It’s hard to know when something momentous is about to happen. Unlike everyone in Alice’s Wonderland, we can’t remember the future, so we just have to wait until it’s all sped in to the past. It’s only then that the bright bits are easy to spot. Ah yes, this day was the most wonderful day; that moment was our utmost happiness.
Luckily, there’s a poem for this.
Things I Didn’t Know I Loved was written by the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, a year before his death.
It’s 1962 March 28th
I’m sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
Night is falling
So it sets off. The old man perceives his life, in its fullness, as if for the first time. ‘I didn’t know I loved the earth’, he begins, gentle and subdued. The language of memory is humble.
Countries, trees, flowers, almonds and snow, all run through his mind. He thinks of the sky and the stars. He has questions for cosmonauts. He recalls tying a handkerchief to a tree in the Ilgaz woods in 1920, for luck. He remembers a car journey from Moscow to the Crimea with Vera, and can only say: ‘I was never so close to anyone in my life’.
A kiss with Marika, in a garden in Istanbul: ‘My heart on a swing touched the sky’. The vertiginous flight – that wild, dear feeling – is written so perfectly that it is here with us, in the present, once again.
He counts out his past – disarmed agonies, bygone passions – and is amazed. The poem beguiles with its apparent simplicity, but there’s pain here equal to love. There’s sorrow, because it is only now he can know what really mattered, and who and what was loved; and how very much he has loved it all.
What a shame it is that we’re stuck with our stunted, human experience of time. Time should go backwards as well as forwards. It would save us so much heartache. Nothing would ever be lost again. The scattered days of happiness could be revived and relived, forever more.
When I was a child I loathed the sea. I was routinely forced to fraternize with it – all our family holidays seemed to inevitably lead us to a beach at some point. I would eye it with suspicion. The raggedy waves were infested with crustaceans. Swimming was trespassing, on a malevolent, hostile environment. Oh, the dreaded words, ‘come on in, the water’s lovely’.
Then one day, on Scarista beach, my granddad, in despair, picked me up, waded in to the brisk sea, and threw me in. I remember two things: that I couldn’t believe what had just happened; and suddenly, I was a sea-swimmer, splashing about beyond the crest of the waves. I swam to shore (there was nothing else to do). When I landed, I was delighted with myself.
It’s one of my happiest memories. Nobody is ever going to throw me in the Atlantic, in quite this way, ever again. In the poem I found that feeling again – the companionable, contented sadness, in counting out the brightest parts of days passed. It matters because this summit of happiness really happened; and it matters because it happened just once.
In the short story ‘The Immortal’, by Gorges Louis Borges, a Roman tribune named Rufus goes in search of the famed City of Immortals, built by a tribe who had drank from a river that granted them immortality. Rufus has heard great things, of a city spun into utter perfection, by the hands of men who have eternity to create and embellish extraordinary palaces. When he finds the city, it has been abandoned. He stumbles through a horrifying vision of half-built oddities, abandoned staircases and doorways leading nowhere.
Turns out, if you have eternity to do something, you’ll probably just keep putting it on the back burner. You can always come back to it later. I’ve spent an awful amount of my mortal existence just faffing about on the internet – imagine how unmotivated the Immortals must have felt.
This short story goes onward in to a remarkable tale of a life made meaningless because it is unending. Rufus is trapped in immortality, grieving for the sense of preciousness that accompanied a mortal life. He speaks, agonized, of his realization of ‘the value of the irrecoverable’.
In the poem by Hikmet, I think there is this same difficult twosome: the equal pain and love of appreciating what has really mattered in life, once it has gone by. It’s nice to try sometimes, though, in bolshie defiance of time, to notice the good things as they happen, and think, yes, this day is one I choose to remember forever. Not so much the big things (the birth of a child, a wedding day) because, of course, they’re unforgettable, but the small things: a kiss in a garden; a long car journey; making a superstitious mark in the world (a handkerchief tied to a tree) as a nod to the future. I never remember the particular day or month that I read a poem or story or novel; but I’m glad, that this poem and this short story parachuted in to my life, to remind me to pay attention to the days, as they happen.
So, in the limited window allotted to me on this earth, I have so far learned (through reading good literature) to make peace with my two enemies, namely, the sea, and time. Tune in next week, when I’ll be picking a fight with another unchangeable behemoth of our existence. Perhaps taxes. Or clouds. Fluffy malingerers…
Meanwhile, I’d recommend reading this wonderful poem for yourself, here.