I look out at the water: deep blue, cold from last night’s storm, sparkling with light, home to fish, a path for sailors, somebody’s grave. The wind touches my face. A new friend, Dado, walking along the waterfront, nods to me. I barely have time to notice before he moves on. The water laps the stone walls, the light has shifted, and now the wind is coming from the hills.
Each of these moments so precious, containing a thousand universes. They relentlessly pass, and pass, and pass, and I will never see or touch them again.
Years ago, as a lonely teenager in Oakland, California, I discovered the voices of others, the ones who came before.
I was nineteen, a nervous and difficult creature, full of contradictions, prone to daydreaming and exaggeration. My life was full of drama. A simple trip to school could be a soaring adventure or a miserable struggle - if I made it to school at all. It’s funny, now, to look back on the things I used to get upset about.
But one part of my life was important. Between the made-up quarrels and silly fads, the epic battle to maintain a B average and the fascinating business of dating, I was trying to learn how to live in the world. I was facing (sometimes reluctantly) the big questions: Who was I? What would happen when I died? Was there a purpose to all this? And if so, was I blowing it?
Is there anything as scared and wretched, as pathetic and self-absorbed, as a teenager trying to figure out the meaning of life?
I understood practically nothing, and what little I understood, I doubted. I didn’t have a religious tradition to turn to, and most of my role models were dubious. Flailing around helplessly, unsure where to even start, I was racked with all the crazy, volatile, heart-wrenching emotions of a person who hasn’t yet learned to put her feet on the ground.
Then one day I opened a book, Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. Books were nothing new: I’d been a bookworm my whole life. What had changed was me. All those questions had opened up space in my mind, and there was room for some truth to sink in.
That day I seemed to hear the voice of the author speaking directly to me. It was as though Baldwin, hearing my agonized questions, had decided to pay me a visit and talk it over. He spoke through the story, which I now saw had many layers below the surface narrative, layers I’d never noticed before. This man - Baldwin’s protagonist - was trying to live in the world too. He had the same questions that I did. As I read voraciously, following Baldwin’s lead, these questions were brought out and hidden, avoided and denied, and finally faced in their clear hard truth.
Reading this book, it was as though a strong, friendly hand had slipped into mine. I still had no answers, but I wasn’t alone anymore. Someone else, someone suddenly very close to me, was struggling with the same thing.
It turned out there were many fellow-travelers. The authors might be dead, but I could still speak with them through their books. I found solace in Zora Neale Hurston, John Steinbeck, E.M. Forster, Somerset Maugham, even Kafka and Dostoyevsky - anyone with the courage to tackle the big questions: love, suffering, the search for truth, and what Buddhists call “the great matter of life and death”.
One day I read this line from C.S. Lewis: “We read to know that we are not alone.” I closed the book and thought about what that meant: I wasn’t the only one seeking fellowship from books. He’d done it too. I felt suddenly close to him. Going to the bookshelf, I pulled out The Great Divorce, and read it with new eyes. Later I guessed that all the great authors had felt the same need, found the same consolation.
There we were, untold thousands whose dearest friends were people we would never meet, who had, perhaps, died long before we were born. A chain of fellowship moving from book to book, author to reader, all down the centuries.
I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life. I have a drink in my hand, there is a bottle at my elbow. I watch my reflection in the darkening gleam of the window pane. My reflection is tall, perhaps rather like an arrow, my blond hair gleams. My face is like a face you have seen many times.
- James Baldwin
(the opening paragraph of the shattering and tender Giovanni’s Room)
is a perfect creature
equal to itself
mindful of its limits
with a pebbly meaning
with a scent which does not remind one
does not frighten anything away does
not arouse desire
its ardor and coldness
are just and full of dignity
I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by a false warmth
-Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the very end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye
-Zbigniew Herbert (translated by Alissa Valles)
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself,
(I am large - I contain multitudes).
- Walt Whitman
Song of Myself
When I lived in London I used to take the train to work. I would wedge myself in just before the doors closed, squeeze between people, settle my heavy bag on my shoulder, duck my head to keep from hitting the ceiling, and grit my teeth as we lurched off, rattling and rocking, stopping at every cow-path and crossroad all the way to Waterloo.
You had to meditate in a situation like that: it was self-defense. Otherwise you’d go crazy. And not the silent meditation of the Zendo, either. This was a noisy, crowded, intimate, public meditation; a shared experience; a group effort.
I would pick the loudest, ugliest, most objectionable person in the train, and focus on that one. I would settle my attention on his face and hands, watching what he did, what he said, watching especially the mannerisms that annoyed me. I found that if I spent some time looking at him and listening to my breath, letting my mind still, something remarkable would happen. After the first anxious minutes (it’s too crowded, I can’t breathe, my shoulder hurts, who is this guy) my mind would open up. And love would come flooding in, total love, as sure and unequivocal as the sunlight shafting in the windows.
