“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
Whenever I am abroad, if I can help it, I try to avoid the noise and the glamour of the so-called popular destinations, those places that tourists so love. I like to feel close to the country and its people, and I like to immerse myself in their life, a life which is often very different from my own…
I returned from Spain last night. There, for about two and a half weeks, my wife, myself, and our little daughter, spent time with relatives who live there, in a place called Alfafar, just a few miles from the heart of Valencia. Apart from one trip to the city center, and our almost daily journeys to the beaches of a village called El Saler, we did not travel much. But every evening, when the sun was still strong but no longer as malicious as it was earlier in the day, I took a stroll down the streets and squares of Alfafar. I sat in coffee shops and pubs; I watched the local people and tasted their drink and their food. I also tasted a little of their life – its sorrows and its joys. And even though my understanding of Spanish is incredibly limited, I finally succeeded, to a point, in immersing myself into a life that was indeed quite different from my own.
I must admit here that I am seldom able to do that—I am rarely fully present, and I am almost never fully open to others and indeed myself. But I have tasted a little from that manna from heaven; I have felt the joy of real connection, and so I know that, when one is close to such a state of childlike abandon of self and its unashamed openness to the world, one is able to fully connect with oneself and with others. But it is namely this, the openness, the vulnerability, that scares us, even to the point of death. Is it easy to see then, why most of us are in constant in motion, constantly running — either in our minds, or our bodies, or both — and trying to avoid the danger or being exposed to our own selves, as well as to any other person?
Fear drives us and we run like cattle.
Always trying to get a good look inside myself — for I know that this is where the treasure lay – buried, soiled, and darkened, but a treasure nevertheless — I have learned to examine the seemingly small details of my inner life, even the very way in which I examine these details. And thus, whenever an impulse seizes me, and winds stronger than my will or reason sweep me off my feet; whenever I am met by some force – a dark, fierce, and overpowering one, as in the times when I have both suffered and caused destruction, or a gentle, mysterious, and alluring one, as in the times when more life and redemption has come my way — in such moments, I look, and I listen.
You see, in my ‘natural’ introversion, I still, though now far less often than before, occasionally find myself in a state of depression, a dark and gloomy prison, patrolled and guarded day and night by the agents of self-hatred and shame; strewn with the watchtowers bearing the mark of my old enemy — the venomous and immobilising judgment of myself which, aided by the barbed wire of a mind busy like a beehive that has been kicked and turned over, makes escape almost impossible. It is not so much that I am a better seer and a better listener than others, but when one is locked in such a prison for years, there is very little that one can do but to look and to listen. Thus, long before I could even conceive that an escape is possible and freedom is available, I became the seer and the listener that I am now. And, by the unfathomable grace and bottomless mercy of God, I have for the most part retained this ability to see and hear things deeper than their outward appearance.
I was not in the prison on that day, the day I came back from my walk, but I was slowly heading toward its black gates; the darkness of its walls loomed near, though I was not yet within their grasp. But my head was beginning to hang down in apathy and, as what I counted as the best part of the day slowly ran between my fingers, my soul began its rapid retreat to its old hateful but familiar hiding place of passivity and paralysis. As all other systems prepared for a shutdown, the mind readied itself for its overtime. Doing what I have always done since childhood, and meanwhile hating myself for my weakness, I began to slowly succumb to the ‘natural’ forces of my life, tired and powerless to resist their onslaught. At that moment, I passed by a long, straight and narrow street on my right. Being already very close to my destination, my thoughts which were by then running wild and uncontrolled, galloping all over my inner space, were interrupted by something which did not come from the mind. It came from somewhere deeper, and for a moment, before it was overpowered and drowned by the mind`s endless chatter, tireless reasoning, and unwanted flashbacks, stood out, causing everything else to fade. In a second, it was gone, and I decided to keep walking. But, knowing better than to dismiss even the smallest and seemingly insignificant movements, impulses, and desires of the heart, I slowed down and, still with some hesitation, finally halted to a stop. What was it about that street that haunted me so? What gave my heart such a pull? And what was the thing that was trying to prevent me from finding out — was it the loneliness that I felt as I first glanced at the deserted street; was it its resemblance to the other empty streets I had seen in my life, perhaps those empty, dead streets back home — the streets filled with houses in which lived no people but only the memories of them? There was not much chance of finding out, unless I turned back.
After a few impatient strides, I was at the bottom of the street, where it joined the main one on which I was standing. It was an old street, the type of which, prior to my first visit to Spain two years back, I had only seen in films. I found it very strange that there were no parked cars and no pedestrians walking on it. For what seemed like a long time, I stood and watched it — the old wooden doors, the high walls, cracked by the sun, broken and eroded by the merciless onslaught of earthly time. My soul was flooded with the echoes of times long past. No cars passed during those moments, and no people.
I sighed. The sigh expressed my frustration at the inability to fully grasp what the ancient reality of the street was telling me, and perhaps the impossibility of being one with life and immersed into its secrets — the secrets of that street and also my own. Those secrets, as deep calls unto deep, called upon each other; they attracted each other, making my rational mind (with my somewhat reluctant permission), nothing but a bystander and a witness to this great mystery…
Most of the houses at the beginning of the street were old, and carried the aura of those mythical scenes I remembered from those films, books, or paintings, the titles and names of which I have long forgotten, or have been too young to remember. A hero returning from exile or battle could have once walked that street and placed his hand on the same iron knocker that I was beholding, now old and eaten by rust. An old woman had perhaps opened the heavy wooden door once, to say to someone standing outside that his loved one or his family no longer lived there. Who knows who had entered and left through that door, back in the ages past? A soldier with uniform and a rifle perhaps, a tired miner with a black face and ragged clothes, or a well-dressed diplomat or a lawyer with a mustache…who knows.
As I neared the middle of the street, I began noticing that there were more and more new and flashy houses, far more here than there had been at the beginning of the street. By the time I reached the end, I was seeing only new and modern houses, houses which form and design hadn’t changed that much at all; what had been changed, however, was the outside layer of what made a house a house — the materials of which things were made, the walls, the doors. Instead of the old weather-beaten and creaky doors, those houses had firm and heavy metal doors, or doors made from new wood; instead of the old rusty wrought-iron hinges, they had new gleaming ones; their walls did not have bare patches that revealed old clay bricks — they were strong, thick, and covered in marble or painted with a firm, fresh paint. I slowly walked on the empty street and thought. I thought not so much with my mind, but with my heart, by letting the heart ask the real questions, while the mind rests and is used only to process any perceived answers — like the fox in The Little Prince, I too have found this to be a better way.
What I am looking for here, I wondered. This was my first question. Then came the second: What is the street telling me?
Yes. It was about roots.
My roots. I was searching for them, my true roots. There, standing under the Spanish sun, on a mysterious and gloomy Spanish street, the like of which I had never seen before, I was looking for myself. I was seeking to look into the depth of who I was and where I had come from; I was trying to see what blood ran into my veins — what was its curse and what was its blessing. And, of all places, I sought this mystery in a place that least felt like home, for it was always in such places that my hunger for home, my thirst for belonging and finding my true self, was most awake.
And the street? It seemed like the street was trying to forget its roots.
To be continued…