15 June 2010

How Does It Feel?

So I’m sitting out here confused in the too-early morning, a bit uncomfortable, chilled, and not all that pleased thus far with the day, when the disc jockey on WUMB out of Boston runs through the significance of June 14 in American History. Of course, two hundred thirty-two years ago the current flag was adopted as the official colors of the United States, and so today is Flag Day. And on this day in 1965 Paul McCartney recorded “Yesterday.” However, said the announcer, that was not the song we were about to hear, because on this very same day in 1965 Bob Dylan recorded this song, and through my speakers like fresh air came the opening drum crack and organ notes of “Like a Rolling Stone,” and I was miraculously restored to some equilibrium. That song changed the world and I was never the same. And the notes of that song this morning helped me recover the life that Bob Dylan helped me create. I have sat daily at this screen and chart my life in attachments to particular Dylan songs. These days I think about Time Out of Mind, and particularly these lines in ‘Trying to Get to Heaven:’ “I’m going down the river/
Down to New Orleans/
They tell me everything is gonna be all right
/But I don’t know what “all right” even means.” There is a desperate pain in these lines, a questioning that for me has sat at the center of Dylan’s work since the very beginning of it. I think we’re always trying to figure out what ‘all right’ even means. I learned to ask questions in part from listening to Dylan.

A tale is told:

A man tormented by doubts about the meaning of life and the nature of truth decided to make a pilgrimage to the home of the rabbi known as the wisest man in the entire country. And so the man packed whatever possessions he thought he might require for this journey into his car, said good by to his family and friends, and drove off on a very long and very exhausting drive. Finally he arrived at the doorstep of the Rabbi, but when he begged for admission, he was refused. “The Rabbi has been working on a particular problem for years and to see him one has to make an appointment a long time in advance and have good cause. Besides, we do not know you. I’m sorry, you cannot see the Rabbi.” And so the man was sent away very disappointed. But not vanquished.

The next day the man returned and again asked for a meeting with the Rabbi, this time offering a large sum of money, for the man had been very successful in business, if the Rabbi would meet with him for just one hour. But he disciples laughed contemptuously and again showed the man the door.

On the third day the man avoided the front door altogether, but went around to the rear of the house, and when all seemed quiet he climbed in like a common thief through the window. He hid himself in a closet but left the door open just a crack so that he might observe the activities in the house. He saw right away that one door not too far down the hall remained open just a crack, and from inside he could hear the Rabbi studying, turning pages, mumbling some inaudible words seemingly in conversation with someone not readily observable to the man hidden in the closet. At times the Rabbi even seemed to hum joyously a short niggun. At other times, the Rabbi would moan as if in some kind of distress.

The man stealthily moved out of the closet and toward the door to the Rabbi’s room. Holding the knob in his right hand for force, he placed his left hand on the weathered wood for balance, and pushed gently on the door. It oopened without a creak, and there, sitting at his desk with his back to the door, sat the Rabbi dwarfed by the mountains of books piled on all sides of him, hunched over one specific book open wide before him.

“Rabbi,” the man whispered, leaning his head through the crack in the door. But of course, the Rabbi was too immersed in his study to hear the man, and so he spoke a bit louder. “Rabbi, excuse me, please.” And this time the old man heard the imprecation, and he turned and looked toward the door. For about a minute, the Rabbi stared at the man, and then he motioned with his arm feebly for the man to enter.

“Why are you here? For what have come?”

The man slowly entered the room. He held his hat in his hand. He said, “I have come a great distance with a question that has troubled me greatly. I know that you are the wisest of men, and have studied many of the great books, and I was hoping that you would give me answer. I have been so sorely troubled”

The Rabbi looked at him silently for another minute. At last, he said quietly, “Well, what is the question?”

“Rabbi,” the man started almost in sobs, “I want to be a good person and always do the right thing. Tell me, please, what is the Truth? How should I live?”

The Rabbi got slowly up out of his chair, walked over to the man and looked him directly in the eyes. And then he slapped the man across the face.

Well, the man was terribly upset and left the room blinded by his humiliation and his tears. He headed down the stairs and was there confronted by the Rabbi’s students. They were alarmed that he had managed to elude their guard, but when they saw that the man wept so bitterly, they asked him to sit down at the table and drink a glass of tea until he became less agitated. At first they remained silent, observing the bereft man as he cupped his shaking hands about the hot glass filled with the dark liquid. Finally, after several minutes, when he had become somewhat calmer, one of the young men asked why he had been weeping. At first, he didn’t speak, and the only sound in the room was shifting of his glass on the table as he nervously spun it about, and the heavy sounds of his heart-broken sighs. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose, and then, stuffing the handkerchief back into his pocket, he took a deep breath and staring down at the table, narrated what had occurred in the Rabbi’s study. When he had finished, he looked up and around at the students about him.

“Why,” he asked, “why did the Rabbi treat me like that? Why did the Rabbi slap me?” he demanded. “I only wanted him to tell me what was the Truth?

Of course, the men and women about the table were puzzled as well; they knew their rebbe as the most gentle of men who treated everyone with the utmost kindness.

For a while there was silence, and then standing behind the man at the table, a thin and pale young man spoke up: “Ah,” he said quietly, “the Rabbi slapped you so that you would learn never to trade a good question for an answer.”

How does it feel
To be on your own
/With no direction home/
Like a complete unknown/
Like a rolling stone?


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