Everything Is Everything

{An old one from the New York years.}


I come home and make myself a nutritious dinner.  I add some kale to the lentils and rice my roommate made on Sunday.  When she makes lentils and rice on Sundays she makes enough for the whole week, and you can add anything to it and make a very nutritious meal.  It is the kind of simple, balanced, virtuous meal a simple, balanced, virtuous person might eat.

My roommate has cooked the lentils from a recipe her mother wrote down on an index card that I have clipped to a magnet.  In my roommate’s family, a recipe is a sacred thing.  In my mind, keeping things clipped neatly together and held firmly in place with magnets is a sacred thing.


While we eat, we talk about love, pain, anxiety.  Anxiety, where does it come from?  The simple answer is that it comes from being Jewish.  It comes from being descended from people who were chased around the world, killed in large numbers, and if not killed in large numbers, constantly threatened with the idea of being killed in large numbers.  This might explain our anxiety, but the thing is, we personally were not chased around the world or threatened with imminent death.  We were bored in Long Island and sent to expensive universities, where we could engage with the our own and other people’s past and current suffering as ideas. At these expensive universities, we learned to use the phrase “engage with” when we mean “think about.”


Eating the lentils and rice, we talk about desire, suffering, love, death, destruction, the high before the fall, the bad things that happen to good people.  The possibility that the love will let you down or the drugs will freak you out.

Taking a substance into your body or a person into your life involves a certain denial of the suffering that is likely to follow.  You can think ahead to the endpoint, to some kind of low, but then, you are wickedly reminded, there is the high point the very existence of this low implies.  Even by focusing on the inevitable low, you are also looking unavoidably at the high.  Once you’ve seen the high point, it’s difficult to dissuade yourself from wanting to check out the view from up there.  The problem is that the route to the low point goes through the high point.  It’s often said that what goes up must come down; it’s less often said that what came down probably went up first.



The only way out is to become enlightened and realize that it’s all the same.  Isn’t that the point of the story of the Buddha?  I start remembering, sketchily, the details of the story of the life of the Buddha, from the book Siddhartha, which a friend gave me several years ago. It was about the only way out of the suffering, which the Buddhists say is to stop attaching.

I don’t really understand this.  My life is one long exercise in attaching.  Attaching words to make sentences, attaching moments to make stories, attaching recipes to other recipes with magnets.  If nothing is attached, how will it all hold together?  But also, if everything is attached, where will anything end and anything else begin?

The dreaded theorists, they talk about “ruptures.”  The rupture between past and present.  The rupture that makes possible new definitions.  The rupture, only one vowel away from the word “rapture,” in the same way my day job, “tutor” only requires the addition of one vowel to form the word “torture.”

Pointing out anagrams is often a good way to end a discussion.  There is little insight to be gained in noting the fact that rearranging letters makes new words.


All I remembered about the life of Buddha was that he was born rich, but then he became ascetic, and then he went back the other way and indulged in many sins, and he met this lady and she told him, “We are alike, we can’t love, we can only love as an art.”  And then he left that life, too, and became a boatman by a river, and realized that it’s all the same, starving in the thorny bushes or getting fat and playing dice all day and having a lot of sex, or being a boatman, all the same.

I think one of the only things that simply cannot be the same is sitting in a cubicle made of gray, scratchy material, maybe with a stain or faded spot where someone once splashed coffee or had a poster, perhaps of a kitten, tacked up for a very long time, under a bank of fluorescent lights that doesn’t buzz so much as hum, in which one light is not extinguished, but flickering.

Another thing that is not the same is a funeral home in New Jersey with a sliding-door divider made of beige plastic and a glass box in its vestibule where a small, captive bird lives.

But love, war, rock concerts, traffic jams, lentils, cocaine–these, I believe, are the same.


After we eat, my roommate and I drift into our respective rooms, as we often do, sit down behind our respective computers, which both face the same way (south) a few feet from our respective beds, which both face the same way (west) and idly nibble on the entire world that is connected to our curious fingertips.

I Google Buddha, to try to find out the exact story of his life, but soon I am reminded instead of this one quotation I heard on the television program Six Feet Under, in which Nate dreams that his dead father has come to him in a dream and imparted this amazing wisdom, but finds out later that it’s just a quote from the Bhagavad Gita he heard his girlfriend read aloud that somehow ended up in his dream.  I don’t remember the quote but if I Google “nate bhagavad gita” it is returned to me.  It says: “All that lives lives forever. Only the shell, the perishable, passes away. The spirit is without end, eternal, deathless.”

