The semester had just started, a brilliant blue day in early September. I sat on a bench underneath the beauty of the maples, their gold-green leaves turning a blazing red. I should have been in class, but I was twenty years old and in despair. I was unhappily married: working at Longs Drugs and going to school part-time, buying groceries with food stamps when I wasn't cleaning the house and cooking. My husband was twenty-four. When he could get work, he painted houses, then had his buddies over to play cards, drink, and listen to Led Zeppelin. Stairway to Heaven? I don't think so.
Meanwhile, I hoped and prayed my parents would get a divorce. My mother had taken the first step--talking to a lawyer--but I wondered if she'd really be able to go through with it. My parents had spent the last ten years fighting. The word fighting doesn't suffice. I'll put it this way: once I had to call the police, and they came to the rescue, wrapping my parents in straitjackets. Once my mother took a hammer and smashed the glass out of the family photographs on the hallway wall. Once my father was missing. Poof, disappeared. He was found in the neighbor's bushes.
My marriage was a year old, and I had to get out. I didn't know how to get out. I didn't know why my loving, funny parents were so insane. Everyone was Jekyll and Hyde. I trusted no one. Why were people so insane? Was I going to be insane? Was I already? What would happen to my younger sister? How could I take care of her? I could barely take care of myself. Every time I visited my parents, I thought I would die of grief and guilt. My sister would cry and cling to me as I tried to leave my parents' house. She ran after me and stood by my wreck of a car, pleading, "Take me with you! Take me with you!"
Books, an education: this was the only way out, but it was a slow process. Most days it felt like nothing could help. I had the dark notion that no matter what I did, I was going to repeat my parents' mistakes. What other life did I know? I was so afraid. Sometimes it felt like I couldn't get from one minute to the next.
I sat on the bench on the beautiful campus, staring dully at the emerald lawn. The brick buildings covered with ivy represented the possibility that I could learn how to live. However, the book that spoke the most to me at the time was Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays: What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.
I was close to never asking, my mind and heart flat.
An old man sat down next to me. The bench wasn't that big, so I felt uncomfortable, this geezer with wild snowy hair and gnarled hands sitting there with a book in his lap, but he wasn't reading. He was looking at me. Ugh. Another insane person to deal with. I was about to get up when he asked if I was a student at the college. I nodded. He introduced himself, said he had been a professor there, but was retired now. His voice made me feel better, calmer, so I told him my name. He asked if I'd ever read anything by Rainer Maria Rilke. He showed me the book he was reading, Letters to a Young Poet. I wrote poetry. But I didn't tell him this. I told him that I had heard of Rilke, but had never read anything he wrote. He handed me his book and said to keep it. Then he got up and walked away.
I read the book that day. Each sentence was an awakening, but I kept returning to this passage: Be patient with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign tongue. Do not search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
And this: We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can; everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it. This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us...we must always trust the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience...perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.
The old professor gave me such a tremendous gift that day. I went on to read all of Rilke's work. And Letters to a Young Poet so many times, I've lost count. I often assign the book in my classes and always recommend it to my students.
When I got up from the bench that day, I was changed. Living was the only answer, along with trusting the difficult. A year later, I was divorced and living on my own. There would be a different kind of difficulty that I would have to learn to trust, but I was living, living!
Reading those passages from Rilke now, writing them down here, thirty-five years later, still shakes me to the core. They make me weep. Why? Because of how incredible it would be to truly live that way, to see that everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love. To live accepting our reality as vastly as we possibly can.
My parents never got a divorce. This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us. They continued to live in their inexplicable relationship. Then my mother died, suddenly, inexplicably, and my father battled on against alcohol for a very long time, working inexplicably hard to become sober at age seventy-five.
Recently, I've been in situations that seem to have no clear way out or through. Again, I get afraid. Rilke's words give me the courage to keep going. This is what books can do: give us the chance to see a wider vista of human experience, to not look away, to become braver, more compassionate toward others and ourselves, living without answers.
Every semester I take my students to the art gallery on campus for the student art show. They pick a painting or photograph to write about, and then we have a reading. Here is a poem from my book, Buddha's Dogs, inspired by one of our times there, and inspired by those strange years before I was introduced to Rilke:
In the Art Gallery
The painting of flowers
next to the painting of flames,
and I remember that time, years ago,
when the psychiatrist said, "You feel too much,
you are too sensitive, take these,"
giving me a bottle of pills. I took them
to the beach, watched light become flame
on the water, and along the ragged cliffs,
small flowers like blue stars,
the world a painting
I couldn't live in.
I opened the bottle, then put it down,
pills spilling on the sand.
Waves carried the flames
and didn't mind the burning,
the arising from and disappearing
into the vastness. I swam,
let the waves take me,
then treaded water, looking at the sky,
a silver tray full
of the most beautiful nothing.
I swam back, the water was black,
I could sink beyond caring,
but I wanted to live,
to be there
with the beauty and the burning
and let it be too much.
Causes Susan Browne Supports
Run Together, A Race to Raise Money for Leukemia and Lymphoma Society