What Have You Become?

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Life batters and shapes us in all sorts of ways before it’s done, but those original selves which we were born with and which I believe we continue in some measure to be no matter what are selves which still echo with the holiness of their origin… I think that among other things all real art comes from that deepest self—painting, writing, music, dance, all of it that in some way nourishes the spirit and enriches the understanding… And I think that from there also come our best dreams and our times of gladdest playing and taking it easy and all those moments when we find ourselves being better or stronger or braver or wiser than we are. This is the self we are born with, and then of course the world does its work. Starting with the rather too pretty young woman, say, and the charming but rather unstable young man who together know no more about being parents than they do about the far side of the moon, the world sets in to making us into what the world would like us to be, and because we have to survive after all, we try to make ourselves into something that we hope the world will like better than it apparently did the selves we originally were. This is the story of all our lives, needless to say, and in the process of living out that story, the original, shimmering self gets buried so deep that most of us end up hardly living out of it at all. Instead we live out all the other selves which we are constantly putting on and taking off like coats and hats against the world’s weather.

Frederick Buechner — Telling Secrets: A Memoir

 

 

 

I was twenty-four. It was the most exciting time of my life. Indeed, a day would not go by without me thanking the heavens for being alive; it was as if I had been finally given the right to live the life I was always longing for.

This new life began in Varna, a city known as the ‘sea capital’ of my home country. I had gone there to be a student, and for a while, I was — right before I became the happiest man in the world. You see, it was not that I had suddenly become rich, or had met ‘the right person’; I did not win the lottery or finally had that million-dollar idea…no, I worked, like most people.

Yet my new job was different from the work I was previously doing — being a doorman in different clubs in the city; it was even different from the golden, haunted, dangerous summer I had spent in Sunny Beach, working in a big club — a job which could hardly be called work as it seemed like a dream come true at the time. No, my new work was different; not only did it pay well, not only did it provide me with opportunities to meet new people and learn more about the world of those who were successful, but it finally gave me the thing I sought the most — acknowledgment and respect, even fascination, in the eyes of people who were worthy of respect.

I remember it all; it comes to me still, whenever I decide to evoke it — that time of restful glory, or basking in the sparkling glow radiated from the deceived eyes of those who thought they knew me.

There were nights of loud music and young, lithe bodies; the sweet smell of the bourbon danced together with the tantalizing scent of perfume and made the pungent odour of cigarette smoke pleasant, even desirable to me. Inside, the car smelled of leather and expensive eau de toilette — a smell of importance, which, as soon as the door was opened, was enriched by the freshness of the sea breeze and the feeling of youthful promise for a life in which the best was yet to come…

The car was not mine of course; neither was the one bedroom flat which was being prepared for me in a building recently acquired by my employer, a place where I could live rent-free — an incredible honor bestowed upon a country boy whose only great achievement in his work was honesty and willingness to learn.

Who would have ever thought that? Who would have ever believed that the boy whose life was, at best, doomed to obscurity — or indeed the permanent despair which often befalls a soul too sensitive for its own good — would become a happy man, a man with a smile on his face, and a bright future ahead of him?

Life was good. Life was good at last.

* * *

But I was deceived.

You see, at the time, I found life incredibly good, and indeed it was, at least on the outside. Yet, I did not have very high standards to measure it by; I did not even have the faintest idea what inner peace was, what inner strength and true manly confidence felt like. Thus, I settled for what I thought was the best I could ever have and the best I could ever be. I had wounds, yes, but did not know it at the time; I did not know the darker story of my heart. I did not see that my soul was groaning with unbearable pain; I did not know that it had once been shattered…

It was all a lie; it was an act, and I was the actor. Every time I showed my face to those others whom I had empowered to grant or take my self-worth away from me, I trembled; I feared the exposure of my real self more than I feared death itself.

