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.