The other day, I watched the documentary Twinsters on Netflix. It’s about two Korean adoptees who were separated at birth and had no idea they were twins. All their paperwork from Korea omits that fact, and even their foster parents in Korea had no idea. One was adopted by an American family with two older brothers (biological sons of the adoptive parents), and one was adopted by a childless couple in France. They found each other (unintentionally) with the help of YouTube and Facebook, and then they became like normal twins, with their own language and way of being together. It was sweet and had no agenda for or against international adoption (allowing me to keep my stance and still like the movie).
But the end got a bit heavier and hit me to the core: the twins traveled to Korea for a Korean Adoptee Conference, and during their trip they met the women who had fostered them when they were infants before they were adopted. The twin from the States had met hers the previous year, but it was the first time for the French one to meet hers. The impact it made on her was profound: she had been raised as an only child and felt that she only started existing the day she was adopted, that no one loved her or even cared whether she existed before then. Having now met her foster mom she suddenly realized that she did exist before and that people did love her and want her in the world. She was crying, and I was crying.
She said exactly what I used to say when I explained what I did as a foster parent (in my head, at least, back when I was doing it): that I was an unknown, never-to-be-remembered-yet-essential part of the babies’ lives and that no matter who loved them after me and whom they would credit with their lives, I was filling that small portion with love and care; it’s just that they would never know it. So for the girl to recognize it, it was as if she was recognizing me and what I had done for babies like her. It was what I would want them all to realize, that there was never a point in their lives when they weren’t known and loved.
Yet the very night I describe all this to my little sister and boyfriend, I have a dream about the little girl I fostered who felt most like a daughter to me, the one I tattooed in the form of an elephant onto my side. In this dream, I was her caregiver again. We played in a living room, and she had some words that she could say now. We were tentative, re-acquainting ourselves, but my love was just as strong. I adored her. I ate something and went to sleep and woke up a little while later, realizing I had someone else to take care of and that I hadn’t fed her or put her to bed. I walked down the stairs, my heart in my stomach, and I saw toys and trash strewn around, as if a two-year-old had been left to her own devices and what was left was evidence of my negligence. I heard her crying and went into the messy living room to find her lying on the floor amidst all the junk in her own pee. Her diaper was beyond full, and she was so exhausted but so uncomfortable with hunger and piss that she hadn’t been able to fall asleep. I knew then that I would never be forgiven, and I picked her up to hug her, holding her close to me. I changed her and put her down to sleep, but she couldn’t sleep in her crib, either. So I just decided to hold her in my arms and walk around until she did fall asleep. She had gone quiet by the time the sun came up.
I still can’t shake the sickening guilt.
There is an inextricable link between my feeling like what I did as a foster parent was of incalculable importance and feeling like I failed in truly living up to that. It doesn’t matter how it evens out logically. It is just something that’s there, inside, leaving me raw whenever it’s touched.
I guess this is where I could write about what it all means, what exactly I feel and the root of all this sadness. Maybe it’s just too personal for me to do that, or maybe it sits too closely to the nerve that causes such pain and leaves me so drained. What I can say is that the most meaningful experiences of my life have never been easy to describe or categorize. I know foster parenting certainly isn’t. But rarely has someone put it into such resonant terms as the adoptee in the film, and rarely have I felt so affirmed. I may have unresolved emotions, but that is only because life, as long as we are living it, will continually and frustratingly be unresolved as it unfolds. I don’t have closure, so I have dreams. I’m just grateful to realize that I will occasionally have more than that.
What is there to say? I have nothing to add to the conversation (and in fact think there are already too many voices competing for attention), and I’m not sure where I’d begin even if I did. Things are sad; though, as many have pointed out, they are not new. I do believe something is happening, that there is a rising up, a wave of revolution, that has been shaking up the foundations and is getting big enough to really do something, but I don’t know how to show my support without looking like I want the spotlight. So I will use someone else’s words to do the speaking, and who better than those of James Baldwin– one of the sharpest, most perceptive thinkers and artists who have ever existed.
