The Live Oak Meeting House, where Friends gather each Sunday to sit in silence until the spirit moves them, wasn't entirely quiet, at first. The child in the pew in front of me whispered as she nuzzled against her grandmother's neck. The couple opposite me turned the pages of the books they had brought with them to read. A man behind me sniffled with a cold; in the windowseat to my left, two more children whispered and squirmed. A woman in front of the couple with the books wiped a tear from her eye, then began writing in a journal. Around and somehow over us was a sound--I was a visitor to the meeting, and thought at first it must be the cooling system, then decided it was recorded audio--inhaling and exhaling. Like amplified, human breathing.
At last all was silent but for this sound. Even the children held their peace. The woman with the journal continued to write. A middle-aged man behind her, with his eyes closed and his hands folded in his lap, hadn't moved a muscle in the fifteen minutes since the meeting had begun. I turned my head a little to the right, and saw, tucked in the corner, a young, pale woman in a wheelchair, a white hose attaching her to a breathing machine. This was the sound filling the Live Oak Meeting House.
After a few more minutes, a middle-aged man stood and said:
"I'm sitting here thinking of a man who once told me he wished he was young again. He said to me: 'God I wish I was seventy again.' It was forty years ago when he said this to me. Across a chessboard. We were playing in a tournament together, and I was a teenager, and I wanted to win so badly. And this man, who was in his eighties, could see it. So he looked up at me and he said, 'God I wish I could be young again. Young people tend to think only about beginnings. What you need to do is think about your end game. Even when you're young. Think. Think that way.' He ended up teaching me so much about chess, that afternoon. And then I never saw him again. Or thought about him much. Until last week. I remembered him, for one reason and another, and realized that after all these years I might be able to look him up on the Internet. And I couldn't believe what I found. He'd had a biography written about him. He'd helped to train Bobby Fischer. He'd been somebody.
"The more I read, the more I was astonished. He'd spent his whole life in and out of penitentiaries. He'd done time at Alcatraz. One of his specialties was stealing cars. Especially Volkswagens. He loved to steal Volkswagens. He'd steal them and turn back the odometers. And there was more. In the 1930's he'd been arrested while holding the bag of money in the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping case. He hadn't kidnapped the baby; he'd only claimed to, in a fraud, and then demanded ransom money, and when they came and gave it to him he got caught. Off to jail he went. His whole life was like that. Stealing cars. In and out of jail. What finally stopped him was a car accident. In a Volkswagen. When he was seventy years old. After that he just played chess. His whole life he was a con-man . . . I guess I'm just thinking, you never know who's sitting across from you."
The man sat down.
The woman's regular, controlled breathing filled the room again. I liked the sound of it. I liked the way it divided up the minutes, made me feel my own breath, and aware of the breathing around me, made me glad the woman was breathing, and getting help to breathe, and glad we were all breathing, and that we still had time.
At a signal, the children rose and were guided out to daycare, where their assignment for the day was to make a heart like a mirror, a heart covered in tinfoil, so that when you held it up, you would see your own face.
Photo credit: Bruce Barone