A few weeks ago, zipping through some recent American writings on Buddhism, I came across an article by a Buddhist named Damaris Williams. It was about a meditation marathon she’d taken part in.
For twenty-four hours straight, she assumed the lotus position in the window of a big furniture store in downtown New York City. About twenty-one hours in, her reflective calm was imperiled.
“Someone who had hurt me deeply came to the window. There I was as open as a sky and there she was with camera on hand. I wish I could say I stayed open but the truth is I couldn't even force a smile.”
Just imagine it: There you are, meditating, feeling free from desire and yet alert to your own being and the world around you, all while you sit in a very public place—what effort, what poise this must take—only to have a painful memory walk up and stare you in the face, an ugly reminder that you still desire, that you still hurt, that you are still not free.
With Buddhists, I had noticed, the subject often turns to death. It happened here. Williams looked at the hair on the woman’s head, and noticed it was graying. She realized that someday her old antagonist would die. “And,” Williams added, “so will I.”
From this realization came others: that whatever pain had been inflicted, they were both innocent; and they were both flawed. Finally, Williams wrote, “I had to let it go . . . and so I did.”
Thomas Hart Benton was no Buddhist, but he was familiar with the pain of desire and the freedom that comes from letting go of old grudges. In our cover story, Daniel Grant takes us through two afterwords Benton appended to An Artist in America, the highly readable, intensely boastful, and always tendentious autobiography that Benton published at the height of his renown.
If relief from desire is not what you seek, consider James Williford’s essay on whaling in the nineteenth century, occasioned by an NEH-supported documentary, Ric Burns’s Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World. The article, like the film, reminds us that whaling was a business. It was adventurous, sure, as men with harpoons climbed into little wooden boats to hunt an animal many, many times their size. But Williford takes us deep into the yuck, returning to the main ship, a floating factory on which seamen worked tirelessly, like oil-riggers on a gusher.
Also in this issue: Anna Maria Gillis confesses her crush on a Venetian sailor, while Laura Wolff Scanlan reports on how Howard Hughes transformed Las Vegas without ever leaving his hotel suite, and the great Hollywood costumer Edith Head is celebrated.
And, of course, there is a piece about Buddhism to read. Try to keep an open mind. You won’t regret it.