It is strange being in the city that, for over three hundred years, was the navel of the world… And not really caring. I arrived in London on October 1. Why I’m here has nothing to do with the Globe Theater or the tailors on Savile Row. Or the scones.
My fiancee had been in India for some eighteen months; I had been in New York during the same interval. , because of the vagaries of international travel, England was the only place we could legally meet. And yes, the other day I did go to the British Library to see the stolen books. And tomorrow I’ll be going to the British Museum to see the stolen artifacts. Oh, and a few days from now I’ll be watching Twelfth Night at the Globe theater. (This I’m a bit less ambivalent about.)
Really quick because I am, in fact, nerding the fuck out about this performance: I insisted on standing in the pit for authenticity. Also, the showing will be at 2 PM; a lot of Globe productions nowadays start at 7, whereas in Shakespeare’s era, the theater would have started at three when the sun was overhead. But the production I’ll be watching will, at least, be authentic in its starting-time. Another point of similarity is that, then as now, the theater is constantly at risk of closure due to plague.
London + Brooklyn = Camden Town
Another irony, on top of being in London and not particularly caring, is being in London and not particularly feeling like I’m in London. Yeah, the accents are there and the thermostat is in centigrade. But I can’t help thinking that I have traveled a quarter of the way around the world just to land in Brooklyn. I am staying in Camden Town, which is a combination of residences and converted factories, athwart beautiful Regent’s Canal. The buildings tend to be about four storeys tall. There are parks and splashes of local color and hipster eateries. (Sooo many hipster eateries… How many pastries must you order from bakeries in converted factories before you might as well be in Brooklyn? Whatever the number, I am way past it.)
But of course even a place that is the same will nevertheless have its differences. The canals in Brooklyn are essentially open sewers (follow this link, and please don’t dwell on the phrase ‘black mayonnaise’); in Camden Town, the canal is home to dozens of houseboats that travel up and down its stream at will. Boats can even go up and down in elevation using these controlled waterfalls called locks. Which are amazing things to learn about. One of the houseboats is home to a bookstore. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. The inside is warm and cozy and filled with books and chairs. Anuja and I spent long precious minutes just standing among the shelves. The selection is amazing, too—the only books on that boat I don’t want to read… are the ones I want to reread.
It’s cool, Book Guy. I’ve been apart from Anuja almost as long as a character from Brigadoon. So I guess I’m a storybook character, too.
And the fellow who runs it is–how even to describe him? He sits there next to his houseboat-bookshop wearing a top-hat and green suit. Sporting a long but carefully combed white beard that looks like it might once have been red. I thought it would be rude to snap his picture, but I fell in love with him a little bit. I wish I had stayed to talk a little while longer, at least long enough to ask what it is that happens in a person’s life that makes them decide: “I’m going to be a character out of a storybook and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do to stop me.”
So I bought from him a volume entitled The Prophet and Other Tales by Khalil Gibran. Partly because I have always wanted a physical copy of The Prophet. Partly, also, because I felt I needed to buy something. Needed to contribute in some way to the livelihood of this person who is himself a dream come to life. Dreams are so fragile.
-How do you feel seeing her again? Delighted?
-Well yeah. But mostly grief-stricken
Speaking of joy, the reader will no doubt be wondering what a reunion looks like after 18 months. At least part of the answer is: lots of crying. I feel lucky that I, as a cisgendered, straight-ish man, am capable of tears. I wonder what this reunion would have been like without tears. Likely, it would not have been possible. Or at the very least, it would have required far more antacids and analgesics than I brought (the stomach and lower back are not the only places to carry such types of emotional distress but they appear to be my body’s preferences).
The first time I cried was standing outside the London flat she had arranged—a few sniffles; nothing major. The second time was that very night. We were relaxing on the couch watching Together, a movie about the Coronavirus Pandemic starring Sharon Horgan and James MacAvoy. I started bawling like a newborn for a friend I lost to the Coronavirus a bit less than a year ago. Moments like this have come at intervals. While we’re watching TV, while we’re in bed. One of us will just say something and then… that becomes the activity. One person crying, the other person comforting. All I can say is that I wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, this is, on some level, what I signed up for.
You might think it’s the inverse: that we are getting together to finally enjoy each other’s company and share some good times. And… yes. Of course. But that’s far from the main reason. The good times are already good. Yes, having your best friend there helps make good times even better, but not having them there isn’t a dealbreaker. It’s every miserable thing that’s happened to us this year—a friend dying of COVID, a health-scare in the family, then another, a particularly bad attack of lower back cramps or carpal tunnel syndrome… And what do you do when the person you most want to share your grief with just isn’t there? Obviously, you do the best you can. You manage.
Hierarchy to Living
If I’ve learned anything this year it’s that there is a kind of hierarchy to living. It’s really hard to experience life fully when there is nobody to talk to. So of course when we are isolated in our respective homes, we try to reach out using Zoom and other forms of social media. But that is merely another level of the hierarchy. Using Zoom for social interaction is exhausting, and anyway, it represents an incomplete social interaction. No smell, no touch, very little body-language, no sense of the other person being in the same setting and context. It’s the most sterile interaction. So occasionally (or more often depending on preference, level of vaccination, and level of risk-tolerance) we try to visit each other in person.
