Today, on the fabulous U-Bahn, I saw an elderly woman, dressed in a long brown skirt with Silly Putty-colored shoes, wearing a very large and ornate crucifix around her neck. Beside her was a young guy with a paunch and slicked-back hair, wearing a black jean jacket with four Elvis buttons pinned on the pocket, just over his heart.
Though I’m not leaving Berlin until very early tomorrow morning, I’ve packed my bag. I’m in that part of the transition: if it were a children’s slide, you’d be climbing the ladder, not quite yet to that place where you sit down, and get ready to take off. This morning, every step of the climb feels heavy.
This has been an odd year for me. For a year up until last July, I lived in a huge brownstone owned by the middle-aged children of a couple who had lived there for fifty-something years. The children had been born in the house itself, they’d grown up, left, the couple had carried on, the husband had gotten sick, the wife had cared for him, he’d died, she’d carried on, and then she’d died. All of their stuff was still in the house when I moved in with Maud, Scout, and Bodhi. (Maud decided to spend her last year in college living in the house, which was big bonus for me.) The couple’s waterbed was still full. The cabinets in the kitchen were filled with their dishes. But some of the ceilings were literally coming down, and there was years of piss on the floor in the master bath. Anyway, I lived there for a year, and friends came and went from all over the world. It was very otherworldly—like something out of an early Doris Lessing novel—but it worked.
When I left, I didn’t know where to go. Bodhi had died, Maud had gotten her own place, Scout was beginning to get sick. Rents in New York were not like they once were—you can’t really find a home there that’s more than a box, if you don’t have a lot of money. I don’t want to spend more than half my income to live in a box. So I’ve been living here and there on and off—crashing at Julia’s, crashing at L.B.’s, trying to figure out what to do.
The fact is that this little pad where I’ve spent the last twelve nights in Berlin has been as much a home as any I’ve crashed in for the last year. And because I’ve not been relying on the kindness of people who care about me to live here, there’s been a quality of “my-ness” to it that I’ve missed.
It is that quality of “my-ness,” though, I think, that might be tripping me up in trying to imagine myself putting down roots. Who am I anymore? What do I want (besides to practice, and write, and be happy)? My office is my computer; I could live anywhere. My colleagues are all over the world, sometimes in and out of retreat. I don’t even know who you are. You could be someone who googled “ladder,” and ended up here (hello and a warm welcome). After Scout dies, it will just be me, whoever that is.
I think I am a person climbing the ladder of a slide. I imagine that at some point I will get to the top, sit down, and push off. I am hoping that I will land, and that when I do, I will be home.
The deity is on the U2, going from Wittenbergplatz east, towards Pankow. She has one face, four eyes (plastic frames), two arms, and is whitish in color. She is wearing an orange leather jacket, tight-fitting, with an orange plaid shirt—the tips of its collar like daggers, pointing south. In her right hand, a sharp pencil, in her left, a book. On her lap, a white patent-leather bag with a black patent-leather handle, adorned with sequins in the shape of cartoon houses on a Paris street. The lights at each station hit the sequins and fly off in all directions, touching the other dakas and dakinis, the buddhas and the bodhisattvas, waiting to get on or off the train.
She looks at me with her wrathful gaze, her iPod’d ears. I look away.
In the distance, beyond her, are the orange roofs of the German palaces (and everywhere the charnel ground). A yellow train streaks diagonally across the sky in front of them like the trace of a star.
Remember: she is like the reflection of the moon on water.
O.K., so I went out again with my dirty clothes on my back, after having Googled laundromats in Berlin, and ended up in an empty place in a younger, hipper part of town. In the laundromat, all the signage about detergent and money and machines was in German, except one: Achtung! No change! On top of that, this was a laundromat out of “Bladerunner,” and there was this large Fifties-style computer with many buttons and lights and numbers, and it seemed to run the show. You put the money in it, I figured out, and then you punched in the number of the machine you’d already put your clothes in (the machines, large and orange, were numbered in a lovely blue. Do you already know about this?) It was much more complicated than that, though—believe me—and I didn’t have exact change. Fuck it, I wanted clean clothes. I started feeding the Dr. No computer Euros and it kept asking me for more.
The thing is that it’s so damn great knowing you’re fundamentally safe but having no idea what’s going on. That is, it’s a relief from living in the groove that’s worn pretty deep.
So, anyway, Rene. She was a newcomer to Hollywood when she auditioned for “Jerry McGuire.” I know this because I interviewed her about it before the film came out. It seems that the director, Cameron Crowe, liked her, and he set up an appointment for her to meet Tom Cruise at the studio (I can’t remember which—maybe Sony). Anyway, she was waiting tables for a living at the time, and, on the day that she was supposed to meet Cruise, she’d done her laundry. Unfortunately, she ran out of money before she’d had a chance to put her clothes in the dryer.
Later that day, when she got to the lot before her meeting, she parked her car and just sat there for a few moments, laughing out loud. How absurd was it, she said to me, that she was about to meet Tom Cruise, and she’d just had to hang her clothes all over her apartment, having run out of money?
