“I can slay a dragon Any old week- Easy. What’s hard is simple. What’s natural comes hard. Maybe you could show me How to let go, Lower my guard, Learn to be free. Maybe if you whistle, Whistle for me.” — “Anyone Can Whistle,” lyric by Stephen Sondheim
Things are starting to wind down in Spain. Soon, the entire nation will be shutting down for their August vacations. Our professors are offering their reviews. We are preparing for our final exams, which are tomorrow! Soon, we will be departing our temporary homes and heading to our respective comfort zones we prefer to understand in our own languages. And I find myself in a strange limbo.
Because I always have a hard time letting go.
No matter where you run to in this world, your unsettled self will follow. That which remains buried will reveal itself. All that you have left behind without reconciliation haunts your house until you find the strength and knowledge to cast said spirits out. My ghosts roam this inner planet with a pair of blue eyes so intense, they radiate whether I’m aware of it or not. I think I fear letting go of this section of my past means losing a big part of my identity. Who am I if I am not able to piss and moan about “the one who got away?” If I put this chapter to rest, what am I left with in this world? I may have found my answer.
Today in literature class, we are studying the works of Mexican author Juan Rulfo. And, as I wind down this academic adventure in Salamanca, I find myself presented with a mirror reflecting back something that I have taken for granted of late. My job is predicated on asking the kind of questions that can reveal something about the people I am charged to interview. Sitting in class today, our final lecture, I was asking myself questions that are challenging my own sense of purpose.
The famously tortured Rulfo, an orphan haunted by a tragic past, did not turn out an expansive canon of work. His life is encompassed by a single novel (Pedro Páramo) and a group of short stories. The volume presented by Dr. Maria José Boyero was slim, only 300 pages to be exact. It literally fit in her pocket. But contained in those pages was a collection of writing designed to provoke and challenge readers. Sound played a key role in his writing. As my professor continued to explain the themes and symbols of this author´s work, I distinctly heard my heart beat faster. More, I saw the questions presented by his writing enveloping the small, stuffy classroom I´ve called my second home for nearly four weeks.
In Pedro Páramo and most of his works, his carefully rendered narratives feature characters trapped in a living purgatory. Between the black and white of our existence, there is the sky and fire. In these circles, they navigate in tandem, journeys intertwined, often representing polar opposites (purity/sin). For Rulfo, life is about questioning the basic realities of our human existence: What is death? What is love? What is fault? What is eternity? And so on… His works do not offer any answers at all. Rather, what we must know is that a specific death, like a singular love, awaits us all. In the end, these questions take a corporeal form and we will answer them with the experiences we live.
If we view ourselves as half-moons, our lives are built around the other halves (family, lovers, partners) that will make us complete. But these halves are destined to leave us, and for the characters created by Rulfo, they are destined to live again because life is nothing but a series of memories. These memories, strung together by force of will, are an attempt to resuscitate that which has been lost. For their journeys are an eternal search for answers without end.
The idea of destiny is such an expansive one, we can only offer it a passing glance because it scares us so much. Better to not even contemplate the end, rather, we focus on the seemingly mystical aspects of destiny. Like meeting certain people at certain times. Or, extolling the power of certain events occurring at certain times. I will never diminish the power of what appears like happenstance, but life really is more than a series of random events strung together. Like Rulfo’s characters, it is about the memories we set out to create for ourselves, good and bad. But, I don´t fear the end, not if life continues to offer the adventures I have had of late.
In a series of letters to his great love, Clara, Rulfo wrote of her being “Una estrella junto a la luna.” That’s what Spain has been to me, that star coupled next to a moon. His worlds are not often romantic ones, even though the characters’ cruelty is compounded by their desire to love and be loved. Many of his protagonists are condemned to experience unrequited love, which can lead to a different form of death: madness. That’s what these last four years have felt like for me, a madness I’ve inflicted upon myself because of a love I cast away. It’s stupid and selfish to imprison oneself with the memory of a past realized. We cannot be cavalier with our feelings, our lives. We cannot voluntarily place ourselves in a purgatory of our own making. That is not living, that is death: madness.
It is fitting that Rulfo’s work, in keeping with his own questioning of faith, functions as a confessional. He doesn’t judge or absolve his characters. That is our role as a reader, to project our own morality, our own sensibilities into the complex lives we encounter on the page. In many ways, that’s what I hope to have achieved with the words from the authors and professors that have brought me such inspiration these last weeks at the Pontificia. I am projecting much of what I’ve felt for so long into their work, finding solace, comfort and a wonderful burst of clarity despite the darker recesses where these narratives inhabit.
This journey is not over in the physical sense. I leave for Barcelona on Friday, one last hug from Spain before making my way home. But in the emotional sense, I think I’ve reached the end of a complicated road, one that I’ve made incredibly complicated by obsessing over so much that is no longer in my control. It is time to vanquish that purgatory and aim for the blue, not the fire. It is time to trust my half-moon is circling other halves that bring me great joy. This is one more memory, a pearl strung with countless others, all representing a life worth living.
As the great Stephen Sondheim encapsulates so brilliantly in the longing brought to life in “Anyone Can Whistle,” what is hard truly is simple. And what comes natural to us, can truly be difficult. But sooner or later, we will find the means to establish our true place in the world, to learn to let go and be free.
Just like learning how to whistle.
¨Ahí te dejo Madrid Tus rutinas de piel y tus ganas de huir…” — Shakira
Leave it to me to try and squeeze in one more trip to Madrid before this Salamancan Summer comes to a close. No, I didn’t go back to see Samuel, although that’s causing me plenty of tsuris at the moment. He’s one half circle I’d love to have rotate around me one more time, but it doesn’t look like it may even be possible. Damn you, Rulfo! Hahaha.
No, I went back to reconnect with the past, which took the form of the lovely Montse Gil. A former co-worker of mine from the days at 20th Century Fox International, Montse and I were thrilled to find ourselves in each other’s midst again more than 15 years later. And we literally picked up where we left off.
Such friendships are a miracle, particularly in the film industry, but Montse and I made the most of our reunion in Madrid with real brio and affection. She met me at Charmartín and took me straight to Chueca. Mind you, I had my reservations about going back to this district after Orgullo turned it into a urine-soaked variation of “The Purge” (but without the body count.) Yet, the insanity was on hiatus and Cheuca was pulsating in a manner that was so inviting, it’s making it harder for me to want to leave this country.
We walked through the neighborhood, talking and laughing, catching up on our lives, everything. If Bogie had “Casablanca,” then Montse and I will have:
“I’m Fruit” — a local fruit stand.
“San Wich” — a Chilean sandwich store
“Péinate, tú” — a local salon I preferred to call “Péinate, ya!”
Talk about paying attention to the signs!
Of course, we gorged ourselves with the best tapas I´ve had since arriving here in Spain. The spicy goodness of tortilla con callos alone is reason enough to stay in Spain. That kick of fire, so intense it makes you sweat, made the Mexican part of me dance el jarabe tapatío. More, it was just hanging with Montse that made it all incredibly vivid. So much so, I missed my train back to Salamanca. I didn´t make it back in time for this morning´s grammar class. Boo! Hiss! Haha. But, as I´ve discovered of late, anywhere I hang my hat is home. Especially when you get to spend time with a good friend.
Wednesday, July 23. Started on the Renfe train back from Madrid to Salamanca. Finished and posted from Manoli´s house in Salamanca.