The situation of a very racialized America is too often diminished to statistics and to neighborhoods to stay away from. It is not humanized; it is not understanding. It is seen as a problem to be dealt with that never seems to go away.
This is why his [the Black man’s] history and his progress, his relationship to all other Americans, has been kept in the social arena. He is a social and not a personal or a human problem; to think of him is to think of statistics, slums, rapes, injustices, remote violence; it is to be confronted with an endless cataloging of losses, gains, skirmishes; it is to feel virtuous, outraged, helpless, as though his continuing status among us were analogous to disease– cancers, perhaps, or tuberculosis– which must be checked, even though it cannot be cured.
It pains me to think that this next part is true. It shames me to know that in so many ways it is.
Time has made some changes in the Negro face. Nothing has succeeded in making it exactly like our own, though the general desire seems to be to make it blank it one cannot make it white. When it has become blank, the past as thoroughly washed from the blank face as it has been from ours, our guilt will be finished– at least it will have ceased to be visible, which we imagine to be much the same thing.
No matter how far we may go to escape the horrible chasm we’ve caused by placing so much on the difference between races and so little on the efforts to truly see each other, we will still be caught on the edge with no bridge to get us across.
One must travel very far, among saints with nothing to gain or outcasts with nothing to lose, to find a place where it does not matter– and perhaps a word or a gesture or simply a silence will testify that it matters even there.
What are we doing to each other? Why do we try to ignore the past? Are we really that deluded that we think our future can be any better, doing what we’ve been doing?
Negros are Americans and their destiny is the country’s destiny. They have no other experience besides their experience on this continent and it is an experience which cannot be rejected, which yet remains to be embraced.
Our dreams are not strong enough on their own. They need more than good intentions. We need to stop obliterating each other and expecting Black people to obliterate themselves for the sake of superficial harmony.
… we will set our faces against them and join hands and walk together into that dazzling future where there will be no white or black. This is the dream of all liberal men, a dream not at all dishonorable, but, nevertheless, a dream. For, let us join hands on this mountain as we may, the battle is elsewhere. It proceeds far from us in the heat and horror and pain of life itself where all men are betrayed by greed and guilt and blood lust and where no one’s hands are clean. Our good will, from which we yet expect such power to transform us, is thin, passionless, strident: its roots, examined, lead us back to our forebears, whose assumption it was that the black man, to become truly human and acceptable, must first become like us. This assumption once accepted, the Negro in America can only acquiesce in the obliteration of his own personality, the distortion and debasement of his own experience, surrendering to those forces which reduce the person to anonymity and which make themselves manifest daily all over the darkening world.
We have so much work to do.
My brother invites me last-minute to an art exhibit. I say yes because my only plans for my Thursday night were to read more of my book and, I don’t know, eat an egg for dinner or something. So I get home from work to change, and my brother drives us to the exhibit. On the way, he asks, ‘So do you know what this is about? Did I send you the info?’ He had not. We arrive half an hour early because we live in public-transit-time, not personal-car-time, and hang out at a nearby café to feel a little less like losers.
The art exhibit turns out to center on art pieces done by artists based on essays about freedom written by prisoners. Three of the artists share the essays they collaborated with and the inspiration for their pieces. The teacher who hosts the event and who taught the class the essays were written for shares her experiences and inspiration for the exhibit. One of the Jon Burge torture victims is in attendance. Everyone is spellbound and serious. It is both humbling and energizing.