Life is like that, I find, sometimes.
I didn’t run out of money, but I was so psyched about having worked that big computer and sat in the empty “Bladerunner” laundromat doing a little meditating in front of the big orange washers with lovely blue numbers, that I just couldn’t wait for the dryer. I wanted, instead, to rush home and hang my laundry on doorknobs and the back of chairs. I felt like I was about to meet Tom Cruise. No, much, much, much better: I was about to go out into the afternoon sunlight, dance around the bicycles on the sidewalk, buy a bag of milk and some bananas, and be among the Berliners, drinking beer and watching the game, and the kids, and the night.
I take it as a compliment, that not one but two people stopped and asked me for directions in German this evening. The first one probably had to do with the fact that I was humping my laundry up the street, socks hanging out of my pack like a newly bought bouquet; the second with the fact that, having had the big glass of wine, I was weaving down the wide, cobblestone sidewalks with rosy Alpine cheeks. (By the way, what does “Einschtein, bitte” mean? And if the word schmuck means “penis,” then why is it on so many storefronts? )
Anyway. It was a crazy idea, shoving my laundry into my backpack and another plastic bag, and wandering the neighborhood looking for a laundromat. I’ve been around these blocks some, and I haven’t seen such a thing. At one point, though, I walked by a trio of hipsters talking on the sidewalk outside a store, and realized that they were leaning up against empty washing machines, all in a line outdoors. Through their legs I saw that the machines were Miele, and empty, and—a really good sign—their portholes were wet and steamy.
I lost my nerve. I couldn’t do it: “Excuse me, but are these washing machines, like, for, like, strange Americans?” One of them, a pretty, spikey-haired brunette in black, looked at me, and I ran up the street, my socks bouncing on my back. It’s good that Julia finally taught me how to wash my underwear out in the sink like a pro, or tomorrow I’d be using a wife-beater as a diaper.
My studio is on the third floor of an old building. It has two huge windows that swing inward, rather than sliding upward, and they face a courtyard with a single tree that reaches in all directions. During the day, what sounds like a huge crow caws in a loud, raspy voice, and a baby, probably newborn, cries intermittently. If I hadn’t have been listening carefully, I might have thought the child was a duck, quacking rather than wailing, sometimes near to me, sometimes from the inner rooms of the apartment where he stays.
Tonight I heard voices from down in the courtyard, speaking happily in German, and I realized that, because I don’t understand the words, they are not language to me, but instead merely sound, like the caw and the quack. It was a relief, the no storyline, but instead a sudden wave across the wind—a bell chime; a balloon, let go, flying by.
So I’m running late this morning, and I rush to the local cafe I’ve begun relying on around the corner. Though there are a line of cafes on that same corner, I come to this one because of the name: Anita Wronski. Anyway, it’s so early that the Asian man who does odd jobs is just wiping down the outdoor tables, and setting out the blankets that go on the back of each chair, and the dog—half bear, half shepherd, with brown, black, and white spots—is standing in the doorway watching him (and now me). I have heard tell that people come back as dogs when there’s been some sexual misconduct in one of their previous lives, and if that is true, this guy did some terrible things. He sports a big, shit-eating grin.
Anyway, being in a hurry, I push past him, and go up to the scrawny grey-haired German man behind the bar. I ask him if he’ll give me a chai latte and a croissant to go, and he shrugs, and I think that means that they don’t do to-go, but for me he will. I don’t know why I think that, but body language is pretty powerful stuff, and I’m getting a “I don’t like it, but I like you” vibe. He goes over to this little nook in the wooden wall then, and he rings one of those bells that you see in the movies at motels—you know, it’s round and sits on a table, and you slap your palm on it and it dings. Then he goes back to unpacking boxes or mopping the floor.
I wonder if one ring means chai latte and croissant, but when five minutes go by and he goes back and rings again, but this time twice, I wonder if one ring means “Get out of bed,” and two rings means “You have one more chance.” Suddenly though, the wall behind the nook parts (turns out it’s a sliding door), and there are a pair of feet at eye level and the dog, peering down into the room at me. Oh my god, it is the most delightful thing I may have ever seen. So I guess the kitchen is, like, a quarter of a floor up from the restaurant.
The feet, the dog, and the scrawny German man talk, he comes back saying that croissants are still in the oven (or something). I say, “Is there anything else?” And he pauses. I think I may have stopped his mind. He says, “Do you want a butter croissant?” And say yes enthusiastically, not sure what the croissant I ordered was (I’m so late now I have to take cab rather than the subway, but I can’t miss this, whatever is happening here), and he says something to the Asian odd-job guy.
I imagine a butter croissant being lifted from the oven just a moment early. I imagine growing to be 300 pounds and yet being very happy. Time goes by. More time goes by. And then the Asian man appears from the front door (I didn’t see him leave), with a bag in his hand. He hands it to me. It is a croissant that he just went out and bought.
I drink my latte and eat my croissant in the cab across Berlin. The driver does not speak any English (we figured out where I was going by searching a map together), so I know he won’t talk to me. Crumbs are all over my sweater, and the tea is sweet. I will have to return the favor to someone, sometime, somewhere.
