or, Salvation at Random
Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, India
I am waiting for a letter from the man I’ve loved passionately for years and I’m pretty sure it’s going to say he doesn’t love me. Rather than wait in my room, I figured I might as well go to the library. Soon as I get the letter my inner life’s going to be defunct for six months at least. I might as well look after it now.
The library is brand-new, white-walled with white ceiling fans and broad windows that look out on the trees and the goshalas, or cow sheds. The library’s collections have not changed since the move to the new building -- scriptures and commentaries, as well as whatever books hippie backpackers have left behind since the Sixties. Lots of astrology, prophecy, flower remedies, that sort of thing. It’s the right place if you’re looking for evidence of reincarnation or the nitty-gritty of astral travel. Allopathy, on the other hand, merits hardly a footnote. Here, too, are the complete works of gurus long since turned to poison: Osho, Adi Da, Sathya Sai, and the Maharishi all have their own sections. Not far from the section ‘General Saints’ are four rows of Agatha Christie. Hot season afternoons in Tamil Nadu are brutal and endless. The ashram library is not without mercy.
Just the same, some hippies did read real books, god bless them. So far I’ve found Beckett, Borges, Duras, Vonnegut, Brautigan, Genet, Machado de Assis. Or, from more nearby: Mahasweta Devi, G.V. Desani, both Nirad and Amit Chaudhuri, both Anita and Kiran Desai, Pather Panchali. Like someone anticipating a long illness I’m stockpiling them now. There are no drugs and no liquor in this holy town. I figure I can read one paperback and gnaw on another.
Back here in the corner I can hide. I’ve figured out which switch turns on the nearest overhead fan. This is the history and science section. No one ever comes here. True, if I leaned to the right I’d be in healing, astrology, tarot and psychology -- but I am not going to do that. I’m going to lean to the left and rest my head against the Q shelf. (Education & Social Welfare)
Stuck in my head, extremely loud, is the very end of “Long and Winding Road”, you know, the soaring orchestral part. I know opinion is mixed on this, with some preferring a more pared-down version, but I’ve always loved the orchestra, the soaring, the final plea. Except for now. Now it has become excruciating. Once is lovely. On repeat you really hear the desperation.
Today I expect to receive official notification that I am not loved. How about that! Living in an a holy town, one thing you learn is how the mind operates. For example, the mind likes to have official notification. It wasn't enough to just suspect. Oh no. I had to ask. I even went so far as to demand an answer. So if any point we need to ask, Whose fault is this? then -- we have our answer.
We were chatting on Facebook, my beloved and I, tossing messages back and forth, heavy on the emoticons, and I wrote something like, “By the way, I noticed you never say I’m glad you came or I miss you or Come back. It was just one of those thoughts that slip in on the side. He’s just one of those men who never say how they feel. Anyway how could he, when I am all the time I love you love you love you?
The message came back: I’ve been meaning to write you a letter. I slammed the computer shut; I slid it under the bed to punish it, but then, of course, I couldn’t sleep, not a wink. Finally I got up and dug through my luggage for the Xanax I keep for emergencies. I allocate myself 6 Xanax a year, which I think is pretty fucking impressive considering life and the way that life feels.
I have three Xanax left but I couldn’t find them. Instead I found the keyring with the keys to his apartment and the picture of us at the company Christmas party. Shaking was about to start, I knew, so I just went ahead and stayed there on the floor. I thought this was a pretty gruesome move, on God’s part. I would have just let me find the Xanax, if I were God, and advertised myself as merciful.
This is a very holy town. Did I say that already? No liquor, no drugs, no orgies. At least not that I’ve been able to find. So if I want to feel drastically better, there’s not much I can do besides throw myself in front of a truck. What, then, to shove at grief, what chair to brace against that door? I am considering an in-depth study of The Norton Anthology of Classical Literature, from Homer to St. Augustine. I will take detailed notes. Doesn’t that sound commendable? As one might guess from my location, I am quite a spiritual person.
