Monday, December 14, 2009

Wherever you go, there you are

Yesterday we were in a cafe having a delicious, expensive, gourmet lunch. I had nothing to do but enjoy myself and spend time with my brand-spanking-new husband tootling around a beautiful European city and spending money given as wedding presents. So, I figured it was a good time to do some existential worrying about those pressing questions, like: what is the point of life? I mean, do any of our efforts really make a difference -- what would it even mean to "make a difference" -- like, a difference in what? What would I even be shooting for if I could magically produce any outcome I wanted this instant? You know, things that need to be figured out here, today, at this cafe table.

At times like this, I can really experience being my own worst enemy. There was this irritatingly audible, vapid-seeming young American girl at a table next to us, telling in syrupy tones the poor young German man (who either was unable to perceive her vapidity on account of her foreignness, or whose foreignness was obscuring his own vapidity from me) that "you can't run from yourself," which, despite being trite, is nevertheless true. Even having everything I could imagine wanting at this moment, I am still just myself.

It's illuminating to shift suddenly through such different cultures. In those last days before we left Kenya, I romanticized my projection of Europe, a place where everything works and we can get everything we want and I won't be frustrated by what I was experiencing as this insane apathy on the part of the Kenyans, this sort of radical acceptance of suffering that seemed to allow for the unacceptable. For example, riding a matatu into Nairobi is the equivalent of a 90 minute mechanical bull ride: do you picket the president's office in outrage about the state of the country's roads? No, you accept that this is how things are. Someone breaks your dog's leg: do you get bent out of shape and start trying to change the way people in your town treat animals? No, you just hope that the dog's leg gets better. Or, fuck it, get rid of your broken dog and get a better new one. I mean, you didn't even give him a name anyway. The educational system is based on slavish regurgitation in preparation for the incomprehensible standardized exam that will determine the entire future of your students: do you demand changes to this archaic and unreasonable system? No... you get the idea.

But now, here in the lovely city of Berlin, there are just a new set of circumstances that grate on me. The air hurts my body and makes going outside unpleasant; the sun barely lightens the gray pall of the sky, making everything the weak color of despair; I feel useless, like my only purpose is to take pleasure, to use up stored "happy capital" when my instinct is to hoard and save it for some hypothetical "later." It reminds me of the following poem:

The Obligation to be Happy
by Linda Pastan

It is more onerous
than the rites of beauty
or housework, harder than love.
But you expect it of me casually,
the way you expect the sun
to come up, not in spite of rain
or clouds but because of them.

And so I smile, as if my own fidelity
to sadness were a hidden vice—
that downward tug on my mouth,
my old suspicion that health
and love are brief irrelevancies,
no more than laughter in the warm dark
strangled at dawn.

Happiness. I try to hoist it
on my narrow shoulders again—
a knapsack heavy with gold coins.
I stumble around the house,
bump into things.
Only Midas himself
would understand.


  1. This is a great post, Bridget, and a really lovely poem. Try to remember to take it easy on yourself. You are not perfect, nor will you ever be. Traveling and experiencing other cultures can be very trying.

  2. I know the feeling. Kenyans sound like Slovenians, perhaps they should join each other in some grand apathetic kingdom! I will begin by suggesting that we summer in Slovenia and winter in Kenya!

    Also, Berlin has a way of kinda slapping you in the face with all of the things that it is and isn't, and I hear it is heavier on the isn'ts in the dreary winter. That said, it is a good place to take a break from certain things.

    Please excuse my lack of clarity.

  3. Good god. There's two brilliant bloggers in the family. If you ever procreate I'm cuing up for the kid's book singing now.

    As usual when I encounter eloquent, poetic depictions of "sad ideas" I am filled with inappropriate glee. (See: my shit eating grin after my 10th viewing of Sophie's Choice.) Maybe I find solace in our shared ability to, through simple expression, thrum the strings that connect us all. Beats me, but yay to two posts in a week! Go team!


  4. Yes, I meant singing. In the future, books will be sung.