What Matters

Morning:  Caffe San Marco

There is an older man, maybe my age, sitting at the table where the three girls sat yesterday.   He is fanning himself with a menu.   He must be Italian, because he is reading “Il Piccolo,” but he is a bit strange because his eyes are darting around the café, probably taking in all the tourists, and occasionally looking back to his newspaper and reading out loud although there is no one with him.   His left leg is bobbing, and now for no apparent reason he moves the plastic sugar and napkin holders over to the side.  Now both his legs are moving, his feet planted but his knees nervously moving back and forth as if he were fanning a flame with them.

Now I notice that he has no drinks in front him, nothing but the newspaper which he occasionally lifts off the table, opens, reads from and then replaces on the table in not enough time for him to read more than a sentence or two.   He rests his right elbow on the table now, and cups his chin in his right hand.

I see him, and I think he sees me watching him.   But I don’t know what he sees, what he is thinking, who he thinks I am and what I am typing.  I see him, but I don’t know him, not at all.

It is not that I am without judgment.   I think he is off, and maybe he thinks I am as well, especially if he noticed the funny hat I was wearing when I walked in to this place.

No, I don’t know him, and he doesn’t know me.   We are bookends, of sorts, as all of us are to each other.   Between us there are other lives, each of them bookends as well.  Inside each of us resides the self-deceptions, the illusions that we define as the adventure of our lives.   The things we see, the complexions on the faces, the surprises, the mysterious aches and pains.   We are divided by our beliefs, our stories and our convictions.   But we are united in that together we share in the illusion that all of this somehow matters, that hearts can be healed and broken, dreams fulfilled and shattered.

Afternoon:  Caffé degli Specchi

Now, I am sitting in the Café Spechhi as have generations before me.  There is a cruise ship parked a half-mile from here.  The ship is Cunard’s Queen Victoria, a mountain of steel turned on its side.   Its passengers ramble through the piazzas, park themselves in restaurants, snap photos of each other with architecture in the background.   They are young and old, and speak in languages foreign to each other.

I am 62 years old now, and before this last year of cancer I thought of myself as a 45-year old, which is old given that just a couple of years before that I thought of myself as about 35.   I entered my sixties in absolute disbelief that the numbers were so high, that I managed to let so many of the years go by.   It isn’t that I wasn’t using or even abusing those years.   I was building, I was living as much of those years as I could, but it still felt as though I took a nap and woke up and looked at the clock and decades had passed.   I don’t know what to do with the brevity of this life, how to breathe and grieve my way through it.

After the diagnosis, after the surgeon’s gasp as she looked at the picture of the big black spot covering my throat that represented the primary tumor on the CT scan, I decided that the next year of my life, if I had one, would be devoted strictly to healing.   I had little choice, as the treatment knocked me out for the count and I couldn’t work or play if I wanted to.  It has been one hell of a parenthesis, and yet as the days go by I begin to forget.   I anticipated forgetting, even looked forward to it.   It is a platitude that one doesn’t remember pain, and that is certainly true.  You remember that the suffering was there, and occasionally you recall the images and your heart quickens with the memory, but the pain isn’t there.

Yet, fortunately, there was little physical pain to the treatment.  Plenty of psychic pain, more worry and fear than I would ever like to see again, but the physical pain was quite manageable.   It strikes me that if we are lucky or so inclined, we get to travel to different places during our life times.   Many of those places we tell ourselves we wish to return, as I did with Ireland and Northern California.   Whatever the place gives us, whatever adventure it hands us, we want more of the same.

And then there are those places we land that we wish to never see again.   This last year of chemo pumps, IV fluids and snap-down radiation masks is such a place.

Trieste is one of those places to which I would like to return, but my heart wouldn’t be broken if I don’t.   It is that sort of place.   It is somewhere that is nowhere.  But that is the point.   We are all, each of us, someone who is no one, someone whose life matters to those who believe in us, but their lives too are fleeting, and they too are only the collection of illusions that they hold.   We may ultimately be creatures of flesh and blood, but as far as I am concerned we are really only matter as long as we matter, for as long as we are remembered and felt.

These self-deceits that fill a life are large and small.   I am handsome today, I am ugly; I can write well, I will never get this writing thing down; I can master a new language, I can’t do anything new at this age; life has meaning, we die and it is all pointless.

So, we are left with the shifting sands and sins of our beliefs.  The beliefs that matter to me happen to be ones that are promulgated by my religion—that the two most important things are loving-kindness and repairing the world.   But this too is just a belief, an operating principle as the behaviorists call it—my meager, humble assertion that will exist for me only so long as I hold it, as long as I indulge in the illusion that what I believe matters.

In the meantime, each of us finds within us our own Trieste.   We find our own capital of nowhere, our own gypsy fluttering, our own illusions, our own truths.  We sit in our preferred cafes and watch the others as they watch us, we take the space where someone sat just an hour ago, or walked a hundred years ago.  We replace the others as others will replace us.



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