Growth and change always includes some kind of death. This becomes clear to us early in life, and yet, resisting it seems built into our DNA. We want to gain what is beyond, without losing what we have. And why?
I am a partially-recovered nostalgia addict. The core of reality that fuels the nostalgia addict’s life is the fact that the love that has been experienced is, in some way, both immutable and irrefutable. This was the real moment—when we used to watch TV late at Grandmama & Guy’s house, and they would let us have all the coffee ice cream and Coca-Cola we wanted. That was real—when our weekend fun was going to a different dining hall and making up new names and voices for all the other students we never talked to. This—when we got stuck in the airport and had to sleep in the bar and took pictures of ourselves at 3am. It was real. You were here. We loved each other.
Memory has its way. The past is more beautiful because it is not being suffered through at this moment. In our loveliest memories, all of the discomfort, doubt, and dis-ease we very well might have been feeling in that present wonderfully evaporate away, leaving us with the warm afterimage of beloved faces, the security of a known landscape, and, often, a more solid sense of belonging–because it can no longer be challenged. It was real. It happened. You were there. We loved each other.
When we learn that neither past nor future can be lived in fully, we can begin to experience the inimitable wonder and limitlessness that can be found in the present. But there are times when even the most magical present can turn into a heated crucible of change, and throw us sprawling back into the illusion that the past was the place to be. My last two days in Bali have been this crucible.
It started with a wave of nausea in Anah’s first workshop. I had to first sit, then lie, down. One moment I felt at the top of my physical powers—the next, I could not think of anything more immediately necessary and satisfying than sleep. As soon as I could, I made my way back to my room and slept for 19 hours. Faint nausea persisted, but—blessedly—never overtook me completely. Sweet Khan came with worried eyes and water. Kandice and Andrew sent in a bottle of colloidal silver. Aaliyah, a born healer, brought a tube of tiny yellow pills, a Chinese herbal remedy.
My dreams spewed chaos: a burning house, a vast chamber where the arguments of lawmakers (all male) throbbed on and on like a headache, a lost college friend who could not recognize me even as I recounted detailed stories of our early years together. But even though the dreams kept me in darkness and fear, all I wanted was sleep.
Finally waking the next morning, I finally felt I could walk to breakfast. With determination I ate my meal and checked email. Having just learned before I fell ill that two dear friends had been admitted to the hospital in the previous 24 hours, I was anxious for news. In one case, another grim update, in the other—nothing. My tenants in North Carolina wrote to say that they would not be staying. The space where I hold my New York classes wrote to say that the next week’s class—which I had struggled to find a last-minute sub for—would have to be cancelled because they had rented the room for a tv pilot. Little waves of nausea lapped at me. It was hot. I walked down to the first class but the close wet air pressed down on me and I had to leave, the sun flat on my head. I lay down but couldn’t sleep. All my stories of being wronged darted through my mind like hateful insects. I formed righteous speeches and longed for home.
But where was that? I saw myself walking down Weaver Street again and again, walking into the market. I don’t live anywhere. I couldn’t remember the faces of my Brooklyn friends—the central and dearest one will be gone when I return. Why can’t my dog be with me always? My mind grasping specifically onto things I can’t control (everything). I couldn’t participate in this event I had so looked forward to. Losing time with everyone gathered here. No comfort. Lying on my side. Close my eyes again. I don’t want to be anywhere. Anger. I am one of the rich white tourists again. What is the meaning of this life? Nothing came.
Too long to remember since anger pushed me through a day. Awareness of the absurdity of my sense of injustice had no meaning whatsoever. I got to the end of it. The sun sank down; Khan took me for a raw meal at a gorgeous new restaurant. Food tasted good again. I met a few ex-pats. But I was still at a remove. When the cab driver dropped me off, I asked the price of the ride. “40,000 rupiya,” he said. “I thought it was 30,000,” I said in a voice that wasn’t mine. He shrugged. “Whatever,” I said. After giving me the change for his quoted fare, he said goodnight—kindly. Walking away from the cab I wanted to cry. Why did I quibble over one dollar with a man who would probably never have the chance to leave this island? Me, sweeping in with my fat wallet from Tai Pei from LA from the most famous city in the world? The ugliness of it choked me. And I was flooded with sorrow.
A long unbroken sleep gave way to a blessedly steadier waking. In the first rays of sun I made my way to tea and toast, a selection of Célan’s last letters under my arm. While new French guests filled the open-air dining room, I read a few words from this brilliant Jewish poet, and his final love, Ilana. And was reminded of a deeper beauty.
Out of the gentle glow of my first few days here, some force came from nowhere and pushed me down as low as I could go. The flattening power of it reminded me that my own power is only a derivation of a greater force which happened me into being to begin with. I don’t claim to know the exact nature of that force. I know I felt to my deepest core—this time—that I did not want to submit to it. I wanted and tried to refuse. And was again humbled.
And today I feel the infinite blessing of being just on the other side—just past the darkness. How much more beautiful the faltering light, as the biggest moon in 18 years prepares to rise. As I wrote this, one of the lop-eared hounds that skulk around here decided to stop by. A limpy white male, he breathed heavily from chasing ducks. I called to him as he ambled past, and something in my voice made him feel comfortable enough to pad up and join me on the porch. At first he stood just beyond where I could reach. Then, he slowed down as he walked past my table a few times—just enough so I could stroke his back. And then, he stood still, and I scratched his neck while we watched the setting sun.