Story of Today
Reprinted in honor of Women’s History Month, Stories and Storytelling
I went out into the forest alone, choosing to bike uphill to a set of trails that are quiet, less traveled. I didn’t ask anyone to join me — I could have, but I just went by myself, because it feels easier, sometimes, to just do what you feel, without over-thinking and trying to make something a social experience. When I’m with other people, I’m not always fully aware of my surroundings. They talk to me; I listen. I’m engaged, and sometimes the world around me is a distraction… I miss out on the beauty of the natural moment.
Of all the books that I’ve read, The Little Prince taught me to pause and drink in the moment that is with me, even when my thoughts and my connections might be far away. Saint-Exupéry talks about the traveler, and the Prince, and the flower out living on her distant planet. The fox and the snake. Each one, in certain ways, is displaced. Everyone is on a journey, and some characters truly miss each other, imagining what the others are doing at that exact moment.
There is no ownership, in this tale. It is clear that each character is an individual, yet connected to others, through the bonds of the heart, which is what the eye cannot see. At different times, I feel like each of the characters, in turn. And I will myself not to forget that I am connected to something larger, something involving the greatness of nature, and a spiritual connection to those whom I love. Of responsibility to others, the fox says, “you become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed,” and this is only partly true. Part of me believes that it is a responsibility to live freely, and to unshackle others who might feel burdened by expectation… this is hard to explain, yet I sense its truth. No one can claim or own anyone else.
So, on this day, I was biking, and the breeze was strong, creating miniature tornadoes of air, swirling, carrying dust and leaves in its current. It looked like a dance, a dream, a scene from American Beauty, only without the paper bag and all the angst. It was just beautiful. The sky was completely blue, and the sun had that crisp quality to it, perhaps because the air it filtered through still carried a sharpness, a chill that failed to diffuse the light the way that summertime creates a haze. It was crystalline bliss, biking under new leaves.
When I reached a part where the woods cleared to a vista of farmland, there were several wooden benches set up, just waiting there, conveniently, for Swiss hikers who might want to take a short breather. I used one of the slats as an anchor for my bike, unnecessarily locking it in place, leaving helmet and gloves behind, running out past the fields to the far trails.
Is it easy to describe harmony? In life, as in music, there are moments of synchronicity, when all inputs and interactions seem to blend quite nicely, which is not to say that they carry the same note… no, life is too complicated and unpredictable for that! Yet, things are in-tune, and there is a balance that sings. I ran without my iPod, with only nature as my soundtrack. Birds trilled their springtime joyful noise, cowbells tinkled on the far hillsides, goats munched on new spring grass as I passed by, and the noise of my soft footfalls and panting breath created my own percussive beat, along with my kickdrum heart. Of course I thought of Avett Brothers; of course I thought of Thich Nhat Hanh, and I ran as if I were kissing the earth with my feet.
Sometimes, we can remain in constant awe and wonder, or in a gratitude that leads to an exaggerated humility, turning us miniscule. This was not that sort of experience. This was joyful; it was about play, experimenting, running through trails and turning around sometimes to impulsively follow a slightly hidden side track in the woods, leaning into the uphills, coasting the downhills. I wandered freely and exulted in wonder. I forgot about my body that is not always tremendously sleek and swift, I forgot about my chest, my hips, my knees and pains and injuries and moments of doubt.
I crunched pinecones underfoot, stretching legs to hit a stride, overleaping fallen branches. The path carried me uphill, to a panoramic route that overlooked distant glacial mountains. I was reminded of my own mortality, in a beautiful way: this will all outlive me, and it’s right that it’s so. This is my one life, to share, to give, to have, to experience. Just as I am a creature of my own mind, I cannot help but to have my own perspective, even as I look to transcend myself.
Interesting, I have never thought of it in exactly those terms: I am a vessel; a conduit, channeling something that rings of truth. Whether I produce a physical offspring or not, I am giving birth every day — to ideas; to acts that might reach others; to anything I consume or produce. How I live is not about procreation in a human form, hard as that might be to rationalize, because a human’s instinct is (arguably) to have children, and that’s natural and hormonal, ensuring the survival of our species…
Still, we are extremely anthropocentric creatures, aren’t we? What if my role were to birth something entirely different? The trouble is, it would never have the inherent purity of a child — if my progeny were ideas, they would still be so much mine, unable to thrive without my intention and my phrasing… still, if they were good ideas, they could spread like wildfire… this is the compelling, daunting thought, all at once.
I finished my run; I returned to my bike and the bench beside it, my mind already vacillating between the grander thoughts that had just occupied my brain and the practicality of choosing a path through the woods home. As I tilted my water bottle back to drink, the light was filtering through the canopied branches, just so, the sun having the effect of a brush of sheen, adding a gloss to the leaves and grass. I lay down flat on the bench then, viewing the sky and the latticework of foliage, dark branches, a gorgeously random layered tableau against backdrop of blue. New leaves played up their shock of lime, and trunk bark looked grizzled and grey in comparison. True harmony, though, even with the ambient drone of machinery in the far-off distance, toward the lake. Somehow, the sound was a feeling — almost a nostalgic pang of joy in the heart, as felt in emotional cinematic moments. It carried force, even in simplicity. I was there and not there at the same time.