Yet, I did not know anything of my true self at the time; the roles we play in life are meant to deceive the world, but in the end, it is we who are deceived…

* * *

One day, me and the man I worked for (who, being only thirty-two, had become something of a friend of mine) decided to visit the countryside. We planned a day out, like tourists; our path which began at the shores of Varna, would take us through the pretty little villages of the formidable Balkan mountains and downwards, down to the very place where life began for me — a small, quiet village called Botevo. My village.

Secretly, I trembled with anticipation and joy, wondering about the reaction of those local people who would see the car — a large, silver BMW sedan — parked in front of our house. Would they be envious? Would they think I have become a criminal?

Well, let them.

We arrived just before dusk. The village, as it had done many times previously, accommodated me once more, becoming my home once again, though only for one brief night…

After we had eaten with my parents, I whispered to my boss and his girlfriend that we should go out — the town of Yambol was only fifteen minutes away, and it offered more than the gloomy little village I once called home. After some quiet persuasion from my side — for my companions did not wish to offend my parents by leaving too soon — we departed. I had much to look forward to that night as, with the much-needed help of a certain website, I had arranged to meet a girl in town, and, as always when I was about to meet someone new, I was brimming with tense anticipation — the only kind of happiness I truly knew in those days. Life was good, and life was worth living.

* * *

It was well past midnight when we drove back. For me, the night was still young and, while my companions were yawning from the back of the car, I was wide awake, alert and ready for more of life — that life which always turned the tides in my favour, and was always on my side. I was savouring the past hours with delight, bringing the sweetest moments back to life, calling them back to me, unwilling to let them go.

The powerful machine sped down the dark, bumpy road as we rapidly covered the distance between the new world and my old world — a world I had recently grown to be ashamed of. The new — this was us inside, surrounded by the comfortable, pleasant interior of the new car, by hope, and by our idea of love. The new — this was me, the young man who rested in the leather embrace of the sedan — a man with a stylish black shirt and trousers, clean-shaven head, and a fresh, tireless smile on his face: this was the new, and I loved it. I drove on; I was happy, and I did not see…

From the outside, the old was peering in.

We were fast approaching the village when, as we drove through the hushed emptiness that surrounded it, a glow of light caught my eye. I turned to look, and I was pierced.

I do not know how to evoke the moment to you; worlds, I am certain, will fail to describe it. Still, I will try:

The full moon shone brightly — directly at me, it seemed —  illuminating the fields through which ran a little river…the river that me and my friends once fished. Our river. My river. My fields. My land, and my world.

At that moment, as I looked upon that moon and its haunting white light, I found myself ambushed by sudden sorrow; I could not bear the enduring serenity of the fields and their accusing silence; desolation — sudden and severe — swept over me, and my heart felt weighed down by an unseen burden.

The land I found myself beholding belonged to the forgotten world of my boyhood. The fields that I was passing, sitting in an expensive car, isolated and protected from all things past and from the threatening glow of this haunting, vindictive moon, were the fields I once walked almost daily, as I searched for the treasures of the natural world…

But I could not hide — I was caught off guard; I was seen.

It took only a second, maybe two; I could not avert my eyes quickly enough, and when I did avert them, it was too late. I had seen, and I had been seen.

When I looked at the moon, I saw it as I had seen it once, through eyes much younger and a soul still filled with wonder; when I beheld the fields I had once walked freely through, I looked upon the lost world of my childhood. It pierced me, though I did not know why. I turned away, and drove ahead, fast, toward the sleeping village.

* * *

Tell me, you who read this — where is the place where you first knew joy? Where did the mystery of life first called to you, while you were still a child? Do you know — can you find the answer?

Have you lost it, this heart of yours; have you buried it, killed it, stomped on it, like I once did?

I could not bear to look at the moon of my old days because I felt accused by it; I did not want to keep my eyes on it for I knew that its exposing light was cast over the place where I had buried my true self, the self I did not want to see resurrected — the self I hated more than everything in the world.

Friend, are you the man in the car? Are you the man who is clasping the steering wheel, clinging on for dear life, for survival; the man who hides behind a borrowed facade, presenting a face not his own to a world that has never showed him pity? Are you the man who is desperately struggling to keep this facade from crumbling and drives on toward the place of safety, faster and faster, while the night around you calls you to return — to come back, to shed the false self, pick up a shovel in your clean hands, get down on your knees and dig for that lost treasure?

