Thursday, January 24, 2008

Ghosts in the Machine

In today’s age and the ubiquity of search engines, social networking sites and the like it has become possible to reconnect with our past in a myriad of ways. As I wrote in my post “Walking the Straight Line”, life is not a single linear journey, but instead a child’s squiggle allowing us to go back and revisit the past but in the context of the present.

Over the last couple of years I have been able to reconnect with many people from past lives through Facebook, LinkedIn and a UK version of Classmates.

But also, sometimes in searching google a name pops up that elicits a connection or memory. My post of life in Hong Kong was inspired in just a way, and I chose to post it before writing of Alphonse.

Alphonse Vinh was one of the first people I met when I moved to the US, initially we connected through a now defunct mailing list on Southern culture where his insightfulness and sheer command of writing truly impressed me.

It was Memorial Day, and he was kind enough to invite my then girlfriend and I to a cookout at his home in Old Fairfax. Having read his writing, and spoken to him on the phone I had a picture in my head of an old style Virginia gentleman from days gone past, by no means a redneck, but the culture that you only see today in places like Charleston. When he answered the door, instead I was greeted by a Vietnamese gentleman (the name didn’t ring a bell for me), with a pony tail, blue blazer and old British Guards Club tie worn in my honor.

The evening was quite simply wonderful, is knowledge and passion for both southern culture and history encompassing and riveting. Also his graciousness both as a host and gentleman quite at odds with the way we live our lives today. One act illustrates this perfectly, when we were about to leave, he reached into a vase of carnations and presented it to Cairen, as he did for any female guest that visited his home, not an act with any shallowness, but simply an expression of his gratitude for accepting an invitation and spending time in his company.

Below is a piece he wrote on mourning, specifically the break up of a relationship. Every time I read it, I am transported to the place and an insight into his feelings, together with reminiscing of my own feelings at those times :-

"For those who have mourned and for those who mourn still"

A ubiquitous mist has enshrouded the mountain on this cold November day. The sky was like a Turneresque gouache of grey-white. Houses hid behind a soft, foggy screen of white, round twin circles of light-yellow glowing like will-o'-the-wisps peeked through the vanished roads, announcing the immanent approach of a car. A few ragged trees could be seen from my window silhouetted like photographic negatives of lean black lines against a white void. Unseen leaves made sounds like hollow gourds against the still grass and everywhere was the pale-white mist. The silence of my world covering the solemn morning like a mourning shroud was interrupted by the occasional caw-caws of crows in the distant, ghostly woods.

How unnatural seems the world about us when we mourn. We get up, we dress, we pray, we sip our coffee, we walk to work, we perform our duties, we serve others in their needs, and all the while our inner universe has disintegrated into the chaos of sorrow, and the galaxies of our soul exploded into a trillion fragments, and the worlds of our emotions are cold orbs where suns have vanished. And yet we must go on even when our home universe has exploded, we must try to go on, homeless exiles in search of a new, restored homeland.

As I went through the various duties of the washed-out day, the pain swelled inside, and I thought of my fellow human creatures at their diurnal routines across this shrinking planet, and wondered how many of them carried on with conscientiousness despite their private sorrows. Each man and woman suffers grief alone in his or her own individual way. One can never measure another person's pain, and should not. So often well-meaning friends and acquaintances will try to comfort the bereaved person by making light of their grief and referringto the sufferings of others in faraway India or Cambodia. But each human being is a unique moral universe with her own divine destiny. They do this not out of meanness, but because they feel so powerless before another friend's grief which is inexpressible. The joys and sorrows of each human person contribute significantly to the joy and sorrow of this earth. God created Man because without Man and Woman, who will be there among His creatures to hear the sound of a tree falling in the snowy woods and be aware of it? Every person born into this world will know joy and sadness, love and loss, and though his or her own experiences are uniquely personal, yet there remains a universal quality about those experiences which bonds each human being with the rest of this frail human race.

My afternoon was my own and I sat before my writing-desk and read and thought. As the mist swirled outside, dancing beneath the street-lamps, the gathering dark emerged, and the pale light from the newly lit street-lamps conjured up images of wraiths, those memories from my past, and I clearly saw the dear features of my lost love, and I remembered her long, slender hands, her grave blue eyes, and the curls of her blonde hair streaked with dark gold strands. For a very long time, I kept a lock of her lovely hair which she had sent me carefully folded in a ribbon of blue-gold silk, in my pocket-calendar, and every day, I carried her next to my heart. When we lose the people whom we love most in our lives for whatever reason, we must put away tangible tokens of their continuing presence in our lives. We must mourn for them, for their physical disappearance from our lives. In time when we can bear to gaze at the photographs of our beloved recalling happier times, they do not seem to resemble the live person we recall laughing and talking and embracing with. In following the long dark journey into the night of grief, the images of the loved one will change, perhaps fade way like the ghostly lights in a fog, and that too is necessary. Our love for the lost lover will not die, but it must be transformed, for the life we shared with them is over now and dead like the fallen leaves in winter. We must learn despite the pain to surrender our memories of her and let her go in peace. Somehow, some day, somewhere in time, by the mercy of the Spirit, we will wake up one morning to find ourselves in a new universe where the light shimmers and the myriad suns warm the glowing orbs of our soul, the mist of grief will have vanished like the will-o'-wisps of our haunted past, and we will walk out into a new life, and as we look into the newly leafed woods shaking with the spring breeze, we see the
faces of those we loved and lost, and our hearts will be full of love for them, but it will not hurt anymore. And then we will understand the brave words of Albert Camus, "In the midst of winter, I discovered within myself an invincible summer."

Alphonse Vinh – Sewanee, TN

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