I thought of moments we have and ones we take for granted; our struggles to find a “home” and an identity in the midst of the universality of nature and the human species. Our attempts to form connection, and wishes to lead a meaningful life. It occurred to me, that if I could only trust in my own well being; my safe passage from the “now” moment to the next and to the next, knowing that I was following a right path, all would be well. In the next instant, two thoughts followed, nearly simultaneously, so that it was almost impossible to distinguish which came first. I knew at once that I could not ever have such a guarantee, because life is out of control and “unsafe” by nature, and that is part of the beauty of the ultimate truth: that I am human, and I cannot control everything. There is a beyond.
The second thought was that I might as well assume that I am on the “right path” because this is part of what life entails: a commitment to what is, even as we dream about what could be. We make decisions every day, using the best of our wits and our knowledge at the time, and the key to staying in the now, and even moving forward, is not to look back too much. Sure, there are moments when the past can be alluring, yet over-reliance on nostalgia, in my own limited experience, seemed to lead to melancholic malaise.
Time is a commodity. We have it in a limited amount, and we must make good use of it. The older I get, the better I understand this. It doesn’t mean to do everything I can with each moment, cramming in all activities that appeal to me. Rather, it means to stay conscious of what truly matters, and to devote myself to that effort. If something is a distraction that doesn’t lead me to a better understanding an appreciation of some layer of truth about the world, it doesn’t need to be indulged. This is true for human relationships, too, I realized. I can afford to be selective, because time shared itself reflects something positive, something of value. There is agency.
I thought of the relationships that I had made and cultivated over the past years of living away from my “home” country. How much I had learned about people and human nature; how much I had learned about myself. As a soloist, I had started out looking to complement someone else’s life; to have a coupling as a hybrid. Would it be better than solo, and could that identity be a union of happiness? What I discovered is that coupling itself is (relatively!) easy — it’s good coupling that is the challenge.
Looking through the tree branches, feeling the warmth of the wooden bench supporting my back, I felt glad to be in that place, at that time. Exploring, making sense of my world. I felt ageless. And, I did not underestimate my truest friends along the way, in many ways, closer to me than any other relationship. Whether women or men, the true friendships involved a deep love of the mind and spirit, and this, to me, is the truest love. At first, I fretted over some of the inconsistencies of such loves, because the friends I made overseas were often moving to other parts of the world, accepting new positions and challenges, seeking limits and stretching their minds as much as possible. Gradually, I understood that this trait was something we shared in common, and it was reflected in my own itinerant ways, too. We do not have to keep in constant contact; we do not have to even talk at all, for me to trust that what connection we do have, is real. It exists; there is truth in it that is lasting.
I can trust in the truth of such connection, without looking back, only looking forward, grateful that, in that space and time that we were together, what existed between us amplified the quality of life for us both. This is perhaps a view toward friendship that is more liberating than modern customs that seem to shackle friendship and make it prove itself in many demeaning and time-consuming ways… true friendship, it seemed to me, consists in the simplicity of an abiding love, respect, freedom, and wishes for mutual good lives, as each member seeks to pursue something meaningful for her. Thus, I release all constraints on my friendships, and still hold for each of them a special place in mein herz. In my heart. This is timeless.
Can we believe I was still lying on that bench, looking up at the stippling of leaves, the criss-crossing of branches, and the clear blue sky? It was so. In these moments, in my quasi-dream state, I was on the bench, just lying, my mouth likely in a loose half-smile, just letting all of these thoughts come and go. I breathed deeply, turning my head to the left, able to see the snowy Alps in the distance. I felt supremely happy.
Just as I rose to prepare my bike for riding, an older woman in a bright red wool jacket walked up the path toward the benches, her small black dog in similar cadence beside her. She saw me, and approached a bench in the shadows, adjacent to mine. We greeted each other, as is Swiss custom, and I them motioned her to come to the bench I had been occupying, which had a nice mix of sunlight to combat the April chill. She quickly agreed, and her dog nimbly hopped up beside her on the bench. I began to speak a halting German riddled with errors, and her bright eyes warmed me, as she smiled and told me, in English, that she was so happy to be here on this day. I live here in Zurich, she said, yet I feel as if I’m on vacation, with this weather. She motioned to the vista, and we both agreed it was simply beautiful. We spoke only for a minute or two, yet it was enough to seal the time for me, to mark it as special. How nice it was to greet each other, to exchange words of gratitude and kindness, and to part ways, like sisters, happy to have met. I hoped that one day, I would resemble this snow-haired woman, with impeccable manners and a smile that gleamed like the mountains in the distance. Her dog’s eyes sparkled, too, and I bid them both a good day in German, as I left to continue my ride home.
This was a time I felt free.
-April 17, 2014
“I am not sure that the discovery of love is necessarily more exquisite than the discovery of poetry.”
- Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian