I was the only person on the bus when I arrived in Melgaço near 9 p.m. on Friday, and I needed a taxi to take me to the hostel, which is not actually in Melgaço but is about two miles away, in a pine-woods area of the mountains designed for sports, with two enormous football stadia, a swimming pool, a four-star hotel, walking trails, and the offices of Melgaço Radical, an organization that runs white-water rafting trips. There were no football games scheduled, so I was almost the only person in the hostel. On Saturday some families appeared in three and four generations, but no single (nor even coupled) travelers. The only bus for Viana do Castelo, where I am now and about which I will talk in another post, did not leave till 7 p.m. Sunday night. So I had a weekend of astonishing quiet and the first boredom I have experienced since my year and a half of being bedridden as a child. I was forced to confront what I have avoided, even in lengthy meditation retreats: the bare and embarrassing truth of who I have created as my self, the humiliating truth of my habit of discontent, and the possibility of letting it all go. It was an experience more uncomfortable than bed-bugs and more startling than any adventure I have had yet.
One of the joys of travel for me is discovering the unfamiliar. In my walks in the mountains, I discovered instead what is familiar, and my affection for the familiar: wild honeysuckle, wild mint, clover, flies, cicadas, sparrows, doves, the distant sound of dogs barking, pine trees with their needles and cones–their resin warmed and fragrant in the sun. Shadows moving across bare mountain tops, Queen Anne´s Lace, Black-eyed Susans, and (also at a distance) roosters crowing. Not all that is familiar in Portugal has given me pleasure: there is dated American & British pop music blaring from every radio–something that must be a loop being played again and again is the sequence of Tina Turner´s “Silent Wings,” Eric Clapton´s “Would You Know My Name (If I Saw You in Heaven),” and Robbie Williams´”Sin Sin Sin.” As no one I met in the north spoke a word of English, I have to assume that the lyrics mean nothing to anyone, which is probably a good thing, as Robbie Williams´little carol would be particularly offensive here. After the walks and the blasts of Portuguese radio, I took naps. I took walks again. I lay in my bed and gazed out the window into the pine trees. I ate in silence, walked in silence, and sat in silence. I realized that since I was a teenager I have worked multiple jobs, written as much as possible, reared my four children and various homeless teens and twenty-somethings who drifted into my care. Started projects, run programs, put on plays, done research. From the time I left my loveless marriage in 1968, until I retired from the game in 1997, I spent massive amounts of time and energy falling in and out of love with no less than twenty wonderful people, each time thinking, “This is it! The is The One,” and each time experiencing a drift away, a desire to be alone again, a discontent. I have kept running, running, not sleeping enough, trying to be a better person, to perform this or that service, to achieve this or that end: so that sleep-deprivation has become a way of life, and not since I was eight years old have I known a moment of boredom. Even meditation has been a thing to DO, a thing to be scheduled, like exercise and eating. Suddenly I was stranded with no one but myself for company.
Now and then I passed through the hostel lobby, where the television was always on, and where the horrors of what Israel is doing in Lebanon (probably with Made-in-the-USA killing-equipment) rage on. The news was the subject of all the conversations I overheard. “Crianças” (children) were what upset people most. The Portuguese as a people adore their children like nothing I have ever seen. They hold them, kiss them, carry them, indulge them, and show them off to each other. This does not just apply to small children. Big teenage guys can be seen leaning on their father´s shoulders; teenage girls walk arm-in-arm with their grandmothers or hold hands with their mothers; at bus stations, college kids (male and female) take leave of their parents with sobbing, stroking of each other´s faces and heads, and hundreds of kisses and hugs, and parents stand teary-eyed watching and waving till the bus is out of sight. So the news that Israel had bombed a house full of refugees, many of whom were children, caused Portuguese women to weep publicly at lunch together, and Portuguese men shouted and cursed and hit themselves on the chest and waved their arms in the air. “Crianças! Crianças!” I also wept, partly moved by the horrors of war and partly by the emotionality of the Portuguese and my sadness that American parents (including myself) are so much less expressive of their love for their children, any children.
On Sunday I walked the two miles up the mountain into the town of Melgaço, unable to bear another day of staring into the pine trees and my own soul. Melgaço is a pretty little town, with the ruins of an old fort and many stone houses with balconies spilling petunias over the cobblestone streets below. There are some cafés, an overpriced restaurant, several bars. Most remarkable, there is a “Miradouro,” a section of pavement next to a stone wall about two feet high, from which it is possible to see for untold miles, right into Spain. There are also, just below the sight-line, newly-built blocks of apartments. I saw my enjoyment of a niche-of-my-own. I saw my hunger for friendship, for talk, for continuity of some kind, however vague or recent. I saw that I have constructed an image of myself as a vagabond, a wild woman, a lone wolf, someone who would like to get rid of everything and live out of a backpack for the rest of her life, stumbling upon surprises. And I saw that the image is a lie.
I love the life I have. What I have: a little apartment by a lake with a balcony and flowers. Manko´s moody quicksilver teenage company. Occasional emails from my sons. Good friends, both near and far. A bounding, joyful little dog; a lazy and affectionate cat. The challenge of my gritty, undereducated, materialistic students who are all “going to school so I can make more money” and who would prefer not to read, write or learn at all, so my job is to seduce them into it. A great writing workshop at a nearby prison, and relationships with another twenty or so prisoners around South Texas. Occasional weekends socializing dogs at the Humane Society. Access to books, music, and movies via the internet and Netflix. Occasional trips to the Houston Symphony or the Alley Theatre. I have a good-enough life. Realizing that was like sticking my finger into a light socket.
I didn´t want that to be true. I have a habit of discontent that I wanted to hold onto. I recall Martha Graham´s invocation to “always cherish that divine discontent” that drives the artist. Here are my broken records: I hate grading papers. Southeast Texas is not a beautiful part of the planet. It´s not near an ocean, and the Gulf is disgustingly polluted. I don´t have enough time to read and write. There aren´t enough surprises. Wah wah wah. I have created a fantasy of the need for a more exciting and fulfilling life, a more unique manifestation of my originality and imagination, a life of continual possibility. Untamed. Unbreakable. But there, in Melgaço, looking out over the mountains, I saw that the fantasy is a lie. I don´t want a life on the road, a cave in the wilderness, nor a lifetime of silent meditation and slow perambulation, neither on foot nor on donkey. And here is the most astonishing thing:
It is possible to be fundamentally joyful, like that São Sebastian at the Alberto Sampaio Museum in Guimarães. That figure, despite the holes (the wounds of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the imperfections, the bits missing, the discontents) radiates joy. I could do that. I could stand tall and naked full of arrow-holes and just grin and be glad to be here.
I sat on a bright blue bench from which about 260º of the world was visible, below and beyond, at rest on a Sunday afternoon in mid-summer, baking under a gentle sun, brushed by a cool breeze. The windmills on the tallest mountains spun lazily. A few birds soared out over the grape-laden valleys. The houses at my extreme left, in the mountain distance, must have been at least 150 miles from the houses on my extreme right. Maybe 300 miles. Hard to tell at such a great distance. It was like being in an airplane but not moving, able to see great distances and many lives below. In stillness. A few Portuguese people walked by now and then. A haze began to blur some of the most distant rooftops. A mongrel dog lay in the sun, every now and then flicking his right ear to get rid of flies. Overhead I saw a jetstream. Who was going where? All the dramas still exist: people are falling in or out of love and betraying each other, babies are being born, cancers are growing, bombs are falling in Lebanon, the Tibetans will never go home again,many people cannot, as Leo said, “make ends meet.” There is starvation, injustice, cruelty, greed, and irreparable damage being done to the planet. And yet some people dance. At that moment in Melgaço, and even now, at this moment in Viana at the Espaço Internet, nothing is missing. Everything is what it is.
On that Sunday afternoon, and even now, I have nothing to do, really, but love it. Love the woman brushing her daughter´s hair, love the old man shuffling with his cane in his right hand and his arm around the woman´s shoulder (his daughter? his wife?). Love the roving poodle, tongue lolling, panting, tail a-wag with joy in the next stone to sniff. Love the young couple with their two well-groomed children followed by his or her parents with swollen feet. Who can absorb so much beauty? There is no need, at this moment, for me to fix, rescue, or create anything. I have had, for the first time in my life since I was eight, enough sleep. Everything simply is what it is, and the life energy in this living and dying body can only gaze in wonder. I could do something. Or not. I have moved on, finally, to Viana do Castelo, another town of many wonders, where I am sleeping on a ship. I will go roaming in its alleys and up on the hill, and then I will go on to the End of the World and to Santiago, then down to Sintra before returning to Texas. But there is this new awareness in me, born of the epiphany in Melgaço. The vagabond is a role, a mood, a whim, a fantasy. I am a woman with a good-enough life and more to love than there will ever be time for. And another ten or so days (I have lost all track of time) in Portugal and Galicia before I return to that good-enough life.
Tags: Buddhism, Melgaço, Portugal