness does not help us get along in the world and it keeps us from going where the world forces us to go so we act as though we are worthwhile. While Ruth and I were suffering through Rhea’s ordeal, we gave up caring about anything in the world. We valued nothing at all except Rhea’s life and the hopes life gives us all for happiness. I left Saint Jeromes that year where I no longer fit in with the new crowd of teachers and administrators and took a one-year job teaching French in the best High School in Greater Boston, Newton South High in the suburb of Newton. Ruth went back to her teaching job after a year’s absence. Things went back to normal. We put up as best we could with what being we had. Like everyone else, the thought never entered my mind at the time that my being, my me, could become a new and real me transformed radically by union with another being that would allow me to remain at the same time whole and independent. The consciousness and the knowledge that my mind gave me and that everyone’s mind gives everyone forbids such a thought.
I tried to start an affair with an attractive 26 -year-old girl in my Greek class. We had coffee and muffins in Harvard Square after class one night and that was the closest I ever came to her. She dropped out of the class and was soon gone from me forever. It helped me understand, even with the brief and mild pain that separation from her caused, what poets meant when they claimed that the only real inspiration for a real poet is the suffering felt by the impossibility of satisfying the desire to unite with a woman in love. An impossible union with a divine woman like his Beatrice was what Dante wanted with his whole soul and never reached. Two human bodies can love one another but it is impossible precisely because they are bodies to unite spiritually. If there is anywhere in the universe a power to overcome our worthlessness it must be love. Even our rational knowledge must accept that. We can love a woman with our whole heart and she can love us in return with her whole heart so that our hearts join but even this very joining of our hearts reveals that our beings are still separated. We can love another person so deeply that the power of our love mysteriously creates love for us in the person loved but even then we can reach a union only of our hearts and bodies. A woman’s love does not free me to be myself but instead enslaves me by my desire mixed with my love to unite with her body. I can not be myself and be in love with someone with a body. I can only remain myself if I can love someone who is bodiless. My worthlessness needs to find love to become worthwhile but only the love of something that does not exist can reveal to me who I am truly by a love that does not enslave me to human desires. But I am worthless precisely because I feel that in the depths of my being I am totally loveless. Only a non-existing body, a spirit, who can love me and also create love in me for it can free me to love and also let me remain independent of this non-existent being that I love. It is logical what the poets say. No matter how deeply we love a woman we lose ourselves completely and suffer a tragic separation. But can anyone accept the logic that goes a step further than the well-documented logic of great poets? Only the love of a bodiless being who has the power to love us and create love for itself by loving us can satisfy our need for love and make us free and whole?The logic of human love leads us nowhere and reaffirms our worthlessness. But who can accept the logic that only our complete worthlessness can lead us to real love? And how can a non-existing being create love in us for itself which can make us totally worthwhile? It means the impossible is possible. It means our normal consciousness and its knowledge is as worthless as our normal being. It means we are all fools trying to love only bodies. It means that the universe we see around us teaches us truths that are lies and that another universe exists that our paltry consciousness fortified by knowledge prevents us from knowing because it can only be known by opening our hearts wide to it and letting it come inside us.
But I had no such thoughts in my forties and fifties. I hid myself spiritually and intellectually in my classical studies and passed my time on the surface of my being working at my teaching to make money. Any connection I had to Christianity and God faded away as though it no longer existed. My marriage and my family gave me an essential emotional foundation in my struggle to keep my being’s equilibrium and to succeed practically but my secret experience of desire and possibly love for someone outside my family proved I was a moral nothing. Modern consciousness treats the Christian doctrine of original sin with scorn and derision. Evil breaks out daily right before our eyes but we refuse to believe evil is rooted in our nature because of some spiritual cataclysm that happened sometime in humanity’s common past. Nathaniel Hawthorne said that even just one evil action by one of us makes all of us capable of evil. I think one of the reasons I loved reading classical literature in Latin or Greek was that the evils of the period could no longer reach me. Evil was alive all around me and in me but I did my best to escape it by focusing only on the evils of the distant past which were dead along with the people who committed them. There is nothing as good as being good but we are none of us good. If we really believe we are good we must ask ourselves why. If we ourselves can make ourselves good then evil and sin are illusions, original sin is a kind of intellectual joke that stupid churchmen in the past invented, and of course it means that Jesus Christ sacrificed his life on a cross to save us from sin uselessly and for no good reason. I loved to read Ovid and Homer. Ovid’s poetry fits all the goods and evils of human and divine life into perfectly metered lines that free us from normal life by metamorphosing it to an unending divine rhythm. Homer treats Gods with such an easy familiarity that you feel reading his perfectly metered lines that words alone are real and that they make a true poet who uses them beautifully divine. I did not feel I was sinning or anyone else was sinning. We were all trying to shape our lives into beautiful and successful events. The police and the army took care of evil. It never entered my mind that I might be sinning. I was off like everyone else travelling as happily as I could down a long lonesome highway to nowhere.