Your lost heart is calling to you now, just as the full moon called to me there, on that night where, in the sacred place of my beginning, new visited old but it could not defeat it.

Do not wait like I waited — do not turn your face away; your lost heart can be yours again…

You, who are the man in the car, hear me as I say this:

To be the man you wish to become, you must become the man you were born to be. Your design is revealed by your deepest desires, and to recover and liberate your true self, you must take the journey of the heart. A great quest is awaiting you, and you must only be willing…

If you no longer wish to play roles, say yes. If you no longer wish to live a life of an impostor, say yes. If you are tired of feeling insecure around others, of feeling ambivalent, lonely, and hopelessly attached to objects and deeds that defy logic and thwart your progress in life — say yes…

 

 

This is your time.

 

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You are not alone.

 

 

 

 

 

 ‘Unless you turn, and become as little children, you will in no way enter into the Kingdom of Heaven’

God.

 

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The End of a Journey Back in Time: Seeing Old Sights for the First Time

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The word longing comes from the same root as the word long in the sense of length in either time or space and also the word belong, so that in its full richness to long suggests to yearn for a long time for something that is a long way off and something that we feel we belong to and that belongs to us. The longing for home is so universal a form of longing that there is even a special word for it, which is of course homesickness.

― Frederick Buechner, The Longing for Home: Reflections at Midlife

 

 

 

 

Summer 2017…

 

 

 

I had never before caught a carp in our river, even though I always knew they lived there.2017 048

I had never before seen Imperial eagle soar over those ancient fields, even though stories about them permeated my childhood.

Never before.

 I had never before stayed home for such a long time; I have never before entered so deeply into my own heart and its story — its roots, its pain, and its journey to freedom…

Thoughts From the Village: on Fishing and Friendship

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The world breaks everyone, and afterward, many are strong at the broken places.

Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

 

 

There are only a few days left from our holiday now, and, as always in such times, I find myself becoming a little more alive; as if, having realised the loss that I would soon suffer, I suddenly become better in using my time to rest and enjoy the place in its fulness. I savour it all, while it lasts. Oh, how I hate this mortal impermanence, the ever-looming death of all that is good…

Last night, as I walked up the outer stairwell of the house, trying hurriedly to make myself ready for the arrival of ‘the regulars’ — the few childhood friends that came almost every night — I caught sight of an orange-red glow above the neighbouring house. The setting sun sent its last rays over the roof as if to say goodbye to somebody it knew well. On the other side, above the house of my friend Stoycho — a house which I knew as well as our own, and a friend whom I knew as well as myself — there sat the thin, sharp crest of the moon. It hung in the darkening sky with an air of jolly anticipation, as if it was welcoming an old comrade into a night of forgotten adventures and renewed joy. In this no man`s land, the place of timelessness between the old and the new, there stretched the vast canvas of the dark blue sky, dotted with bright, hopeful lights — an enormous, glorious realm invaded by burly pink clouds and old childhood memories. Ah, the memories — they flooded my soul and I remembered the children who once played on the same street, under the same glorious sky; I remembered the sounds and the smells, the stag-beetles and the toads; I remembered the laughter too.

I remembered the two great fish, one of which was as big as I was, that were brought to our house during one such night. My father, who worked in a thermal power station near a big lake, had bought them from some fishermen and now the hysterical cries of a young boy resounded in the warm summer darkness.

Sharks! We have sharks in our house! Come and see the sharks!

I screamed the words with delight and unbelief as I dashed off to the house of my grandparents, in case they had not heard and would miss the opportunity to see the monsters that lay on the concrete near the outside sink. It was an unforgettable night for me.