I loved him. And that woman next to him, I loved her too. And the guy with dark circles under his arms, whose knee kept hitting my leg. And the couple with their bed-rumpled heads and sleepy, amorous eyes. All of them. Each of them. Breath flowing in and out. Light everywhere, warming me, gilding the air. In, out. Love. Love.
Finally the train would stop at Waterloo station. For a moment, as we waited for the doors to open, I would feel it: the certain knowledge that each of us was the same. As though each person was a water glass, filled high or low with the same water; separate for now but only waiting to be tipped over to spill and merge back into one.
The doors would open. My loved ones, in a hurry, would spill out onto the platform. Breath would come back into my lungs. And I would shoulder my bag and get off the train, on the way to work...
A shower fell in the night and now dark clouds drift across the sky, occasionally sprinkling a fine film of rain.
I stand under an apple-tree in blossom and I breathe. Not only the apple-tree but the grass around it glistens with moisture; words cannot describe the sweet fragrance that pervades the air. Inhaling as deeply as I can, the aroma invades my whole being; I breathe with my eyes open, I breathe with my eyes closed - I cannot say which gives me the greater pleasure.
This, I believe, is the single most precious freedom that prison takes away from us: the freedom to breathe freely, as I now can. No food on earth, no wine, not even a woman’s kiss is sweeter to me than this air steeped in the fragrance of flowers, of moisture and freshness.
No matter that this is only a tiny garden, hemmed in by five-story houses like cages in a zoo. I cease to hear the motorcycles backfiring, the radios whining, the burble of loudspeakers. As long as there is fresh air to breathe under an apple-tree after a shower, we may survive a little longer.
Freedom to Breathe
The miniscule lives of herring, seen with a sympathetic eye, are as lovely and significant to me as the grandest things in Nature.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
I see my loved ones as a constellation, spread out across space, shining each with their own light.
Right now in Kiev, Slavic is coming home from work. He looks up at his balcony and smiles at Ponya the dog, who has poked his head out the window.
And Katie in Wisconsin sighs in her sleep, warm and safe, tucked into bed with her love.
In Italy my sister on her Vespa has stopped to let a woman pass with her groceries. This woman with clever, sparkly earrings, who once returned a lost wallet belonging to the airport clerk who spotted the mislabeled baggage tag, ensuring that my mother’s suitcase, on her last trip to Italy, was not lost.
In Moscow, Julia and Jacob are sitting at Coffee House laughing about something at work. A block away Maxim is stuck in traffic, but he takes it well, as usual. Natalia G is working late; Natasha S is making dinner for her son; Natalia S is sewing a jacket. Across the world, in Sausalito, my early-rising father has just placed his rowing shell in the water.
Somewhere on the hazy green plain east of Donetsk, has Valery put his bow to the strings? Is the voice that I love singing out into the coal-smudged air?
Maelle and George are leaving Poland for India; Byron Katie is visiting a prison in America; Gady is on a plane for New York. Jan has come back from Macao; Maria is still in Shanghai; Sergei has already forgotten Madeira.
My adorable niece is packing her bag for a soccer game; eight-year-old Max is playing piano. Pepo and Nine’s son is too small to leave the house; Sveta’s handsome globe-trotting Sasha is almost one. Four-year-old Francesco will not eat his Brussel sprouts. Andrei would love to have them, but he’s miles away, playing football on Kew Green.
Out there in the world, in mysterious and elegant ways, people are moving and mingling and meeting in a way that will someday create another baby, now unknown to us. Once she is born, it will be impossible to imagine the world without her.
At San Francisco airport Cynthia is attending a man with heart palpitations. It’s hard to say what helps him most: her blue fireman’s uniform, her kind, intelligent eyes, the calm press of fingers on the vein inside his wrist.
Someone has separated from his wife; someone has fallen in love. Someone is watching a play; someone is bored; someone is looking for a job. Maria folds a sweatshirt and places it on the display stand. Miro spoons caviar into a crepe. Niksa is drinking coffee, ignoring the admiring glance from the man at the next table.
Lovely and complex, orbiting each in their own path, crossing and touching, aware and unaware, shining each with their own light. Each in turn the center of their own constellation of friends and loved ones. Thoughts lingering from time to time on each other: wondering how this one is doing, sending that one a note, embracing this one in our arms.
What more could we need? What faith promises more, what vision more potent, what enlightenment greater, than this, the ordinary way of it?