I taught French at Newton South High in 1983-84. I looked all summer unsuccessfully for a job and three days before school started in September, a secretary in the Newton Education Department told me by chance in a phone conversation that there was an opening for a Latin teacher at Newton North High that was not filled. Three days before school started, I had an interview with the principal. She told me that one of the classes contained a small number of brilliant, advanced Latin students about to read Virgil’s Aeneid and she could not find a Latin teacher able to teach Virgil. I said I could teach Virgil although I did not confess that I had never read more than a few lines here and there of the most difficult and beautiful lines of poetry written in Latin. I got the job. I became for the first time a full-time Latin teacher in the best school system in Greater Boston. I had to prepare by studying Virgil’s lines in detail word by word for at least an hour before each Virgil class. There were just four students and they were indeed brilliant. They were never satisfied with just an English translation. They questioned me about the forms of words and how precisely words related to one another grammatically to produce the translation to English we made. It was not an Advanced Placement class but two of my students decided to take the exam in Virgil anyway. They received both of them 5 on the exam, the highest possible score. I taught Latin again the following year. I encouraged all my students to take the National Latin Exam given nationally and internationally in the spring. The results were exceptional. I had already taught in five schools and I felt certain that I had found a good and permanent home in my sixth school. That year Newton North cut the whole German program because of declining enrollment. The teacher, a German national, had certification in Latin. She replaced me. I was whacked. I was out.
For two years, from 1986 to 1988, I continued studying Latin and Greek at Harvard and taught Latin and then French/Spanish in two High Schools part-time, my seventh and eighth schools. It was impossible to find a full-time Latin job in the Boston area. But Ruth, now with twenty years teaching, decided to retire and begin receiving her pension. I began applying for Latin jobs outside of New England where many were available. I was hired by a school in New York on Long Island. I stayed there for four years but it was an unsuccessful adventure because I was unable to build up the Latin program to a full-time job and I was frustrated because I had to teach as many Spanish classes as Latin. During my four years there in my ninth school, I applied and was accepted by Fordham University in a Master’s Degree program in Latin and Greek. I travelled to the Bronx from Long Island once a week and completed six graduate courses in three years, three in Latin and three in Ancient Greek. By the end of 1992, I, a college dropout, had studied at six universities and taught at nine schools. I was certified and fully qualified to teach Latin but I had no Latin job.
I took a job travelling between two high schools near Baltimore in Baltimore County teaching Latin, my tenth and eleventh schools, but it did not work out because I also had to teach Spanish and I resigned in the Spring in frustration. Ruth and I had rented our house in Swampscott. One of our daughters was off at school and the other was living independently. We went to Florida and lived in my sister Mary’s house in Ocala along with her husband, Paul Grimes. We lived off Ruth’s pension and enjoyed a Florida vacation for the spring, summer and fall. I had many opportunities to teach French and Spanish but I knew I could be satisfied only by a job in a High School with a well-developed Latin program solidly in place. I was willing to go anywhere and I was hired at last by a High School in Virginia that had four Latin classes and just one French Class. Ruth and I were off at the beginning of December 1993 to Nottoway County, a rural community in southern Virginia about fifty miles south of Richmond.
Ruth and I on our way to my new Latin job in Virginia turned off the Interstate near Richmond and began a trip of more than 40 miles south on a state highway towards Nottoway County. As we went further and further south away from the suburbs of Richmond, the land around us opened up into areas with few houses and green fields. Along the side of the highway appeared signs saying we were travelling the route of general Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia retreating from Richmond in 1864 heading south and west. I felt with excitement that I was in a foreign country. I was in Virginia. I was in the land of Jefferson and Washington, the land also of generals Lee and Jackson. I was on the road that Lee’s army had travelled in retreat. An hour later when we reached Nottoway County, we turned off the state highway onto a narrower road at Jetersville. During Lee’s retreat, a train had been sent out to Nottoway County with vital supplies of food and equipment for Lee’s army which was reduced to 9000 men but still in fighting shape. Union cavalry reached the train at Jetersville and prevented Lee from using it. It was the main reason for his surrender later further west at Appomattox Courthouse. I told Ruth excitedly as we drove along the narrow roads past open fields and at intervals houses that we were in historical Civil War places. She was not interested. She had lived in Paris, Montreal, Boston and recently on Long Island and in Baltimore. Virginia for her was just some isolated place we were headed to far out in the country.
