serendip

Standing in line at the French bistro, I glance nonchalantly over the employees ringing up the register, warming up croissants, making lattes. Among them, a new face – an Asian man walks to the foreground from within the kitchen, pulls at a hot tray of freshly baked breads, winces and drops it back. Clearly he is not familiar with the minutae of the work, but he acts as if he belongs there. He is probably the owner.  Nothing is predictable anymore.

I make my way towards a corner table with my chocolate croissant, pull out Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges and the latest letter from grandma Larisa, and prepare to disappear into my private literary world. A man plops at a nearby table, his back to me, setting out on the table “Moscow! All You Wanted to Know” and Gramophone, the world’s authority on classical music. Devouring my croissant and gulping down the tea, I contemplate the self-sentencing isolation in which most of us live. It is time to put an end to it, I say (to myself, in my head), stop it today. So I take a last swig of Earl Grey, stand up and come towards the man with Moscow.

“Hi. I couldn’t help notice your Moscow tour book. I’m actually from Russia – are you planning to visit soon?” The man responds politely, and a pleasant, genuine conversation begins. We talk for a while, about St.Petersburg and Russian politics, about music and the love thereof, about literature, even, at which point I mention that I should probably return to my reading. As I stand up, he’s beaming and I say, “Well, it’s been nice meeting you. I’ve actually made it a point to meet interesting-looking strangers, and you’ve been the first today. I’m so glad I came up to you…” Actually, I didn’t. But wouldn’t it have been neat if I did?

Instead, I am still sitting, finishing up my tea, when the Asian man from behind the counter walks up to Moscow man, sits down facing him, and places between them a topless container with a yellowish hazy liquid.

“Do you see them? The little guys in the corner,” Asian man points, “See all the way at the bottom? They’re not so bad now, but they grow up to be pretty ugly creatures…” Moscow man responds with statistics on their growth from the internet, Asian man mentions that you can never trust those forums anyway – people’ll say anything. They start discussing water quality, stagnant vs. flowing , necessary aeration, plants inside to provide enough CO2. “…but in any case, they’re supposed to live up to 8-10 years.” Asian man concludes.

Curiosity overcoming self-consiousness, I walk up to their table and, smiling awkwardly, say, “I’m sorry to interrupt your conversation, I just couldn’t help but overhear you talking about something alive in that container, and I’ve been trying to guess what it is….” I trail off. They look at me. I look at them. It’s a freeze-frame. I back away and decide not to try that. Instead, I bury my eyes in grandma’s letter and attempt not to miss a single word.

She writes about living alone. Flowing organically from one sentence into the next, her prose talks of walking: “…which I prefer to do usually at about 1pm, after I have had my breakfast, cleaned up and gotten ready to pick up some things for dinner.  Usually when I come out, at about the same hour every day, most of the people out around me are also retirees. We stroll leisurely down the wide boulevards, understanding that at this time, the streets are ours. But several days ago I woke up late, my entire schedule had shifted and so it was past 3pm when I went outside. Everything was different. I noticed people around that are never there at 1 – young people, business people – rushing places, determined, focused. It wasn’t our place, cozy and familiar. I finished my shopping quickly and returned home. Since then, I’ve made it a point not to go out later than usual…”

Distracted by my merciless curiosity and jarred to action by an idea, I bolt out of my chair, pick up empty plate and cup, and head towards the counter as if to drop them off. On the way back, I peer with all of the laser vision I have in me to see what is in that container!! But I see nothing, and return to the letter.

The men are talking about Confucianism now: the importance of respecting your elders, the wisdom of doing all that you can while you still can. And in marriage, you cannot always hope for that perfect match, you have to find someone who is good enough, and value that. The other man replies, “I think, if you really love someone, you have to let them live to the fullest. You have to have the strength to give them the space they need. But we have that bond in common, and that part is ours, and we share it fully, together.”

