Consider the case of a mathematician, in this case My oldest brother, who is (a) halved by an illness, (b) stilled completely by it, and (c) reduced to ash. Trust me, he would be the first to note that finally He finished his travels at 0.00416666667 of what He weighed for a long time. I bet then he’d spend Weeks poking into what else weighed exactly that. I’d get a terse note with a list in his meticulous ink: The cardinal on average weighs 0.992 of a pound, And the long-tailed weasel weighs exactly a pound. A letter like that is exactly like a zen koan, I think. It’s as much a door as a statement. Let us consider That we have all just now received this terse letter. It sits there grinning on the table next to the coffee. I don’t know about you, but I am going to dive into The whole weasel question. We have so little time, And there’s so much to be discovered. I want to be Able to be conversant about this the next time I see My brother. He’ll want to know. He’ll have missed A lot of time that could have been devoted to these Things, and someone has to carry the ball, whether It’s weasels or cardinals or cancer. How mortifying It will be if he asks me about something, and I have To say I didn’t pay attention, man, and he will stare At me with that laser stare and not even have to say, And what was it you did instead of paying attention?
It may or may not be a sin, but I cannot hear your name, St. James the Less, without crocheting apocrypha for you, without drafting sentences, all of which start Nonetheless, St. James the Less and then lapse, describing a world whose vividness—the molting sycamores and lepers, an urn lurching on the potter’s wheel, the fishermen darning their nets—always trumped your quiet rectitude.
Nonetheless, St. James the Less—after the Greater James, his fervor all joy and rage, and not unlike simple imprudence, anointed the contrite and doused those who had it coming—it must have been you (was it not?) blotting kerosene from all the penitents’ habits.
The good sweet Lord knows I have nothing wise to say about anything Whatsoever; certainly that has been proven over the last fifty-five years That we have known each other. And while spiritual verve is inarguable, Religious pronouncements at a time like this can sound awfully shallow. So all I want to do this morning is find some word that can approximate The love I feel. Affection and respect are ingredients, sure, and certainly Laughter and stories, especially those that start out remember that time?, Because stories are a terrific way to say things that you can’t find words For. I keep wanting to push deeper, but I can’t get deeper than the story Of the time we broke your finger—all us kid brothers attacking the king At once, ostensibly in the flow of a football game, but really we wanted To take you down, to miraculously drop the taoiseach, because we loved You, because your were our hero, because you were the tallest and oldest, Because you laughed, even with your finger bent in the wrong direction, Knowing that we were so furious because a bruising tackle is a language Also. You can say a lot about love by hammering your brother in a game, It turns out. You knew what we were saying. I remember you taped your Finger back together and didn’t bother to tell Mom. We admired that too.
On the gallery wall in Paris you see a splendid life-size thigh, how it’s tapering to a calf and pointed toe. It’s a Degas ballerina who pulls light on like a stocking.
The ornate gold frame says, Look at this. You’re here alone, so why not stay, go down to the very root of light, practice patience? Sinking in, you linger all afternoon.
On the subway home, you see and praise legs. Bare. In jeans. Thin or superbly plump. Recall your lion-footed table. Praise this leg of your trip, learning to see. Joy trumps itself: Allegro, legume. The wonder: your own tibia! The miracle: your own leg to stand on!
Michael Izbicki grew up in a nondenominational church in California. A National Merit Scholarship finalist, he chose to go to the U.S. Naval Academy out of a sense of duty to his country during a time of war. At the naval academy he began to doubt whether the career to which he had committed himself could be squared with the tenets of just war doctrine. He got in trouble when he responded no to this exam question: "If given the order, would you launch a missile carrying a nuclear warhead?" After a four-year legal battle, the navy discharged him as a conscientious objector. Izbicki may have to reimburse the service for part or all of his education (New York Times, February 22).