We lived in the small town of Crewe in Nottoway County for five and a half years. We rented a small single-level four-room house in Crewe with a big front porch and a small porch in back before a long and wide grassy field between trees that led to a small dirt road going by parallel to railroad tracks. It was very peaceful and quiet in Crewe except when we heard the trains going by. I jogged along the dirt road in back that led to a small railroad yard with freight cars waiting on tracks. Crewe had been founded as a small railroad town. I ran along the main road, a state highway that ran through the center of town, and then along town streets that led out into open country. On my way back at the end of my run, I ran down my street, Custis Street. I passed a small trailer at one end where a very shy and timid young white woman lived in poverty with a little boy of four with brown skin. The house I passed next to our house was inhabited by a very fat young woman with a burly sort of heavy-set husband who was a guard in a nearby prison that held mostly African-Americans. Across the street from our house was a dilapidated house where an old woman lived who told us she got by with social security. She loved cats and four or five of them were always in and out of open spaces under her small, unpainted porch. One day we were sitting on our front porch and a girl of ten who lived in the big ten-room house at a good distance to the right of us told us with a gorgeous smile in a joyous voice, “My grandmother is wonderful”. We met her grandmother. She told us she was born in her house in 1928 and had lived there ever since. Near our house to the left, with a parking lot entrance off the small side street that connected our street to the state highway, was a church in a red-brick building with a flat roof. On Sunday mornings the parking lot always filled with cars. Most of the families in Crewe were members of Protestant churches. I fit in easily to my job at Nottoway High because by this time I was a very skilled teacher and although the previous teacher had taught her students very little Latin, I was happy with the prospect of developing the program. I got along well with the teachers who observed to me in a friendly way at our first general meeting that I spoke with an accent. I observed for them smiling that, no, I spoke with an accent normal in New England and that they had an accent. The high school was 65 percent African-American and 35 percent white but I felt no racial tension among my students in the general atmosphere of the school, which pleased me greatly. Everything in Nottoway County life was very pleasant and at the same time for me very odd because I fit into it so easily. It was a very pleasant feeling living there for someone like myself used to the stiff and cold interpersonal dealings with people in New England. When you passed face to face with people in Nottoway County, they put on a smile and you did too and you greeted one another pleasantly . That never happened in New England. When I was two months in Crewe, I had to register my car in Virginia and obtain insurance. I went into an insurance office in the center of town where there were three gas stations, two barber shops, a small restaurant and four stores. The man I dealt with in the insurance office never asked my name. I had never seen him before yet he knew it. The clerk I dealt with, a woman, used my name among the first words she spoke. I had never seen her before. Of course I did not believe for a minute that the friendly, pleasant behavior of the people meant there were no unhappy feelings or racial tensions below the surface. But it was in Nottoway County that I first came in contact in my soul with what is truly real which revealed to me that it is impossible to find who you are really unless you open your heart completely to God. Did the pleasant atmosphere in Nottoway County help me open my heart? I do not think so. I was no longer completely heartless and I did not trust my mind to lead me to the real, but that there was a path to the truth through my heart and only through my heart did not seem even a possibility. The Virginian people I lived among softened my heart around its surface but below it was still as hard as a rock.
