Encountering Mystery

Mysteries come closer and more often than we think. I used to see a couple in their fifties or sixties walking through my neighborhood every morning as I drove to work. In my memory, they always walk hand in hand. I don’t know if this detail is true or invented, but they had an air of closeness, of having grown together over time.

They are both heavyset, almost square. He walks with a cane. The other day I saw only the man, walking alone. I worried about what had happened to the woman and about how the man would fare without his companion. I also felt negligent because I hadn’t seen them in quite some time but hadn’t been conscious of their absence. Had they been right there and I hadn’t noticed them? Or had one of us changed our routine by a minute or two, enough to no longer be a casual occurrence in the other’s life?

Another couple, slender, faster, maybe younger, maybe not, used to walk their dog farther along my route to work. The woman always wears a knit hat and the man a blue fleece jacket. I would glance at the clock every day when I passed them to figure out whether or not I was late. I have not seen them in a while either.

I wonder who, if anyone, I am to these couples. Am I the woman in the gray car who drives too fast? Do they even see me?

I know nothing of these people, despite their proximity, yet on some level they matter to me. I wonder whether I know my acquaintances at work any better. I assume we have more in common because we share certain experiences, but are they really any less mysterious? And when it comes to that, would my closest friends and family tell their own stories the way I would tell them? Is it possible to conceive of the world from inside someone else’s heart, mind, and soul.

Perhaps that’s why that couple holds hands, even after all these years—they know they are holding onto something precious, a piece of the world unlike any other that can be explored for a lifetime and remain unknowable.

Here’s a poem from the Polish poet Anna Swir that argues the opposite of what I just have. Or, at the end, maybe not.

The Same Inside

Walking to your place for a love feast
I saw at a street corner
an old beggar woman.

I took her hand,
kissed her delicate cheek,
we talked, she was
the same inside as I am,
from the same kind,
I sensed this instantly
as a dog knows by scent
another dog.

I gave her money,
I could not part from her.
After all, one needs
someone who is close.

And then I no longer knew
why I was walking to your place.

-Translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan

Reprinted in A Book of Luminous Things, ed. by Czeslaw Milosz

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