Thoughts From the Village: on Permanence and the World We Hope for

IMG_4405

…And I knew just as surely, just as clearly, that life is not a work of art, and that the moment could not last.

Norman MacLean, A River Runs Through It

 

 

We are still here, and so is the heat. Thankfully, the breeze is also here, and thankfully, we are still within the time-frame of our August vacation.

I love this place.

Of all the places in the world, this is the only one where the deepest pain and the highest joy of my past are so present. In contrast, our new home on the beautiful Sussex coast in England is something that, for the first time in my life, I can truly call home. It is my nest — an independent and separated place, away from any other person in my life, save for my wife and our little daughter. In this new home joy is abundant and the flow of life is light and clear; memories are yet to be made there, and the sense of calling, of the greatness of the human soul — its art and its place in the world — is strongest there.

But it is not this home I wish to talk to you today; not the nest of pure beauty and clarity, that place of sea and greenness; of late gulls and moonlight, of foxes and hedgehogs. No, not now. Today, my soul roams the very place that surrounds my body. Today, there is not much clarity and very little purpose. The fog of confusion is strongest here, and the battle is most fierce. Much is felt here, yet very little discerned; there are too many shadows and not enough swords; there are too many barriers against feeling the unfelt and too many signs and signals to know the right way.

Oh, but it is so breathtaking… It is so calm, so deeply mine, and so haunting…

 * * *

After a long and sweet night with old friends, I woke up feeling raw and tender on the inside. It was a night of depth, of memories and stories. The gentle breeze, the garden lights, the freshness of the vines, and the darkness of the old familiar street — they all came together in a fragrant, colourful amalgam; and our souls were light and free. In moments like that friendships can be richly intoxicating — every uttered word is met with knowledge and joy, and each felt emotion is joined by knowing, loving siblings. Loneliness cannot exist in such environment; falsehood and hostility are banished.

In this old and richly deep place, late at night when my parents — my old family — are sleeping in the cool bowels of my childhood home; when my wife and child — my new family — rest in the rooms above; when the old friends are around me, merrily raising glasses — in those times, I feel truly happy and known…I am home at last.

But I wake, and there is longing again; I have dreamed, but my dreams fade too soon…

As I open my eyes, the breeze of my sweetest times gently kisses my face; I look up and see the deep sky, and before I have the chance to rise and become and adult, my heart is pierced, and I am defeated.

How is it that we can gaze in the heart of eternity and go about our business without batting an eyelid? How is it that we can stand in the presence of holiness, and not weep and fall on our faces in worship?

Tragic is the fate of the human trace; darkened and numb we have all become…

But I am returning, and though the road is strewn with pain, I am gradually arriving home. And the closer I get — the more I am pierced by the pain of grief and longing — the more hope and joy I also feel. Here, for a brief moment or two, I gaze upon the heart of Laughter…

The sky that smiles at me in the morning also weeps, for I have gazed upon it when I was little — back when my soul had not yet succumbed to the numbness of the world. When I see that sky, and the roads, and the trees; when I bask into the warm dark air that surrounds my old home; when I hear the crickets and the laughter of my old friends — this is when joy is merged with grief…

Because I know that it would not last.

* * *

The message we have all been given by life, often too early, at the very start of our earthly sojourn, tell us that, as MacLean wrote, ‘life is not a work of art’, and that ‘the moment’ — the best moments of all goodness we would ever know in life — would ultimately not last.

Is it any wonder then, that we have all lost heart? Does it seem so strange that our race is locked in an endless cycle of reaching and grasping, endlessly trying to hold on to our best times and make them last, while keeping darkness and death at bay for as long as we can?

We have all been made for more, and deep down in our hearts, we know it — if it were not so, we would be content with our misery, and indeed not be miserable at all; for it is namely that — our misery in the face of mortality — which proves our hidden eternal design. We must therefore see these two messages — the ones that tell us that life is not a work of art, and goodness does not last — for what they are: lies.

