Editing a non profit journal like Parabola can be hard. I’m not talking about the eye strain and stiff back muscles that come with sitting in front of a computer for long stretches of time, or even the feelings of isolation and self-doubt that inevitably comes with being a writer and editor. I’m talking about the spiritual pain, the crushing sense of doom that comes from trying to row a leaky little boat through stormy and unpredictable seas.
Yesterday, however, after meeting with some of the great new people who are going to be helping row this little boat, I remembered a very important experience I had decades ago, when I worked for ABC in one of the towers of Rockefeller Center. I had left work and was walking through those cavernous, sky-scraper shadowed streets, realizing for the first time in my young life that I was a tiny cog in a vast and impersonal machine. On that machine would whir on endlessly, driven by money, blind to any of the tiny little ant people who happened to get caught under the wheels. My then-boyfriend and I were looking for a refuge, a cozy place to have dinner, not a cold, hard, expense-account place, and miraculously we found one. The “Alpine” (I think it was called that) looked wonderfully out of place in the midst of all that glass and steel. A bar in front and tables in the back and Alpine scenes painted on the walls, it looked like it belonged upstate. But this was the epiphany: There, playing pinball at one of those wonderful old-fashioned bumper, flipper, ping-ping-sounding machines in the back , absorbed in her task, sublimely indifferent to the crushing atmosphere all around us all, was Joni Mitchell. The great singer and songwriter was all by herself. She was smoking a cigarette. A Molson’s Golden rested on a table nearby. She concentrated on her game, noble , serene, and self-contained. Watching her, I very briefly realized a truth that the Buddha, Shakespeare and so many other wise beings have shared, that with our thoughts we make our world. From her bearing and the look of serenity, it seemed pretty clear that she wasn’t thinking about being oppressed. There was more to the lesson, something about the beauty of bringing our attention to the task.
Yesterday, listening to some of the smart and talented people who have recently come on board to help Parabola talk about the small steps that can be taken to make Parabola look and work better, I thought of Joni playing pinball. Who knows what creative labor she was resting from or contemplating? What she and the new Parabola staff showed me is that there is a relating to what is right in front of us that can be transforming, that can free us from being a cog, that can make us new.