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

In Praise of Co-Habitation

All of you who live lovingly with others—roommates, spouses, children, extended family members—astonish me. I asked some people what they think praise means recently, and two of my favorite responses were “to honor and recognize holiness” and to stand in awe of. Today I’d like to take a moment to praise healthy, happy—at least most of the time—co-habitation.

Sometimes after work I sit in my car and play word games on my phone to avoid interacting with my cat quite so soon. Granted, none of my former roommates clawed me if I didn’t play with them when I got home, but I started thinking about all my vanmates who get in their cars and drive directly home to care for or simply be with families and spouses.

A friend and I spent last weekend at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur. That’s three days of sitting in your own room with your own little garden, seeing people only at services, and speaking only during our afternoon walks. I always find re-entry rough, but she has to readjust not only to noise and advertisements and Starbucks but also to another human being, her husband.

Living well with others requires a certain selflessness and self-sacrifice, a willingness to give up some of how you would rather things be, an openness to negotiation and renegotiation. In essence, a daily giving of yourself that can’t help but make the world more loving.

Of course not everyone manages to be as kind as they might like to be every day, but on balance, this daily and often not-so-simple caring for one another is a great good. Huzzah to you!


I’d like to give a shout out to two fine souls, Mickey and Rob, who passed out of this life last week.

Mickey likely knew of me most of my life—so it goes in a town of 7000. I didn’t know her until I joined the local writing group in my early twenties.

She had an incredible humility and sense of humor about herself that I always admired. She lived a unique life with a great deal of courage and spunk, but she’d never quite believe a compliment.

Her prose resembled her personality—down-to-earth, straightforward, funny, and profound. She could spin out a scene so that you knew exactly where those clueless characters were heading and couldn’t wait to see how they made a mess of things because it was going to be funny.

You also knew everything would come out OK in the end, if only because at least one of her characters, like her, knew better than to get riled up about things.

When Mickey was amused by some outlandish suggestion I’d made, she’d always say, “Well now, Rachel, I don’t know about that” with a big smile on her face. She said it with a certain timbre and cadence that in a less resolute woman might have been wavering. But there was nothing wavering about Mickey.

Rob I knew for about eight years. His wife and I started a writing group together, and they would take me out for breakfast sometimes after mass.

He was a doctor and worked at the state hospital—an all-male, maximum-security psychiatric facility—well into his seventies. Given the difficulty of finding people willing to work there, he gave the patients and staff a tremendous gift.

He had this wonderful habit of talking about everything in exactly the same way. He’d be rattling off medical facts or expressing a deep cynicism about the current political climate, and in the next breath, without a beat or change of tone, he’d describe a mystical experience he’d had. Those sudden turns never failed to surprise me

When something tickled him, his usually serious face lit up in the most marvelous way. He became half elf, half six-year-old, delight beaming out of him.

I’ll never hear them laugh again, but if to live well is to always continue growing into yourself, they both made an excellent go of this turning ’round.

Mickey and Rob, I will treasure you always. God speed.