As the dream opens, I’m in Grand Central Station in New York City. (In dream-speak, call it a grand place at the center of things. Maybe even the heart itself.)
The station is bustling with all kinds of people, all of them on the move between beginnings and endings. What they have in common is the journey.
My location in the dream keeps changing, but I’m always connected to Grand Central. Sometimes I’m inside the main concourse. Sometimes on an escalator or in a passageway . . . on a platform . . . on a train about to depart . . . on a train about to arrive . . . out on the rails, in transit.
Wherever I am, I’m always still part of Grand Central. And I always have further to go.
It’s a very, very long dream.
While sitting on one train, the car crowded and noisy, I find myself in conversation with a journalist who works for The Times. Or, no . . . she’s a poet. Or . . . maybe she’s both.
“How do we escape the reality of suffering?” I ask her, as if a journalist-poet should have the answer. “How can we humans save each other?”
The man seated in front of me turns around. “Would you like me to tell you a story?” he says, in a thick accent, maybe from eastern Europe.
“Sure,” I say, mostly from politeness, unsure that I’ll be able to understand him. “What kind of story?”
“A Holocaust liberation story,” he says.
I’m startled to hear the words “Holocaust” and “liberation” in the same sentence. To me, the Holocaust epitomizes how inhuman we humans can be to one another. How can it possibly relate to “liberation”?
Maybe, I tell myself in the dream, “Holocaust liberation” is a metaphor for “freedom from suffering.” Maybe the man’s story will finally answer the questions I’ve been asking.
The storyteller is in his seventies, short, pudgy. His tattered hat is oddly shaped, colorful, hand-embroidered—likely native to the culture of his birth. A mixture of smells clings to his heavy winter coat: the aroma of foods that my tongue has never tasted, pungent incense, the sweat of labor, the staleness of a hard trip. This man is obviously far from where he was born.
His storytelling style is unremarkable, neither dramatic nor dull. I begin to suspect that this is a conscious choice on his part. He seems to want the story itself to matter, not the manner in which it’s told.
It’s a story in three parts. Listening to it unfold, I recognize that I’ve heard it before—or rather, I read it. Long ago, in The Times. Back then, the story so impressed me, I clipped it from the paper to save, so as not to forget the truth in it.
Despite my good intentions, somewhere along the line I had forgotten.
Now, strangely, I can see that newspaper clipping, yellowed and brittle, hovering in the air beside the storyteller as he talks. As the words leave his mouth, they’re simultaneously highlighted on the newsprint. He is, I realize, the primary source of the story.
“Don’t pay any attention to the old man,” other passengers are saying, trying to distract me. “He’s crazy.” “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” “He’s not telling the truth.”
Nothing in the old man’s story, they insist, could possibly have happened the way he describes. “Too awful,” some say. “Too wondrous,” others say.
I believe the newspaper clipping. I believe the old man.
Truth, I tell myself, is its own evidence.
“Where were you born?” I ask the storyteller.
He names a land I’ve never heard of. But somehow I know it exists.
“Are you Jewish?” I say, asking too many questions.
“No,” he says, tolerating my curiosity, “but I have spent my life translating the words of the wise.”
He gestures for me to lean closer. “Look behind you,” he confides, “just over your shoulder.”
Standing there in the packed car, steadying himself on a pole, is a stocky man with graying hair. The collar of his slate-gray shirt resembles a clergyman’s. Yet not.
“That,” the storyteller says, matter-of-factly, “is Death.”
“Really?” I say, instantly dropping my gaze. I turn away.
“Don’t be afraid,” the storyteller says.
“But Death looks . . . just like us.”
“He’s always around, but nobody notices.”
I’ve yet to ask the storyteller’s name. But now, having glimpsed Death, I don’t need to.
I know that the storyteller’s name is Life, and he’s always around, too, in one guise or another. If we pay attention. If we trust. If we believe.
“Are you traveling alone?” the storyteller asks me.
I say this, despite being on the train with nobody I know. I say this because, in the world of Grand Central Station, nobody is ever alone. Everybody is with everybody.
The storyteller smiles.
I’ve unwittingly passed a test.
Friend, don’t ask me what story I was told on that train. Even while in the dream, I knew that when I wakened, I wouldn’t be able to remember it.
The story of Life isn’t mine to tell. Like my questions, the story is mine only to live.
The story of Life isn’t just my story. It’s your story, too. It belongs to all of us. It’s always waiting, in some form or other, to be noticed, to be listened to, to be trusted.
And it will test us. It will acquaint us with suffering, and ultimately Death, which is always just over our shoulder.
Maybe living that acquaintance is an answer of its own.