Oh, love. Why is it always the hardest topic for writers to talk about, yet one we want to talk about the most? We still write about it, of course, in our many oblique ways—but, like religion or politics, part of us wants to just avoid it altogether. Something with the power to make us feel both so vulnerable and so high inevitably keeps us wary of expressing our emotions. But at the same time, it’s impossible to avoid: You can’t talk about being human for very long without talking about love.
These past few months in India, I’ve found the same is true of awe. No one wants to appear childlike and vulnerable to others, but everyone (everyone who seeks out new experiences, anyway) wants to feel that way—along with love, awe is the one of the emotions people seek most deeply. And for writers, whose job is to express the inexpressible, the hidden, these two aims can feel at odds.
Or maybe they’re not, and we’ve just become too cynical and guarded to bring them together. In Mathilde Walter Clark’s latest novel, Priapus, the hero’s father reveals to his family his feet—perfect specimens in the realm of feet—and exclaims simply, bluntly, “Look! Look what God can do!” This is ironic and funny—but why can’t perfect feet (or even just interesting feet!) expand our spiritual worlds? The beauty of awe is, they can! We usually describe it the other way around, but awe is provoked by us and our state of mind, not by an external source.
One afternoon at Sangam House I went to see the Odissi dancers rehearse. These people could control their every movement—even their facial expressions—with astounding precision and strength, inhabit the roles of classical mythological characters, and, holy shit, do it in time to live music. And the musicians—every tremble in their voices, every motion of their hands on the tabla exact. And later, they’d do it all in costumes and makeup and a cloud of jasmine, in front of an auditorium of people who actually knew whether they were doing it right.
To my surprise, in the middle of the rehearsal I suddenly felt compelled to get up and leave, totally overwhelmed and needing to escape. Not the way you get overstimulated after walking through Times Square and should leave before you harm others or yourself—but a strange sense of both being in the place too fully and not being there at all. It was as if while watching the performance and absorbing it I had actually gone inside it and forgotten who I was. For a few moments, the membrane to the soul was completely permeable and unfiltered… or that’s what it felt like, anyway. Which all sounds really beautiful (sun shining, unicorns singing, etc.), but was actually kind of unnerving. We all want to have experiences that make us forget ourselves, but at the same time we shy away, afraid of that forgetting. If we can forget ourselves so easily, what are we really made of?
One reason (and, I think, the reason) we seek out awe (and love) so fervently—and why these emotions make us feel so small and inarticulate and intoxicated—is that they fundamentally alter our sense of self. Discovering what God can do—or what humans can do, or just what is possible in the world—enables us to discover our own potential (and limits). We simultaneously see the world expanding and ourselves growing ever smaller in proportion. Logically you’d think this would create an ego crisis, since we all need the illusion of significance to feel purposeful—but somehow, it ultimately doesn’t. In fact, just the opposite—even though we fear forgetting ourselves, or dislike feeling small, we feel greater in the end for being humbled. The possibilities in the world, however remote or vicarious, are what keep a lot of us going on this little march toward death.
Being at Sangam House wasn’t the same kind of awe as standing in front of the Taj Mahal or inside the Sistine Chapel or seeing a person herd thousands of baby ducks from a canoe. But the foreignness of being in India, and the experience of creating community with a bunch of international writers, provided a sort of mental tabula rasa where awe could grow wild. Not knowing the basic details of life, like how to get hot water out of the shower or the proper way to eat your food, is disorienting. This disorientation makes you feel stupid (childlike?) at first, but in that space between forgetting about oatmeal and feeling comfortable with idli and poha, something transforms in the brain. The slate of the old is briefly wiped clean, yet there’s no way to absorb the new quite yet. Even before the mind processes the idea of Indian breakfast and starts measuring the self against it—before questions like “Do I like this?” and “Can I eat it?” slowly turn into “Who am I?” and “Am I a person who eats Indian breakfast?”—there is a clearing. And for me, that clearing made a path for the new images and ideas—the ones I was too jet-lagged to know I was processing—to flood into poems without my knowledge or will. Suddenly, my work was like a bunch of little kids spouting phrases their parents didn’t know they understood.
What I appreciated most about being awed at Sangam House—besides its effect on my writing—was how small the “source” of that awe could be. That it didn’t require the Taj Mahal for me to say, “Look what God can do!” The environment and disorientation allowed me to fully appreciate the intrigue of other people’s feet (sorry, co-residents)—not just what was interesting about their work, but what was interesting about their lives. One writer had taught herself 10 languages. Another could samba like a madman (a Brazilian, of course). People could play instruments, start political campaigns, act or draw, or even just think me in circles. And it was easy for this awe to continue once I started traveling around India—really, that woman can carry 20 pounds of fruit on her head? That man can make a statue of Ganesh by hand, with only a chisel? The funny part is, I see amazements of this caliber every day in New York—I just don’t register them as such. Here, I did.
In the end, of course, you never really forget oatmeal. The disorientation passes, you grow accustomed to the new surroundings, and all the wonders that seemed so strange or amazing get downgraded to “impressive” or maybe even “day-to-day.” Still, I like to think that the same way love sticks with us over time (in one form or another), some awe-inspired humility and impressions sink deep enough into our consciousness to make themselves a little nest, grow, and emerge again.
*Dancer image courtesy Bala from Seattle, USA, via Wikimedia Commons