Field Notes: The Color of Lamplight in Budapest

“The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?” – Henry David Thoreau

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My mother used to say you could see people who were truly alive. “They have flame on their foreheads.” I thought she was just being fanciful. Now, however, I’m beginning to understand. Whether I’m sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Budapest, or visiting friends in rural Tennessee, I am drawn to people who are deeply awake – full of a gentle, giving beauty.

Sometimes, when I’m teaching, in the middle of a conversation with a student, I see the flame. Other times, it leaps from the laugh-lines of a stranger. Once, boarding the tram during rush hour, I moved aside to let a man park his wheelchair. He looked at me. And beamed. I grinned back, and throughout the twenty-minute commute, we exchanged these immense smiles.

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I thought I came to Hungary for a job. When the job fell through, I examined my reasons for moving here. For a job? No. I came because I wanted to return to the place my grandparents left. I wanted to see the homes, the gardens, the color of lamplight after dark.

After several months, I reevaluated my reasons again. I thought I came to Hungary to see the place my grandparents left. But after I had seen it, I stayed. Why did I stay? I get this question a lot. Many Hungarians are seeking a way out. Like my grandparents, Western Europe and America hold promises of a better life, a surer future for their children.

I’m not exactly sure why I stayed. I think much of the reason lies in the people I have met. You give just a tiny bit, and people respond with their entire hearts. They are so surprised and grateful when a foreigner shows some genuine interest and love for their culture. I remember once, after meeting a friend from a small village outside Budapest, she left me with a hug and the words, “Thank you for your sacrifice!”

Sacrifice. It was the first time anyone acknowledged the difficulties of being a kind of exile, even a self-imposed one. I don’t think of myself as sacrificing much. After all, I’m free, healthy and have just enough support and savvy to pursue my dreams (on a shoestring). But when she said this, it touched something deep. There have been so many moments of fear, anxiety, quiet and unnamable sadness.

Some Sundays, worn out by the week’s jumble of errands, schlepping, teaching, waiting for buses in the midwinter gloom…I sit in my damp, Old World flat (complete with grand piano), and pray. I’m cold and tired and would like nothing better than fly across the ocean and pick up the threads of my old life again.

But then I shake myself, spiral down four flights of stairs,  and take a long walk to the Castle. After sunset, the Parliament throws off a rose-gold light that always catches me in its magic net. How could I give this up – this light on the Danube, these luminous ruins? At times like this, away from home and growing new eyes, a hard-won happiness enters you with rare force.

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I think about all the people I have met in my travels, the ones overflowing with life, with questions that have no answers but hold answers within themselves: What is love? How can I serve? Are you happy?

To be frank with you, I’m not always happy. Sometimes, when my questions have no answers, I feel like a failure. I criticize myself for not accomplishing more, for not changing myself or the world in all the ways I once imagined. But then, I meet someone who has a light that doesn’t burn, but warms. We speak about our common worries and laugh with wonder and relief – oh! you feel that way too! I’m not crazy!

The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote that life is only short for those who don’t live it. If you live your life – the one you were given, not the one you think you should have, or that your friend has, or that girl on the bus with the fabulous hair – its magnitude and significance will astonish you.

We think we are so fleeting. But really, even our cells have been around for billions of years. We are mosaics of cavemen, philosopher kings, dung beetles, anemones, supernovae. From the highest to the lowest, the most ancient to the originality that is, well, each of us – we are life waking up to itself. Which is a lofty way of saying: This is a privilege. So stop with the self-criticism and look around you!

There is a soft mist on the river, like sheep’s wool caught in a silvery fence. The moon is out and the colour of the lamplight is….no, I won’t tell you. Come and find out for yourself.

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