We already had tickets but we still had to stand in line for hours outside the Berkeley Civic Auditorium. The crowd was exuberant, joyous, robust. It took a long time to get everybody in and seated. I was super excited: Thich Na Hanh, a man I had only read but whose smile on the cover of his many books had a kindness and contentment that I craved. I remember driving to Shambhala with Kathleen the day tickets went on sale, months before, she circling the block as I ran in and bought them.
Our tickets were great, just a few rows from the stage. We congratulated ourselves on getting them so much in advance, even snarking out about how the Berkeley Buddhists apparently couldn’t handle ‘time’ very well, har, har, har.
Many more minutes and many other speakers passed by and the din in the auditorium was still pretty loud by lecture standards. Finally, Thick Na Hanh came out. He was a slight man in his 70s, bald, in a robe, the kind of man one passes many times during a day without even noticing them and I wondered if that was something he was doing on purpose, pulling his aura in so as to be unnoticeable.
He spoke in a very, very quiet voice. Another Buddhist, a famous one so I won’t name him, adjusted the microphone a couple of times to make it louder and closer, but the more he adjusted it, the softer Thich Na Hanh’s voice got.
His lecture that night was on the subject of Listening and I got it, I thought: We were supposed to listen deeply, with awareness. There was a real life lesson for us all there, that the burden of conversation is at least equally on the listener and not the speaker, maybe, I thought, even more on the listener.
After all, a conversation has to be between two people. Even a performance requires two people at least – the performer and the spectator. Writing, too, is a conversation, across time and space but, as I used to tell my underperforming, at-risk high school students, it is only a conversation if somebody can understand you.
I could, I thought, understand Thick Na Hanh. That is, I could have if everyone around me, beside me, in front of and in back of me, would just shut the fuck up.
Sadly, they did not. One woman actually stood in front of my cramped knees to yell a question at a friend sitting a few rows away about what she was bringing to the Sangha Pot Luck on Tuesday. The friend said she was bringing the curried yams she had made the previous time and the yeller near me really liked that idea. She offered to bake some homemade naan but the few- seats- away friend told her that she could get tandoori naan at TJs or Breads of India so why bother?
Just as I was about to lose my shit and yell at everybody in the audience to zip it I had a weird thought: What if, I asked myself, this was the last conversation I was ever going to hear in my life? What if I went deaf or died and ended up in some kind of whack nirvana where the most important conversation of my life was not the words of Thick Na Hanh or the stringy voiced French nun singing something truly incomprehensible from a second mic as he wound up his talk, but this trivial, overloud chit chat about what kind of curry to bring to a party?
Well, I asked myself, what if it is?
Could I, with all the love and joy and friends and family and dogs and camping and seashore and poems and fabulous, wonderful sex on a coupla different continents I’d had, honestly be disappointed? What exactly did life owe me, on a conversational basis? A blessing? An affirmation? A good suggestion about, say…I don’t know..happiness? Weight loss? Er….heaven?
No, I decided. As the chaos and the noise and the exuberance and the life all around me persisted I decided that the tickets, the anticipation, the waiting were all well worth it and that this conversation, possibly the last one I would ever hear, was actually just fine.