Thursday, November 17, 2011


Two days ago I walked home from class at midday and realized that after three weeks of winter, fall is finally here. One day in late October it poured and the morning after was no longer short-sleeves weather, but rather leather-jacket weather. And in less than two weeks it was wool-coat-and-scarf weather. What had been rain in Granada was snow in Sierra Nevada, so now the Alhambra I set in relief against a backdrop of snowcapped mountains, just like in the postcards.

But two days ago a breeze blew a cloud of delicate yellow leaves off a twiggy little tree, just like a kid would blow the fuzzies off a dandelion, and as I walked down Carrera del Darro, the slippery pedestrian walkway that leads from the plaza where the Feria del Libro is going on (and has supplied me with numerous exciting volumes!) to the fountain just before you get to the Río Genil, I saw that the walkway was lined with not just lampposts but colorful trees glinting in the autumn sun. I’ve missed the fall more than I realized. At Harvard I make detours through the Yard during the fall just to see the happy orange foliage. It seems like this year Boston had its fair share of early winter weather, though. I’m happy to be in a place where I’m pretty sure it won’t get down to Michelin-man-down-jacket weather. I have plenty of that waiting for me in January and February when I go back to Boston in the spring.

Fall is gentle twilight and a reminder of the end to come. My time is short. More than half my time in Granada is up. I guess you could say I’ve been having a sort of mid-study-abroad-life crisis. Juan Ramón Jiménez might have called it
¡Nostaljia aguda, infinita
de lo que tengo!*
There’s a finite number of things I can do and enjoy while I’m here, and I have determined to make the most of every second. Paradoxically, that sometimes means slowing down and not trying to do everything. It means remembering what Socrates said, that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” In life we have to strike a balance between living and examining our lives, between doing and thinking, between seizing the day and cherishing it. For me this is a constant but worthwhile struggle, because my mental health depends on it. And I would argue that everyone’s mental health depends on finding balance—although that balance is different for every person. It’s like finding your center of gravity. It’s something only you can do, and no one can teach you.

It’s like dance, really. In my flamenco class my teacher is forever reminding me not to bounce, to maintain control of my upper body while my feet move and stomp. On Saturday I watched a flamenco performance at La Chumbera and was amazed by the dancer, Yolanda Cortés. Backed by a precise guitarist, raspy voices, and rhythms that beat like a secret crying heart, she stomped out zapateados faster than I’ve ever seen in person and maintained the utmost control of her upper body, so that it barely moved, as if her feet had a life of their own separate from the rest of her body. The performance was a feat of strength and control. If only we could channel that control, bring that level of concentration, that intense mind-body connection, to the way we live our lives.

Certain mystics have been said to levitate. In response to the general skepticism of my Renaissance and Baroque Literature class, my professor decided to show us how much was possible. One student who weighed about 140 pounds sat in a chair and four people tried to lift him by the armpits and knees using two fingers with clasped hands (like when you play “here is the church, here is the steeple”). Of course it didn’t work; he was too heavy, and no one can lift much using just two fingers. Then the professor had those four people create what she called a magnetic field above his head, putting one hand on top of the other, without touching, and then concentrating. Afterwards they had to remove their hands very carefully, one by one, from top to bottom, and try to lift him. He rose over a foot! I could barely believe my eyes. A few days later we did the same demonstration for the two students who had missed class earlier, and I let myself be lifted. So twice I was a direct witness to this craziness. My professor was trying to make the point that if we can lift someone with just magnetic fields and a little bit of concentration, imagine what mystics like Santa Teresa de Jesús and San Juan de la Cruz might have been able to achieve.

I don’t know if levitation is possible, but it is certainly true that concentration and the process of centering allow humans to do greater things than they would otherwise be capable of. The harmony of mind and body, of the tangible and the intangible, creates possibilities. Perhaps I should take up yoga.

My time is short not just here in Granada. Our time is short. Death looms before us, ever-present, the alarm clock that we know will go off, but we don’t know when. Each of us can hear Captain Hook’s alligator ticking away, we know not how far away or near, and in order to live and function we must block it from our minds and just live. But at the same time, we can never fully forget that alligator, nor should we. Its snapping jaws, however distant, are what egg us on and what hold us back in a pulsating dance. It reminds us of the preciousness of life in every moment and pressures us to find that balance, that stability, so that we may enjoy life to the fullest. Because ultimately, what more can we as mortals do, but take this mysterious adventure called Life and make of it the most fulfilling journey possible?

*Poesía, 1917-1923. Juan Ramón Jiménez.

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