Charlene Jin Lee
Things I Didn't Know I Loved
We don’t pay much attention to the structure of our lives until a weight bearing beam breaks.
When a patient dream slips, when health is seized, when the one we love is gone. Suddenly we see, perhaps clearly for the first time, what made our lives full, whole, and strong. By the time we are able to see this, we must imagine the structure of our lives like imagining the dusky silhouette of a city’s skyline missing once iconic buildings.
In the presence of absence, we see the pillars that supplied structural integrity to our identity. In their absence, we see our dependent condition and the tentative terms on which we ardently build and maintain our lives.
The Turkish poet, Nâzım Hikmet, knew absence. Leaving behind prolonged isolation, he sits by the window of a Prague-Berlin train and writes on paper. Imprisoned for 28 years on charges of sedition, he had carved poems with his fingernails on cakes of soap. The title leading this post is his. His fast-paced verses from many springs ago slow me down:
. . .
I never knew I liked
night descending like a tired bird on a smoky wet plain
I didn’t know I loved the earth
can someone who hasn’t worked the earth love it
I’ve never worked the earth
It must be my only Platonic love
and here I’ve loved rivers all this time
whether motionless like this they curl skirting the hills
or stretched out flat as far as the eye can see
I know you can’t wash in the same river even once
I know the river will bring new lights you’ll never see
I didn’t know I loved the sky
cloudy or clear
I didn’t know I loved roads
even the asphalt kind
I just remembered the stars
I love them too
whether I’m floored watching them from below
or whether I’m flying at their side
I never knew I loved the sun
even when setting cherry-red as now
in Istanbul too it sometimes sets in postcard colors
but you aren’t about to paint it that way
I didn’t know I loved the sea
except for the Sea of Azov
or how much
I didn’t know I liked rain
whether it falls like a fine net or splatters against the glass my
heart leaves me tangled up in a net or trapped inside a drop
and takes off for uncharted countries I didn’t know I loved
rain but why did I suddenly discover all these passions sitting
by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
the train plunges on through the pitch-black night
I never knew I loved the night pitch-black
sparks fly from the engine
I didn’t know I loved sparks
I didn’t know I loved so many things and I had to wait until sixty
to find it out sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
watching the world disappear as if on a journey of no return
19 April 1962, Moscow
. . .
You can sense the poet's leaping, enlarging heart. The heart is at the same time bent with regret, with loss.
We want only hope, but hope it seems is almost always found in a mixture with sorrow. Maybe hope is most accessible in the presence of sorrow.
We want to hold tight to everything, to everyone, even if we know that diminishment is an inevitable part of every life. And when a structural beam in our lives collapses, we sit in the profound presence of absence, with nothing in our strengthless hands but a view in our eyes of what constituted our inattentive lives. If hope has a chance, its search begins here.
The poet’s new loves, or the poet’s forgotten loves, are ordinary things that hardly beget attention. He sees beauty in them, in all of them, in all kinds of them, for he has known absence. He knows what it is to sit in rubble and squint his eyes until they hurt…until he can imagine the structure of life before what mattered was gone. He emerges with a bent heart that still has capacity to love—and generously so.
This spring, we sit in the collective dust billowing up around the world. Rubble cascades behind countless broken beams and pillars that held up life. Each of us, all of us, are experiencing loss on different levels. The depth of our losses do not need comparing. They need only gentleness because each loss has its own abrasion.
As we tend to our personal losses with the same gentleness we wish to extend to another, we might follow Hikmet’s eyes to the window. Pausing to look, taking time to notice, remembering what is no longer near, seeing what is here, we might begin to know what matters for our days.
We might begin to see things we didn’t know we loved, or remember things we have forgotten we loved. We might grow a poet’s generous heart, large enough to hold loss and love together—gently, imperfectly, faithfully.
We might be less afraid.
We will stumble on hope.