Guest Post, Eric Maroney: The Limited, Forever Living Thing

Man Reading Torah“Rabbi Meir said, anyone who engages in Torah study for its own sake (‘lishma’) merits many things”

We are always torn apart. Behind the face we present to the world, there is a fracture. Two rudiments in our nature spar: the craving for control, and the dread of disorder. These opposing states, so closely linked, cause us no small misery, but the dynamic is so much a part of our ingrained habit of thinking that we constantly try, though with little success, to smother it with all manner of distractions.

We frequently wake up early in the morning with a crashing, dawn-clarity in the form of the question: What can I do about some awful problem? What we are really asking above and behind this question, is “can this problem be contained or controlled?” And if not – if the problem can’t be mended – how do we live with our sense that by not resolving this difficulty, and by allowing it to stand shamelessly unresolved, life’s great promise of joy will unravel from its spool? Further refined, we can distill the question to its rock hard core: How do I live with pain, grief, anguish?

We have all encountered such moments. But nothing distresses the quest for control more than a crisis of health. The body lurks, waiting; it conceals sickness under skin, tissue and bone. Beneath the veil of our physical stability, a system bubbles toward disorder. My own crock boiled over when I was twenty-nine and diagnosed with cancer. At a time of life when people typically view mortality though a long lens, my death seemed more immediate. I had no resources to deal with the reality of death: therefore my responses were limited. My mind contracted under the idea of death. My notions were hedged by binary postures: fight, win, move on, or fight, lose, die.

Pressed in this vice, I ultimately found it most reassuring to learn to abandon the notion of continued life. This brought a measure of peace. Death is the ultimate negation – a blunt, inescapable fact. Somewhere on a cosmic script, the conclusion is written in indelible ink: you will die. So by embracing death, by laying down at its feet, I let go of the struggle against its oppressive strain. I was still bound to life, to be certain, but only by sheer threads.

In the first few years after surgeries and treatments, I devalued existence. This attitude worked under a certain set of narrow conditions. But as I expanded my horizons after the disease, this stance evolved into a crisis of conscience. How can we live without embracing life? Clinging to death is a poor long term-solution, for even after the cancer was in remission, there was still the fact that I might die at any moment. Death simmers inside of us. My unbending cheapening of life did not solve the problem of death – it merely postponed it. I had driven myself to the verge of an existential cliff. In order to continue to live, I had to change the mental formula that had been useful since I was diagnosed with cancer – because the thin gruel of indifference to life cannot sustain a flea.

If we face suffering, sickness, depression and death, we can turn to something well beyond us: religion. In the years following a great crisis, I turned to Judaism. But my reason for this move, I believe, veers very far from the common expectation. Religion did not provide me comfort. A Jewish life did not offer me hope of a healthy body as a reward for my virtuous actions, or the recompense of an enchanted afterlife beyond a bodily existence marked by pain and suffering; nor did I seek the protection of a powerful and providential deity who could answer my prayers.

On the contrary, Jewish practice catapulted me beyond the bounds of reward and punishment to a real “space” where my deeds are free from the expectation of reward. This is a crucial point: by practicing Judaism, I can relinquish control to the realm of pure Jewish action. In the language of Judaism I perform the mitzvoth, the Jewish religious requirements, not for any payoff, but, as is said in Hebrew lishma, for and in themselves. This perspective has steered my apathy and indifference into more disciplined channels.

I practice Judaism to practice it. This sounds like an echo, but the seeds of this practice produce sturdy foliage. With Jewish ritual practice detached from reward, I can pursue a goal without the restraints of expectation. My mind and heart practice Judaism’s ritual demands with detachment. Detachment, of course, has pejorative implications – a lack of caring, a stance of aloofness – but it can also emancipate; and in a paradoxical turn, the freedom of detachment can transform our indifference into a more vital, lasting form of care. And the practice of lishma, of doing a deed in and for itself, can be exercised everywhere. By living life lishma, the mind is freed from the stark habit of thinking that the two rudiments in our nature spar: the craving for control and the dread of disorder.

In lishma, we transcend the need to control the events of our lives. Order happens, disorder happens – they are states that come and go and we have no control over either. But no matter what happens, we perform our duty and live life. Our imperative to action is action itself. With patience and practice, even life’s gravest challenges and abrupt transformations become shaded in different hues. Events take on the color of the moment, rather than the stain of our anxiety for specious stability. When we are no longer distracted about the issue of control, we are able to free ourselves from the slavery of expectations. And by doing so, we are able to see ourselves in the light of the singular, precious instant.

