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Esteemed Reader 

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"Throughout the range of states, the structure stays the same, but the quality of life changes."—Jean Vaysse

Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:

I was in the post office opening mail at a counter along the wall. My mind was elsewhere, considering insoluble problems. I ripped open an envelope, pulling a tear across the top fold with the blunt instrument of my index finger. Withdrawing the folded contents of the envelope, I was surprised to see a man standing beside me. I hadn't noticed his coming.

The man was short, but he stood straight in a way that conveyed dignity. His white beard was trimmed to a point, and he wore a black fedora and cashmere overcoat and scarf. The man was staring at me, looking first into my eyes, and then down to the crudely torn envelope on the counter. He seemed to be observing and noting something.

Thinking the man would go away if I ignored him, I went back to inspecting the handwritten letter. It was on fine, lineless paper filled on both sides with neat cursive writing in blue ink. I forgot about the man looking at me as I read the words written in a graceful hand, the curved lines showing the uneven light and heavy pattern of a broad-nibbed fountain pen.

The letter began "You have the right to make sacrifices, but you have no right to require sacrifices from others."

I pondered this, and was shaken again by a renewed impression of the gentleman's gaze. I put the letter down and turned to face him with an inquiring look.

"What's wrong with you?" he said in a deep timbre that spiked into falsetto in the middle of the word "wrong." His resonant tone said it wasn't a rhetorical question, and I remembered a Chinese doctor that asked me the same question in the same way after feeling my pulse in the back room of an herb shop in Chinatown.

"Um, nothing..." I replied. "Why do you ask?"

He didn't answer right away. His head made a tiny movement from side to side as though he was turning to look through the left and right eye alternately, seeing something completely different through each.

"I ask because of this," he said, looking at the rudely torn envelope. "Has no one shown you how to open a letter?"

I stared at the object trying to fathom what the man was asking. And then I saw it. I saw the envelope, the jagged tear in the paper, its haphazard position showing the way it had been thrown aside in hasty pursuit of its contents. I saw that I had not been present in the opening, and that the envelope on the counter was a direct reflection of my state of being.

"I see," I said, looking back at the man in the fedora. "Thanks for pointing that out."

"You have no idea how many opportunities you are missing," he said. "Everything you want, all the qualities you think you can experience by doing or getting something, they are all here. If nothing else, you need to..."

At that moment a fire engine sped along the street in front of the post office, the siren obscuring his words. My eyes mechanically moved to watch the red truck and flashing lights speed across the glass front doors from frame to frame. When I looked back, I saw the man's back as he moved toward the door, and I realized I hadn't heard the final admonition.

"What?" I called to his back. He didn't seem to hear, continuing his smooth movement toward the door. I called again. "What did you say?!"

The man kept walking and looked over his shoulder, his eyes gleaming. His voice seemed to sound inside my chest cavity, "Use everything," he said in my chest. "Use everything."

I watched him open the door and walk through. His movements' efficiency suggested an awareness of his body in space. The appearance was one of stop-frame slow motion, and in an instant he was gone.

I was shocked, clobbered. And then the feeling shifted to sadness, and loss. I missed this man I had talked with for all of 30 seconds. And then I remembered his words—use everything—even this feeling of emptiness in my chest. With an eye on the emptiness I focused on sliding the letter back into the torn envelope, placed it in a pocket of my bag, and walked to the door, sensing my feet in contact with the floor. I felt the cool metal of the door handle and the resistance of the door on its hinges. I felt the cold air as I stepped outside, and walked to the car. I heard the solid sound of the car door latching.

As if an omen, the Beastie Boys were on the radio.

No time like the present to work shit out

That's what I'm going on and on and on about

Not fakin' just makin' beats in the dungeon

Keep that shit funky 'cause the odor is pungent

No shame in my game just par for the path

I try to hone my craft because at hand's the task

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  • Jason Stern writes about a brief encounter with profound wisdom at the post office.

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