Many of those interactions take place at a distance of six feet, sometimes with a fist-bump or elbow-bump at the beginning and end; some with a furtive handshake or even hug. So much is added to that interaction that is absent from the Zoom-calls. But again, it’s a partially sterile interaction. The body-language is there, but you don’t even have to take off your coat. So some of us (again, depending on risk-tolerance and level of vaccination) have full in-person interactions with hugs and kisses and hand-holding and sitting next to each other and so on. That is a real interaction. And I’ve been privileged to have such interactions this year. But once you get in that door, there is another hierarchy. Even the physically-closest interaction with a person you are not as close with emotionally is going to be unsatisfying in some vague way.
Grief at Bay: Shutting Down What’s Not in Use
But what does the body do in the absence of those fulfilling social interactions; in the absence of being fully physically present with one of the scant few people with whom you can be fully emotionally present? What did I do for eighteen months, talking to Anuja on the phone or on some video-call platform, but never getting closer than that? The answer, as I realized about a week before I was to get on the plane to London, is that I began to shut down some of the parts of myself I wasn’t using.
Yes, just like an old mansion in a 19th century novel. After a few months, I just wasn’t experiencing the highs and lows. And as I realized this, I realized simultaneously that when I saw Anuja in person for the first time, I was going to get emotional pins-and-needles, like when your foot goes numb because you’ve been sitting on it, and then when you stand up, the blood rushes back.
Obligatory English Lit Reference
And that’s what has been happening. It is awful. But it is also marvelous. A useful analog is Theoden in The Two Towers when he, too, returns to full use of his emotional faculties after a long period of lying prostrate beneath layers of grief and depression. His first words are: “Dark have been my dreams of late.” But what is the first thing he does when he finally stands up; when he finally stretches his limbs; when he finally breathes the free air as an emotionally engaged human? Does he run and jump? Drink and carouse? Sing and dance? No. He mourns his dead.
And that’s exactly what I did, too, right there on the couch, crying for my friend who died, with Anuja’s arms finally, firmly, wrapped around me. I feel lucky, in an odd way: so many of us have experienced grief and loss this year and last. It’s an embarrassment of riches to be able to fully express that grief in a healthy manner, and no longer to have to bottle it up in the name of survival.
The Purpose of Travel
So many people travel, as tourists, with a similar purpose, if you think about it. We visit castles that are now in ruins; or we visit castles that remain active as residences but were made famous by figures long dead. We visit the Globe theater, despite the fact that the man who wrote the plays for which it is most famous is 405 years dead; despite the fact that the Bear Garden and the Swan and the Rose and the Red Lion and the Blackfriars are gone, and the Globe is gone too, technically, done in by a fire in the early 1600s and rebuilt as well as it could be. We are all of us here to mourn.
So as odd as it may seem to have travelled 18 months and three thousand miles to see Anuja, only to end up crying my eyes out for my dead friend, it does make sense. Everyone travels to get in touch with history. If I am given my preference, why should I not come here to get in touch with someone who likewise is no longer with us; who likewise was a scholar and an artist, but whom at least I knew personally?
“Did you Have Fun on your Trip?”
I usually answer questions honestly rather than conventionally. And I expect this is going to be a trip for those kinds of answers. Ok, someone will say: ‘Did you have fun on your trip?’ And I’ll probably just say ‘yes,’ because that question doesn’t invite a fuller answer any more than ‘hey, what’s up?,’ and I respect that.
But if someone says: ‘Did you have a good trip?’ I will be tempted to say: ‘Yes, but maybe not for the reasons you would expect.’ If someone says: ‘What was the best part of the trip?’ I may have more than one answer. But the real answer—the deep-down answer—is that the best part of my trip is: this time if Anuja is upset about something, I can wrap my arms around her. It’s just that simple. People get upset about things. And for eighteen months, I have had to use my words as the poor substitute they are. Not being able to hold her when she is suffering, not a single time in the past eighteen months, is among the worst pain, in my admittedly sheltered existence, I have ever felt. And now that pain is just… gone.
Just gone. Just like that.
Yes, But not How you Might Think
So yeah. I’m having a fabulous trip.
I’m experiencing happiness and contentment on a level I didn’t know possible. I mean. I’m also experiencing grief and ambivalence on a level I didn’t know possible. But the grief is what makes the positivity possible, which means that, if the grief were less, the joy would also be less. And, perhaps more importantly, the grief and joy both feel as though they are expanding my consciousness from within. Every time I experience a new low, it feels as though I have grown to accommodate it. And then every time I experience a new high, even if it is nothing more epiphanic than a walk along the bank of the canal, it again feels as though I have grown to accommodate it, and, like a balloon, I was not able to contain emotions this large, until I did contain them, and then suddenly I was able to contain them.
And what emotions wait for me tomorrow? I could not even tell you, because they are too enormous for me to imagine. So yeah. I’m having a great trip. I couldn’t imagine a better.
Thank you for asking.
More London Letters
Postscript: The Joy of Grief
As usual, right after sending this piece live, I encountered a suitable quotation whose source should not have surprised me:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked…
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain…
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
-“On Joy and Sorrow” (p131) from The Prophet and Other Tales by Khalil Gibran (Word Cloud Classics, San Diego)