Guest Post, Eric Maroney: The Limited, Forever Dying Thing

After the tube was removed from my neck, I was allowed to leave the plastic-wrapped room, and the stitches in my neck were pulled. Then I started to seriously write.  This is what happened:

At twenty-nine, after my bout with cancer, I had yet to realize that I had made two real enemies, and that writing would become an effective weapon against both of them. To learn this, I had to pay an extreme price.

Both cancer and time became my interlocking adversaries, each feeding the other’s vitality.  Cancer was the disease, and time was the stark marker of its strength.   Time was being given a growing status by the cancer in my body.  They had both grown together, and now seemed interlocked for their mutual benefit and my singular destruction.

But I didn’t know it right away.  At first, there was no awareness, and a kind of frozen dumbness settled over me.  Only after that lifted was I tossed down a deep well of obscure emotion built by the combined effects of cancer and time assuming the mutual power of a married couple. At first, cancer seemed the dominant partner, intent on robbing me of all I had left. But as my impassiveness wore off, I began to treat time as the more powerful and valuable partner — a precious commodity whose supply is easily stripped.  So time gradually became Time, pronounced with a great deal of heft.

First, I made numerous errors in judgment.  In response to cancer, I made many attempts to dull the hurt, which only short-circuited any constructive responses to the challenge.  For a while, making mistakes was easier than forming any valuable response to cancer, time, and death.   And this went on long after the tube was removed from my neck and I was allowed to leave the toxic room.  It went on for so long, in fact, that I did not realize that the physical fight between cancer and me was really over, and that the far more difficult mental battle had begun.

I was not prepared for the pervasive influence of the idea of cancer.  The idea of the disease loomed larger than any physical disorder.  Its influence was pervasive, and trapped my mind in a mechanical set of fixations that were hard to defeat.  And I had underestimated how my sense of disease, of cancer, of the element of time, had radically and forever changed me.  In the fight against the idea of the disease, I paid steep prices for miscalculating my foe.

But eventually, something odd happened.  After many years, fissures developed in the marriage of cancer and time.  For those who fight cancer and then survive for many years, the disease and its grotesque ideas and associations begin to wane.  What remains is the idea of Time as a narrow reserve.  After this realization, Time becomes an open accusation.  What are you doing with this limited, forever-dying thing?

From the wreck of it all — from the shambles of my bad decisions and missteps in the years after cancer — writing emerged and surpassed the disease. In fact, cancer and time eventually effectively divorced, and time found a new partner in writing (along with a turn toward Judaism and God, and a deep commitment to family, which are topics for another essay).  Writing became the handmaid of time in as powerful a way as time had once been the spouse of cancer.  Although time can never be conquered, writing has a curious way of arresting its flashes.   Time, with its broad shoulders and colossal dimensions, can only be captured and tamed in snatches and bits.  Writing doesn’t stop its passage, or retard our progress toward death, but it does create markers of time’s weaknesses and flaws.  Its flow can be temporarily diverted by writing, which when done well, can capture elements of our experience which are as close to timeless as people can approach.

For me, writing is one of the few adequate responses to our time-bound nature.  Of course one can’t achieve eternity even in the best of writing — but with effort, care, and dedication, we can find a glimmer of time without end within ourselves in the mirror of words.  The fact  that the glimmer is only a meager spark only speaks to the delicate and privileged nature of recognizing that eternity.

Guest Post, Eric Maroney: Loneliness, as Discipline

Eric MaroneyWhen I started to become serious about writing as an experience that fully engaged every faculty, feeling, and inclination, I quickly realized that I must spend a great deal of my time alone.

Only in the stillness of loneliness can true writing take place.  On the surface of things, this appears counter-intuitive, as fiction writers write about people.  They chronicle loves, hates, struggles, victories, dreams.  Fiction’s subject matter is people as much as geology’s is stones.  Yet I have found that at the deepest level, writing must take place in solitude, with the mind keenly focused on only one, narrow task.

So how are these two impulses reconciled?  The fiction writer uses human reality as her template for art, yet she must frequently emerge, break free, and do what is demanded of her in the world.  Reality and its demands take the writer away from the solitude necessary to create art.  This is the high wire act of writing, and most writers fall off:  the world intrudes too heavily on their private space, and crushes writing and all its demands.

So writers must insist on time alone, for it is the backbone of successful writing. Only by securing solitude, guarding it, and cultivating it, does it become possible to navigate this often rewarding, sometimes disheartening enterprise.

The writer must sit alone and work with words, sentences, paragraphs, pages.  No one can help.   There must only be the writer and the world he is creating with his imagination.  Even if it seems sometimes unfaithful and as hard to manage as the very flow of human life itself, his imagination can only be harnessed in solitude.