O.K., one more, though I should be asleep. (I’m lying in bed in the dark, my laptop on my stomach. It’s not even five in the afternoon back home, but I am dead tired.)
Sangha is the Buddhist word for the community of practitioners, but, really, sangha is family. No, not family: family implies blood, and sangha—specifically the vajra sangha—is the group of people who, if you’re lucky, you share endless lifetimes with. You have already shared endless lifetimes with them. So it’s not the same DNA coursing through your veins and theirs, like family—it’s the sky and stars, the sun and the moon. It’s the tides and the wind. It is the mustard seed. Sangha is meant to support each other along the path; sangha has made a vow not to give up on each other, ever.
Today we had lunch. Noa is American but is working in Bhutan. Alex is English but lives in Vancouver. Anya is from Hamburg, and so is Hanno, her three-month-old son. Claire lives in London and Valentin in Madrid. We made a pact: No devices on the table. Valentin, whose English is excellent, requested that we speak slowly—in groups, he said, people tend to talk fast and in partial sentences. They cut in. He did not say this, but I felt he meant that people get glib in groups. They speed up; sometimes they lose their hearts.
We did not lose our hearts. This is how it goes: We meet each other once or twice a year in some part of the world where mostly no one of us lives. It is like “Brigadoon”—each time, only a day has gone by, though sometimes we have never yet met in this lifetime.
Some of us took a cab together from West Berlin to East Berlin afterward, and ended up in another cafe, now close to dinnertime, drinking espresso and tall glasses of cold water cut with hot. Though I had never met Claire before today, I’ll be sharing a house with her and Alex and some other people in France in eight weeks time. Claire asked me if I wanted to leave my little pad in Prenzlauer Berg and move in with her and Debbie (the mother of Valentin’s daughter) in their palatial rental in Mitte, after Valentin goes home on Tuesday. We can practice together. We can do yoga (Claire teaches yoga). Yes, I do. I want to wake up in the morning with all the ladies and have tea. This is how it goes. No introductions are needed. The truth is, even if we’ve only known each for a minute, we’ve known each other for all of time.
For the first day of the World Cup, restaurants and bars in Berlin had old television sets hooked up on the sidewalks, side by side, or makeshift movie screens (sheets haphazardly hung), or the occasional widescreen, and people sat quietly in chairs watching. Noa and I walked from Mitte to Prenzlauer Berg at nine (it was still fully light out), and then I walked around Prenzlauer alone as the lights of the cafes got brighter in the warm, darkening air, and there was not one marauding band of twenty-something boys with giant plastic cups of beer, not a single drunken middle-aged man pissing on the street. Unlike New York City (which I love, don’t get me wrong), this is not a hell realm, though maybe that’s because it was one not long ago.
The quiet public watching of television reminded me of the one day we did something like that en masse in Manhattan—on the morning of September 11, 2001, when there was a car or workman’s van stopped every few yards, doors and windows open, radios blaring, and people standing around it in small groups, silently listening, with the towers smoking and then just smoke in the background, people emerging with briefcases in silence, cops all over the city with white circles around the hems of their pant legs.
These two occasions, of course, are nothing alike—one is happy, one is very, very sad. They are similar, though, in that they involve a city of people led to congregating in public, their hearts open.
So I was waiting outside the apartment building where I’m renting a little studio for two weeks from Dee-Dee, an Australian expat in Berlin. The sky is blue, the sun is shining, it’s snowing tree fur and Dee-Dee rides up the cobblestones on her bike with her little orange dog running, unleashed, behind her. Welcome to Berlin, the Fire Island of Germany.
Dee-Dee suggests I rent a bike for my stay—why hassle with a metro ticket (apparently Berliners buy yearly passes, so no one’s down there—is it down?—fumbling with the ticket machines; instead they’re riding down the strasses and platzs with their shirts off).
It took me three airlines flights to get here, three countries and nineteen hours (I’m saving my pennies for another European trip this summer—get ready), so I’m a little tired, but I want to go out and explore. I’ll just say that 1) it’s nice to be in foreign city that doesn’t hate Americans, and, more important, 2) it’s nice to be in a culture that’s not American. I didn’t know how claustrophobic I was feeling: everybody doing the same thing, thinking the same thing, wearing the same thing, wanting the same thing, struggling the same way, etc.
While I was in the Frankfurt airport, which is sterile—and by that I don’t mean clean—and eerily quiet, I started thinking about this collective karma we countrymen have—Americans have theirs, Europeans have theirs. I was thinking about how you can see it when you leave your culture and enter another. But imagine if all of us humans could leave the collective human culture, and see it from the outside, fresh. For one thing, we’d see how narrowly we’re living, and how many weird rules we all came up with together. (Uch, can I just mention the very elegantly dressed old man eating a salad and chocolate croissant in the Frankfurt airport—he was so hungry he was shaking. How do we bear it, life?)
That’s it. Off to find the health food store and the bike place. Off to see how much Haushka costs here. Off to maybe have the opportunity to experience my life as brand new again.