This is another repost of an earlier piece, this time from my first pilgrimage. This is also included in Your Face is a Forest.
There are quite a few reasons these are coming up for me again. One–another pilgrimage is beckoning, as I’ve mentioned earlier.
Also, I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened before all this, and I’m hoping to find some way to describe it. I’ll be writing a piece for The Wild Hunt next week about ‘Closing Off,’ or the defensive shutting-down thing we do when the Other starts getting so intense that all hope of normality is bashed against rocks and you realize that clinging to the mundane while experience the Other is no longer an option to you. Sometimes you have to choose, and sometimes we make the safe decision, which is always the less exciting one.
This is from one of those times I decided not to make the safe decision, an experience of the mundane through the Other.
Berlin is a city I’ve visited many times, but only once as a pilgrim. Some antagonistic people, and also some merely curious people, have asked me to define the difference between a ‘vacation’ and a ‘pilgrimage.’ I wanted to say ‘what’s the difference between men standing in a circle and a circle-jerk?
But here’s a better answer.
Journal Nine: “You”
I have drawn song from stone and air through wood in an ancient chapel so obscure none knows when it was built.
I have listened by stones worn by time and fierce wind as the sun set, listening for the echoes of their meaning at their feet amongst gorse and heather.
I have stood before the skull of an urchin made holy in a cathedral radiating authority and control over brooding spirits waiting for the return of their time.
Upon a worn mountain I waited, exhausted, as the visions and dreams poured through the moon’s reflected light upon the shaking heads of corn, felt the rain upon my head as the chill set in, and stood, near-blinded, staring out into the landscape of which my dreams had been mere reflection.
By rivers I’ve whispered back to river-goddesses too-eager to have a someone to hear them, hill-spirits deadened to their own voices by centuries of neglect and rape, and trees laughing without mirth at my attempts to speak their language.
Over ancient cobbles, through narrow alleys, by wells and fountains and worn statues I’ve trudged, unhurried like toad and turtle, burdened like ox, bound to earth, bound to what I carry.
And here is a city, old like ice and new like rain, curious like glaciers, breathing like mountains.
I don’t know how to speak of Berlin. I will tell you what I have done, I will wield dulled words to carve symbols from what remains always unspoken.
Had I better art, I’d speak only myth. Myth is truth wrapped in mystery where it survives time, survives the present and its concerns and weaknesses. It bridges past and future into an always-now which is no present but that which the present only shadows, only reaches for. It is the correspondence between life and love, or death and the eternal.
Berlin is myth. Like the gods, like ourselves.
Wake in the morning within a massive flat, once thrice its size ’till the inhabitants split its space for others. Crawl down carefully, backwards, the ladder to the 10 foot high loft only half-way reaching to the ceiling, wander out into the cavernous kitchen where the communal-renters share coffee and fruehstuck with you.
Speak to an old friend, met in another city neither of you liked. Listen to her happyness, the ferocity of life coursing through her words, the serene wonder of the world in her eyes and remember that this is not strange for this city.
Leave the building down echoing stairs into a courtyard, through a gate into another courtyard, through yet another into a world you almost forgot existed outside this home. People strolling, walking, rushing but unstressed towards bakeries, towards food stands, towards work that starts later than most societies would allow.
Down steps into a tunnel breathing warmth and old metal dust towards the rushing of underground trains which feel so familiar you are sometimes surprised you’ve paid for the trip. Up other stairs into another city which is the same, by a canal lined with willows and sycamore and chestnut. Walk further in, farther over stone and bridge to where already people lunch at tables under awnings sprayed with graffiti like the stones beside them, a city inked in missives, tattooed and henna’d, the surface of the buildings like the soil of the earth in which our lives are lived, into which our deaths are composted into more and more and more life.
Can there be too much life? Not if there is death. Death is not the product of life, it is its’ mother, the fallen tree the widow’s kind funerary rites, the spring the maiden’s blossoming.. Death is our mother, filling the world with life, these streets with life, this air with–
Drink. Walls covered in fake pink fur, the smokiest, coziest uterus you’ve ever re-visited. You know you will reak the next morning, you know the music’s horrible, you know you shouldn’t run your fingers through the fur wall-fur so grey you’re not certain you don’t see pink only because you know you’re supposed to.You are in a womb which is a bar which is a sacred site to you, not an old druid circle or an ancient tomb, but holy nonetheless, and a bit nauseating, a bit gross, and you are glad of it
Wake in the morning to coffee, not where you started the morning before. Walk from the place and find it noon, and others are waking, and it is a holiday, and the autumn air, cold, breathes out the stale smell of beer and smoke. Beyond it is another smell, a quality to air we’ve no words for. We’ve forgotten to name those things, but remember that, in another time of freedom before hatred marched through streets, they’d named it a song.
The song’s ridiculous, but it makes you smile as you sing it in your head with more coffee in hand, powder from what an american president called himself in your beard. The air, the luft (luft luft), and you reel in wonder until you catch the light upon the canal and remember what you were trying to remember to remember.
But it’s all different now, isn’t it? You see the light refracted and remember it goes elsewhere, just as on the three rivers, by the pool in another land. The gods you’ve heard are here, too, and wonder at this as you drink mineral water and air and drink in the severe beauty of the people who pass, radiating out like the fire infused into coffee, heat slipping through your fingers into the air like their dreams and you suddenly remember how everything fits together.
