12/31/11

The Pilgrimage


There are two kinds of pilgrimage we are obliged to undertake in our lifetime, and it's a duty we owe to our world: one is a return to intimate places we have lived in for long stretches of time, the other is a visit to places we have never been, but which have nevertheless had just as powerful an impression on us over the course of our lives.

The first pilgrimage, the Return, almost always involves the same two sacred sites: the childhood home, and the school. These two hallowed grounds marked our formative years when time seemed longer, because time was marked out by constant novelty, discovery and innovation. Things seem long when you're experiencing them for the first time, and childhood always seems long to us for that reason. Often on the Return pilgrimage, we will wonder how it was only two or three years that all those memories could have been crammed into, and also at just how much bigger things seemed in our childhood minds than they actually are upon the return. The walls were higher, the trees were bigger, the streets were longer, and the hills behind your house were mountains. It was a time when every day was an adventure, and time seemed to stretch out immeasurably to no end. In the span of a few years, great things happened, events that shaped the destiny of your life. The love, friendship, adventure, success, failure were all great, and regardless of whether they were remembered as happy times or sad, they were exciting times, and you felt things then. To return to these inanimate yet hallowed and vivid places always seemed to me a duty, as if it were repayment for great gifts bestowed once, and which deserve the paying of respects now. Because the house and the neighborhood and school were alive once, and they had souls, and we must respect their souls as we would a dead family member. Those souls were created only through us. That is the beauty of the Return pilgrimage. What was created between me and the hallowed place, was the soul. Neither on its own means anything. It is together that the spirit awakes, the soul manifests, and the experience becomes sublime. It is through that interaction of brain, eyes, light and brick that the walls come to life, that the buildings speak, that the windows reproduce faces that once peered through them and now peer back in our minds.

We will return, and we will stand silently, and observe. We will assume a solemn remembrance for the bonds of self and place and time. We will pick out the holiest of signs, the relics of the hagiography in our minds. The gate, the door, the bush, the tree, the steps, the window, the vines, the wall... We find ourselves in a temple, and everything has meaning, no matter how profane, no matter how inanimate, no matter how lowly, or how utilitarian. The world comes alive when we stand there, and our life regains its sense of wonder and mystery. It is deeply personal, it is shared with few if any others, and even then not in exactly the same way. There is merely overlapping. But in essence what you worship there is unique. It is yours. That is your place, that is your temple, and nobody can ever take that away from you.

The second kind of pilgrimage is the Seeking, because it's a not-yet-attained yearning for something, some place that held great meaning for us in our formative years, but which has eluded us until the pilgrimage of Seeking. In my case, the Seeking was center court at Wimbledon, because I grew up playing tennis and watching tennis, and it was for many years all I would do outside school. I would wake up at 6am and hit on the wall for hours before school, and then again after school. I would wake at 4am to watch Wimbledon on TV, and I would skip school if there was a match I had to see. I remember countless matches watched on TV, all in that sacrosanct cathedral to the thing I loved: tennis. To others, the pilgrimage may be to the Metropolitan Opera, maybe to Yankee Stadium, maybe to a Museum. To me, the thought of walking onto center court at Wimbledon would be the way a Catholic would feel upon walking into St. Peters Cathedral. It would be a truly religious experience, and I don't just mean that as a metaphor. The times I lay out on the floor watching the McEnroe's, the Becker's, the Edberg's, the Cash's, the Lendl's and the Connors's would come flooding back to me. The Duke and Duchess of York would be up there waving. John Newcombe or Tony Trabert would be commentating from the press box. The photographers lined along the side would be clicking. The faces in the crowd would be fanning themselves and clapping and running from the rain and returning with their umbrellas. Giants would be facing off on either side of the net, each of them surely ten feet tall and superhuman. The grass under my feet would be something not of this world. I would be stunned and in awe of the power of that place. And inside I would experience something truly akin to a religious ecstasy, or an epiphany.

But so far, that Seeking hasn't happened. I've yet to go to Wimbledon, but it's a pilgrimage I hope to achieve one day. As for the Return pilgrimage, that's a bit different. I've had a few childhood homes, and while I've done the Return pilgrimage to a couple, others I've yet to do. And sometimes when I have it within my grasp to do so, I chicken out. Something pulls me away. I feel a melancholy kind of fear, as if it would only bring back to me the memory of what is gone and can never be retrieved. As if I would only become conscious of a happy time lost, and feel all the more powerfully the onset of age and the cruel passing of time.

But I know I have to overcome this fear, because life is too long to live without going on that pilgrimage that will remind you just how short and just how precious it really is.

12/22/11

A walk through a secondhand bookstore


There are certain writers who always greet you when you walk into a used book store. George Orwell, Joseph Conrad, Jane Austen and Jules Verne are a few, writers that you know will always be there with those welcome familiar titles, those well-worn yellowed crumpled pages that have that comforting smell of dust and decay. You'll finger through them every now and then, and see the names of past owners scribbled on the title page, endearingly unfamiliar names of people with lives you know nothing of, except that at one point their life was immersed in the book you now hold in your hand. A priced numeral now stands there, written in pencil beside their name - or the name of the library they saved that book from.