We did not rent our house in New England while I worked in Virginia. We went back to our house in Swampscott every summer. One year Ruth took a teaching job in Massachusetts and I was alone in Crewe except for school holidays. I occupied myself with my teaching, my jogging and my readings in classical literature. At Fordham University, I had completed a course reading Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, a long poem in Latin expounding the philosophy of Epicurus, a Greek writer famous for the doctrine that the whole purpose of life was to be happy day in and day out at every hour, at every minute. Epicurus, whose writings in Greek survive only in pieces here and there, apparently really lived his philosophy. Even when he was sick near death with a severe stomach ailment he was believed to have made himself happy by willing his happiness just as he had practiced all his life by using logic and reason and by never giving way to any possible negative feelings that might lead to unhappiness. He was supposed to have been completely happy on the day of his death. His philosophy had produced a kind of deathlike peace in my soul even though I still believed the very opposite. Despite my lack of interest that was near indifference, I still felt God alive in some part my soul. I did not know how to enliven and expand the presence of God within me but I knew he could not be reached only by relying,as did Epicurus, on logic and reason. Also, Epicurians like Lucretius did not provide any solution to the problem of human sexual desire. Lucretius says a man should simply satisfy himself as best he can with whatever is at hand. Without Ruth living with me, I had temptations. Pagan philosophy was no help. I turned my mind away from Epicurian philosophy and read a lot of the writings in Latin of the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca. He based human behavior in reason but advocated not pleasure as did Epicurus but honesty. For him honesty, total and absolute honesty, was the single most important thing in human life and the basis of moral behavior. He was a very wealthy Roman who advised the emperor Nero. I read and read alone in my house in Crewe his forceful essays about honesty. He believed like Epicurus that any problem in life can be dealt with by a strong and determined use of reason. Seneca believed even that any physical suffering could be endured. Extreme pain should not weaken the center of our being and force us to give up our integrity and strength. He believed we could live with any degree of pain and that a pain that was too extreme to be endured would knock us out and that would be the end of it. I became genuinely inspired by Seneca. Honesty in all matters is surely possible and extreme honesty followed faithfully as a principle can make a man good and great. But he believed that desire for sexual satisfaction could be overcome, that an honest man would always be strong enough to never be enslaved by the desire for sex with a woman. I spent many weekends alone, jogging, eating, watching television and reading Seneca. I genuinely tried to be strong and honest and free from what is base in a man. But one evening on a Saturday night my sexual desire came roaring up within me. I realized I could never conquer it and pass on to some higher plane of being following pagan philosophy. I drove all the way to Richmond and looked over people walking the sidewalks for some chance to pay a woman for quick sex. I was able to use my reason neither to be happy nor to be honest. I was good for nothing. I was disgusting. God had long ago, years ago, revealed himself within me and restored me to myself. But I had never found the strength in myself to make myself truly worthwhile.
I taught Latin, I jogged long distances, I read books. That was all I was good for. Farmville, a big town ten miles from Crewe, had two small liberal arts colleges. I went there on weekends to shop at its big Walmart and to visit the library at one of the colleges. It was small but had a good collection of many of the most important books valuable for studies in the humanities. I loved to walk through stacks of books hoping to find some book that might change my life dramatically. It had happened to me only once. During my fearful crisis, I had discovered by chance in the Somerville library Nicholas Berdyaev’s book on Dostoevsky that had given me the strength to at least think of belief in Christ as an option. I wandered through the stacks at the library in Farmville knowing that I needed some transformation but not believing that one was possible. In the stacks one weekend I found a book in French titled, “Lettres Inedites” by Duvergier de Hauranne. It transformed me. It changed me miraculously. Because my French was by this time good enough to read it fluently in French, I have since believed that the main purpose God had in mind for my learning French was to be able to read this book. Jean Duvergier De Hauranne was the abbey of Saint-Cyran and the spiritual leader of the Jansenist movement within the Catholic church in France in the 17th century. He was a priest who believed the priestly state was the most holy state in the Christian religion. In letter 4 of his book containing 135 of his letters, he says that the state of a priest should be stable and permanent not measured by time and a state which passes all the way into eternity, that the disposition of a real priest produces a virtue printed in the bottom of his soul that extends all the way into the soul’s immortality and is more interior than all the actions and movements that it can produce. Then Saint-Cyran (He is commonly known as Saint-Cyran, the name of his abbey, rather than Duvergier de Hauranne.) says that this is a subject that can not be explained to men and that can not be known except by a divine light flashed into the soul from God. Back home in Crewe alone in my house, I read letter after letter. I had long ago given up human knowledge and I was ready for a knowledge that comes directly from God to the soul that can not be explained to men. I devoured letter after letter consumed by a hunger in my soul to know a truth that can not be known by humans because it can have its origin purely and simply only in God.
I can not express the transformation I experienced reading Saint-Cyran’s letters because it did not originate in me. It had a cause and an effect but I was not the cause and no other human was the cause. My transformation came from a reality that is not interested in negating or defying our logic because it is able to cause a movement that touches our soul with a love that is so different from human love that it must come from a being that is beyond the limits of our consciousness which is a human consciousness that is defined and limited by our reason and our logic. But I express it badly trying to express it in human words. How can I express a love I received in my soul by reading Saint-Cyran’s letters that touched me deeply yet has a nature that can not be believed to be truly existing by others who have unfortunately never received it? Worse, my words will seem designed to convert others and make them begin living by obeying religious laws. I say that whether there is a God or not is merely an abstract and useless question. What does exist is a real experience of love that makes us know immediately because it is so wonderful and so unworldly that we can because of it become really good. It makes us want to be good and to do good and no human who has ever experienced human love for another adult can claim its upsurge directs us only towards the good.
