Years ago, I spent most of my days wandering, walking mostly, through the old industrial towns of North Jersey -- Lyndhurst, Garfield, Passaic, Clifton, Harrison, Kearny, North Arlington, Jersey City, Bayonne, Moonachie, East Rutherford -- walking without purpose, lost really, day-dreaming, mindlessly following the Passaic River or the Lackawanna rail lines wherever they led. Those were the years I lived in Rutherford, not far from 9 Ridge Road, where William Carlos Williams lived and practiced medicine and wrote, whose poems moved me so, when I was destitute and nearly unhinged, stuck in that tortured posture of post-adolescent anomie and dejection, simultaneously keyed up and passive, at times slightly mad. So I walked. I walked deliberately down the worn streets of the working poor, just ordinary people, whose lives teemed about me.
In those watchful, walking days, the little money I made came from playing the organ at St. John's Episcopal Church whenever Mr. Gordon was unable to perform. Mr. Gordon was an ancient fixture in the old church on Lafayette Avenue, a solid and sensitive musician, but rigid in his choice of hymns and service settings. It was my job to "liven things up."
The rector of St. John's -- let's call him Father John -- was an ineffectual shepherd of his motley flock, a pursy-mouthed man who had seen his glory days in the early sixties, marching for civil rights with the Freedom Riders, a young idealist who couldn't adjust to the present reality. Here he was stuck in a declining parish in a declining city turning largely minority. More than once, he recounted how he'd been mugged: "Right in downtown Passaic, on Main Street, in broad daylight." So he sequestered himself in the rectory and only came out for services, births, weddings, and deaths.
Even so, he was good in the pulpit -- his homilies well-crafted, clear, and to the point. He would unfold a few typed sheets and begin reading in a raspy voice interrupted regularly by his smoker's cough. He once referred to god as "the self-giving love at the center of the universe." A nice formulation, I thought. Perhaps he's as lonely as I am.
In one of his sermons he said, "It happens to all of us at some point in our young lives. For me, it happened in my first year of college, when I met people from different backgrounds, different parts of the country. I found that they saw the world very differently than I did. At first I couldn't believe it. How was it possible that someone could hold a different set of beliefs than me? The experience shook me up. I couldn't reconcile myself to the fact that not everyone saw the world the way I did. I fell into despair and thought that my life of faith was over."
He coughed and turned the page over and began trying to hoist himself out of the rhetorical hole he'd dug for himself. He spoke about love, and how love is action, and how people can believe all sorts of different things, but that's okay as long as their actions are guided by love, because, in the end, everyone believes the same One Big Thing: love thy neighbor as thyself. I thought to myself, I'm not so sure about that. You could tell how hard he was trying, but none of his words were as convincing as the simple confession that he'd been been genuinely shocked to discover that other people believed differently than he did.
I thought it was good that he had said these things, and felt them. Here he was a burnt-out case, but one who could still wear the collar and preach. It was okay that he didn't really have any answers for himself, or for me, because the answers didn't matter just then, if it turned out there even were any answers. It was enough to have heard the question, and understood the anguish. To have seen someone like that, publicly trying to make sense of his beliefs, trying to make sense of his life.
I'd like to say I stopped my aimless walking soon after, but I'd be lying. It took another year or two before I entered the world of work and responsibility, the world I accepted and inhabited for a long time. But now, here it is, thirty-three years later, a lifetime really, and I've been cut loose, feeling airy again, mindful of how difficult it is to fashion a meaningful life and mindful of how easy it is to lose it. Maybe it's time to go walking again, and keep my ears open for a familiar call.