“I haven’t received any call back from you.”

I didn’t know whose voice it was on my cell phone. All I knew was that she was an older woman staying in Florida and that she had called me at some point while I was teaching a Haruki Murakami novel today.

Murakami’s works expose ruptures in our lives, divisions which we’ve covered over with routine, with technological distances, with denial. They are breaks we must first see in order to heal. For Murakami they may be the cultural repression of atrocities, the psychological alienation of mind from soul, the gulf between crime and consequence.

How much of who we are is created from our choices to act?

“I thought we had settled this several years ago.”

But the pain in her voice, the pleading in the voicemail message which went on and on, made it clear that little had been settled. Whoever this woman was, she was a victim of the societal ennui, the empty functionaries, which permeate postmodern culture. I was appalled as I heard the words:

“Now you’re telling me you’re going to take my house?”

. . . . . 

It’s hard for any of us to understand the concept of nearly a trillion dollars of government spending, but harder even still for us to connect to the trillions more lost in banking failures, property loss, credit ruptures, the amputations of a worker from her job. We bury our anxieties in numbers and rhetoric, sitcoms and Slurpees, whatever we can do not to face it.

Whether from fate or coincidence, Murakami suggests that patterns emerge to help us reach satori. All we need to do is attune ourselves to them. This woman called me by a chance error in dialing, did not realize that I was not her bank. Why did she call me today?

Just the day before I had talked with a coordinator about arranging volunteerism in Peru. In two days seventy of us go to Galveston; Interact has helped two Bosnian women restore their own businesses; later they will raise funds for water filters in Asia.

“I can’t believe you’re doing this.”

Do I help the starving child in Sao Paolo or the homeless man in Detroit? Do I support an auto worker by buying American or do I off-set my carbon emissions by investing in wind power? Do we help former homeowners devastated by Hurricane Ike or do we clean a playground in Hamtramck? As I suggested to a student this morning, must the question be an “Or”?

Why did she call me today?

The Acorn printed an article today about the new-old motto on Royal Oak High School’s entrance: “Enter here to learn, go forth to serve.” Some students suggested that the idea was meaningless, that it belonged to the defunct Dondero. And yesterday I used The Good Samaritan as an example of poetic parable.

“Why won’t you call me back?”

What connections was I being asked to see? What were we denying or dismissing? What relationships were morally out of joint, what the Buddhist describes as dukkha? If I accept the premises of Murakami, I should open myself to seeing the larger pattern in these coincidences. If I accept the arguments of Asian philosophy, I should set myself toward restoring a balance.

How much of it all is my responsibility, anyway? The same system which created this woman’s pain said I have no legal responsibility to help. The same system which places a lone human on a rainy sidewalk at night teaches me that it’s safest to look straight ahead, not make eye contact, move past quickly—even though it turned out to be a student of mine.

“I need you to help me.”

What was I supposed to see, to do? Were all these incidents in 48 hours merely chance?

Tonight I called her, and she turned out to be a retired teacher from southeast Michigan. I told her I was a teacher, too. I told her she had dialed the wrong number. And I wished her luck.

. . .


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