ASCETIC

Another thing that suited me about Spain, strange as it may sound, were the privations of my life there. The fact that there wasn’t always heat when you needed it—the government decreed the day the heat should be turned on for the winter and the day it should be turned off—or enough hot water, that food was rationed at the residencia, and that it was so crowded there I never had any privacy. (When I needed a few moments to myself, I’d go and sit on the marble staircase between the fifth and sixth floors.) I discovered an ascetic within who LIKED the austerity of life in this relatively poor county. Like so many other times in my life, I didn’t know that something was bothering me until it stopped. In this case, I didn’t know that I felt an oppressive sense of guilt about the wastefulness of my lifestyle back home.

 

WIGS

During Christmas vacation Ella and I traveled by train to Italy. We combined our clothes in a single suitcase, which was so heavy we had to grasp the handle together and walk in synch. “Left, right, left, right,” we’d start off. Our first night in Italy, we unwittingly stumbled into the red-light district of Genoa, where we had supper. On Christmas Day we sat on some steps in Florence eating apricots out of a can with our fingers because all the restaurants were closed. On New Year’s Day we watched the Pope parade by in St. Peter’s Basilica, while I was irreverently goosed by someone in the crowd. In Rome I was transported by Bernini’s sculptures of Daphne and Apollo and of The Rape of Persephone, staggered by the Sistine Chapel—I was so totally unprepared for the scale of Michelangelo’s figures—and moved to tears by the heartbreaking Pieta he did when he was only twenty-four. We went to the opera in Naples, where we got a box, then couldn’t see over the heads of the party in front of us, and took a side trip to visit the ruins of Pompeii. Throughout the trip we stayed in cheap pensiones without heat or hot water, so we went to bed with all our clothes on—coats, hats, and mittens. And since neither of us were masochistic enough to wash our hair in icy water, we used dry shampoo day after day, till we looked like we were wearing powdered wigs.

 

 

PRUNED

Like most Americans, I started out wildly frustrated with what I saw as the inefficiency and backwardness of the Spanish bureaucracy—you’d go to pick up a package at the post office and you’d have to wait for hours in line. I felt hampered, obstructed, thwarted at every turn…until it finally became clear to me that it was impossible, in Spain, to go about your business—your life—in a purposeful manner, to be goal-oriented, because sooner or later you’d drop dead in an apoplectic fit of frustration. There was nothing to be done, then, except stop trying to row so bull-headedly against the current, draw in your oars, and let the river take you.

Once I did this—not that easy for an A-type personality—my life became about “process,” as they say. And then there was time enough for everything. Spain forced me open. Like a pruned rose bush, I kept having my expectations and determinations smartly lopped off, until I was made to flower, in spite of myself.

 

AVID 

At the University of Madrid, our classes lasted all year, rather than ten weeks (CAL had switched to the quarter system), which allowed us to explore our subjects in depth. There were no quizzes and almost no homework, only midterms and final exams. This meant that there was no outside pressure—no constant coercion, as I’d always experienced it—to study. Once I was free of external imperatives and was allowed to rely on internal ones, my excitement about learning returned.

History, which had always seemed a dead subject to me, came alive, especially now that I was surrounded by it. When I took short trips, hitchhiking with friends—when it was their turn to stick out a thumb—I would sit in a ditch avidly reading about whatever place we were bound for. I found, for the first time, that I wasn’t forgetting what I learned as soon as I learned it, probably because anxiety wasn’t running interference—and so I was able to begin to weave the facts I was absorbing from various disciplines together into a sturdy tapestry of knowledge. I can’t describe the intensity of the intellectual ferment I felt then. I realized that I’d always had a strong natural curiosity, which had been blighted by the rigidity and regimentation of the American public school system and curriculum. I found myself wishing I could have been home schooled or educated by tutors, my intellectual curiosity given free rein.

 

JANE

Maybe because Britte had led such an insulated life, I also needed to forge a connection to someone who hadn’t. When I met Jane on the Aurelia, though she was only in her mid-twenties, she’d already had more than her share of sorrow and was on her way to Israel on a sort of pilgrimage. She’d played the trumpet, but a dead tooth had changed her embouchure and brought her musical career to an end; the man she’d loved and led T- groups with had married her best friend; and the four-year-old brother she’d helped raise—and loved as her own child—had died.