My Google search also turns up a blog, which coincidentally enough I recognize as the blog of this girl I met at a party our upstairs neighbor had a few years ago.  It was one of those parties where the hosts left a sign up in the lobby inviting everyone in the building to their party, not necessarily in complete sincerity but just to keep the neighbors from getting mad at them for making noise.

The neighbors upstairs were Scandinavian classical musicians and composers, and so, too was everyone at their party.  People from Norway, Iceland, Belgium, Denmark, all speaking perfect, unaccented English.  Violinists, composers, players of the oboe and the bassoon.  I had forgotten about the bassoon, as I often forget about Delaware.

We had happened upon some kind of Nordic musical social niche.  The party’s hostess was in Bjork’s backup band. Everyone at the party was tall and long-fingered.  They all resembled the fine wind instruments they played.

I am short and my roommate is shorter.  “I feel so Jewish,” I whispered.


We Jews were not as disconnected from the Scandinavians as I first assumed, however.  Later Googling revealed that Denmark, when invaded by Hitler, mounted a heroic rescue of its small Jewish population.  When the Nazis came, the Danes evacuated 8,000 Jews to Sweden in boats.  They then negotiated for the return of 99% of the remaining Danish Jews who were captured by the Nazis.  The Danish Jews were very assimilated and well-liked, it seemed, and the aptly named King Christian X just wasn’t willing to see them as a race apart from human.

On the flip side, I once met a girl who was half-Swedish and half-Finnish.  She said that when her Swedish grandmother married her Finnish grandfather the grandmother’s family disowned her, so beneath them did they believe the Finns to be.  The Swedes ascribed to the Finns all the usual racially inferior qualities—that they were lazy, oversexed thieves who drank too much.

Here I was at the party thinking everyone had so much in common, being tall and Scandinavian, but still there were those who would argue over differences.  How could the Danes save the Jews but the Swedes hate the Finns?  Wherever there are people, it seems, there is history between them, usually some combination of unbelievable kindness and unimaginable cruelty.


The only other non-Scandinavian at the party was this girl from France who was dating one of the Swedes.  She told me about her blog, which was in French.  I resolved to read it, to brush up on my French, but never did.

Now Googling the names of the characters on Six Feet Under and the name of an ancient Hindu religious text had brought me to this record of this girl’s life, still there, still in the passé simple, the tense for writing which I never really learned, which I now remember was the original reason I never read this girl’s blog, my unsure footing in the passé simple.

I never really learned it because after five years of outstanding grades in French class in grades 7 through 11, five years in which, due to the strict and unforgiving exercises of one Madame Berman, I was actually approaching something resembling real proficiency in French, all the rage that had been bubbling up inside me came to the surface and I expressed my rebellion by quitting French class, which was at this point optional.

For years, my roommate and I sat on opposite sides of the classroom (I dimly recall Madame Berman making good on a threat to “separate you girls”) communicating to one another in an elaborate set of signs when her back was turned, faking ever more gruesome deaths.  We would tap two fingers against our inner forearms to symbolize a heroin overdose, mime shooting ourselves in our heads, slumping in our chairs, eyes rolled back.  We’d strangle and ingest poison and keel over and die of sudden and unknown natural causes.  Then we’d look out the windows and meditate on what was our mutual highest fantasy, which was being taken away from French class by a man on a motorcycle.

I found out later that other people simply cut class and did ride away from French class, sometimes on motorcycles.  This seemed a cruel proof of Sartre’s main observation that even those who believe themselves captive are really free.

What did the French girl have to say about these words in the Bhagavad Gita, about their appearance on Six Feet Under?  What were her thoughts?

If I had only stayed in Madame Berman’s classroom one semester longer, I might have the command of the language to know what the French girl from the Scandinavians’ party thinks about the quote from the Bhagavad Gita that I only heard because it was in Nate’s dream on Six Feet Under.  But I thought it might be different outside those four walls, and so I quit French class and began another life, not realizing it was all the same.


2 Responses to “Everything Is Everything”
  1. Rebecca says:

    I like this. I have now ridden a motorcycle, but it did not rescue me from French class, only from a bar. I too wish I knew more French. Let’s go to Paris.

  2. günter hiller says:

    Hey emily! i love your stuff. i read your rant on “Kill Te Buddha” and i was hooked.
    had to check out your blog site right away. wish i could hug you! (that’s all i got left)
    i’m holocaust survivor, born in Berlin, 1928
    please put me on your email list if you got one. i’ve forwarded your “non-violent” essay
    to the people i love!
    may you be well and happy!

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