At the end, I wait in line for the bathroom while my brother waits to speak with one of the artists from the panel– the whole reason we are here in the first place (because he saw on Twitter she was doing this tonight, and he wanted a reason to meet her). He keeps handing me his empty plastic cup and then taking it back, either because he’s confused about what we’re doing or he really just can’t get his mind to focus on anything other than meeting this person, anything like, say, finding a trash can. I finally make it into the bathroom, and as I’m opening the door to come back out, I feel a cold sensation in my pants on my thigh, close enough to my crotch that I think I somehow missed a drop when wiping. I’m embarrassed but keep walking out because I figure my pants will absorb it and also because I don’t want the long bathroom line to have negative feelings towards me for holding it up. As I walk, the cold feeling starts to spread. I think that maybe my body is revolting and peeing without my knowing it– without my even feeling it– and is somehow moving up my thigh instead of down, and by now I’m in the middle of the room with all these people milling about with this humiliating bodily insurrection going on in my pants but all I can do is keep looking down at my crotch to see where this wetness is and surreptitiously touch myself to check for it until finally, finally, my hand ventures far enough north that I tug on my jacket and feel the cold slithering up and out. Only then do I realize that I had simply tucked the bottom of my jacket into my pants when I was done in the bathroom and that the cold was just my zipper touching my skin.
I find my brother talking to the artist woman and stand looming to the side of her until he introduces us, and when he has gotten his fill of meeting-and-greeting, we walk to car and drive home. I forget about the pants incident entirely until we’re getting out of his car, and when I tell it, it doesn’t elicit the laughter I think it deserves. I had thought I was peeing cold pee, up my pants! I had thought I was losing all connection to my body! I had had an existential crisis in the middle of a crowd, and no one had noticed a thing! At least I’m laughing. I guess some things just aren’t as funny to other people.
Over the weekend, I read Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking, which (as her writer-husband Neil Gaiman put it) is part memoir of her life as an artist (from street performer to singer/songwriter) and part manifesto of her belief in the power of asking and all that it entails (giving, receiving, listening, seeing, gratitude). It was addicting.
Because the book was so rich with insight and experience, to write about it all in one post feels either too overwhelming or to simplifying. It would do the book (and Amanda) a disservice. So I am focusing on a sliver of the book here, and if I decide to write more posts on other portions, I will do so.
As a touring musician, Amanda has relied heavily on the generosity of her fans for anything from food before a show to a place to stay the night after one. Her descriptions of her couchsurfing experiences and her explanations for choosing them over staying in a hotel struck a chord in me– I have relied on the generosity of complete strangers to house and even feed me during my travels, and I love how much trust can grow when given the opportunity. There is nothing like sleeping in someone else’s house to make you aware of both the differences between you and others and of all that connect you at the same time.
Couchsurfing is about more than saving on hotel costs. It’s a gift exchange between the surfer and the host that offers an intimate gaze into somebody’s home, and the feeling of being held and comforted by their personal space. It’s also a reminder that we’re floating along due to a strong bond of trust, just like when I surf the crowd at a show, safely suspended on a sea of ever-changing hands. It can feel almost holy, looking at somebody else’s broken shower nozzle, smelling the smells of a real kitchen, feeling the fray of a real blanket and hearing the crackle of an old steam radiator.
In such an unfamiliar yet homey environment, the creative mind can find sources of inspiration that aren’t available in the well-known corners of one’s own home or even in the clean bareness of a hotel. I vividly remember the feel of the various bedrooms and living rooms I’ve stared out the windows of and how easily I could picture myself in new situations and in different lives, as if the change of scenery was not just the reason for a change of mood but also for a change of being. The empathic shift of perspective that couchsurfing invites can be drawn from long after the surfer leaves and can act as a much-needed catalyst for a formerly stale imagination.
Staying in your own home can be corrosive and stifling, especially for creative work. The surroundings can smother you with the baggage of your past and the History of You. Staying in a hotel can be a blissful blank slate. There’s no baggage, just an empty space onto which you can project anything. But staying in a stranger’s home can inspire like nothing else. You get to immerse yourself in the baggage of someone else’s past, and regard someone else’s mess of unsorted books piled up in the corner of the living room.
But aside from the fertile soil for creativity and relationship building that is couchsurfing, it also comes with plenty of awkwardness and uncomfortable moments, which Amanda touches on in a passage that made me laugh out loud with how true it is:
It’s not always all rainbows and unicorn bedsheets, though. Couches come with people who own couches. Sometimes people just aren’t good at the dance, and can’t tell when the performers need to stop socializing. In those awkward situations, you smile wearily, edge politely towards your toothbrush, and make the best of it, hoping the hint will be taken. I will hug you. I will love you. I will genuinely admire your kitchen cow collection. But when it is time, please let me go the fuck to sleep.
While my memories are almost entirely positive (or awkward), people often express hesitation and even fear when I bring up my couchsurfing experiences and intention to have more. Is that safe? What if something bad happens? They could steal from you or hurt you or rape you or something! And they’re always right– something bad could happen. I could get hurt or raped or stolen from. It’s never a guarantee that I nothing bad will happen ever, but especially when I trust someone during my most vulnerable moments, like sleeping on their couch and showering in their private bathroom. Yet, just like Amanda writes in her book, trust isn’t trust without the risk, without my choosing to trust while knowing that my choice could go one of two ways: well or terribly. And Amanda’s advice for when it goes terribly is perfect:
There’s an inherent, unspoken trust that happens when you walk through the door of your host’s home. Everybody implicitly trusts everybody else not to steal anything. We leave our phones, our wallets, our laptops, our journals, and our instruments lying scattered around our various mini-couchsurfing campsites. To my knowledge, I’ve never had anything go missing. I’m often asked: How can you trust people so much? Because that’s the only way it works.
When you openly, radically trust people, they not only take care of you, they become your allies, your family. Sometimes people will prove themselves untrustworthy. When that happens, the correct response is not: Fuck! I knew I couldn’t trust anybody! The correct response is: Some people just suck. Moving right along.
It also sometimes happens that the hosts have far less than the guest, and the discrepancy can be uncomfortable, if only because it doesn’t feel fair that the one with more should be relying on the one with less. But instead of guilt, which invalidates the host’s generosity and fails to acknowledge the profound gift that it is, Amanda writes about gratitude, which serves to humble the recipient and place the gift of generosity at the forefront of consciousness in such situations.
How is this fair? I thought. These people have so little. I’m being treated like royalty by a family living in poverty. It wasn’t guilt that I felt; that would have been an insult to their generosity. It was an overwhelming gratitude, more than I knew what to do with.
Of course, you get more than just graciousness when you couchsurf.
Things you get when you couchsurf that you don’t get in a hotel: The rattling sound of pots and silverware in the morning. Bathrooms with ratty, beloved mismatched towels. Leftover birthday cake. Dark hallways humid with the smells of baking. Looking at the weird shit people keep in their medicine cabinets. Cats to pat, who are at first standoffish then decide they love you at four a.m., when you’re finally asleep. Walls of Elvis plates. The recaptured feeling of having a sleepover party. Dodgy electric blankets. A chance to try on hats. Morning coffee in a wineglass for lack of enough cups. Children of all ages and temperaments who draw pictures for you. The ability to make your own toast. Record players. Wet grass in the backyard sunrise, where the chickens are roosting. Out-of-tune pianos and other strange instruments to fondle. Candles stuck to mantelpieces. The beautiful vision of strangers in their pajamas. Weird teas from around the world. Pinball machines. Pet spiders. Latches that don’t quite work. Glow-in-the-dark things on the ceiling. Late-night and early-morning stories about love, death, hardship, and heartbreak. The collision of life. Art for the blender. The dots connecting.
It’s hard to explain what compels me to continue to couchsurf after years of doing it, but it always boils down to connection and tightening the web of trust that is often invisible to those who haven’t experienced it. Amanda Palmer captures it brilliantly in The Art of Asking, which I would recommend reading for these reasons and more, wholeheartedly.
This is part of a series of posts in which I am separating passages from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet into the major themes I found in his letters. I selected the fewest excerpts for this theme, but I found them to be so essential and relevant that ‘love’ deserved its own post.
In this one, he describes a general love, one that is simple and all-encompassing, no matter how much we are growing internally and expanding in thought and solitude. We need to meet people where they are, have understanding for those who don’t understand us, and feel full with love and respect for our parents and those whose love for us has been unconditional:
But the individual can make them clear for himself and live them clearly (not the individual who is dependent, but the solitary man). He can remember that all beauty in animals and plants is a silent, enduring form of love and yearning, and he can see the animal, as he sees plants, patiently and willingly uniting and multiplying and growing, not out of physical pleasure, not out of physical pain, but bowing to necessities that are greater than pleasure and pain, and more powerful than will and withstanding. If only human beings could more humbly receive this mystery which the world is filled with, even in its smallest Things, could bear it, endure it, more solemnly, feel how terribly heavy it is, instead of taking it lightly…. be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend. Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust…. believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.
He goes on in a separate letter to explain the necessity of becoming who we are—through solitude and introspection—before trying to merge with someone else. The best love comes from two whole, solitary humans choosing to live their lives alongside each other, coming up with their own way of being (as there are no rules for how love should look from one couple to the next). He also throws in his ideas on the equality of women and how incorporating our feminine characteristics into our sense of self (and into relationships and in society) will expand our capacity to love each other:
It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation…. But learning-time is always a long, secluded time, and therefore loving, for a long time ahead and far on into life, is: solitude, a heightened and deepened kind of aloneness for the person who loves. Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent?), it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person; it is a great, demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances.
Whoever looks seriously will find that neither for death, which is difficult, nor for difficult love has any clarification, any solution, any hint of a path been perceived; and for both these tasks, which we carry wrapped up and hand, on without opening, there is no general, agreed-upon rule that can be discovered. But in the same measure in which we begin to test life as individuals, these great Things will come to meet us, the individuals, with greater intimacy. The claims that the difficult work of love makes upon our development are greater than life, and we, as beginners, are not equal to them. But if we nevertheless endure and take this love upon us as burden and apprenticeship, instead of losing ourselves in the whole easy and frivolous game behind which people have hidden from the most solemn solemnity of their being, then a small advance and a lightening will perhaps be perceptible to those who come long after us. That would be much.
…someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere opposite of the male, but something in itself, something that makes one think not of any complement and limit, but only of life and reality: the female human being.
This advance (at first very much against the will of the outdistanced men) will transform the love experience, which is now filled with error, will change it from the ground up, and reshape it into a relationship that is meant to be between one human being and another, no longer one that flows from man to woman. And this more human love (which will fulfill itself with infinite consideration and gentleness, and kindness and clarity in binding and releasing) will resemble what we are now preparing painfully and with great struggle: the love that consists in this: that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.
In a way, the themes of writing and of solitude in Letters to a Young Poet are intertwined: advice for the latter is mostly in regard to the former, and any advice for the former includes some of the latter. But I tried extricating them the best that I could because there is something to be gained from each, so below are some excerpts of Rilke’s advice on how to become a good writer.
After asking ourselves whether we have to write or not, we should then write out of that necessity rather than for praise or for anyone else. There is always enough material in life for our art as long as we are creating it out of a compulsion to create, as long as we are digging into ourselves and our worlds and not seeking outside compensation:
There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse…. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes a great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty. Describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sound – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attention to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. And if out of this turning within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it. So, dear Sir, I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question of whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted.
Again, he reiterates that outside opinions should not shape our art or writing and that allowing life to compost inside of us and to come out when it’s ready is the best way to stay genuine and sincere in what we do:
But let me make this request right away: Read as little as possible of literary criticism. Such things are either partisan opinions, which have become petrified and meaningless, hardened and empty of life, or else they are clever word-games, in which one view wins, and tomorrow the opposite view. Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism. Only love can touch and hold them and be fair to them. Always trust yourself and your own feeling, as opposed to argumentation, discussions, or introductions of that sort; if it turns out that you are wrong, then the natural growth of your inner life will eventually guide you to other insights. Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened. Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.
In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!
