Sunday, December 26, 2010

Der rote Faden

Whilst there have been times here in Europe when I have asked myself why I ever left South America, there have also been moments of sheer bliss. I was snowed in in Paris for three days, meaning that I ended up spending Christmas day there instead of in Vienna as I'd planned. But ironically, the bad weather turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because after days of bitter cold, I woke up on Christmas morning to a miraculously beautiful day. The air was crystal clear and the sky a perfect blue vault. There were bright patches of snow on the ground, the streets were glassy with ice, and everything shone in a pale topaz sunlight. The streets were nearly empty of traffic - it was almost like having Paris to myself, though there were a few other foreigners wandering about, everyone it seemed in the same quiet delirium of delight as me.

I wandered along the Seine, which ran high and swift, lapping over its banks. And then as I walked under the arches of one of the many picturesque bridges that cross the river, my breath was snatched by the sight of the two towers of what I assumed had to be the Notre Dame. Funny - a week later I saw the same scene, the same angle, in a Picasso painting. There's a little park at the back of the Notre Dame, and the rear view of the cathedral is just as beautiful in its own way as the spectacular front. The garden was covered in snow, and here for the first time I came across people in some numbers: wandering in the little fenced-in garden or drinking steaming cappuccinos in the crisp, bright air at a cafe on the corner.

I once wrote a line in a song about waking up to a cold, sunny morning in childhood: I dreamed then I awoke, with your name on my tongue/And the dew shone in the garden, a million tiny suns/Oh, it was so new... I remember that feeling so vividly, I suppose the same one Cat Stevens is talking about in 'Morning has Broken'. The feeling of absolute newness, as if the world had just been made. At 43, one doesn't have that feeling so often any more, sadly. There is always some burden, some distraction, some clouding of one's inner view. But on Christmas morning in Paris, I had that feeling again.

I went inside the Notre Dame and sat and listened to mass in French, and though I'm not religious in any conventional sense, though I couldn't understand a word, I also couldn't have felt more a part of that ritual. Unlike some of the gloriously flamboyant cathedrals I saw in South America and Germany, the Notre Dame inside is magnificent but subdued. Not melancholy - immensely dignified and joyous at the same time. It is just sublime. And I was happy to sit inside on that incomparable day for an hour or so just to be part of of that moment of thanksgiving. I couldn't get over the idea I was at the Notre Dame on Christmas Day! Just too wonderful...

And alone. I've spent more time alone during this journey than I really expected. The company I've had I've enjoyed and appreciated all the more for it. But there's been a lesson in this aloneness. There have been times when I've been on Facebook at every chance to check for messages, comments, even 'likes' - anything to remind me of my connections to people. But then slowly something else has happened, a feeling that I best expressed in that poem 'When there is no harbour' that I posted back in La Paz. 'This is being a man/Knowing you are alone/Not fearing it/Standing, not leaning.' Slowly I've found a centre that lets me do that, stand without leaning, unafraid and never more purely myself. I think it was that part of me that broke open on the altiplano, when I suddenly found myself in inexplicable tears, sad and joyous at the same time, as we crossed that beautiful, lonely desolation. 'I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got' playing in my ears.

Jon Bauer wrote in a comment to this blog that he thinks we travel because we can't change, but changing our context gives us a different experience of ourselves. On the other hand, Alain de Botton argues for travel as transformation, almost as therapy, arguing we travel in order to be changed, and we should choose our destinations accordingly. I think I'm with de Botton (sorry Jon!). I'm more sanguine about the possibility of change, otherwise I could never have been a psychotherapist. That despite the recognition that change is slow, hard, subtle. Drastic and rapid psychological or spiritual transformation is extremely rare. Some of us have might have one such change in us in our entire lifetime. Many of us none at all. On the other hand, slow change, far from being impossible, is inevitable. It's up to us what that change will amount to, growth or decline, opening or closing.

There's an expression in German - 'der rote Faden' or 'the red thread' - which is used to describe the subtle thread of connection or meaning that runs through something. Now that my travels are almost complete, I look back and see the red thread that runs through this journey. The red thread is solitude, solitude as ally and gift. I've always had a nature that drives me towards solitude, that seems to veer away from the collective. And fought against it, hated it, because I also need acceptance and belonging as much as the next person. But now I see the possibility of complete acceptance of my own solitary nature, not in order to turn away from others or be any less connected, but to be grounded in an unshakeable sense of my own solitary completeness. And I suspect that makes it all the more possible to connect wholly with others, because then there is no longer that edge of anxiety, that subtle but ever-present distortion of self for the sake of the other.

I'm in Prague now, another stunningly beautiful city, though the cold is harsh - it's -12 degrees outside, which is taxing the limits of my clothes. Same again tomorrow for New Year's Eve. Hard to imagine the forty degree heat in Melbourne. I'm not sure where I'd rather be...

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