Meet a friend at an abandoned airfield. Be so full of wonder you fret you cannot hold such happyness, standing where life grows from man’s failed plans, gardens and kites and children and old folks playing in a park birthed just as chamomile finds purchase between side-walk cracks. Watch the sun set with your friend, feel his happyness in what others might call sorrow, hope as air, hope as breaks in pavement waiting from life to fill it.
Watch the faces of others watching the sun. Walk towards them, see the violet gold and rose upon their skin, their eyes in wonder, unseeing yours, and know you’ve seen the same thing with them, and wonder how much life is coursing through you, so much you think you’d break, you’d burn without outlet.
Go get food. It’s cheap. You can live off street food here and be well. Wonder why you waited to order, why you prolonged the moments you’d wait in this line, remark to yourself how it probably will mean something to have done so. Listen to the man next to you attempt to order, sense his determination despite his confusion. Smile and help him.
Spend the next couple of hours with him on the street and at a bar where people just ending their night from the day before buy you drinks. Laugh in amusement how it’s only 8pm and you’re about to go out again, but make plans to take him to the Turks the next day and return home quickly for tea, drink again with that same friend and another, find yourself amongst the pink fur again and smile.
Tea again, and tomato fennel soup with arugula bruschetta you forged quickly because you woke a bit late and had promised it to your hosts who smile without fret at your tardiness. From scratch, at a cost less than thought possible in that place you’re from but you’ve stopped remarking on this to yourself.
Tea again, and then the lost british boy and the turkish market and canals and parks and words and words and new wine and dreams. Talk of trees and their meanings, the fourth forfeda’s final marks his name, again all weaves together. His wonder at the city reminding you of your wonder, making it a bit easier to integrate, a bit easier to stay calm, a bit easier to fend off what you know is coming.
You know you will return again, but before then you shall go elsewhere.
Berlin is a lover who demands nothing and promises nothing, but while you are with him, while you are with her, the world is only always love. Berlin is a home you’ve never stayed in, though you always may yet you rarely consider it. Berlin is a dream you don’t dare manifest, too beautiful to see the light of morning but no-one really sees the light of morning in Berlin except when they leave the bars.
But Berlin isn’t the bars, or the sex, or just either. It isn’t just the canals and the market and the air. It is this and another thing, a thing you know you cannot plumb, a love you are certain cannot die much more than it can ever fully live.
But see it already on the eyes of someone just here, fumbling with coins to buy a ticket. See the smile in return from your friends, warm acknowledgement, their own contentment, their embrace of the same thing you see. And know they all see it, and you are not alone. Stay if you can, leave if you must.
Perhaps it’s enough for you to know it is there. Perhaps it is no longer enough for you to know it is there. To know of the gods, or of the ancients, or of the spirits, or of the pyramids temples cathedrals palaces forests springs mountains–it is enough for some. For others it is the end of enough, the death of satedness, and the beginning of everything else
I do not have words for the last days of my journey.
This is not to say that they were less wonderful, less fascinating. Playing breton and yiddish songs in the smoking room of a club on pause from gay bingo, treading slowly through the press of people in an open-air market to feel their thoughts, sitting wistfully below a willow which for the last three years stood motionless in a framed photograph upon my bedroom wall. Sleeping and waking and dreaming to arms of warmth, smiles of friends unseen for years, the Other whispering always still and then, suddenly, withdrawing until I made a choice.
Staring at a canal from the edge of a bridge, the place I’ve gone in my head relentless times when the present revealed itself as less than even it’s shadow, I remembered: it was a vow which brought me here. It will be a vow which brings me back.
You can weave love, like stories, into the warmest of cloaks to wrap about you against the coldest of winds. Not all shields must be made of wood or metal, and not all which protects you must prevent you.
The night before I left I played in darkness, unknown songs pouring from my flute into the breathing air, the chill. Again, his voice, questioning–“did you forget? You should not forget.” Remembered always when most needed, when most required, awakening those who listen past life and death, awakening what hears past flesh and bone.
I’d gone for reasons near numerous as stars, but one, outshining the others, reminded itself to me, what I could not leave without addressing, what I could not part without deciding.
Another vow to gods and land and spirits, another vow to myself.
I have wondered to myself why these nearly five weeks were so different from the other four times I’ve been to Europe. Each time I’ve left bits of my soul, bits of my heart in those lands, and have wondered to myself why I’d go back again just to feel the pain of leaving.
Like love, knowing an ending is birthed in every beginning, why embrace what will one day cause pain?
But this analogy falters on a truth I’ve learned, a self I’ve finally met. I’ve scattered myself elsewhere on purpose, to draw myself back, to sabotage the saboteur. I did not know we could wield desire until now, relying only upon unconscious forces and whims to draw ourselves to others, others to ourselves.
I am in America now, after having selected and chosen and left bits of my soul elsewhere for safekeeping, things I intend not to live without, things I must see again.
I once feared promises and oaths, dreams and visions, desire and will. Now I weave a cloak about me, another winter to endure, and I am ever warmed.