We’ll leave out that my first choice involves a sling, a mixed grill of some of the more high caliber drugs, and losers, addicts, whores. . . whoever’s available really. Since that’s not possible, here is the Norton Anthology. Sin is hard to locate here, at least for the non-Tamil speaker. The only thing that comes to mind is eating eggs. Eggs are a big no-no for orthodox Hindus. I know a place where you can get an omelet. And I would totally go and eat 20 omelets, if I thought it might take the edge off, even just a little.
I am one of those people gone loose in the world. One of those who were never quite firmly affixed to begin with. At a certain point several years ago it was just easier for everyone if I ceased to matter. It was even easier for me. People think it takes money to wander. It’s bizarre how little money it takes. What you need most is to have almost no connections, no roots, no definite aims. You can wander for years.
For years the man I love had been saying, “Come. Stay a few months. We’ll see how it goes.” I went, I loved him, I left when my visa expired. I took the test. Now I will receive my scores. The next thing up is seeing.
I’m a tremendously spiritual person. Unfortunately I can’t remember any of it just now. Here instead is Sheena Easton. The song that goes “I’m Almost Over You”. It’s a joke song, isn’t it? Didn’t realize that until now. Look it up: the original lyrics (now in The Torch Song Hall of Fame, Akron, OH) go, I’m to-tal-ly de-ci-ma-ted. My heart is hamburger mash. Then the money and marketing people got involved and said, “Hey, can you tone it down a little?” They kept pushing and pushing until it became “I’m Almost Over You.” The feeling however remains the same. I’m learning so much! Thank you, this is all so tremendously valuable.
The library of the ashram is known primarily for works pertaining to the great saint of jnana yoga, as well as for a large collection of texts regarding the philosophy of advaita, with interpretations ranging from the most classical to most dubious. Advaita is popular now. Now itself is popular now. People are making big money from something so quick it can’t be said to have any duration at all. Yet there doesn’t seem to be any getting out of now either. It’s an odd world, is it not, into which we’ve been marooned?
He didn’t seem to approve of anyone so I thought I I’d better check his opinion of me. It didn’t seem masochistic when I did it. He talks about how all his friends are falling apart. It depresses him. He says that everyone he knows just get worse and worse. He says that, of all the people he knows, he is the only one getting better.
It’s true that he always seemed disappointed by the way that I cooked and looked, walked and talked, slept and fucked, dressed and acted, but I thought that was just his style of loving. Like the deep and steady love of a old grandma, bitter after Grandpa drank himself to death himself to death and didn’t leave her any money -- and now here I am, the ninth of eleven uniformly disappointing grandchildren, wanting the crusts cut off my grilled cheese. I thought that his was that same deep and disappointed school of love, the bitter school. He told me several times that he did all he could to spare my feelings. I’m glad he told me that. I would not have guessed.
Whoops. Slouched against the wall my heavy sweaty arm knocked down this laminated sign:
Do not replace books. Put them on a table.
A book misplaced is a book lost.The sign won’t stay up now. I tried. It’s going to need more tape. It’s not good for books to be misplaced. As far as we know. It’s certainly not good for the people looking for them. For people however, it is good to be misplaced. At least for awhile. I mean, If you are over 14 and willing to learn something. I suspect it is not good for a person to be misplaced for too long. Eventually you end up lost.
Do responsible citizens making sacrifices in aspiration of a well-upholstered future realize that there are now countless places like this one, where misfits fallen out with the world have given up on anything earmarked as sensible?
Why have we come? In the beginning, here in the holy land, there was the hope that reality might prove more amenable, more flexible, that it might make room for us, or even provide the means for success (surprise!) by means of little-used and mysterious channels. Might we not qualify for Divine Providence, simply for renting rooms here? Total delusion, it turns out, but rent is cheap and there are peacocks and swamis, chai and cows in the street, rhesus monkeys stealing small children’s snacks and even langurs, down from the hills to ransack the tamarind. And -- when all of that gets to be too much -- here is the library.