I heard as a boy priests talking about this love again and again, over and over. They called it grace or charity as well as love. At Saint Jeromes I heard the same words over and over in masses I attended as a faculty member. The words meant nothing to me. The priests that I talked to at Saint Jeromes never spoke to me a word that seemed at all like the words of Saint-Cyran that came from his heart. Grace which is divine love experienced in a human soul was everything for him. Without it we are nothing. Without it we condemn ourselves to be sinners who use our mind to help us pretend we are not sinners. Grace is everything. Love from God is the only true reality. The real experience of grace leaves no doubt in our mind. We come directly in touch with the real. Yet it does not exist. Logic says it does not exist. The nothingness in our souls tell us it does not exist and the logic and reason regulating most of our experience prove to us day in and day out that it can not exist. Saint Augustine, the greatest thinker in the history of the Catholic church, believed in God’s love so deeply as the only path to the truth that he went so far as to say that any words in the Bible that do not express God’s grace are false. But my transformation by this grace will seem unreal and therefore false and I can do nothing about it. I have only a few poor human words to express what happened to me the day I found Saint-Cyran’s book by chance and went home and sat on my couch in Crewe Virginia and read it.
My heart opened. That is what happened. Saint-Cyran’s writings used the word heart in almost every letter as the door that must be opened wide to let in God. He opened my heart. His words dug their way into my heart and punched and kicked it open so that finally I gave way and opened it completely. Really he was so sincere about the necessity of finding God only by opening our heart that he gave me no choice. Saint-Cyran could not come in contact with anyone and not take at least the first steps to get his priestly influence into another heart. Once he got just a slight hold on someone’s heart he used his skills as a surgeon of God’s grace to operate on it and cut away away all its sinful and cancerous outgrowths. He was a master plumber using skillfully God’s grace to blast evil out of the pipes of poor humans dumbed by their mind’s and their heart’s faulty plumbing to attach themselves only to the sinful practices of a world guided by a false knowledge. My heart opened. God’s love flowed in. I remained nothing but myself as before but I was now attached to a being who made me love it by a love that it created in me and did not come from me. I was myself still but I was now joined to another whose love was so genuine and true that it did not demand that I give up being myself and become its slave.
Saint-Cyran said I must die to sin. I did. He said I should humiliate myself. I did. He said that Jesus Christ said that sinners will never enter into the kingdom of God unless they become again like little children. I became again in my heart like a little child, like the child from next door who had come up to our porch and said to us with joyous childish love, “My grandmother is wonderful”. He said that if I made a perfect submission of myself to God and asked him to forgive my sins, God would forgive them if my heart was truly repentant and I would experience a perfect resurrection and a totally new life. I did not even need to ask God with words to absolve me from my years of sin because my heart became because of Saint-Cyran’s influence so fully open that God’s divine love poured into it just an instant after the instant when I felt genuinely repentant and admitted to him that I was totally sorry for my sins.
Because of that experience, I felt born again by God a second time. I still did not
know anything and I did not want to know anything. If my experience that day was a knowable experience, then everyone would know it and it would mean that divine experience is a regular and normal experience in human life. It is not. God wants us to do not what we will but submit totally to him and do only what he wills. God wants his will to be done in our world by us and he helps us do it by pouring his love into our souls but his kingdom itself is not of this world. He will have nothing to do with the many kingdoms we are forever busy constructing for ourselves
in our world. So I do not know what I experienced that day and I am not offering my experience as a knowledge others can count on like the regular knowledge they count on. Neither am I asking anyone because of my experience to become religious and believe in God. It seems to me that scientific knowledge shows neatly and conclusively that our universe extends infinitely into space and that there are planets and perhaps life billions of light years away from our small planet. My experience that day proves only that there is no God unless for some unknown reason in our cold and infinite and heartless universe we find the grace within us to open our hearts to a being who should not exist and can not be known. I claim neither that such a being exists or that I know it exists. I do claim however, as I have
proved describing key experiences in my life, that I was a worthless being. That I know. I was a loveless being. That I also know. The only way that I could have experienced the heavenly love I felt that day in Crewe was by means of some force coming from some source that is non existent and unknowable with the power to create love for itself in a living loveless being.
The end of "Whacks, Women and Wanderings in the Soul". If you have completed a reading of the novel, please indicate it to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org