Grandma continues, “I do often wonder, waking up alone, eating along, walking alone, every day alone, whether I’ve made the right decision. It is difficult, being on your own all the time…”

Moscow man picks up, “I want to overwhelm them with my generosity…”

At this point Borges chimes in, “In my view, that notion is not particularly exciting. I cannot say the same for another idea, however: the idea that the Almightly is also in search of Someone, and that Someone, in search of a yet superior (or perhaps simply necessary, albeit equal) Someone, and so on, to the End – or better yet, the Endlessness – of Time. Or perhaps cyclically.” He, of course, is talking about the imaginary writer Mir Bahadur’ Ali’s imaginary novel, The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim.

I am distracted again by the mystery creatures in the container. These people will up and leave, and I will never know who was in there. A young employee comes up to the Asian man and reminds him about her paycheck. That proves my conjecture about him. Moscow man gets up, wishes his friend luck with them, and heads out. Asian man picks up the container and empty coffee cup and returns behind the counter.

Borges puts his finishing touch: “I recall his square-ruled notebooks, his black crossings-out, his peculiar typographical symbols, and his insect-like handwriting. In the evening, he liked to go out for walks on the outskirts of Nimes; he would often carry along a notebook and make a cheery bonfire.”

I pick up the book, letters and pens, and exit stage left.

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Photograph by Liza Evans

When you work at night, sleeping schedules shift, lines between dream and wakefulness blur into one hazy continuum. After, you never quite know what happened, whether it really did or not.

Some time ago I was working with Russian EVA specialists who were visiting at the Mission Control Center to support a space walk. We’d sit for many hours in that gray, windowless building, straining painfully to understand conversations coming through the static of outer space. Mostly this happened at night, though in that building, you could never tell.

It was on one such night that I decided to stretch my limbs and go for a stroll. I made my way out of the logically elusive structure and into the damp, warm night air of a Houston summer. The earth’s guttural breath caressed me out of the harsh, rough sensations of the building, and lured me towards the green space in the middle of the space center complex.

There, a thick mist was lazing out of the lake, expanding in all directions, reaching out to me. I walked slowly towards the green, half-asleep, relishing the living sounds and sensations of the outdoors. Suddenly, a deer appeared out of the mist, head first. I could see his elaborate antlers and the hooves, submerged in grass. He glanced at me briefly, then turned his attention back to the reflective glass windows of the building he was standing next to.

I was awed by his pensive, slow gaze as he contemplated what I thought was his own reflection in the glass. For a while, we stood still. I – breathing in the moist magic of night, he – thinking his own existential thoughts while peering into the window. Eventually I yawned and he slowly backed into the mist, disappearing from view.

Intrigued, I walked towards the building and noticed, to my great surprise, a stuffed deer head, standing on the inside windowsill, clearly visible through the glass. I marveled at the intelligence of my deer, who had been looking not at his own reflection, but at the head of his fellow ungulate, immortalized and graceful, contemplating life and death, and the fate that awaits us all. “Imagine that…” I mumbled to myself, and turned back towards the mission control center and the stifling cold.

A while later we were walking with a couple of friends in that same part of the center. It was a bright, cheerful day, and I recalled to them my strange encounter with the deer. I timed the story just so, hoping to get to the punch line at the exact moment we would pass the window with the stuffed head. It would have been perfect, except the deer head was no longer there.

Several times I walked the entire length of the glass wall, looking for it, but it was not to be found. In fact, I could not even find the windowsill where it might have been placed…

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“Le Pecheur” by Paul Desire Trouillebert

We had been talking about buying pictures for a long time. The same way that people talk about buying yachts, retiring in Tuscany, or becoming an astronaut. At some point Gri shared a solid argument in favor of chosing fine art as an investment option. He said that you can invest in real estate, bonds, stock, or even jewelry. And the object will just sit there, appreciating, meanwhile giving you no joy. However, if you invest in paintings, they will hang on your walls and make you happy. When the time comes, you will sell them and buy new ones, and be happy again.

Ofcourse he did not use those exact terms. He said “you will derive aesthetic pleasure.”

For him it was and will always be about the artistic idea. When, taken to its logical conclusion, the idea pinned him against the metaphorical wall, he confirmed without batting an eye: yes, he would rather buy a beautiful painting by an unknown artist at a garage sale then win an ugly Picasso on Christie’s.

