June 17, 1999
Things Fall Apart
One recent day, all was right with the world. I was the master of the details in my universe. I had arranged to pay my bills online, lugged five pairs of shoes in to be shined and reheeled, picked up my dry cleaning, bought stamps.
I slept in peace, my clothes hanging in perfectly aligned plastic bags in my closet above rows of newly repaired and gleaming shoes. The dishes were done. The smoggy haze of my mental to-do list cleared and left a crisp horizon free for thoughts of more significant matters. Anything was possible.
The next morning, I woke up to find that my car stereo was gone. It looked as though someone had held shop class in my car, leaving rugged saw marks and exposed wires where the dash board and funky old stereo had been. I stood there long enough to notice that the perpetrator of this indelicate stereo removal had also vomited on the side of my already beleaguered Datsun. Nice touch.
As I lifted my hand to cradle my wincing forehead, I noticed a rash had broken out across my knuckles.
Was that a line from a poem by William Butler Yeats that kept going through my head? "Things fall apart."
Oddly enough, what troubled me most was that the thief had stolen my small bottle of hand sanitizer from the glove compartment. I had always aspired to be the type of person who would have such an item on hand, and its removal seemed to signal the fact that I was now a mess again, with what appeared to be a case of leprosy creeping up my hands.
"Things fall apart," I told my friend Gary, reporting the morning's events.
I flooded him with questions: Do I replace the stereo? If I do, does that mean I have to move to a safer neighborhood to prohibit another break-in? Should I get better insurance? One of those take-out stereos? Did the thief vomit because he or she was so disgusted with his or her actions, or was it just some bad curry? Do I get a new car and start over? What do I do?
"Drive that thing into the ground," he ordered. "No heroic measures should be taken to save that thing. When it finally dies, put a 'Do Not Resuscitate' order on it and move on."
Pausing, he added, "It's just a radio."
"That's easy for you to say," I responded. "You're not the one driving around singing 'La Vida Loca' to yourself like a jackass, reaching over to turn on the radio that isn't there."
Twisting the air to activate an amputated radio seemed a perfect reflection of the futility of ever getting my affairs in order. What bothered me wasn't so much the radio or the car or the mystery rash, but the fact that life seems to be overwhelmed by such details. Just when one leak is stopped, another one sprouts.
In this endless onslaught of minutiae, how can you live a spiritual life? Where is the room for gratitude or grace or grand thoughts, with so many details to attend to and doctors appointments to make and keep and parking tickets to pay and calls to return. How can you find meaning in life when you're always just piecing together the things that have fallen apart?
"You can reframe any situation," says a friend, an Orthodox woman about my age, who always seems to have the most impossibly positive outlook. "Maybe God took your radio, and it's up to you to find out why. Personally, I never listen to the radio. I find driving alone in silence is a gift, a time to think and reflect."
I could have predicted that one, I think. But as I dismiss her ridiculously cheery response, I'm also fascinated by it. I study the placid expression on her face with envy.
"Meaning is something you choose to see," she says. "Someone who sees a spiritual world sees the possibility for meaning in everything."
"What's so spiritual about car repairs and dry cleaning?" I ask, thinking this ought to be good.
"I always make sure to say 'thank you, sir' when I take in my dry cleaning and to sincerely appreciate that person and the work they do." She stops. "Is that eczema on your hands?"
"Yes, I think it is," I say, wondering how she knew.
"I get that, too. Try rubbing some Cetaphil on it," she suggests.
I do. And it seems to work. The rough patches start to smooth into something pink and almost normal. If things are going to fall apart, I think, any salve will do.
Teresa Strasser is a twentysomething contributing writer for The Jewish Journal.