Wednesday, May 7, 2008

No. 7


Recently I had the opportunity to indulge a curiosity I had had since I was 19 and studying Eastern Religions at Hunter College in New York. I visited with a friend the Hindu ashram where he meditates every Saturday. It seems ridiculous that it took me so long, but the prospect of indulging a curiosity in New York just always seemed so…. indulgent. A pity since New York is a veritable playground of curiosities, but really, who had the time? In New York, I was always too busy.

It was in my 11th year there that I finally saw New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker though it had been in my plans since I was a child. But I’m sure we can all generate pages-long lists of things we’ve “been meaning to do,” but have always been too busy for.

But busy is good, right? Busy is a virtue. I’ve found it, in fact, to be the only acceptable alternative to “fine” when answering the question, “How are you?”

“Busy. So busy.”

If you are busy, your life is valid and important. For those who have too much free time on their hands, we say things like, “You need to get a life.” We ought to simply answer the question, “How are you?” with “Valid. Important. You?”

When I left the US, I said I wanted to live in a place where you didn’t have to book 3 weeks in advance to have a quick 30-minute cocktail with your best friend between yoga and book club, a place where you could call your friends at 7 pm and have an actual chance at meeting them for dinner tonight, a place where people did have too much time on their hands.

In those final busy days in New York, I touted my idealistic views of the new life I was seeking. I’d meet a friend for a quick coffee and tell her why I was leaving New York and heading back to Brazil. “I want a culture that values spontaneity!” I gloated. “I choose to live in a place that puts quality time with friends ahead of quantity of hours worked!” But even as I heard the words come out of my mouth, I wondered if my utopia of free time and spontaneity really existed anywhere in this world.

I was trying to go back to a Brazil that I wasn’t sure could still be found on any map. The last time I had lived in Brazil was at a one-of-kind moment in time: I had been 22; had no credit card debt; was in that glorious moment of pre-student loan repayment so aptly, so spiritually called Grace; life was cheap in Brazil; the Dollar and the Real were one-to-one; I had a savings account and no adult responsibilities that would require me to bleed it. But now, as a full-fledged grown-up, were spontaneity and free time commodities my age and bank account would still afford me?

Still, I pressed on.

It only took me a few days here to realize that my next-door-neighbor’s porch was the meeting place for a handful of young people on my street. Every day when I’d head out for my run, they’d be there chatting, drinking mate, and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. So it really did exist! This was The Scene I had imagined myself in months ago, back in cold New York when I’d made the decision to come here.

“Have a good run!” They’d call after me as I set out. “Stop by when you get back.” It was a dream come true. Except that as I ran off down the road, sinking into my thoughts, I felt not the excitement of a dream realized but rather disdain. Disdain for those friendly neighbors gathered on the porch on a weekday afternoon. Doesn’t the Devil find work for idle hands, I wondered to myself. I’d better watch out for those people.

On many weekdays, another neighbor, Big Carlos, speeds by on his bike, and each time, he calls out to me in greeting, “This is the good life, isn’t it?” I politely answer, “Uh huh!” But even as I say it, I feel like a charlatan, like any moment he could discover that I’m faking, that I don’t understand that this is the good life. Behind my enthusiastic “Uh huh!,” I wonder, is it? Is this good?

On another weekday, I was staring out the window while washing dishes when a car slowed down in front of the house and the driver, a hippy grad student, said, “C’mon Sonya, let’s go to the beach.” And without a thought, I said, “Sorry,” and shook my head.

Wasn’t this what I had wanted? Unscheduled chats with neighbors on the porch? Spontaneous Tuesday afternoon trips to the beach? It had always just been a question of whether this life really existed. And now it does! Yet all I could say was “sorry.”

I confess my first month here – before I had filled my schedule with private students, translations and workouts at the gym – was long and lonely. I had as much time as I wanted to pick up the phone at 7pm and make spontaneous plans for tonight. But for some reason, this scenario was no longer at all appealing to me. All this free time had left me completely empty.

