Tea With A Neighbour
Sometimes I spend half an hour with a ninety-year-old neighbour two doors along on my street. Some say she is a little mad but her human face, the polite masks and conventions of behavior, have simply been stripped away by time. I had a cup of tea with her the other day and she shared some photo albums with me. A recent life of brave travel, taking refuge from loneliness in perpetual motion. Here she is in Hanoi, a solo journey aged eighty-eight, with a boa constrictor wrapped around her neck against a backdrop of dark green jungle; and here in Kukup, Johor, aged eighty-seven, stepping off a game fishing boat with a beaming Indian guide; and now in Singapore last year, in a wheelchair and aged eighty-nine, dark glasses, mad lady tourist laughing with a group of Asians in a fruit market.
Other snaps from much earlier, pushing a pram with her first daughter, and sepia brown shots of now deceased family. The long trajectory of a life encompassing so many pleasures and pains, albums of memories that might be best discarded. She has outlived all her children and her seamed face shows the hurts of this. She tiptoes among nihilistic trapdoors that might open up at any moment to an unbearable nothingness, an emptiness like a worm hole into a dark universe. No returning from that breathless place. She treasures her photos, a sanctuary and consolation prize and evidence too of some lingering structure and purpose in the waning years, though they open bleeding wounds-relishes too the solace of company, a reprieve, and grasps my arm pleadingly when I move to go. The albums tumble off her knees like falling lapdogs.
She writes sometimes and I ask her to show me. She hesitates, and we both know that the truths that really matter to us, the feelings that we experience most deeply we can never write about nor ever confide to others, not even to a diary. And only rarely might there be an empathetic heart close enough to set aside masks and masquerades. And who would she write for – or do these self-revelations not require a reader, more a confessional whispered to a blind and deaf universe or to a silent, complicit God?
True candor falls outside the protocols of human society and we are never free enough of self-consciousness and our personal public fictions to reveal much of ourselves to others. Yet she promises to show me her written words though our real self-truths, unspoken things, silent hurts, the elusiveness of all that was most meaningful, we often take in silence to our graves. 'Next time', she promises, an inducement to come back, though I will visit again with or without her opened diaries. She looks at me, seeing me as I am with the clear, dispassionate eyes of someone who is past dissembling. I give her a little aphorism of Sri Chinmoy's on a card and depart:
Do teach me only one thing:
How to love the world
The way You love me.
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