Markham and I were in the hot tub the other day talking about spirituality, nature and art, how these things are what people in the twenty-first century want more than anything. Markham defined art as what fills the gap between people and culture—if we were all more connected to nature and each other, we would feel fulfilled. Would we stop making art? Maybe not—but it would come to take a more prominent part in our spiritual lives. His point was that in painting people have been painting black squares and splattering paint for almost a hundred years. In music, composers are making electronic drumbeats. And in literature, well. We want well-written stories about other places, times and experiences.
Perhaps the quest is no longer about questing but about reflecting on what could have been the quest: about “the man who went home every afternoon for thirty years to an unexceptional house with neat lawns and listless shrubs and sat late into the night deciding on the route of a journey that he might have followed thirty years ago only to arrive at the place where he sat . . . ” That’s from Gerald Murnane’s The Plains. Now, I sit here in a room, thinking about what led me here, and how I make sense of it.
Perhaps the most intricate history I created in order to justify where I had wound up was a few years ago. I was visiting the great rivers of the world and I was in Kiev to see the Dnieper, the Viking trade route to Constantinople. I was alone, enjoying the exchange rate by drinking cheap beer and eating bowl after bowl of borsch, and trying to meet as many people as I could.
Alena was very elegant; after we chatted over borsh, she asked if I wanted to stroll: we walked past the Golden Gate—a reconstruction of the city gate that the city’s Viking founders had built a thousand years earlier—and she, a few inches taller than me in heels, reminded me of a water-bird in her black and white herringbone coat as she walked. Warm afternoon sun coated my neck, Alena smelled like honey, cherry blossoms budded, and from a little church emanated the heady smell of incense as an Orthodox priest incanted in Old Slavonic.
I said, I think rivers influence their people’s nature: near fast mountainous rivers the people are fiery and quick to act, while here, where the Dnipro is wide and slow, the people are peaceful and friendly.
She replied, Yes, my teacher told me you can see the nature of people in their songs too. If you listen to ours you will see we Ukrainians are a calm happy people.
On the bridge, we looked north: the Dnipro was pea-green, midnight sky and seafoam colored. Upriver a half-built bridge stood like a bear watching a salmon. The hillside grew golden onion-domes amidst a pointillism of budding alders, and overhead, nacreous sky brokered apricot sunbeams. South was the river’s evil twin: under dark clouds it wore a wrinkled camouflage jacket, dusty gray and bosky green that faded to onyx at the horizon.
We crossed the bridge and I bought her a Coke. I was falling in love with Alena, I convinced myself, even though she was leaving the next day for Rome, to work for her family friend’s law firm. I had been up late the night before talking to a friend in my hostel over pierogis and beer. By the time night fell, I was exhausted, and Alena, sensing this, said she had to go home. I walked her to her small Soviet-era bus and went to a buffet to gorge on my melancholy.
The next day I walked down to a region of the river I had never visited before. I went into a café to write. And I developed a fantasy: that we, Alena and I had done something like what we did the day before in a past life. I imagined long walks along the river nearly three hundred years earlier, sitting in the grain’s shade, whiskers of it tickling my neck like a little brother, clouds floating like her wrists, a rustling that turned my head so that as if magnetized our mouths came together. I imagined that we married, lived together, had children and died, were buried in the ground along the river to become the grain on which we used to lie during our courtship, where our descendants kissed their loves and sweated over scythes and smelled like us because we existed through them in the food they ate and the work they did and the land itself, so their grandchildren could go to war and bring back porcelain tiles and glass windows, and their grandchildren could build dams to keep electricity in their homes, so their grandchildren could meet and fall in love with strangers from the other side of the world and understand us in a glimpse, a twitch of the hips, arch of the wrist, flicker of smile or flash in the eyes, for the hope of a similar kind of love.
Later, once my trip ended, I developed an entire story around that initial vision, which revealed itself to me with such clarity that I believed I knew Alena in a past life, such that the story I created, though I recognized it as almost comical, I began to believe.