It takes intense concentration to coordinate the different elements of the physical act of writing, the control and guidance of the imagination, and the discipline to continue to work beyond fatigue, struggle and boredom.  And through this, the writer must keep the world away.  This is the absolute key to make writing inviolable.  In order to have its own life, the work must be held up above the swarm of life.

But then comes an unnerving moment when the solitary stage of writing must conclude, and the writer must set about to conquer a different but just as difficult challenge: she must let the world in.  Eventually, that writing before her must be read by someone else.  Hopefully, this will be a sympathetic soul with precious distance from her work, providing the most helpful of advice: what works and what doesn’t — what rings true and what sounds hollow.  This seems simple, but is really a complex gift given to the writer. With good criticism, a writer can feel like a lens has been lifted that didn’t seem cloudy until it was removed, and now she has been given a wide open window to see through the eyes of another.

Then the writer is alone again, and struggling with the work once more.   Reading, cutting, writing, the work is still her work, but subtly less so.  The spell is already broken.  Once read by even one person, the intimacy of the writer and his work slackens.  The coolness of redaction demands distance.  The writer can now often edit the story at the cluttered kitchen table, with kids playing in the next room.

After repeated performances of this ritual, the writing is transformed into a more public object, and pulls away from its creator.  The work must stand on its own legs, and in order to do that, the writer must stop supporting it, having already begun to let it go step by step and stage by stage.

And if the writer is lucky, and the work is so self-sufficient that it leaves him or her (or you) one day for the solidity of a published form, the circle is complete: the writing is then part of the very world the writer fought against to bring it into existence.  At that point the loneliness the writer shared with the writing is truly gone, and the work, having been encouraged to leave its author’s protective wall of solitude, seems to walk away, as the writer seeks out loneliness again.

Guest Blog Post, Eric Maroney: Writing Under the Burden of Unity

I write with my fingers crossed. Because every time I write, I counter a cardinal point of the Judaism I practice and believe: that everything is one. That the reality we all experience — the very texture of this life we live, with its distinctions and sub-divisions, its segregations and partitions — is wrong.

I am a non-dual Jew: I do not conceive of God as a separable entity or force, somehow detached from the world and its multitudinous forms. Instead, God is the World, and the World is God and God is One. In Judaism’s most treasured statement of faith, which goes Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, we find the very script of this vision. God is One. Everything is One. Everything is God. This is a supremely mystical take on Judaism; it represents a minority voice in a religion that stresses the polarity between the sacred and the profane. When everything is one nothing is evil. When everything is one nothing is separate. When everything is one, the things we see in the world, and their manifest separate existence, is not true.

And here is the problem: this vision of uncompromising unity is the very antithesis of writing fiction. Writers broker in division and distinction. Writers take the elements of language and expression and reduce them to the most basic level. We must write one word, one sentence, one paragraph, one book at a time. This is a discreet enterprise, and it is based on the view of the wholly separable nature of reality. By contrast, the mystical view happens in a moment; it is the illuminating notion that everything can be absorbed in one overwhelming instant. Writing, instead, comes in drips. And one must digest it drop by drop. It is a discreet enterprise.

For the writer, to say that everything is one is to say not much at all. The statement reduces the very act of writing fiction to absurdity: words, sentences, paragraphs, characters, plots, and conflict become pantomime — mere reflections of a reflection. Writing becomes an illusion patterned after an illusion, which can be seen as basally unimportant. And here lies a problem that is worthy of great struggle.

To write fiction and be a non-dualist is to play two games that risk canceling each other out. So my aim is to play with great subtlety. In every story I write, I proceed as if the world is composed of wholly separable objects, often in conflict with each other, almost always nearly in direct contradiction to each other — while at the same time maintaining that this is a kind of illusion. The trick of upholding the illusion, no matter how dangerous or misleading, is critically important. The point is to suggest not just that this illusion plays a vital role in creating a compassionate Jew and a good human being, but to acknowledge that because the illusion is itself a part of the oneness of the world, even it has deep value.

Always, I  hint in my writing that there is more to our life than the unsettled sense of a reality in conflict. Often on the level of language, in the composition of characters, and the sense of the plot, I allude that this is not all there is; that beyond what is being read, and far beyond what the characters strive for and seek, is a greater vision of unity that can be had only with great effort and dedication. Fiction itself may be capable of only inadequately displaying that unity, but it can get close enough to offer hints and suggestions.  Inviting a reader to ponder the infinite edge of any story is the goal of my writing. I believe I have created a successful story when I am able to leave the reader silent at its end—momentarily aware of a vastness and connection and unity that can only exist when the words stop.