I have always loved nature and wild animals. From my earliest years I have always felt drawn to every wild place where a living creature may lurk — from an abandoned patch of our garden, rich in grass, stone and life, to the open spaces around the village where hills, forests, canals and ponds merged into one — a realm that held a promise of eternal joy to me. Unlike my father, who never had the patience to sit and wait beside the river for hours, I gradually took interest in fishing. My father had many friends who regularly went fishing and, seeing my passion, he often arranged short fishing trips on which he came mostly for my sake. Starting by going with him and his friends at first, I soon began my own fishing expeditions, always within the realms of our village,  always close…and yet, so far into the wilderness. My young heart, already filled with beauty from films, books and stories, saw steppes and prairies there, in the green wildness that surrounded my home; it beheld the great Amazon, the crocodile-infested African lakes and the cacti-strewn slopes of the Far West — the world of rattlesnakes, cowboys and adventures. More often than not, I was accompanied by my friends — Stoycho, Peyo, and Victor — the boys who shared my love for the outdoors.

But the depth, the knowledge, and the intensity of my love affair with the natural world were taken to a completely new level when another friend entered the scene.

Marin`s parents had moved to the village when I was around twelve years old. He was the same age as myself and, after they had settled permanently in the house where his grandparents previously lived, we began a friendship that is still as strong now as it once was…perhaps even stronger.

He was unusually tall and incredibly good-hearted; a hard-worker who has had to grow up too fast, he regularly helped his family with taking care of the livestock. Marin was a boy with a heart for adventure, my own Huckleberry Finn. He thought of adventures that led us deep into the wild, unexplored places of our village — the places where creatures hid and waited for us to discover them. We marveled at the anteater`s predatory larvae as it lurked in its dusty hideout, waiting  for a unfortuned ant to pass; we waited long in the dark for the little owl to appear; we crawled on our bellies to get a little closer to the snake that swam in the water-filled pit near their house…

We drew close to the wildness and it revealed its secrets to us. The myths were true. The tales were true. The size of the beasts in those stories grew enormously as we told tem to one another; the hope in our hearts, the belief that the best was yet to come — this too, grew, as the horizon of our wild world broadened.

Oh, the wild places were known by many — the land was rich and there was much game; there were many hunters and many fishermen…

But rarely did they see.

The little, hidden corners of the wild were not known; they were not respected. The innocent inhabitants of the hidden places were at best ignored, or, sadly, destroyed without as much as a thought.

Me and Marin did see. We did not see because were better than the others; we saw because we looked harder than them. Not wishing to abandon the wonder of childhood too soon, we hungered for the wild world and it embraced us; we read and watched films about it; we gazed in awe as the live mysteries of the wild kingdom unfolded before our young eyes.

There were evenings of stag-beetles, or frogs, and flying bats; glimpses of weasels and martens. There were stories about horned vipers and wild boar in the woods. We generously shared it with one another, this love for wildness, and literally turned every stone in search for its fulfilment.

And then there was the fishing.

Never had I seen so much of the wild world; never had I been a witness so so many wonders… The little river and the ponds offered us far more than the small Crucian carp which, though they were little, were abundant at that time. Each one of our journeys, done either on foot, or with Marin`s rickety donkey-cart, was a quest; it was a mission of exploration and new frontiers — always rich, always deeply rewarding.

Sitting on the bank of the little river, we laughed, we watched, and we felt much. We saw the snake that swam lazily with a fish in its mouth. We watched in hushed amazement as the terrapin climbed a rock to dry its wet shell in the sun. We saw the hawk chase sparrows overhead and the carp leap from the water with joy; we watched the heron, the vole, the bee-eater…

* * *

Lines, hooks, rods; the sun and the surrounding greenness, the smell of the freshly caught fish and the dirty fingers that seemed doomed to smell the same way forever — all was good, and all was shared between us.

But it did not last.

You see, by the time when I was well into my teens, my soul was already under a heavy strain, the symptoms of which would not take long to surface. Events had taken place, attacks that dealt a merciless blow to my connection with the natural world — the connection to my own self. The rock that was previously solid, now had a crack, a wound that would slowly widen, gaping more and more as time wore on.

