Wednesday, February 23, 2011

at the top of the alhambra i sat down and wept

While I walked up Sabikah Hill to the Alhambra yesterday morning, I thought about a book I read before I left on religion in India and how the varied and ancient traditions of the country are reconciling themselves with modernity and Western influences. I found the passages about the Jains especially effecting. Striving toward freedom from attachment and desire, toward divine cosciousness and peace. The book followed a Jain nun on her walk from town to town, only taking food when it was offered to her, dressed in rags and carefully sweeping the road in front of her to avoid harming even the measliest bug. I find most of my friends are proud cynics and atheists, religion an irrelevant notion, a system of antiquated superstitions. I'm precisely the oppposite. On a good day I can believe anything, so long as its based in compassion and charity. I like the idea of god and the spiritual rituals that order and sustain life. I still cannot quite settle my mind on the idea Bryan and Papa are in heaven with harp-strumming angels, drinking black coffee and waiting for me, but I prefer to think there's a grand design, a meaning to things. I think it was Einstein who said that you can live as though everything is a miracle or as though nothing is.

I could've been a Jain nun yesterday, walking up that hill, lush and green and swelling with birdsong. Scaling the division between Islam and Catholicism, Europe and the Arab world that makes Granada so beautiful and fascinating. With my poor toe, I haven't had as much exertion as normal, and I could feel the difference yesterday, my heart thudding in my chest as I climbed and climbed, passing the statue of Washington Irving (a famed visitor at the Alhambra) and the fountains. A meditative walk. A "what am I doing here?" kind of walk.

After three weeks, I should know the answer. The obvious one is I'm traveling to do what I thought best with Bryan's ashes, to pay homage to my grandfather, and give myself a greater peace of mind (though perhaps not divine consciousness). But no one goes to Morocco by way of Poland.

When Bryan died, I soon after wrote a letter to an old professor and asked him to recommend some books to me. In those long, quiet days after the funeral, all I wanted was to feel the ground beneath me a little more solidly. I wanted to reinforce all the things that made up my sense of self. Books, writing, travel. And if I pushed myself through the motions of being me, than eventually it would all come back, and I wouldn't feel so painfully self-conscious and uncertain. I'd get back to being myself, no longer a grieving negative of that old self. So I've tried hard to do that, tried hard not to ever question the life I've been given or allow myself to sink into self-pity or pass the days in bed. And that, I think, is what this trip is about. To return to old places-- pre-Bryan places, like Poland-- and to reclaim for myself some of the places I think of as "ours," like Morocco. And to find some new places inbetween, like Spain.

But also, I realized, to feel a little more at ease with death. Where better to go than Europe to understand and accept that time passes, that we die and that's okay, because there is no other option. Away from the American culture of rebuilding and constantly starting anew, to this continent where people devoted their lives to the construction of cathedrals they wouldn't live to see completed. To these places scraped flat by the roller of wars, wars, wars and commemorated in multilingual plaques. To run a hand along a stone wall and murmur a prayer in a church that's been their since the black death. A church that used to be a mosque, in this beautiful city where the Spanish routed out the Moors in the name of the Catholic church. Yes, we die. The centuries carry on without us, though sometimes if we're good they'll put up a statue of us for the pigeons to shit on.

So I approached the towering palace. I got my ticket and found myself in line behind a quartet of Americans. Two pretty girls in expensive looking boots and jackets with their fashionably rumpled boyfriends. They looked like they could've been Kennedy heirs, or Harvard students on spring break. They looked like they stepped out of a Ralph Lauren ad. I looked like Little Orphan Annie. One of the boys kept nattering on about Ferdinand and Isabella in a precociously gravely voice, and every so often his girlfriend grinned and pulled his mouth to hers, obviously pleased with herself for finding such a good looking and clever boy to explain Spain to her. I couldn't help the thought: they did not climb the hill thinking about the Jains. They would not retun to their shabby hotel rooms to an urn. I felt-- I don't know. Embarassed for myself and ashamed for feeling that. For feeling jealous I've been denied their seeming privilege and ease when I ought to be full of gratitude for a life that's allowed me this journey, these sights, these ghosts of the Spanish Inquistion to mull over.

And finally into the Alhambra. Relic of a lost way of life, a lost paradise. Columned palaces with their every inch covered in tiles and ornate arabesques. Pools glittering in the courtyards. Then through to the Generalife gardens, fruit trees and succulents and palms. All of Granada, all of Andalucia sweeping below. I sat down on a stone and cried. Not because I don't look like I stepped out a Ralph Lauren ad, I don't think, but the whole of it. For all the reasons I was at the top of the Alhambra. It was a rare outburst, and it startled me-- I'm not much for crying. And once it started it was hard to stop. I climbed the towers to the highest point of the complex, still sniffling. Crept slowly down the narrow dungeon stairs, sniffling.

I walked back down the hill and sat at a Moroccan place near the Plaza Nueva. Mint tea to sip while I made sense of the day, slowed myself back down. Te magrebi, I told the waiter behind my sunglasses. He asked something and I had to smile and make my daily confession here-- no habla espagnol. He shifted to English, laughing easily when he couldn't remember the word he wanted. Infectious Spanish happiness. My tea came, and though it wasn't as sweet and replenishing as I remember in Morocco, it was good. I returned to normal, back to the eager tourist. My waiter walked past me, his shift over. "Bye, gringa," he grinned at me. I laughed, delighted.

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