But when students and other work began to trickle in, I found myself sometimes wishing that I had gone to the beach more. Why had it been so hard for me to use the free time that I had literally crossed continents to attain? Honestly, I did have a class later that day, but I didn’t need to consult my schedule to know I didn’t want to go to the beach with her. I knew exactly why I hadn’t dried my hands, run outside and jumped in the car. I didn’t want to go to the beach with people who had nothing else to do on a Tuesday afternoon. I had thought they were losers.

In fact, I thought that my availability to go to the beach with them made me a loser. Insignificant. No one. And that my being busy, having that one little class that afternoon to prevent me from going to the beach, made me Someone. I judged Big Carlos speeding down the street on his bike; I judged the kids on the porch next door drinking mate at all hours of the afternoon. And my being busy somehow made me superior to them, gave me the right to mutter haughtily, Humph, some people have to work for a living.

Somewhere between those wide open days when I first came here and my busier today, when I started to feel my window of time closing in on me, I started to learn how to enjoy my free time. In the days when all I had was free time, I felt too guilty to spend it in any other way than looking for ways to get rid of it. I can’t go to the beach, I thought. I should be online looking for more work. But as work started to trickle into the wide-open spaces in my schedule, I felt a greater urgency to take advantage of what time remained. If I found myself done with all my students before dark, I’d hike the trail by my house or go into town and have a coffee at a sidewalk caf√© watching others spend their free time.

It was around this time, that a friend mentioned that he meditated at a Hindu ashram. I couldn’t mask my intrigue. So when he asked me if I wanted to go, I knew I had to permit myself to indulge that old curiosity. If moving from New York City to this jungle hadn’t taught me to let myself live a little, I’d need a lot more than a day in prayer at an ashram to save me.

I was a bit nervous at first. I must have asked him a hundred times if he was sure it was okay to bring a friend. If he was sure I wouldn’t be seen as an interloper. I was starting to imagine something akin to Eyes Wide Shut. Would they ask me for a password? When they discovered I wasn’t one of them, would I be subjected to an inquisition carried out by men in masks and capes? But my friend assured me that I was being silly, and that he couldn’t think of a place that would be warmer or more welcoming, so I went.

Before entering the temple, I saw many framed portraits and images inside, of people, beings and deities who I could not identify, but as the worshippers approached the room, I could see the pause these images gave them. As if struck by them, they stood at the threshold in what I can only describe as a vibrant, reverent silence. Then, one by one, as they entered the room, before finding a seat, each worshipper knelt before the altar and bowed.

I waited for my friend to pay his respects to God so that I could take a seat next to him. I watched as he – a man in his late 30s, tall and broad shouldered, lowered himself to his knees; his hips rocking back on his heels, he bent at the waist and continued to bend until his face was on the floor before him. Then he rocked forward slightly until the crown of his head was pressed into the carpet.

And there he stayed for at least as long as it took me to catch my breath. Now it was I who stood at the door and watched in what I can only describe as a vibrant, reverent silence. Of all the images in the room, this was the one that moved me.

I tell you that he was a man, of strong build, and older than me because I do not want you to imagine, as I certainly would have, one of the hippies on my block that goes to the beach on Tuesdays. After all, isn’t this the type of Westerner that frequents Hindu temples? No, he is a businessman; he works at a desk and carries a laptop; he wears khakis and uses a Bluetooth. He would not be out of place rushing around Manhattan at a quarter to nine a.m. He is serious, important. Busy. And now, in his khaki pants and pressed shirt, he is on his knees on the floor, his clean-shaven face on the carpet. Watching him, I begin to feel physically tired. His posture of total surrender looks so relieving. What a relief it would be to just stop. Stop pretending to be busy. Stop thinking I am better than someone else. Stop being important, valid, Someone. How nice it would be to fall on my knees, lay my face on the floor and admit that I am nothing. I only wonder if I would ever get up.