To ask what happens next
I took the subway to Brooklyn Saturday afternoon. It did not go well. When I landed I spent 10 minutes staring at my phone while trying to figure out where I was in relation to where I needed to be (a bookstore approximately 11 minutes away, where Matt Zoller Seitz was doing a 4:00 reading for his new Mad Men book). I stood outside the station and glanced to & fro, walked hither & thither, scanned my environment for landmarks, trademarks, anything that might orient me. For the life of me I could not place myself on any map that had any relation to what I was seeing with my eyes.
And then I started to panic a little bit.
None of this was rational. I know how to read a map. Not once did it occur to me to ask an actual person where to find this bookstore. It was a perfectly safe neighborhood on a perfectly pleasant day, but it was getting dark and I was feeling jittery and out of my element—too exposed and at the same time slightly claustrophobic. I’d been thinking about Paris all day and trying to clamp down on that nagging, niggling little thought, that “what if?” thought, that “it could happen here” thought, which so easily turns into a “we’re next!” thought, which then leads you straight down a raging sinkhole into hell, just like Don Giovanni.
And I reject those thoughts always. I live my life and keep my eye on the prize—i.e., not being mugged or raped, or run over by a cab—because on any given day that’s the maximum number of things I can worry about vis-a-vis my own person. I can wake up at 3:00 in the morning and check the news on my phone and sob for the loss and the waste and the madness, but I can’t let that fear sink into my bones because I know once that happens I will never be able to get out of bed. I’ll never be able to go to work in a midtown high rise office building that sits right next to Radio City Music Hall. I’ll never be able to take the subway to 34th Street or 42nd Street or even 59th Street, which is where I take the subway five days a week and then some. I’ll never be able to stroll down the sidewalk or walk through the park or go to the opera or to a theater or mall or museum or restaurant if I’m thinking “what if” every time I leave the house. I mean honest to Christ, every single second in every single day in the life of every single person on earth is WHAT IF. Is it not? And the answer is always OF COURSE. Of course everything is a disaster. Of course we get on with it anyway. Of course of course of course.
I don’t know how to process what happened in Paris yet, where to fit what I’ve read and seen into the pictures of the city I remember best. The memory of how openly and proudly the people moved about and relaxed in their public spaces—the streets, the parks, the sidewalk cafes—all hours of the day and long into the night. That was Paris to me. The idea that anything could destroy that trust is unimaginable. What else is there?
I think a lot about this section in the book Here If You Need Me, which is written by Kate Braestrup, a Unitarian Universality minister and chaplain for the Maine Warden Service whose job is to accompany wardens on search-and-rescue missions in the woods. By profession, she’s a witness to nightmares and wonders.
A miracle is not defined by an event. A miracle is defined by gratitude.
A string of coincidences stretching far back in human history converge to place a young woman in a parking lot at the very moment when a murderer happens by. A similar string of coincidences places a premature infant named Michael in a high-tech teaching hospital where a gifted doctor works to save him. Why? Why not?
Anything could happen, but only one thing will. If it is what we desire, what we long for so badly we feel it burning in our bones, if by chance this is given, we will fall on our grateful knees, praise God, and call it a miracle. And we will not be wrong.
Anything could happen, but only one thing will. Good or bad, lucky or no. We go out into the world again and again and again and take our chances. What else is there?
So I don’t ask “what if?” very often. Except I did on Saturday: I asked myself “What if I just turn around and go back home?” and then I did that, too. It felt stupid and sad, like a loss, which it was, however minor. It also felt safe, just for that moment. I went back into the world again on Sunday, and yesterday and today, and it was fine. Everything was fine.