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.
You are not alone.
‘Unless you turn, and become as little children, you will in no way enter into the Kingdom of Heaven’