For me, the allure has been multifasceted. Yes, it would be nice if the painting touched you personally, resonating with an inner vibration of your soul. But a piece of art is an object, with its own history, entourage, name. Some think that every house should have a pizza-cutter; others believe a dog is essencial. I think a home should have objects which embed it into the ebb and flow of history. Imagine – a painting created 250 years ago in a small town in Holland: made by commission and sold to an aristocrat, or kept within the family. Think of the journey it’s taken through the rise of industrialization, through wars and cease fires, through regime consuming regime. Hidden in attics, forgotten under beds, the painting lived its secret life, waiting to be rediscovered. The varnish cracked and sometime in the harsh winter of 1929 it was almost burned for firewood. Then, languishing in a county museum, it was dropped by an intern and a bit of the gilded frame chipped off.

I would want to be a part of that journey. As it sleeps some more in an auction backlot in the 2070’s, I want it to remember the many years (a brief time, by its standards) that it hung on my wall, proudly illuminated and peered over. I want it to remember the children’s crazy shouts and squeals, the salmon smells wafting from the kitchen, the oohs and aahs of infrequent guests.

The painting knows who painted it, but often, we do not. At best, it is just a name, forgotten but for those five centimeters of immortality on the canvas. But we would pose conjectures, and through them, that artist would live. Or, if it is a know painter, we would become a part of that story – no longer isolated from the great movements of civilization. We could have been a speck of driftwood, thousands of miles away from any life, isolated in life and in death. But now we would be in the thick of life, swimming along with whales and other proverbial giants, catching the historical current, surrounded by living organisms.

Such were my thoughts, and in my head they would have remained. Except this happened: I chanced upon a website that serves as a marketplace for large fine art auction houses all over the world. Suddenly I was looking at hundreds of paintings a day, many hours spent pouring over descriptions, prices, researching names, dates, shipping rates. Walking outside, my vision began to play tricks on me – the green of the trees smudged in its pastel variations. The cars on the roadways mutated to horse-drawn buggies, and I swear I saw a Danish Red cow with a couple of peasants in that field behind our house. The monochromy of the lake I pass every day variagated into a thousand airy brush strokes of blues, greens and canary yellows, the sky too danced and strutted in all of its impressionistic glory. Yesterday I had a dream that a squarish, jagged-edged spy was following me as I made my escape in a Mondrianesque labyrinthe.

Fortunately, these altered states of consciousness did not impede me from making a few very good bids. And I must confess, as we speak, several paintings from the far corners of the world are making their way towards me. And I am waiting.

I have been waiting…

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From the chronology of my life, an eight-year old memory…

When I studied as an undergraduate at UCSD, there was a great financial temptation that I succumbed to almost immediately upon discovery. In the psychology, sociology and linguistics buildings where I spent most of my time, there were always flyers hanging, inviting healthy students to participate in studies for a compensation ranging from $20 – $200. I started collecting phone number stubs and contacting graduate and PhD students, offering my pregnant, whimsical self for the betterment of humanity.

One experiment took place on the fifth floor of the Linguistics Building, where a painfully timid Chinese graduate student was researching the frontal cortex and peripheral vision. The test subject was supposed to sit on a swivel stool, place their chin on a plastic platform and look inside a device of sorts, not unlike those used to test eyesight and pupil dilation. You had to look straight, and every once in a while tiny green dots would signal in your right or left peripheral vision, for only a millisecond or two. If you noticed them, you were supposed to raise the respective hand. And so it went for about half an hour. There was a scanner embedded deep inside the device, which recorded your eye movement and focus. This is why you were supposed to sit especially still.

I committed myself to five sessions, and started coming. Apparently I had a knack for sitting painfully still and perceiving green dots with my peripherals. The graduate student interviewed me after each session, and unbeknownst to myself, I gradually befriended him. Shy, foreign, scientific types were my forte – I spent all of high school hanging out with them, and so for me talking with him came naturally. When everything was over and I received my hard-earned $100, the student invited me to lunch to celebrate the completion of the study. Since I had mentioned to him several times over the course of the sessions that I was married, I figured it was safe. Stubborn and naive, I convinced myself that all bases were covered by an additional admonishment that we were going as friends only.