So, while we should be wary of literary criticism, doubt can be a useful tool in our writing and artistic repertoire as long as we train it. This is one of my favorite passages on training the critical eye to be helpful and productive rather than destructive:
And your doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become criticism. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perhaps bewildered and embarrassed, perhaps also protesting. But don’t give in, insist on arguments, and act in this way, attentive and persistent, every single time, and the day will come when, instead of being a destroyer, it will become one of your best workers – perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life.
Along with solitude, sadness can act as a fertilizer for our personal growth if we let it. In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke writes about how our sadnesses should be trusted more than our joys, for something invisible to the eye is happening inside of us when we are sad, something we need to pay attention to that will transform us and the way we move through the world:
Perhaps many things inside you have been transformed; perhaps somewhere, someplace deep inside your being, you have undergone important changes while you were sad. The only sadnesses that are dangerous and unhealthy are the ones that we carry around in public in order to drown them out with the noise; like diseases that are treated superficially and foolishly, they just withdraw and after a short interval break out again all the more terribly; and gather inside us and are life, are life that is unlived, rejected, lost, life that we can die of. If only it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches, and even a little beyond the outworks of our presentiment, perhaps we would bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy embarrassment, everything in us withdraws, a silence arises, and the new experience, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it all and says nothing.
That is why the sadness passes: the new presence inside us, the presence that has been added, has entered our heart, has gone into its innermost chamber and is no longer even there, is already in our bloodstream. And we don’t know what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing happened, and yet we have changed, as a house that a guest has entered changes. We can’t say who has come, perhaps we will never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters us in this way in order to be transformed in us, long before it happens. And that is why it is so important to be solitary and attentive when one is sad: because the seemingly uneventful and motionless moment when our future steps into us is so much closer to life than that other loud and accidental point of time when it happens to us as if from outside. The quieter we are, the more patient and open we are in our sadnesses, the more deeply and serenely the new presence can enter us, and the more we can make it our own, the more it becomes our fate; and later on, when it “happens” (that is, steps forth out of us to other people), we will feel related and close to it in our innermost being. And that is necessary.
He reiterates his belief that equanimity—an acceptance of all aspects of our life, sadness and solitude and joy—will help us grow and become who we are truly meant to be. We don’t even have to name the thing inside of us or force it to grow us before it’s time; it is better to let it do its work and for us to embrace difficulty more than ease for the growth that comes out of it:
So you mustn’t be frightened… if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change. If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better. In you… so much is happening now; you must be patient like someone who is sick, and confident like someone who is recovering; for perhaps you are both. And more: you are also the doctor, who has to watch over himself. But in every sickness there are many days when the doctor can do nothing but wait. And that is what you, insofar as you are your own doctor, must now do, more than anything else.
Don’t observe yourself too closely. Don’t be too quick to draw conclusions from what happens to you; simply let it happen…. The extraordinary circumstances of a solitary and helpless childhood are so difficult, so complicated, surrendered to so many influences and at the same time so cut off from all real connection with life that, where a vice enters it, one may not simply call it a vice. One must be so careful with names anyway; it is so often the name of an offense that a life shatters upon, not the nameless and personal action itself, which was perhaps a quite definite necessity of that life and could have been absorbed by it without any trouble…. I see that it is now yearning forth beyond the great thing toward the greater one. That is why it does not cease to be difficult, but that is also why it will not cease to grow.
After years of seeing Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke show up again and again on admired authors’ lists of most influential works and continuing to put off reading it, mostly because I thought it was long and I was somehow never in the mood for what I expected was old time-y language, I decided last week that I would finally try, even if I had to do it in bursts. It turns out that it’s only ten, relatively short letters, so I could read them all in one sitting. And they weren’t written in ‘old time-y’ language either—just elegantly philosophical. I could see why people are drawn to this collection, and I wanted to share some excerpts for anyone who needed a dose of Rilke’s medicine.
