Despite the late start, I had good enough intentions. I made a list. I would do the laundry. I would wash the dogs. I would eat healthy lunch and have dinner with friends at a good restaurant. I would go to the bank, and visit the post office.
Instead, I called my sister, and my mother, and I read Michael Ondaatje's "Running in the Family". It's a short book, that unpacks itself an epic. This feeling, this disconnection and detachment and longing after... what? Understanding? Absolution? This desparate desire to know the unknowable. He wrote, "In my mid thirties I realized I had slipped past a childhood I had ignored and not understood." Simpatico.
So today I walked the dogs, and I fed them, and I drank tea from Ceylon and read a book about a childhood there, amidst the floods and the jungles. And when I broke between the bite-sized chapters to put the kettle on or unlock the garage for the neighbor who locked her keys in, I thought about "The Empire of Tea", and Iris MacFarlane just across the Bay on the Subcontinent, with her own steaming, sprawling epic unfolding. And I thought about the Insurgents that Ondaatje writes about with such warmth, and decide that this book could never be written today.
During one particularly long break between sections, I managed to get to the library ten minutes before it closed. I got six books either in, or on, French. A friend in Switzerland is teaching himself German by working his way slowly through Goethe's "Faust". Disgusted by my own lack of independence abroad and inspired by his methodical example, I checked out "Cyrano de Bergerac" and "Candide". I read them
both in English translation years ago, and have high hopes that Voltaire will be funny enough to translate through Webster's New Concise French Dictionary. Maybe this time next year I can successfully make change, or eat a meal without needing an interpreter or my Epipen. Six books is a little much. I suspect that once again my enthusiasm will outstrip my discipline. A common theme in my life, and in my family.
Recurring themes are what "Running in the Family" is all about. While I read about the Ondaatjes' introspection and their alcoholism and their wild exhibitionism and their grim determination, I came to feel like I knew this family. Like they were part of my neighborhood. For all of their brown skin and banana leaves, they could have been. I wondered, in the novelization of my family history, what would be uncovered. Time and again as Ondaatje writes about his parents, I think about a photograph I saw of my parents at Christmas, a year or two before my eldest brother was born. They were so young. Far younger than I am now. I wondered if I met them today, how I'd get along wit those kids.
Some day I'd like to make a similar pilgrimage. To spend time with all my family, recording and transcribing and arranging their stories, and to make my own "gesture", as Ondaatje called it. I would be surprised if I ever do, but the pull has always been there - a gentle tug that I could ignore until Ondaatje pointed it out.
Some day I'd like to visit Sri Lanka. Where tea trees grow from the jungles and Sir Arthur C. Clarke installed the first satellite dish. I want to see the plantations and feel the heat and spend time among the temples of a place where Buddhists have lived for so long that their history is littered with monks taking lives. Because familiarity breeds contempt, even for dharma.
I wonder how I should feel in such a place, being Buddhist, but also being American. I was discussing with my mother this afternoon how in Europe, they deal with the issue of peoples' religious freedom by simply never discussing it. It's like putting entire populations in the closet. Everyone's dignity is saved by asking everyone to subtly deny who they are. But on the other hand, it seems to mostly work;
while it doesn't help prevent prejudice, voicing or acting on the prejudice is so tacky. It's just not done. If simply not talking about religion is such a noticeable change for me, how might I react when I'm steeped in a single faith? Even if it's my own, I can only imagine chafing. But then, the English and the Dutch have been in old Ceylon long enough that that is probably not an issue; I imagine a cultural backdrop even more riotous than the one I come from. And perhaps this is why it appeals to me. My enthusiasm outstripping my sense?
So today I did not do the laundry. I did not wash the dogs. I ate mostly buttered toast and drank tea and stopped answering my phone when people called. The bank and the post office were forgotten. My list will have to wait until tomorrow.
But I still count my day as a success. C.S. Lewis wrote, "We read to know we are not alone." And indeed, I feel like I've spent my day in conversation with a great friend; one who listens and understands. Not so alone after all.
Today I spent the day alone, for the first time in I don't know how long. Maybe a year, maybe more. I woke in the middle of the night, jetlagged and bleery and put the dog out because she farted, and then sat in bed and wondered why I wasn't sleeping. Hours later, I put the laptop aside and passed out, to wake again around noon.