Sometimes I visit the bookstore to see these friends, and I often find myself just thumbing through books, not so much reading, but touching, feeling, smelling, hearing them and the writing within, like the long coded strands of souls that inhabit those pages, ciphered with symbols that represent all their loves and passions, their failures and successes, their time on earth that we empathized with as our own time, from the writer's mind to the page and then to our own mind, like the transmigration of a soul shared by us all and stored on shelves where entire worlds are packed into creaking wooden boxes, stacked one upon the other, waiting for a new owner to free them so that they may live in the imagination of a mind once again, and give hope and understanding to others.

The bookstore is a mystical place with a hidden architecture that is encoded within covers, that constructs some magnificent, invisible, undiscovered edifice of interweaving lives and adventures through an interdimensional space that can only expand and enrich through the mind of the beholder who has come to explore. And yet that whole hidden edifice, that magnificent lexical DNA is bounded within an often ugly (not always so), dank, dark and dinghy little three dimensional shell that is the bookstore itself. The contrast is staggering. Infinity, potential, beauty, bound up within clumsy walls and cracking shelves, attended to by an old man in the corner. When you listen closely, you hear those voices chattering all around you, telling great stories, relating great adventures, yet lying there now, rotting in some corner, needing eyes to spring back to life and offer once more the riches they were meant to give.

Because ultimately, the bookstore is a repository of the gifts mankind has bestowed on itself. It is a holy place where we entrust the souls of our forefathers. It is the repository of humanity, and should be treated as a sacred and hallowed place. To step in, one should remove one's hat (metaphorically speaking) and lower one's voice (as we all instinctively do). There is Jane and Emily in the A's and B's, and a copy each of Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, the testaments of a passionate inner life trapped in a world of limitations, precocious, before their time, their sacrifice given and shared for posterity. You feel gratitude toward them. Further down, you greet George Orwell, and you relive his touching, human portraits of misery, poverty and injustice in The Road to Wigan Pier, his depiction of the futility and alienation of middle class life in Coming Up For Air, his satire of totalitarianism in Animal Farm, the life of the destitute in Down and Out in Paris and London, the chilling dystopian despair of 1984, and his wonderful bookstore within the bookstore, his own personal Notes From Underground, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. You move on through the Dostoevsky's and Tolstoy's, perhaps one or two volumes of Proust lying around, thumbing through any random page, taking in a whole passage comprised of a single sentence, and wondering again why you never finished In Search of Lost Time. And then of course Jules Verne and his fantastic adventures at the dawn of science, in the wonder of the 19th century, the age of brilliant, intrepid, genius explorers setting off on fantastic journeys yet always ensconced in the comfortable safety of 19th century bourgeois trappings, velvet couches, brass lamps and libraries always at hand, where the armchair adventurer can find a safe harbor in new worlds. You'll find T.S. Eliot's Cocktail Party, Wasteland and Prufrock, and read again those haunting lines; you'll stumble upon a copy of Borges's Labyrinths and wonder in awe, as you always did, at the Library of Babel; and you'll sense your feelings stir and your mind itch and the voices call you away when you see a worn copy of On The Road, even as regrets well up within you. Those friends will be there on those shelves, faithfully standing sentinel, as if they know you and are expecting you. They speak to you, and you find solace in the fact that your troubles are not unique, that we all share the same trials and loneliness, but that somehow it isn't a cause for despair, because they are alchemists who have found the formulas that convert despair into something beautiful and sacred.

There is, besides that great architecture of imagination, a deeply palpable physical dimension to the secondhand bookstore. It is a place of dying. Not in a metaphoric sense only, though a case could be made for that (reading always makes me conscious of death). Death in a real physical sense. The leaves upon which those words are written, the wooden shelves hewn from dead trees, the long dead writers, the pensioner tending to the books, the young student who reminds you that your best days are past, all of it reeks of death and dying. But most of all it's the haunting silence and passing of time in the bookstore that conveys a sense of mortality. The rush outside is somehow magically left at the door once you enter the bookstore and you feel that time has stood still. We are solemn once inside, we are humbled and respectful, like someone who has entered a church or a cemetery. Your self-consciousness dissipates, your mind retracts, your self-assuredness recedes. Great names line those walls and shelves. Great stories, great deeds, great longings, great ideas are left behind, with their names, like ghosts, but the great men and women themselves have long since perished. There may even be a part of them there, atoms of Lucretius himself even, in the pages and the shelves that their imagination still occupies in a strange kind of mixture of life and death for which there is no word.

I always pause for a second once I have entered the secondhand bookstore. Then I walk again in a forest of waking lives past, upon which have been built these great edifices of the mind and spirit, and I always discover a welcome sense of mystery in life once again.