Because I saw four main themes arise from the letters, I am breaking up the excerpts according to theme. This is the first and most prominent theme, the theme of solitude. The next most prominent theme was on writing, then on sadness, and then love. I was surprised that I knew by heart some of the lines as I was reading them, which showed me just how ubiquitous Rilke’s influence is, having appeared in writings by other authors that I absorbed and failed to attribute to him.
These words can be powerful, acting as encouragement for the solitary soul, salve for the sad one, or hope for the floundering one. I’m sharing them here for anyone in need of any of those things or even as a reminder of what they already know.
In the first letter and one of my most favorite passages, he writes about letting things compost (in the words of Natalie Goldberg)—not forcing answers to questions we may have in life but living those questions to let them become answers organically:
You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
He describes both the familiarity of our personal solitude and the drudgery of our professions when we feel we might reap more energy or sustenance from following our passions; yet instead of encouraging a change of vocation, Rilke encourages more communion with the self because our feelings towards our profession won’t necessarily just go away with such a change. Instead we should see it as a connecting point to others and then continue to try to connect with things outside of our professions:
But your solitude will be a support and a home for you, even in the midst of very unfamiliar circumstances, and from it you will find all your paths.
What is happening in your innermost self is worthy of your entire love; somehow you must find a way to work at it, and not lose too much time or too much courage in clarifying your attitude toward people…. l know, your profession is hard and full of things that contradict you, and I foresaw your lament and knew that it would come. Now that it has come, there is nothing I can say to reassure you, I can only suggest that perhaps all professions are like that, filled with demands, filled with hostility toward the individual, saturated as it were with the hatred of those who find themselves mute and sullen in an insipid duty. The situation you must live in now is not more heavily burdened with conventions, prejudices, and false ideas than all the other situations, and if there are some that pretend to offer a greater freedom, there is nevertheless none that is, in itself, vast and spacious and connected to the important Things that the truest kind of life consists of…. you would have felt in just the same way in any of the established professions; yes, even if, outside any position, you had simply tried to find some easy and independent contact with society, this feeling of being hemmed in would not have been spared you. It is like this everywhere; but that is no cause for anxiety or sadness; if there is nothing you can share with other people, try to be close to Things; they will not abandon you; and the nights are still there, and the winds that move through the trees and across many lands; everything in the world of Things and animals is still filled with happening, which you can take part in; and children are still the way you were as a child, sad and happy in just the same way and if you think of your childhood, you once again live among them, among the solitary children, and the grownups are nothing, and their dignity has no value.
And you should not let yourself be confused in your solitude by the fact that there is something in you that wants to move out of it. This very wish, if you use it calmly and prudently and like a tool, will help you spread out your solitude over a great distance. Most people have (with the help of conventions) turned their solutions toward what is easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it, everything, in Nature grows and defends itself any way it can and is spontaneously itself, tries to be itself at all costs and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.
In a very Zen-like passage, Rilke touches on the concept of equanimity—the idea that nothing should be excluded or shunned from our experience and that everything should be embraced—with an ending line that is so beautiful it has stayed with me for years:
And to speak of solitude again, it becomes clearer and clearer that fundamentally this is nothing that one can choose or refrain from. We are solitary. We can delude ourselves about this and act as if it were not true. That is all. But how much better it is to recognize that we are alone; yes, even to begin from this realization…. We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can; everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it. This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us…. But the fear of the inexplicable has not only impoverished the reality of the individual; it has also narrowed the relationship between one human being and another, which has as it were been lifted out of the riverbed of infinite possibilities and set down in a fallow place on the bank, where nothing happens. For it is not only indolence that causes human relationships to be repeated from case to case with such unspeakable monotony and boredom; it is timidity before any new, inconceivable experience, which we don’t think we can deal with. But only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being…. We have been put into life as into the element we most accord with, and we have, moreover, through thousands of years of adaptation, come to resemble this life so greatly that when we hold still, through a fortunate mimicry we can hardly be differentiated from everything around us. We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience. How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.