“Dear Jane,

“I’m really scared to be frank—but I’m also willing to take a risk. I want to say, ‘Tell me what you know about life. I’m trying to understand what’s happening to me—and I feel like you can help me.’ Knowing you and Britte suggests this to me—there are only a few people we meet in life whom we can love deeply and intimately, and we only reach our full potential when we love and are loved in this way. I sometimes wonder why I can’t love EVERYBODY; then I think: there are only a few people in our lives who are willing to reach deep enough to touch what is best in us—and though we never know why these people are willing and others aren’t, they are all we need to give meaning to our lives, all we need to teach us who we are and how to love ourselves.

“I can’t embrace all of humanity—I can’t reach the potential behind all the faces I meet coming and going. I can only hope to let loose the line on my needs, my desires, my talents, my ambitions, to fly my soul like a kite, to pursue fearlessly what I love and reject fearlessly what I don’t—and be willing to cry as many times as such freedom sets as its price.”

                                                                         …

Despite my disclaimer, I was able to feel, for the first time since childhood, a genuine love for all of humanity—and found in myself a new patience and tolerance. At the same time I understood, quite clearly, that this change had come about because, at long last, I felt loved.

BREAKING FREE

I don’t have much writing from the year I was in Spain because, after the first month or two, I got too busy to keep a diary. I didn’t take the time to write rough drafts of my letters or copy them, either—so I don’t have much to jog my memory except for a few letters to Jane, which I seem to have taken some pains with. I know I wrote Britte assiduously for many months and depended on her two or three letters a week as a kind of lifeline.

In my “diary” I wrote:

“Last night Wendy told me I had a beautiful, beautiful voice—that I didn’t know how much it meant to other people to hear me sing, that it made her happy. I’ve been feeling, more than ever, that I was born to sing—that I have the voice and the determination, just no training or composure. I think to myself—when I get back to the States, I’ll find the best voice teacher I can and use my $500 scholarship for lessons. I’ll sing everywhere—on campus benches, street corners, at gatherings of friends—make it part of my everyday life. And when I open my mouth, all my feelings will flow out effortlessly. Now, with too little knowledge and confidence, my voice is mostly too cumbersome for me to express myself very well. But on days it’s freer, it means so much to me to be able to sing. It gives me a kind of control over my emotions—I can draw them out of some deep place inside and through the music give them shape. Sometimes I even get goose bumps or get shaky from the intensity of the experience.

“This morning I was thinking: we all die, the end of act three—so the only way to live is to the fullest, which means slashing all the ropes with which society ensnares you. Break free, think new, do what you really WANT and need to do—to hell with college if you are unhappy studying. You can sing, you can draw—these are what you live for—so why aren’t you throwing all your energy and soul into them. Why?”

MAN-HANDLED

On the Aurelia I’d befriended Ella and Dale in a T-group—an encounter group for the students in our program—led by the ship’s recreation director, Jane. The idea was to give us an opportunity to share our feelings about the adventure we were embarked on. The experience was eye-opening for me from the outset because I was astonished that what I could do easily seemed so hard for others–that is, talk about your feelings. (As I’ve said, I’ve always been better at big talk than small talk.) In the group dynamic that developed, Dale and I emerged as the leaders among the participants—and she slapped me on the fanny after the first session. Dale was lanky and tan, with frosted streaks in her hair, Ella a pear-shaped bleached blond. While Dale was charismatic, comical, and had an air of easy confidence, Ella was droll, companionable, and accommodating to a fault. They lived with a widowed senora until Dale decided she wanted to move into a dorm with Spanish girls—then Ella moved into the “residencia” where I lived.

At the end of a letter to Jane, I wrote about one of my first outings with Ella and Dale:

“It’s 2:00 in the morning, and I’ve GOT to go to bed. But first I have to tell you about our adventure of the weekend. Dale and Ella and I went to the Parque del Retiro to spend a peaceful (?) afternoon rowing on the lake. We had been out about thirty seconds when some guys, sixteen to eighteen years old, collided with our boat. We didn’t pay much attention to them until they started to follow us around the lake. Soon another boat joined in hot pursuit—and another. Before long we were surrounded by six or seven boats and we couldn’t budge. The boys yelled and tried to climb into our boat—we yelled back and shoved them away. There was some splashing—we got drenched; then they stole our oars. Finally one or two guys started manhandling us—pinching and sticking their hands up our dresses. At this point I got mad and slugged one of them. In the midst of all this, a boat pulled up with a girl and three very handsome older boys who helped us into their boat as quickly as possible and rowed us to shore. Our heroes! Well, I’m going to stick this letter in an envelope right now, and if it isn’t coherent—to hell with it. I miss you.

“P.S. I’m rich—a $500 check arrived in the mail—some kind of scholarship.”