I have spent most of the past year gradually falling in love with one of the most patient and observant men I have ever known. He is attentive, generous, creative, and wise. One of the many gifts he has given me is a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (other gifts include earrings shaped like the dopamine molecule, a hand-hammered ring he crafted out of a quarter, numerous bouquets of flowers, and some of the most heartfelt and lovely works of poetry and art I’ve ever been privileged to look upon. I mention this to give you an inkling of the quality of man we are talking about here. And also to preen a little. Preen, preen.)
Right. Anyway, one of the most famous passages of that beautiful book of Rilke’s is this one:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
I cannot tell you how many times I have read this passage. So many times that, gradually, it has lost its power. It has lost its power because I look at this quote and think “ah, Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet. Seen that.” And the experience of these words gets filed away. I already know. So I deny myself the experience.
I have fallen in love before. I have attended school before, participated in art therapy before, cooked stew before, celebrated my birthday before, taken trips overseas before. Over time, it grows easier and easier to believe that I can never experience the delight and vibrance of this world in the way I did the first time. It grows easier and easier to slot new experiences into pre-existing categories; easier and easier to take for granted things, people, and experiences that once lit me up with gratitude.
It’s insidious, this having-of-answers. I used to live on a tiny street in Culver City, near a school that had planted its borders with mexican marigold and lavender. Every morning, walking to my bus stop, I’d crush a leaf or two in my fingers and sniff the sweet, heady scent all the way across Venice Boulevard. Sometimes I’d tuck a sprig into my pocket or behind my ear, where I could lift it to my nose throughout the day. And then one morning, in a hurry, headed to an appointment with a person I loathed, I found myself at the bus stop with a fistful of crushed and withered leaves that I could not remember plucking or smelling. This ritual of delight had become just another bullet point on my to-do list. I “knew” what lavender and mexican marigold could do for me, so I’d plucked them. But I’d forgotten to have the experience.
I write this now because, as I entered into love this year, I had so many answers. I’d been in love. I knew what worked and what didn’t. I knew what I wanted and whether I could realistically get it or not.
But this love has taken my answers from me one by one. Slowly, begrudgingly, I have learned that I cannot apply the tricks and techniques and shortcuts that I learned in other relationships to this one. I have learned that a) I know nothing about this love and b) that is a wonderful thing. Sometimes it is very ugly, being me. Sometimes it is the hardest, most awful, paralyzing-pulpy thing to admit that I have been wrong, that I do not know, that this experience I face is different than anything that has come before. It takes extraordinary energy and raw nerve to live questions instead of answers. It takes almost unimaginable courage to allow myself to be fully seen.
On the other side, though! When I do take the deep breath and do the courageous thing, when I welcome this man into my life each day as a surprise and as an enigma, when I allow myself to stumble and show ineptitude and admit that I do not know, life grows so exquisitely vibrant. There is a spectrum of experience, and when I narrow it to keep myself from experiencing the most intense suffering, I am also denied the most transformative joy. Slowly, I am relearning how to welcome all of life.
The dust accumulates in such subtle ways: the retelling of a story until all the feeling is worn out of it, the frustration at having to re-experience something I did not like the first time, the assumption that I already know how an apple tastes and that this apple can hold nothing new. I think this is the way that we can wake up, eventually, and feel as though we are no longer alive.
Sometimes it is easier to keep my head down and deaden myself to experience—sometimes there is so much to do that tasting the apple feels like one task too much. But when I am walking down the hall after tucking my children into bed and they call after me “we love you the MOST!” I want to hear it every time. It is no less beautiful for having been said several hundred times before. I don’t want to deaden myself to it. I don’t want to stop hearing it when the man I love says I love you.
This man that I love, loves me. That is the newest, most surprising, most fantastically beautiful feeling I have ever experienced. I don’t ever want to teach myself to take it for granted. I don’t ever want to teach myself that I know this already. I don’t want any answers.
I know I will forget, again, to read the words Rilke wrote instead of saying, “oh yeah, Rilke.” I know there will be nights that I stride down the hall preoccupied with all there is to accomplish, not hearing the “We love you the MOST!” that follows me from the boys’ room. And I want to welcome this, too—-gently welcome this mistake-making, this not-hearing—as part of the question I live every day.
Slowly the evening puts on the garments
held for it by a rim of ancient trees;
you watch: and the lands divide from you,
one going heavenward, one that falls;
and leave you, to neither quite belonging,
not quite so dark as the house sunk in silence,
not quite so surely pledging the eternal
as that which grows star each night and climbs-
and leave you (inexpressibly to untangle)
your life afraid and huge and ripening,
so that it, now bound in and now embracing,
grows alternately stone in you and star.
~ Rainer Maria Rilke ~