I wrote: Of the six children we had in the first ten years of our marriage, only one died in childhood. The two eldest boys helped me farm our small plot of grain and distill it into vodka. Through hard work and with Sofya—that was her name then, (I was Miroslav)—through Sofya’s genius idea of adding beetroot and cucumber to our liquor, we created Sofya’s Pickled Vodka, which she exchanged for butter, meat, beetroot and everything else we needed for our modest lives. Even then Sofya liked nice things. Soon we had a cow, four horses and a mare to pull her small carriage and four barrels of our bestselling cucumber vodka into town every Saturday morning. Neighbors envied us, said war was the true business of a cossack but we didn’t care, Sofya dreamed of far-off lands and was used to getting what she wanted, a featherbed, and pretty soon, a small brick house in the city. Catherine’s army never came east of the Dnieper, so my eldest son was not recruited for the war with the Turks. With his help we consolidated and expanded our vodka empire. By spring of ‘68 we’d left the village for Bratska Street. We lived upstairs, while Sofya ran the tavern, tubs of booze fermenting in the yard behind the house. We sold our booze to boatloads of Russian soldiers on leave from the latest Turkish campaign; Sofya only had to smile for kopecks to pile in. On an October night the following year, as we lay in our featherbed with the soldier’s drinking songs echoing off the cobblestones, she suggested a trip to Moscow to cement proposals for our girls; our vodka empire, cossack background and the beauty of our eldest daughter Marya had attracted the notice of Field Marshall Kirill Razumovsky. Sofya had finagled an invitation out of him for herself and our two eldest daughters to visit the Russian capital where Razumovsky’s eldest son had just finished studying at the military academy. I trusted Sofya and knew she could use her beauty to advance our station, but I was reluctant. I had to stay and manage the distillery, ensure our employees weren’t too drunk, and despite a premonition I had that without me she would not be safe, that we were not enacting our youthful dream of seeing the Volga together, I knew she was being practical; a union between our family and the former hetman’s would vault us into a higher nobility. So I relented.
On May Day, I saddled our chestnut mare and the white colt, gave instructions to my eldest boy Nikolai to care for his mother and sisters, and watched our coachman whip the horses up the northern road.
I never saw them again. News of the plague that had reduced Moscow’s population by nearly a quarter only reached us the following week. I sent a letter to tell Sofya to turn around, but it was no good. By St. John’s Feast Day a doctor named Turnishenko near Fominskoje replied that they had died and been interred on a country road outside his town. I set out to transport my wife and children to the shores of our river. I left care of the distillery to my now eldest son Andriy. Nearly two weeks later I reached Fominskoje.
Turnishenko was already dead, the plague had killed everyone except a haggard old witch and her werewolf son who burned the dead’s pallets. For a few rubles he brought me to the mass tomb and restrained me from digging up the bodies, the disease still virulent in corpses. I spent the next three nights in the crone’s house soaking my mustache in vodka, weeping against her son’s shoulder and blaming myself for not making good on that promise to see the Volga with Sofya. Only reason I didn’t kill myself was the other two children.
Upon my return to Kiev, I entrusted the distillery to Andriy, who became a shrewd businessman while I spent the rest of my days mastering the petrykivka style of painting and deluding myself into believing that with enough practice art could memorialize my loss. Yuliana, the baby, grew into a buxom lass with her mother’s smile, bless her, though after she turned down the hand of a young captain to care for her dear old dad the sight of her broad teeth became rarer every year. My cossack blood didn’t completely spoil; too old to remarry, I often got drunk and went whoring. Everyone in the city knew of my legendary sorrow and forgave me these debauches. This lifetime taught me the impotence of money in ensuring happiness. I eventually saw my grandchildren return to Kiev speaking French after fighting in the Patriotic War of 1812, and when I died Yuliana, Andriy, and his brood set me into the earth to become the grain on which I used to lie with Sofya when we courted.
A few weeks ago, I talked to Alena online, told her I might be in Kiev again soon, noted in photos how she’s aged, how her face has broadened—not that I’m looking any younger. I still sometimes wonder whether this dream was pure imagination, a way to escape the tedium of my melancholy, or if it had any grounding in reality, a reality I can’t know. I’ve even entertained the notion that this vision comes to me from a distant relative who lived like this, who moved away from the shtetl, acting on nomadic instinct, who sold vodka, whose love died.
