My friend Caitlin messaged me today on Facebook and once again I thanked the system of tubes that is Our Lady Internet.
Caitlin is one who dreams with me. We write maps on each others’ palms to the places that entice us; new careers, new art, new love. She helped me get here, to Cambodia. On a lazy grassy picnic day last summer, she pointed me in the direction of Alan Lightman’s work here when she noticed I was reading his book. (Several months later I followed up on her tip.)
Her boyfriend (fiance!) also worked in Cambodia a few years ago, and from this chair (on an outdoor cafe patio in Phnom Penh with a hot day getting hotter) his blog of that time makes a lot of sense:
Last week, finishing my meal at a Phnom Penh cafe’s wooden lunch bar, I suddenly began closely watching the restaurant’s staff work with surreal bemusement. It’s the stance my mind takes from time to time in aimless moments. Simple questions pressed into me:
What is this place? Who are these people/objects? Why are they moving and what is their point? The questions became reflexive, turning themselves on me, making me feel just as strange and pointless for being there asking them. Wanting answers, all of them. And I thought: I am a perpetual child, covering the world with question marks. That is the natural state I return to. It is as though the names I have learned for things – wall, Cambodian, coffee mug, fan – expose their essential mystery, and I think: I do not know, cannot know, how these things came to exist before my eyes, weak eyes passing through thick fog.
And then later that night, I came upon this passage in Saul Bellow’s “Henderson the Rain King”:
The world may be strange to a child, but he does not fear it the way a man fears. He marvels at it. But the grown man mainly dreads it. And why? Because of death. So he arranges to have himself abducted like a child. So what happens will not be his fault. And who is this kidnapper — this gypsy? It is the strangeness of life — a thing that makes death more remote, as in childhood.
I think Bellow goes a bit too far here in saying the awareness of mortality is the root of all of our confusion. But that doesn’t make him wrong. When I think I am curious like a child I am partly right; there is real continuity between my sense of wonder, say, 15 years ago, and today. And that’s a good thing. I don’t want to lose that childlike wonder. But mostly I am lying to myself, pushing myself away from the awareness of death into ignorance, the false comfort of a never-ending childhood.