These passages summarize beautifully what Rilke believes about solitude, namely that it has a purpose and that we can learn much by letting it do its work on us:
It must be immense, this silence, in which sounds and movements have room, and if one thinks that along with all this the presence of the distant sea also resounds, perhaps as the innermost note in this prehistoric harmony, then one can only wish that you are trustingly and patiently letting the magnificent solitude work upon you, this solitude which can no longer be erased from your life; which, in everything that is in store for you to experience and to do, will act an anonymous influence, continuously and gently decisive, rather as the blood of our ancestors incessantly moves in us and combines with our own to form the unique, unrepeatable being that we are at every turning of our life.
…just the wish that you may find in yourself enough patience to endure and enough simplicity to have faith; that you may gain more and more confidence in what is difficult and in your solitude among other people. And as for the rest, let life happen to you. Believe me: life is in the right, always.
For anyone who hasn’t watched Tangerine on Netflix, it’s a movie shot entirely on an iPhone about transgender prostitutes in LA. It mostly follows one woman as she searches the city for the woman her boyfriend supposedly slept with while she was in jail for the past 28 days and as she subsequently finds the woman, beats her up, and drags her through the city to her friend’s performance at a bar and then to a donut shop to confront the boyfriend, who also happens to be both of the women’s pimp. It’s not as confusing as that might make is sound, but just as it may be relatively easy to follow, it is not always easy to listen to, as there are often several voices clamoring to be heard at once. In a way, this isn’t a clean-cut movie with lines for every actor at their designated time. It is just like life, where the script doesn’t exist and sometimes leads to everyone speaking over each other. But right at the end of this life-like movie, there is quiet, and it is this quiet that reveals so much more about the characters than their words do.
The movie is intentionally chaotic—a few storylines simultaneously occurring, sometimes intersecting; yelling and fighting and arguments happening throughout—to make the silence a few minutes before the movie ends especially noticeable. And though the intense arguing throughout the movie could be considered disheartening to some, to me it holds the hope of connection, for regardless of how harsh their words are, these people are reaching for each other, for ways to be affirmed and known in their community. It’s like what I’ve learned about child development: the crying child is still clinging to survival, is still choosing life over resignation. The child who no longer cries for food or touch, who doesn’t seek the caregiver’s face, has given up, has ‘failed to thrive.’ No matter how loud or mean we may get, as long as we are still making a commotion, we are letting the world know that we’re trying, that we’re putting our faith in life.
So for those few moments of silence at the end of the film, when the characters stop fighting and go their separate ways, the heart breaks: they had tried so hard, given so much to resist— however destructively— the pain of isolation, and it left them alone and isolated anyway. There is nothing sadder than that. What makes this particularly heartbreaking is that the two main characters—the one who dragged the accused mistress through town and her performing best friend who had told her about the infidelity in the first place—are not on speaking terms because, as it turns out, the best friend also slept with the boyfriend/pimp while the friend was away.
It’s not hard to see that each of the characters is guilty for something—infidelity, lying, betrayal. No one is completely in the right. But to have a friend who has your back, who has seen you at your worst and nevertheless supports you and loves you, and then to have that her hurt you can feel like a death—you no longer know what is right and what isn’t; your whole world has to re-calibrate to adjust to this shock. After the revelation, the two women walk the same direction, the friend who betrayed walking a few yards behind the friend who was betrayed. The latter tells the other one to leave her alone so she can do her work, but right as she approaches a car with two men for a job, they throw a cup of their piss in her face as they yell a slur and drive off. Her friend is the only one around, and she takes her to a Laundromat to clean her off.
Forgiveness rarely comes easily; one scene could never capture it. Still, the woman helps her friend out of her clothes and wig and sits with her while they wait for them to get clean. They leave a seat between them and sit in silence until the first woman offers her wig to the other. Sitting there—one clothed, one not; one with hair, one with a hair net—they look at each other; they are seeking each other’s face. And right before the credits roll, the two women reach out across the void of separation and brokenness to hold hands.
In the quietude, the film ends with a moment of connection. There is nothing more beautiful or more profound than that.