OLD TALK/SICK TALK-3: JUST TALK

Photo by Rami Efal

I flew to visit my mother. Arrived in Jerusalem after a long trip and hurried to her apartment.

“How are you doing?” I asked.

“Very well for my age,” she said, sitting up in her bed. “Only some evil spirits visit me here and there.”

What evil spirits, I wanted to know. Evil spirits are the hidden gems of such a conversation. When she didn’t answer, I prompted, “People around you? Family? The past?” She shook her head: I won’t say. Just like the Zen koan where a master and student encounter a corpse, and the student asks: “Dead or alive?” The master answers: “I won’t say; I won’t say.”

Earlier that day I flew out of Boston, getting to the airport after a car ride and two bus rides, followed by mind-numbing security checks (Who packed this bag? Was it with you at all times? Did anyone give you anything to take with you?) and lengthy boarding lines. When I finally got to my seat I saw that the couple next to me had filled it up by tossing there their pillows and blankets, not to mention her bag and water bottle, and shoes on the floor.

“We thought the seat would be empty,” they told me.

“I can see that,” I said a little snarkily.

They hurried to remove all their things. I made my way in and immediately began to build my own little nest for the 11-hour transatlantic flight.

It was a young, attractive couple, in their mid-20s or 30. They had their stock of power bars, snacks of seeds and nuts, and reusable stainless steel water bottles. They kept their personal headphones on almost for the entire trip, dozing off to music. I heard one ask if the other had remembered to bring this, and the other countered by wondering whether they forgot something else; it was clear that they were already veteran travelers.

And it hit me that just as it’s important to keep old talk and sick talk in the conversation, it’s equally important to keep young talk in the conversation. They were traveling to attend a wedding, visit friends, and join them on a trip together. They were off to rent a car, have a good time. I was off to visit my 91 year-old mother.

I felt the older generation ahead of me, the younger ones behind, all of us needing each other to realize the wholeness of life time and time again. I saw my need for my neighbor, with her avid thirst for water, who demanded a big space even at the expense of others, confident that the best is always ahead, and the one who could barely get out of bed, who had little appetite during a terrific Friday night dinner, and spoke to me of evil spirits.

I knew at that moment, too, that somehow I also need the people who think very differently from me, who clamor for things I don’t want, who insist on changing this world into something I don’t recognize.

There’s no obstruction anywhere, Zen master Dogen wrote back in the 13th century. Oh yeah? I thought to myself, looking at my seat on the plane filled with the objects the young couple had thrown down to make themselves more comfortable.

But in some way it’s no different from the birds chirping loudly outside now at 4:00 in the still-dark, early Jerusalem morning, so loudly I can’t sleep. They have their specificity, I have mine, and occasionally it looks like we’re on a collision course. Instead, we interact and finally include each other. It’s all one big mountain, and what does it matter if we ascend or descend, if we meander right or meander left, when basically it’s all one mountain anyway.