A Story About A Meditation Retreat, #3

“Is there something you want badly?” he asked.

And she replied almost greedily, gasping for breath: “Yes”— and burst into a storm of weeping.

“What?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she wept in despair.

“You needn’t be afraid of telling me, Sola dear. Maybe I can get it for you when I grow up."

“You wouldn’t understand. You’re so little. No one understands. I don’t even understand it myself—day and night."

“Is it because of the way you’re made?” he asked, full of sympathy and conscious that the discussion was verging now upon the most intimate secrets of the human body, which it is otherwise customary never to mention — possibly it was wrong of him, but the words had slipped his tongue before he realized.

“Yes,” she sighed after a little reflection, disconsolately.

“It doesn’t matter, Sola dear,” he whispered then, and patted her cheek, determined to console her. “There’s no need to find out. I won’t tell anyone. I shall ask Gvendur not to tell anyone."

“So you know, then?” she asked, taking the cloth away from her eyes and looking him straight in the eyes “— you know?"

“No, Sola dear, I know nothing. I’ve never had a look; it doesn’t matter. And anyway nobody can help it. And when I’m a big man, maybe I’ll build a house in another country and then you can come and live with me and eat potatoes —"

“Potatoes? What do I want with potatoes?"

“Like it says in the Bible stories,” he explained.

“There aren’t any potatoes in the Bible stories."

“I mean what the woman ate in the Bible stories,” he said.

“I don’t want anything in the Bible stories,” she said, gazing into space with tear-swollen eyes. “God is an enemy of the soul."

Then suddenly he asked: “What did you wish for in the winter, Sola, when the teacher gave us all a wish?"

First she looked at him searchingly, and the squint in her eyes seemed more pronounced than ever, because of her weeping; then her lids fell and she began uprooting grass from the sward. “You mustn’t tell anyone,” she said.

“No, I shall never tell anyone. What was it, then?"

“It was love,” she said, and then once more her weeping burst its bonds, and again and again she repeated from the midst of her sobbing: “Love, love, love."

“How do you mean?” he asked.

She threw herself in a heap on the ground again, her shoulders shaking with sobs as they had done when he came up to her a few moments ago, and she wailed:

“I wish I could die. Die. Die."

He did not know what to say in the face of such sorrow. He sat in silence by his sister’s side in the spring verdure, which was too young; and the hidden strings in his breast begin to quiver, and to sound.

This was the first time he had ever looked into the labyrinth of the human soul. He was very far from understanding what he saw. But what was of more value, he felt and suffered with her. In years that were yet to come he relieved this memory in song, in the most beautiful song the world has known. For understanding the soul’s defencelessness, of the conflict between the two poles, is not the source of the greatest song. The source of the greatest song is sympathy. Sympathy with Asta Sollilja on earth.

— Independent People


As I drove south through the storm, the lights of Taos flickered in and out on the horizon. The snow coated the road, and driving was slow. The jeep had turned off, and I was alone. It was the hour of reflection. There was nothing to do but drive slowly, watching the road, careful with traction, looking for the edges so as not to get stuck in my little four door sedan. It lent a measure of tension to the reflections that passed through my mind.

It’s easy to go along and think: I understand this or that. Because the available material to work with, the few facts at hand, may create what looks like a full picture. The fact is, though, without knowing the full story of something, it’s impossible to know the complete truth. And stories can change, depending on moods, who is telling them, what is remembered and forgotten. So what is this reality we live in after all?

Who am I, and what am I doing? I thought I had put these kinds of questions to rest a long time ago. But now, in my thirtieth year, I found that once again they came up, again and again. This nagging idea, that the story of my life wasn’t the point of it all, had never gone anywhere, I had never answered it. If anything, it had gone deeper, and now, at age thirty, when “something was supposed to have happened,” some career, some knowledge of the future, some success—absolutely nothing had. Even the goal I had set out to achieve four years before, which seemed reasonable to me at the time: to find a place to call home, hadn’t been achieved. The only thing I felt I had learned was that there was never a final answer to anything.

In the past my answer has been “my art” to the question of “who are you.” But as time has gone on, and my ideas of what it means to be successful have changed, and more questions have come up about the function and worth of art, and where it is useful, and who wants it, I began to doubt that. Maybe it was just a fanciful interpretation of life arisen from an easy time in my twenties. Of course people should produce beauty. Looking at the world closely, how could one not? What I had really come down to was this: did my life’s work matter to anyone else? For so long I had studied and absorbed the world, books, films, recipes, experiences. And in the back of my mind I had this idea of a reservoir of experience, building up to a shining fullness, and from that deep, bountiful place I could draw things, write things, photograph things, say things, cook things that would somehow contribute to the world around me. But in my thirtieth year, I found the world more broken than ever. The ways my friends communicated dominated by platforms engineered to be addictive. People’s attention spans shorter, and anxieties higher. City living incredibly stressful and expensive. Rural living lonely and isolating. The art, publishing, and photography worlds run by money, with frail offshoots of goodness. People’s egos getting in the way of real work. But I refused, all along, to give up the kernel question, the question from which it all sprang from for me: “What really matters?”

But who am I to answer such a thing, even just for myself? And trying to answer it for others? Laughable.

At a certain point in this quest, photography and Instagram failed me. And then words, in the way I wrote them, failed me. But, just over a year ago, I began writing about all of this anyway. I wanted to make it congeal, to have some solution from it, to understand it. So I wrote, in the night after working during the day, on a farm on an island in Maine. The writing saved my life, and gave me hope, as the time on that island was amongst the most difficult so far in my life.

The writing came out as poems, instead of prose. It broke down into lines of simplistic sentences, more like short stories than anything. Over the last year I wrote almost 200 pages of this kind of writing, which I titled “A Body Of Water.” Pretty much no one, besides one or two people, have seen or heard from that work. In the midst of writing it, I realized that to some degree my questions had been answered, in that there was no answer to them. I would just have to go along and find out. Experience would offer me what I was looking for, and then again it may never.

It’s strange how the idea of quitting an attempt to understand something can, to me, seem almost as absurd as ever answering the question itself. And I guess that’s where I leave it.

As I slid into town the snow thickened, falling like flour under the orange streetlights on Paseo del Pueblo Sur. Cars had gone off the road, I counted six. The hill past the plaza was sloppy, and I turned into the curb to prevent sliding into an intersection. Everyone else was driving around gingerly, the whole world coated in pure, beautiful new snow.