Marc Hill and Sufism
When I was a boy of fourteen, I was taught much about the ways of the Sufi by men older than myself. I was taught many things about many things in those days by men, mostly. I was taught also to smoke hashish in tiny bronze pipes and how to stand on certain New York City street corners in such a way and to say certain words to older women. One managed to get me high and the other often managed to find me in warm beds in nice parts of town.
But I didn’t absorb much of Sufism. Not until one day when I met a man my age, when I was nearing thirty, at the ballpark in San Francisco. I had my own warm bed, now, because I was working at Wells Fargo Bank, fat and unhappy, and I no longer smoked hashish, but he saw me drinking beer and eating hot dogs and suffering mightily from all of this. He was Baha’i and knew more about Sufism than I ever did.
He told me the story, between innings, of Fariddudin Attar, and how he met a Sufi, dressed only in a rough cloak, who pronounced the hadith to him, “Die before you die,” when he came upon Attar in his rich shop of perfumes and fineries, then laid down on the spot and died.
I was never stupid, no matter how resistant I had been to advice good for my well-being, but I looked upon this newfound friend with suspicion. What was he after?
“Those hot dogs are killing you.” He looked down at the trash under my feet. “These beers and other trash you eat… And what do you do for a living?” I told him. He shook his head. “Do you help people?” I shook my head. “You are in pain,” he said. “I can tell just by looking at you. And this,” he swept his hand around, over the hot dog, the beer cup, and the garbage at my feet. “This is never going to help.”
Now my suspicion was growing. I had left the religion of my parents behind when I removed myself from their home at fourteen. I converted to a friend’s Episcopalianism for the sake of some partial, latent, impermanent sanity, and abandoned that because of the expected hypocrisy I discovered. I converted to Catholicism as quickly and painlessly as possible for the sake of a marriage and divorced it with the wife. I studied Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Jainism. I was unsettled by everything except physics.
So. What did my Baha’i friend offer me to quell my suspicions? Dietary advice. And a story.
“Start eating vegetables. Only. And some fruits. Cleanse yourself. You’ll feel better. And let me tell you this story…”
The Conference of the Birds is Attar’s greatest poetic work and uses birds as a metaphor for mankind’s search for god, or the universal holiness in the universe. My friend summarized this 5000-verse poem as succinctly as he could while we watched the game in progress.
During this game something rather odd, even historic, occurred. Marc Hill, the Giants’ third-string catcher, who was born within days of me, stole the only base of his career and did so very much by accident, on the front-end of a botched hit-and-run play which Johnnie LeMaster didn’t complete. Later, Giants’ owner Bob Lurie would get Hall of Famer Lou Brock to provide Hill that base on a plaque in a hyped-up ceremony. And Hall of Famer Willie McCovey, Hill’s locker-mate, presented Hill with his lifetime nickname, “The Booter.”
Anyway, the birds are directed to search for this god or Simurgh and somehow thirty of them are chosen to find this entity. But when they meet the Simurgh they find themselves staring at an image of themselves…then look at themselves to see a second Simurgh. This is understood to be the telling of a divine annihilation of the self, or the annihilation of the duality of the division of self and god.
My friend looked at me as there was now a pause, the seventh-inning-stretch to be exact. “One moment Attar was a merchant, caught in the web of desire and pain. Then he was released by the Sufi and discovered his true calling. What is yours?”
What was mine?
For years I had been a writer and for years I had moderate success. Then failure after failure. I ended up a clerk at a bank. But who cared? Writing was the only work to which I was devoted, that brought peace into my life. And the possibility of my bringing peace into the life of others.
I went home that night and wrote. About baseball. I never had before. A few months later what I had written was published in one of the world’s most prestigious baseball publications.
And in the interim I spoke again and again, with my Baha’i friend at the ballpark, sharing vegetarian recipes and stories of the Sufi. And more.
Eventually, even the Giants won.