The realm of my youth — the village and its hills, and the friends who still laugh as they once did — all of these things fill my heart with joy not because I want to return to my childhood — God forbid! No, but I long to come back to the heart I once had; the freer soul which was far more open and wondrous, far more aware of the deepest truths of life than the one I am bearing now. Then, I was closer to the Promise…

Yes, children know, and this is why the world is ever set against them; this is why their knowledge of eternity is quickly shamed and silenced, long before they are old enough to see the lies. This is why we have all become wraiths…

This is also why we must all come back to the heart and its desires. For without the heart there is no life, and without the heart true hope does not live…

* * *

Through that immortal longing, awakened by the spirit of this haunted place, I am searching for the self I once had — the heart that had not yet suffered its fate of latter times; less suppressed in its emotions, less dark and less burdened by shame and defeat. Yet, it is also true that there is more, much more, that I am actually searching for.

My heart, as do the hearts of us all, seeks permanence.

It looks not simply to return to carefree days, for there are no such days in the realms of mortal men; but it looks for deeper, older things, in deeper, older places. Places and times that once were — the heart in its immortality remembers them; places and times that will be again — or else the heart would not hope for them with such fierce intensity.

The summer evenings when I was a little boy… The time when all the grown-ups sat around the table of my grandparents; the time when the smell of fresh tomato salad, of peppers, onion, and spices (all homegrown, of course) preceded the aroma of the roasted meat and the laughter…those times spoke to the little heart about home, and about lasting goodness. Later, when I am sitting under the same sky, under the warm caressing embrace of the same evening air, it comes again…the friend on my right lives close by and knows me and my whole family well; so does the friend on my left. No, I cannot go back farther in the limitation of this finite world; I cannot go deeper than this. The happy celebration with people who know and love me, the sense of effortless belonging in a place where the very rocks are soaked with the happiness of my younger self… Endless joy and comfort in my own skin, in the old fellowship of those who feel the same and would never become less, never in a thousand years — this is what my heart yearns for, and this is what I am always seeking.

Moments that would not end. Peace that will not cease. Love that will not fail. The brief whispers of my most romantic childhood hopes becoming a solid, tangible truth. The world that we already know and love; the world as it was meant to be. I think it is a world where all people…no, wait — I will let a better writer describe it:

I have seen a land shining with goodness, where each man protects his brother’s dignity as readily as his own, where war and want have ceased and all races live under the same law of love and honour.

I have seen a land bright with truth, where a man’s word is his pledge and falsehood is banished, where children sleep safe in their mother’s arms and never know fear or pain.  

I have seen a land where kings extend their hands in justice rather than reach for the sword; where mercy, kindness, and compassion flow like deep water over the land, and men revere virtue, revere truth, revere beauty, above comfort, pleasure or selfish gain. A land where peace reigns in the hill, and love like a fire from every hearth…

Like Taliesin in the Pendragon Cycle books, like king Arthur in Stephen Lawhead`s amazing works, I have seen it too, though only in few brief glimpses. I have read the signs of immortality and redemption, back when I was a little child; back when I listened to the sounds of peaceful human existence merge with the songs of crickets and owls; when I looked at the bright stars in wonder and knew that I was known. I saw the same stars again last night and I recognised them; my heart leaped, and I knew…

You too, have seen your glimpses of this world, though perhaps you have forgotten. Be not afraid to remember, for in your pain, there is redemption. There is also a Promise, and it is a promise for permanence…

Where have you searched for permanence in a world that offers none?

Remember — even the best the human life is a long string of great victories and great defeats — both measured by time; both passing.

Do not despair…come back, and face the heartbreak; be brave and face the broken hopes within…

And if you are brave and face your battles; if you do that well and hold nothing back, who knows, you may find that which you have always searched for…you may find yourself returning to that first true Love whose touch once sensed, back in your times of wonder, even though they have been cut short by the darkness of this world.

Go — go against the currents of your life, and against the defences, habits and escapes of your own broken self — go deeper and go higher, for the truth is waiting for you there, and the life you search for is waiting to be lived. You are known, and you have a destiny.

Believe not in the loss of your darker times, but trust in the hopes hidden in your heart…

They do not lie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Thoughts From the Village: on Emotions and Bulgarian Stoicism

11169403_10205654077005583_9064278939910070645_n

Every generation
Blames the one before
And all of their frustrations
Come beating on your door
Oh, crumpled bits of paper
Filled with imperfect thought
Stilted conversations
I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got
Mike and the Mechanics — The Living Years
1984 — this is when I entered the world
this is when I entered my home

We have been home for a couple a weeks now. August is always hot here, often nearing the forties; sometimes, like the year before, even reaching beyond that. This vacation is no exception; after suffering through our first week when the gauge hit thirty-nine almost daily, we can finally take a breather — it is cooler now, and there is a pleasant breeze almost every day…

As I write this sitting under the shade of the vine, in the comfortable nest of my old home, I leisurely behold the sights of my past. Looking at the old, familiar street — the walls, the fences, the people, and the clear sky of my childhood — I feel the old, familiar sense of…what do I call this…?

A sense of feeling less, and being less; a kind of suppression and a block to being fully alive; something like a dam, made to be a barrier to strong emotions — the good ones as well as the ‘bad’ ones — a wall, erected against their expression…

I see my old friend: one of the oldest, truest comrades I have ever had, going in and out of his house — but why is it that I do not feel the joy which I have when I am away from him and think of our next meeting? Why do I feel so numb and unable to express how I really feel on the inside? Why am I so reserved; why do I always hold back?

And I know that, just like me, my friend also feel the same way.

Perhaps it is the culture here; we have all been brought up like that. We are all gravitating between unspoken love, hidden hatred, and well-controlled joy; we are all, to a degree, living a life which is stifled life. It should come as no surprise then, that I do not know how to live from the heart — that heart which feels so much and has so much to give, yet is often silent.

I do not know whether it is a cultural thing, like the proverbial ‘stiff upper lip’ of the British; I am no expert in nationality and culture. But I have become a student of my own life and, after years of one painful and glorious discovery after another, I have learned a thing or two about myself and those around me.

On this little quiet street, in the green Thracian lowlands, me and my few peers grew up as happy as any group of average children could be, perhaps even more, yet expressing our true emotions was never trully a part of it all; it was always that missing, unmentioned, and seemingly unimportant part of life. Later, when we entered youth, we drank and celebrated young age as most young people did; then we embraced and kissed each other, but those displays of our affection toward one another were never carried into the new day — we left them behind, abandoned and hidden in the dark smoky corners of the old restaurant, waiting to be remembered and picked up again the next weekend. The restaurant, just like ourselves, came alive only on Friday and Saturday night; it became a nightclub then, and the old Soviet-style interior took on a colourful and glorious glow, along with our own neglected selves.

But our joy could never last.

What we felt while we were basking in the fleeting light of our short-lived glory, we could not take with us; what we were when we were most alive and most able to express our hearts — their nobility and beauty, but also their ugliness, their sickness and their pain — we could not be permanently.

This is why we so chase our addictions — the addictions we all have, for we have all been born into a world that has no room for our true selves; a world that offers no fulfilment for our deepest desires.

And so, even after years of facing my old pain and offering the most secret places of my heart to be healed, I am finding myself locked into the old patterns still, in the days when I am too weak or too tired. During those times, like the proverbial dog, I am readily returning back to my own vomit; back to the dirt and the death from which I have been lifted. I know the river well; the old river which, flowing for decades within my soul, has eroded a deep bed for itself. And since the direction of its flow has been my path for decades, I do not need to do much; I only need to simply let myself be carried by the waters, back to the familiar, back to the effortless comfort, back into the mire of my past.

Being home always brings me on the bank of that river, as close as I have ever been; for this is where the river first flowed, and this is where its deadly, wicked course was first set. Yes — deadly, for in my life, like every other life, there are unseen forces that seek my destruction; those were the hidden powers that once preyed upon the child…

I must make it clear here that my parents, like most, did their best to raise me in a good and healthy way. Sadly, like me, they are broken human beings, and, back in those times, their best was rarely enough to protect me from that which they themselves have not been protected…

 

* * *

 

While we were in my wife`s hometown — a little, charming spa town called Varshets — we met a spectacular young woman, and she quickly became our friend. This woman, who had, until recently, a professional volleyball player, had traveled the world and seen its wonders; she had also traveled her inner world, and explored its light and its darkness…

She was tall and lean and fit, glowing with the sunshine of Israel where she lived; she was radiating something else, too…

She was a warrior who had fought many battles; a heroine who had found and reclaimed a great deal of her truest self, and for this reason she was calm, free, and happy, totally unashamed to be — simply be — herself.

It was this — the power of her presence, this unhindered being — that so impacted both me and my wife, and made us want to know her better; this was also what encouraged us to keep walking the path of redemption, and not let the constant battle steal the joy of the present moment.

I am bringing her into this story because, during one of our conversations in the swimming pool, she put words to, and answered an unspoken question that had formed in my mind ever since we began our vacation.

‘Most of us around here,’ she remarked in her fiercely passionate way, ‘ might not abuse our children physically, but we crush them with our words!’

She was right: words that have the power to darken the eternal glow of the child`s heart; they can bring shame, worthlessness, or inadequacy to the soul so early in life, while the little one depends on the parents’ words for self-worth and identity as much as the body depends on oxygen and food for its survival.

Stop crying…

You are such a baby…

Behave — or else!

You should be ashamed of yourself!

And even:

You are worthless

We have all heard at least some of these; we have all felt their bitter sting. And we  have all been changed as a result of their message.

 

* * *

 

Although words have the power to change and shape the soul by bringing life or death to it, there is something more dangerous and deadly than words. Dangerous, for it is much harder to discover, and deadly, for it does its work in secret and, if left unaddressed for long, can shorten and even abort even the most promising life.

This is the unspoken coldness which creeps in from our parents to us while we are still young and helpless; this is the voiceless whisper in their eyes that tells us we must conform to this world — their world — and be less, simply because they have become less, and do not know any other way of being. Perhaps they have also felt threatened by the brave dreamer, by the little beauty and the young hero in their child, whose bright eyes speak of immortality and tell of a life that is too wild and too free — too eternal — to be manageable.

The Stoic-like mindset which me and most of my peers have inherited has indeed been a result from words — mainly the words of our mothers and grandmothers, for the women in our culture are far more free and unashamed outspoken than the men. It has also been a product of that unseen and unheard message which, like poisonous fumes or deadly sickness, once spread over us from our fathers` silent eyes…

And we all became like them, in one way or another — seemingly connected to those around us; never alone, yet lonely and silently suffering inside, bearing the curses, the wounds and the scars of all the generations past; the unhealed and unredeemed pain of the grandfathers who once groaned inwardly but could not make a sound as the heavy boot of the Sultan crushed their neck.

Today, men here die quickly, one after another, long before their time. Some are drowned in alcohol — their only escape from the pain; some are lost in sudden or gradual madness…

Most of them, however, the strong, upright, working-class people like our fathers, simply fade away; their once strong and powerful selves slowly erode with the merciless onslaught of time which steals their dreams and hopes. Then comes the final blow — normally, a sickness of some kind, an affliction which has been laying dormant for years, waiting for the weakness of spirit to set the stage and open the door for the destruction of the body. This murderous work is often done by the cancer which is so prevalent here, especially among the men; this most feared terror of our time kills, steals, and destroys with an alarming rate in this green, fertile place. Yet, we must know that in too many cases, maybe even most of them, what is seen is conceived by what is unseen — and the sickness of my people is no exception. Think of a broken spirit, too shameful to be acknowledged; of old pain and past heartbreak that are too painful to live with; imagine a lifetime of denial and repression of the true self and its feelings…

Take the strong emotions of grief, or better yet — anger, which has been cut off and stifled, pressed back down in the soul during childhood, only to surface later as a mysterious condition of weakness, lifelessness, or some other living death…

And you will see why we suffer as we do; you will perhaps learn something of your own suffering too.

But you do not need to flee from it as the people of my homeland do; you do not need to seek numbing pleasures and fleeting comforts as most people in the world do.

For I am here to tell you:

The way up is down and the way out is in. Go against the flow of the old river; turn against your own deep patterns; rise up and fight, even though you do not see your foe…

Do not fear your pain, for it hides a great treasure; indeed, it was once sent as a weapon, as a veil, to cover and silence your true, glorious heart; it is the device forged against you and the expression of your truest self…

There are diamonds in the dirt; there is new life and joy to be found, only by those who are brave or too tired to live in the shadows of grey, compromised existence…

You are brave, I know; and I know you are tired — tired of the endless search and the endless charade. Do not despair, for it is now time to find that lost treasure; it is time to enter the battle…

 

Do not fear.

You are not alone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

. . .