By Burt Kempner
“My So-Called Spiritual Path”
“As my sainted Hungarian grandmother used to say, ‘There are two hundred roads to Paradise and each is correct.’”—Burt Kempner
“We may doubt anything, except that we are struck with amazement . . . . Doubts may be resolved, radical amazement can never be erased.”—Abraham Joshua Heschel
I have to smile when people tell me they’re following their spiritual path. It all sounds so neat and tidy. A quaint country lane. Perhaps some nice shrubbery on either side. Mine has been a very different type of journey. Viewed from above, my so-called spiritual path would resemble the claw prints of a flock of demented chickens—crisscrossing, backtracking, circling and stopping in utter frustration because their owners can’t fly.
I’m joking because I’m nervous about discussing my spirituality with you, wondering if you will find me strange, superficial or overly self-absorbed. My God, I hear some of you saying, most people on Earth spend their days scrambling to find enough to eat and this Baby Boomer lint-head wants to find MEANING?!
I do. Sue me. I was born into a loving, traditional Jewish household. I was expelled from Hebrew school at age 13 for asking uncomfortable questions. I gave up on organized religion (and organized religion, being an honorable institution, returned the favor).
I constructed my own belief system, instead. In the early 1990s, it ran into a brick wall at approximately the speed of light and broke into a million useless pieces. It was a time of plagues: untimely and expected deaths, arguments, war, financial hardship and despair. I gathered up what was left of my spirituality and vowed to start again from scratch. This time, I got serious. I studied the sacred texts of eight religions, not just the classics but the lesser-known works as well. I found inspiration and deep value in each, but none fit me.
I turned to meditation, vision quests and Sufi dance. All wonderful prescriptions, but for the wrong patient.
Then I read Rabbi Heschel’s injunction to live in a state of radical amazement, and I knew I had finally found the starting line for the right path for me. My Creator and I now have an affable, direct relationship. No dogma, shame or middlemen allowed. Especially no middlemen. Your practice might be quite different from mine or you may not believe in a God at all, and this is fine. As my sainted Hungarian grandmother used to say, “There are two hundred roads to Paradise and each is correct.”
So here’s my spiritual path: do what’s right, love harder than you think possible, and locate the holy in the everyday. Everything else is commentary.
I’m a devout Burtist and this I believe.
“. . . now that I truly understand exactly how the game is rigged so that the little guy never really has a chance, I can’t find a revolution to join.”—Burt Kempner
“Everybody knows that the game is fixed./The poor stay poor and the rich get rich./That’s how it goes,/Everybody knows.”—Leonard Cohen
A well-known comedian from the 1950s—I believe it was Shelley Berman—told of how much he’d loved “playing doctor” as a child. “But now that I finally understand the rules,” he mourned, “I can’t get a game started.”
That pretty much describes my political education. Coming of age in the 1960s, I choked down more than my share of tear gas, and dutifully mouthed the appropriate slogans, having little idea what the hell they meant or even if they meant anything at all.
By affinity, I gravitate to the left, but I find that bloc to be increasingly untrustworthy. Perhaps it’s the disturbing scape-goating I see or the blind worship of hope over experience, but I can’t march under their banner anymore. I know conventional wisdom holds that we’re supposed to become more conservative as we age, but I would no sooner associate myself with the rampant Know-Nothingism of the radical right than I would with cholera.
Nor do I share the beliefs of some of my New Age friends that the Intergalactic Sheriff’s Posse will intervene at the very last minute to save us from ourselves and that, instead of butchering one another, we’ll all hold covered-dish dinner parties for Spaceship Earth.
So I guess I’m a lone-wolf revolutionary by default, a reluctant Army of One.
No, I haven’t surrendered my optimism and, yes, I will definitely make alliances when necessary, but for better or worse I’m on my own. This relieves me of the task of forming quarrelsome committees or commissioning study groups.
Sure, I could issue a Lone Wolf manifesto or two but, for my money, no one’s ever put it better than Henry Fonda in “The Grapes of Wrath”: “I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build, I’ll be there, too.”
See you around.
“Fool for Love”
“If Lennon and McCartney had meant to say, ‘Love is only a portion of what you need,’ that’s what they would have written.”—Burt Kempner
The knight and his lady pictured above have been serenely holding hands for over 700 years. I came across the photo in a Slate.com essay by Ron Rosenbaum about the poets Philip Larkin and W.H. Auden. Both of them had written lines about love that were very much at odds with their usual downbeat verse.
Said Larkin: “What will survive of us is love.”
And Auden: “We must love one another or die.”
After issuing such tender sentiments, both men quickly distanced themselves from them. Only a fool would rush in where Larkin and Auden feared to tread, but I’m here to pick up the frayed banner of Love anyway, hoping for a little simpatico company along the way.
I’m a fool for love—always have been and always will be. A seeker, a sucker and an idiot savant. Not for the jealous, possessive variety, but the inexhaustible spring at the center of our being, the only thing that can fill the empty hole there. We sometimes come to that realization only after we’ve tried food, sex, alcohol, money or drugs to plug the void, but they’re just not up to the job.
If Lennon and McCartney had meant to say, “Love is only a portion of what you need,” that’s what they would have written. So is love the supreme necessity? Some mourn that it’s not; others fear that it is. I cast my vote, and my lot, with lovers.
When we die, does anything live after us? Recycled molecules? Our reputations? Immortal bliss? Are we reclaimed by Consciousness for future use, or do we wink out like spent light bulbs?
Call me softheaded or hopelessly unhip, but I believe with all my heart that the love we generate continues without us.
I’ve read the closing lines of Thornton Wilder’s now-neglected “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” over 50 times, and they never fail to move me deeply: “We ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living, and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”