I have always been too abjectly grateful toward men who go to bed with me. It’s highly off-putting. With this man I’ve been to bed far more than any other. Therefore he is approximately God. Is it any surprise he should decide he is too good for me? (His special name for me is Dog.) I am strenuously grateful. I have always been this way, even when I was 23 and somewhat adorable, in a lop-sided way. I try to be humble. I think it’s nice to be humble. Other people help by agreeing that I am not worth much.
Somehow I thought it might helpful to watch the video of “I’m Almost Over You.” Dumb, I know. And who do I see but the man whom I love, the man who doesn’t love me, who oddly enough looks very much like Sheena Easton sitting there at the piano. Hello? Is this a coincidence meaningful? Another question: why is Mrs. Easton hoisting an arcade game machine over a railing and shoving it off of the balcony? Is that something that helps?
It occurs to me that I’m going to need is a new reason to not do drugs. Like survival, but more compelling. He was adamant that I not do drugs. He thought that drugs were bad and especially bad for me. It’s true that I don’t necessarily have the number one most orderly mind. I also might be just a tiny bit sensitive. Obsessive, even. He didn’t want me to drink too much either. It’s easy to drink too much. Since drinking almost always seems like something that would help. He expected me to go to the gym, collect accomplishments, turn a profit. I guess he was trying to turn me into something he thought he would like.
Please understand: keeping myself going was just a little project I had, like a houseplant you bring back to life so you can give it away. It was never a crusade. You understand, it’s nicer to putter on Sundays if you have a small project. That’s how I felt about survival. In this earnest holy town I maybe got a little gung-ho: pure veg, gym, meditation, sit-ups, no liquor, no drugs. But it was still just a very small project and it sort of made sense -- or anyway it did when I had a very beautiful lover, eight years my junior.
Every 20 minutes or so I get up and walk very slowly through the library. It is excellent to wander in this way, from one subject to the next, from the scriptures in Tamil or Kannada to detective and suspense, from cooking to Theosophy or Pure Land. As far as I know this is the only place in the entire town where it is possible to wander empty-headed with no chance of being hit by a motorbike, taxi, bullock cart or truck. Although the entire town is holy, the library is the only place you can actually relax.
Almost every book in the library out of print, brown and decayed, with a frontispiece turned to lace by moths. This library, like all interesting libraries, consists almost exclusively of failed books. Books that never flourished or else have long since fallen by the wayside. I could with almost perfect accuracy wander the stacks muttering, Has-been! Failure! Remnant! Failure! Trouble for nothing! Loser! Nobody even remembers you! I do not do so only because I am a backwards and contrary person. These books occupy an advanced stage of neglect just shy of oblivion. How could I fail to be fond of them? I am a partisan of that with stumbles, then falls. This does not hold true for certain gurus, or their collected works, which may without regret be used to line bird cages.
Some time ago I fell out of the world. The shiny, accomplishing world. I was not found to be well-suited. I did however intend to return. To renew my membership. Several times I visited. Such strange shapes! I meant to return, sooner or later. I believed that I could. All I needed was a good reason.
I’m not entirely alone in this part of the library. There’s this lady: pixie-ish, hippie pants and armpits, fifty-something, German maybe, sitting on the marble floor in the middle of the aisle, directly below the fan. She’s always here. She reads Osho or Calvin & Hobbes. Or stares into space. I’ve talked to her a few times. The first time was when she walked up to me outside the meditation hall and told me my shoes would be stolen. People are like that, she said. She said her half-brother stole the inheritance she was going to get from her father who suffered from dementia but she talked to the photos of her gurus and they told her that it didn’t matter because soon the world’s biggest banks would collapse and nobody anywhere would have any money. She would have told me more about the forthcoming apocalypse but I put my hand over my intestines like disaster was imminent.
I’m probably going to end up like her. Some non-negotiable hurt will drive me right out of my mind. Actually, this is probably it right here. Wheeeee! It’s remarkable how few human connections I have. “You’re far away,” people tell me; they tell me so wherever I am. Within the last several years almost everyone I used to know has become important. Meanwhile it appears I am becoming smaller and less visible, which is an odd sensation and by no means entirely disagreeable.