When I first imagined we had loved each other before, that day I sat in a café on the shores of the Dnieper, I had recently realized that art was not sacrosanct, that it was at bottom, an illusion. Yet instead of searching for something else to empty my faith into, I drained all of it into art. And as I still do whenever a crisis about my work comes on: I build a story beyond my story, to broaden my journey into realms little different than those so many inhabit while in front of TV or computer screens, which I imagine can be more enduring. As I moved away from the Dnieper, I reflected on how well this strategy worked, how much better it made me feel. So that as I moved westward, I invented more of these past lives, merging melancholy with reverie.
Eventually, though, I saw that even I could not keep deluding myself this way. That not everyone I met I knew in a past life. I needed another tactic. I was in Spain, Cordoba, on the Guadalquivir, and I was approaching the end of my trip when I learned of Averroes and Maimonides. Cordoba was the biggest city in the world a thousand years before.
I stared into the Guadalquivir, and forthe first time I thought of a river’s life, that she could die like me and how after her golden age she had to anticipate slow decline. A river’s life is constant decline, to the sea and new waters. But it is not your idea of decline, not decline based on a center. God is everywhere in Andalusia, the circumference does not exist, rejoice with what you have and continue. Whether the river told me this or I told myself I can’t remember.
The shape of a person’s face reflects their fate, the river’s luck is its downfall, everything in life is arbitrary yet changeable, unfair yet necessary, and the straightest line between two points is the fastest and least interesting. How do I reconcile science and wisdom, I wondered, how do I define the principles that rule my life? Why were certain meetings, casual or intimate, stitched into my consciousness unless it were to afford each other the chance to flower? At what cost were such opportunities ignored? Perhaps the joining of two souls in the physical act of love was more valuable than a casual smile or glimpse in the street and there was an economy of metaphysics, a hundred casual smiles equaled a kiss and twenty kisses equaled one night together and ten nights with different people equaled one with a true love and a hundred of those equaled one moment of understanding what Dante knew by the end of Paradiso, a divine reciprocal invisible charge. Or perhaps the quantitative is irrelevant in metaphysics—Aristotle said essences and substances are of the same quality. Is it possible, I wondered, to ignore essences attracted to each other when their substances carom? How many chances for metaphysical meaning had I ignored without knowing, how many begun and abandoned prematurely, which circumstances denied me opportunities?
The next day, in Sevilla, I walked to the Guadalquivir’s main course, not its canal that flows through the city. Its bank was opposite a highway that a palm-lined path led me to where, nestled among the bulrushes, a couple of Roma women sat noticing me. The bridge’s concrete pylons and the urban planning in general seemed very nineties to me, park on one side, highway as divider, neighborhood on the other. I was reminded of the good parts of my childhood in cities like Stamford and Santa Monica. I stood in the wet high grass watching the water, thinking about the phrase slow waters run deep and what exactly the fuck it meant. An empty Coke bottle, crushed milk carton, partially-empty five liter of water, and a fresh-looking single Nike running shoe lay around a tree. You can always tell a place by its trash. Birds called and I wondered if they had any sense of life having existed for millions of years before them.
And I told myself to be content simply recording the experiences that flashed before me, without desiring more.
A week later I stood in Fernando Pessoa’s house. It was more of a research center, few items from his lifetime remained. I remembered when I read The Book of Disquiet: I was in Portland, Oregon, having just met the woman who was to become my girlfriend. I was planning to return to Brooklyn to live my life with her, to finish a novel she published the first part of in her magazine we worked on together. I was fresh in love, I had built my dream around this woman who I barely knew but who I knew was willing to fall in love with me. That was enough.
I remember going to a café across from the library downtown with that book, reading and writing in the gray Portland January, meeting my mom to go to a macaron shop in The Pearl district and a man sitting there having coffee noted my book and said that he loved it, that it had been dear to him. And though I was only halfway through it, I agreed that I felt the same way.
Then five years later in Lisbon, I was in Pessoa’s house. Poor guy sacrificed his reality to his dreams. His years spent as an accountant’s assistant, the trove of writing he left behind published as his masterpiece, The Book of Disquiet gave birth to a film adaptation that played on the top floor of his home. I walked in on “Filme do Desassossego” as a closeup of a woman’s thick red lips recited three ways to transcend suffering: primeiro, avoid it not like a Stoic but in the Keatsian way of finding the dialectical joy in melancholy’s temple. Segundo, associate the pain with an alter-ego. Perhaps a historical self. Terceiro, a full dissection of the pain in a reflexive intellectualization, making it substance for analysis and reflection—art.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.