During the dinner the student was on perfect gentlemanly behavior, and gave me a pot-bellied ceramic teddy bear for storing hot sake. The following morning I received an email in which, in his broken English, he confessed his love. It broke my heart: how perfect this would have been for someone who wasn’t me! But I was not destined to make his happiness, to be his other half, etc.

I responded with a polite reminder about my marriage, and that marked the end of our mostly professional relationship. I kept the bear though, as a talisman and a reminder for myself.

But of what, I’ve forgotten.

trees

Often I marvel at the profound intuition that Jesus exhibited when talking and teaching. Why should it be so surprising that he knew the needs and quirks of the human soul, after all, He created us. But what continues to strike me is that by and large, we seem to have gotten the purpose behind the message wrong. In his teachings, Jesus instructs us to treat other people in a certain way, and we naturally think that this is done for the good of those other people. However, we are mistaken. It is, first and foremost, done for the good of us.

One of the most prominent teachings Jesus offers is that of forgiveness. We are to forgive when others do wrong against us, whether they ask for forgiveness or not; regardless of what is in their hearts, we are to let go. And for good reason: the internal anger that is the opposite of forgiveness is terribly destructive. On a physical level, it keeps us grinding our teeth to a pulp, our faces are taught, our jaw muscles hurt. We do not take deep breaths and our brains are short of oxygen. No wonder we cannot think clearly. Countless papers testify to the negative physiological effects of anger. In terms of our intangible inner life, anger keeps us emotionally constipated. We cannot move forward. Dwelling and mulling become our pastime, productivity and creativity dwindle. Also, without forgiveness we continue feeling like the victim, helpless and bitter, and live our lives accordingly. So it turns out that letting go is first and foremost beneficial for the one doing the forgiving.

A closely related topic is that of humility. With word and action, Jesus taught his followers to think of others better than of themselves, to be humble, to let go of pride. Granted, everyone benefits when the haughty become the meek, the world would be a better place with less arrogant people. But here too, I find that the person that benefits most from this abandon of pride is the one that lets it go. While you are busy preserving your self image, that frail ego inside that shudders with every threat, you could be out joyfully trying new things, falling on your face and getting up again, interacting with people you wouldn’t normally come in contact with…We fear that if we let go of our pride, our whole being will whisp out of existence. At least I fear this. But what I discover is that with every bit of that perceived “self” that you give up, you are actually gaining psychological leg room. You can think freer, plus you have more energy to do so, since you are not wasting it on preserving the dignity of the self. And, incidentally, letting go of pride leads to less cases of that pride being hurt or offended, which helps with not getting angry and having to forgive those who “sin against you”.

Through all of New Testament scripture we are reminded to pray for those close to us. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes it a step further and instructs his followers to pray for those who persecute them. Prayer, in my mind, has always been an exercise that you do for the benefit of other people. Please heal my child from his pneumonia. Please strengthen my grandparents in their time of need. Please be with that individual who yelled hurtful things at me…Surely, this kind of petitioning with prayer is done for the sake of the recipient of the asked-for blessing.  Surely, but actually, not really.  When I pray, work is being done within me. As I pray “for my enemy”, I am inevitably forced to think of them not in terms of what they’ve done to me, but in terms of what they might need prayer for. This in turn forces me to see them as a person, not a source of my pain. Prayer gives way to empathy, which in turn brings about healing. Through prayer, you realize that we’re all in this together, not very different from each other, all needing forgiveness sometimes; all needing love.

Love. Yes, this is the glue that holds it all. The two most important commandments are to love the Lord your God, and to love your neighbor as yourself. If you think about it, why would the Lord, who is perfect love and who, within the Trinity, already gives and receives his love, need ours? From the first glance this seems to be the case: love God because he needs it, love others because they need it too.  But actually I think there is another, perhaps most important component: love because you need to love. You were designed to love, and you are realized as a human being through sharing this love.  Not surprisingly, close relationships between people are a key characteristic both of the so-called “Blue Zones”, pockets of communities with the most centenarians, and of the countries with the most happy people overall. When we live surrounded by love and expressing love, we live longer, happier lives.

This is why I think Jesus was a talented therapist: by following his instructions and focusing on doing good to others, we are in fact healing and transforming ourselves.

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