I loved him. I loved him and he did not even notice. He had some other idea of how it was supposed to be. Like his crazy sister in Italy. His sister with her perfect kitchen. Her kitchen in which nothing may ever be cooked. Because then it wouldn’t be perfect, would it?
He doesn’t love me. Not anymore. So now I won’t be able to boast that I have a very beautiful Italian lover. A sex genius. Stop. Stop, please stop.
Walk. The library, subject to its own mysterious dictates, includes even the section S: Miscellaneous. Here are some titles from that section: The Oaken Heart, As Bill Sees It, Little Known Facts About Well Known People, Making the Most of Yourself, Self-Reliance, Mathematics in Fun and Earnest, Jealousy, How to Sleep Better, Other Men’s Flowers, Ask Marilyn, Choosing Civility, Happiness versus Mental Fetters, Retirement: Plan Now for Your Best Years, Scoundrels & Scalawags, Why Men Can Only Do One Thing at a Time, Personal Accomplishment, The Handbook of Reason.
I believe there is such a thing as liberation by means of distraction, or salvation at random. This is nothing official or scriptural. This is my own thing. The chance to be rescued, in the heat of the endless afternoon, from the poisons of memory, from pains too great to be borne, from one’s own bitter mind enamored of its own fury and bile. To be saved, at random, by whatever is here, is real and alive. However shabby and dog-eared it is, even if it crumbling, unfashionable and just this side of oblivion. This is no big deal salvation. Still, it has been found to work now and then. The library is open every day, but only for a few hours. You must make good use of your time.
Not just Sheena Easton, not only the Beatles. Dionne Warwick has also shown up several times. With her sparkly dress, her spacious nostrils, and her hair just so. Much as I adore her, I had to turn her away at the door. “No, sister. I can’t. One verse of ‘I Know I’ll Never Love This Way Again’ and I am taking the bus to Pondy and staying drunk for a week.”
“He’s gonna be sorry!” announces this demon here, as it holds a guitar, hums, “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone.” Epic speeches, isn’t that the rumble I feel now in my brain? Like an epic hatching of barrister cockroaches, all of them explaining at once why he is wrong, wrong, wrong. I could say, accurately, that he doesn’t approve of anything or anyone else. I share my defective status with the entire universe: his doomed family, his luckless friends, his worthless job, his subnormal co-workers. A totally backwards municipality. A nation where it rains all the time. The fact is I loved him, love him. Adored him, adore him. And it’s best to just to leave it at that.
Disappointment is not a mistake. What did the Buddha say? (I’m an incredibly spiritual person. It’s coming back to me now.) He said, unsatisfactoriness pervades existence. At that point in his life the Buddha was not even dating. Still, he saw. Nothing does what we expect it to do. Nothing takes the edge off, not the way we think it will. It’s not me, I want to tell the man I love. Disappointment -- is just the way that it works. My lover disappointed me, too. Of course. (Fuck. I wanted someone who thought I was marvelous.) From the man that I love, disappointments and wonders were all the time gushing forth. I could not ask for more.
Look at the Swiss pixie lady now, cross-legged with her prayer beads in the history section. Are those mantras she is muttering? Or does she think someone is there? Does she imagine the big banks collapsing, her evil half-brother penniless in the street? Does it cheer her up? Does it make her feel better about all she has lost? How easy it is to become unmoored. How effortless to end up the ghost of one bad idea, defined by one old and irreparable hurt.
What I love the most, what I really love, is this fan. Both the breeze and the sound. I like God best when God is described as an ever-present hum. Above, beneath, within everything. That’s when God seems most commendable. The very best sound. Something like a ceiling fan.
A little bell. A small tinkling bell. A young woman in a blue sari edged in gold is walking through the library and ringing a bell. It is time for all visitors to leave the library. Now I will go and say a prayer at the shrine of the saint. Then I will go back to my small room, with its peach-colored walls and its enormous fan. I must check the computer. I am expecting a letter.