It was around that time, that I slowly began to drift away from the goodness of my golden days; the fishing trips became less frequent; the wonder began to fade…

Life had shown me that I was not good enough to live it fully; the world required me to become something else — somebody else — or I would never find my place in it…

Or I would never be accepted.

I did not know… I chose death and did not see it at the time. I killed my true heart; I buried the gold and did everything I could to forget that child and his stupid village, his weakness, and his love for fish and muddy canals. It became easier to notice the profanity of life and the emptiness of dreams — my eyes were opened and I saw the empty plastic bottles and the cigarette stubs around the river, the mud that would not be washed and the sun that burned too hot in the summer. The summer changed too; it began to offer other adventures and other comforts…

This was when Marin became too inconvenient to be my friend.

He did not fit well under the neon lights of the club, even when he was dressed in his best; he did not belong in a world of pretending, the world of masks and many faces…he remained there, by the river, with a rod in his hand and an impish grin on his eternally young face. He sat there, where an abandoned, forgotten part of me still stood, waiting in vain to be embraced again.

I shinned him as I had shunned my heart; the sight of him drew me back to that heart and its insistent, stupid love of childish games and old, forgotten places…

Tell me, friend, about the people you feel uncomfortable with; the people who make you writhe and squirm, or the ones you simply dislike: what do they call forth in you?

Do they, like Marin, draw forth a part of your own self that you detest? Could they, perhaps, be representing a weakness — the weakness in you which you are trying to forget — while you are doing your utmost to remain strong? Do they look to you like a stupid child, while you are striving to behave like the adult you so wish to be?

I know that well; I have had my share of dislikes and repulsions; the weak and needy people were, despite my deceitfully polite behaviour, not truly welcome in my presence. Nor were children, for I did not wish to gaze too long into their  hopeful, silly eyes.

That which I had rejected in myself, I detested in others; that which I hated in them I feared in my own divided self…

Is this not the way of hatred? Is this not how violence is born, how division is created, whether it is racial, social, or religious? Is not this division within, the separation in ourselves, which makes us divided from those without, and separated from others?

The ‘different’ ones in life scare us; we fear them, the outcasts, the pariahs, to the degree we fear the leper within, and, though we smile to them, we would never enter their world…

For this would mean entering our deepest darkness…this would mean facing the one that waits within us, with weak, pale arms outstretched, hoping to be embraced again.

Many would rather die. Many have already died.

* * *

It is not new governments, new weapons, and new customs that can put an end to wars, terrorism and genocide; it is only love that could do that.

But this love, the true Love, does not have a place for force, not even for the force toward oneself, the external effort to love another which we so often need. No, true love begins by embracing one`s own broken self…

Love thy neighbour as thyself — this is the command we are constantly breaking, over and over again, for we have not loved our own selves enough; we have not had the courage to go back to those old, forgotten places, and pick up that heart-broken child in a long-awaited embrace…

We have hated the lost one within us — how then will we love them, those unloved ones, who are around us?

* * *

 Years after our slow alienation, and soon after I had finally heeded the cry of my heart, I found myself sitting on a forgotten river bank, beside the man with whom I had once shared so much. The autumn sun shone happily down on us, and the first hopeful tugs of our bobbers had already began to show us that we would not wait in vain. There was no shame; only wonder, anticipation, and joy…

And then he asked me, in his pure, lazy fashion, about the reasons which had brought me back, doing the things I once did, suddenly remembering a world I had long since forgotten.

This was when I told him the story of my heart; the long, dark journey of emptiness and sorrow, of forgotten dreams and lost hopes…the story of the resurrection of life. And he, who rarely displayed strong emotions or desires, using that well-familiar, quiet voice, told me that he too was dying, and that he too wanted to live.

An old friendship was renewed on that day, and a heart awoke to new hopes.

Me and Marin never miss the chance to go fishing now, and the others often join us when they can.

And it is rarely about fishing…

True friendship with another is impossible unless one has first become a friend with one`s own self; it is only from that love that every other love is born.

Seek it: search for that love, and search for that lost self! Go to the wild places, hear the forgotten music; visit the old world again.

 

You may find that someone there is expecting you.