I sit under a marquee of an Italian restaurant in the afternoon rain, waiting for my simple pasta dish at a sidewalk table close to Leicester Square, London.
I love London for its sense of normalcy and tradition, for its having four corners that won’t fold and self-destruct. Even in the middle of Brexit, when it looks as if half of England has lost its mind, I can still watch the BBC news preceded by a program on Prince Charles’ charitable activities, specifically his interest in the environment and organic agriculture, showing him mixing with farmers and examining very healthy-looking, black cows.
And yet London is so polyglot. Half the women in the Italian restaurant wear a hijab and I discern half a dozen languages. London is not England, as New York isn’t the U.S. Indeed, among the BBC news reports is one detailing the thousands of complaints filed by medical personnel in the National Health system of racist comments flung at them by patients. A senior surgeon from Indonesia who’s practiced for at least 20 years says he still often hears patients say: “We want a white surgeon. A real surgeon.”
The stronger the foundation, the more discord it can hold. Brexit notwithstanding, I feel that here.
Meditation does the same for me. At times I feel like the inside of me is nothing but conflict and opposing voices. Practice provides the base on which everything has merit, everything can stand.
I look at the crowd outside the National Gallery, specifically down at Trafalger Square. I am visiting the National Gallery like some oink from the provinces, taking advantage of being in a great city to check out the Rembrandts. Life and youth is everywhere, with mimes and magicians and an American musician playing Dylan. But in the midst of the crowd is Death wielding its scythe. For some unfathomable reason mothers instruct their children to stand and pose as death lifts its scythe right over their head. Brrrrr!
The friend I’m visiting with in London is a little older than me; the shadow of the Holocaust shrouds both our pasts. Emigres both, she to England and I to the U.S., we talk about our past, and it suddenly hits me: “I have nothing to regret,” I tell her. “I should never have been born. Most of the Jews in my mother’s city were destroyed, some of my immediate family as well. Those who lived survived due to the courage of my uncle and mother, who risked lives to hide people, go out to get food, and pay a monthly stipend to a Christian woman who took care of my small cousin. According to the odds they shouldn’t have survived, and I shouldn’t have been born.”
When you look at it like that, problems look small: your childhood, your adulthood, your marriages, your accomplishments and disappointments. You were ahead of the game before you were born. When I came here as a child I knew what other white American children didn’t know: how things could go awry any moment, how close to the scythe we are. Long before Zen I knew about the terrible urgent beauty of each moment.
Into the Museum and Room 22, and there is not one but some nine Rembrandts. I make straight for his last self-portrait. I once saw a documentary that was only about this portrait. He did it after he’d lost his wife and had gone bankrupt, when he was no longer popular and his last immense painting for a government building was returned and he was told to change it. Almost like the Dept. of Education returning Hamlet to Shakespeare and telling him to change the ending. He didn’t make the changes and painted himself instead.
I look at the red bulbous nose, as if he has a cold, the tired, knowing eyes.
A museum guide stops in front of the portrait and asks the family who’s getting a personal tour: “What do you think he’s saying, hey?”
The young couple and child say nothing.
“He’s saying, I’m not Rembrandt the great artist, look at me, look at me.”
Like everything else in life, the people’s reflections and projections are often as interesting as the thing itself.
I watch other couples pause in front of it, one speaking animatedly about it while the other, less interested, simply nods, and I think that that could have been Bernie and me. I would have talked passionately about Rembrandt—he sculpts and molds with paint, Bernie, see? He can control where the light goes in that way—and Bernie, the crazy Chan hermit I married who was never without people around him, would have nodded.