I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t 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.Rainer Maria Rilke (translation Stephen Mitchell)
Sometimes we want answers. Not one day, not someday, and certainly not anything like “far in the future”. Only now will do. I need to know, now, something says, ALL CAPS, pounding its fist. The expression “at all costs” comes to mind, as does “come hell or high water” as my mom used to say every once in a while to really make some point about something.
But it sure feels mean to push things before they’re ready. Imagine a girl, a very smart girl by all accounts. Talented. Figures out anything she puts her mind to, really. She plays the piano pretty well, but she’s just not getting this one Chopin piece. Technically it’s OK. Good, even. But there’s a depth missing. Her teacher yells. Pounds the keyboard, interrupting her attempt to get it just right this time. “No! That’s not it. Can’t you see? It’s this way…”
What if, instead, the teacher said, “Sweetheart, that’s just wonderful. You’ve got all the notes right and I see that you’ve been practicing hard. There is something not quite there yet, but that’s OK. Go play. Go live.”
Some things, like Chopin, just need to be lived before they can be expressed in their beautiful fullness. What the teacher knows but doesn’t verbalize to the girl is that to play and feel Chopin it helps to have made love, and to have lost love. It helps to have—in the words of poet Naomi Shihab Nye—felt “the future dissolve in a moment / like salt in a weakened broth.”
So maybe that’s what Rilke was getting at in his letter to the aspiring artist.
Five years ago it was my impatience and my desire for security and guarantees of love and safety and family that made me want to get engaged and married at all costs. Sure I loved him. Sure he loved me. But there were questions. Lots of them. But I didn’t want anything to do with patience. And when he “finally” asked me to marry him and I said yes and asked, later, over dinner: “so… nothing exact but ballpark, what are you thinking for a date?”
[– Long pause –] Um, maybe in 5 years?
[Fork drops…] Five years?!
[Quick math 33 plus 5 …] But that’ll make me 38!
Sometimes you get what you think you wanted and then, well, maybe it’s not what you wanted after all, at least not in that moment, because, well, you’re pretty anxious and something is just not sitting right with it all. Um, could it be that maybe you were just pushing and pushing and trying too hard to get your way at all costs? Could it be that you were trying too hard to find home that you’d been searching for ever since you were little? Could it be that you had pegged all your hopes and dreams on this innocent man who happened to be loving you as best he could, doing the best he could just like you?
Fast forward through lots of doubts and fears. Fast forward through lots of anxious nights of waking at 3 a.m. Fast forward through the breaking of an engagement. Fast forward to getting back together. Fast forward through apart, together, apart… always trying to figure this out at all costs. Fast forward to 37.
I found Rilke’s book “Letters to a Young Poet” back in my 20’s, way before I ever met this lovely man, the one whose question I’m learning to love. I found Rilke at the now defunct Waterstones bookstore on Essex and Newbury in Boston. It spoke to me then. It felt to me like warm salve on a wound, like a wonderful massage on a stiff neck. It was like reading a letter from the Great Mother, whom I’d not yet had the pleasure of meeting, so to speak.
About figuring it out… It doesn’t work. Life isn’t an algebra equation.
I’m almost 38. I will be in 14 days. I still love him and I still love Rilke and I’m slowly learning to take his advice to heart. I’ve also put perfecting that Chopin piece aside and, following that loving teacher’s advice, gone out and begun to live. And yes, I’ve felt the future dissolve like salt in weakened broth. And yes I’ve made love and lost love. And yes, I have no idea about the course of love. And yes, I still, at times, try to direct it.
But lately I’ve started finding the questions much more interesting. At some point, in some moment of grace it seems I threw up my arms and yelled “uncle!” I’ve had enough, I give up. I can’t figure this darned thing out. Let’s give this loving the questions thing a try.
A few days ago I read that when a decision cannot be come to, it’s because some part of us is not being heard. And so, I’ve been talking to her. The other night, in the dark, before drifting off into dreams, I talked to her: “Sweetheart, who are you that I’m not listening to? Who are you that I haven’t even known you’re there? Can you tell me again and I’ll try to listen? What is it? What’s on your heart?”
We’ll see. I’ll tell you how it goes… maybe… Well, knowing me, whatever happens, I will tell. It seems to be becoming my way to tell. No more secrets. Live the questions and don’t keep secrets, especially not from myself.
Here’s to living the questions. Here’s to exploring hidden rooms. Here’s to reading books in foreign languages. And here’s Rilke’s quote in German, one of the languages of my childhood. Maybe it’ll speak more to my subconscious that way.
… Ich möchte Sie, so gut ich es kann, bitten, Geduld zu haben gegen alles Ungelöste in Ihrem Herzen und zu versuchen, die Fragen selbst liebzuhaben wie verschlossene Stuben und wie Bücher, die in einer sehr fremden Sprache geschrieben sind. Forschen Sie jetzt nicht nach den Antworten, die Ihnen nicht gegeben werden können, weil Sie sie nicht leben könnten. Und es handelt sich darum, alles zu leben. Leben Sie jetzt die Fragen. Vielleicht leben Sie dann allmählich, ohne es zu merken, eines fernen Tages in die Antwort hinein.
Hear and watch Naomi Shihab Nye read her poem Kindness