Once upon a time a young woman named Grace dreamed an impossible dream. She dreamed of a big love that would enter her life and transform her. She never spoke of it to anyone but nurtured it and waited until someone worthy of her love would enter her life. She was certain she had a gift of loving that nobody else had. Sure everyone loves, she thought, but not like her. When it was her turn to love, she would love with the tenderness of a girl and a fierceness of a woman. She would offer love as passion and as patience, as an ideal and as a living embodiment of that ideal. She had dreams of loving with simplicity while embracing all the complex ways love presented itself. She felt attuned to this siren song of love concealed in her young heart.
She owned her sensuous self as well as her intellectual curiosities. She was tall and lithe. Her long limbs made her stand out among others. Her dark hair cascaded down her narrow waist. She read philosophy and literature. She played piano and sang like an angel. From a very early age she was cognizant of her gifts and devoted a lot of time developing them. She liked to spend her time reading or practicing her music. She wore simple clothes, and spoke gently.
Her family was very protective of her. They loved her enough to let her develop her talents, but they worried that she would not mingle with others of her own age. They wanted her to make friends and go out for picnics and gradually fall in love and have a family. But whenever her mother brought up the subject she would smile and push it away.
“How will you meet someone?” the mother said.
“If it’s meant to be it will happen, Mother. I can’t worry about it.”
“But how will it happen if you don’t go out?”
“I don’t know. I don’t like the boys I met on the last party you and father had at the house.”
“What’s wrong with them? They are very good boys, educated and from very good families. They appreciate your talents and would nurture you if you gave them a chance.”
She smiled shyly, looking away at the trees outside her window.
“It will happen. I am sure of it,” she whispered a response.
Years went by with Grace following her routine of playing the piano and then retiring to her private library to read. Lately she had started writing. One day she asked her father to get her a tutor who would coach her in her writing.
“I want someone to read my work and make comments. I think it will help me,” she asked her father.
Her father thought about it for a moment.
“Should it be a female or a male tutor?”
“Anyone, as long as the tutor is also a writer and has read enough philosophy and literature.”
“Okay. I will try my best to find you a good tutor.”
Some time went by before a middle-aged man came to see her father. The gentleman was a professor at the nearby university and was willing to work with Grace for the summer. Grace was introduced to the accomplished and sophisticated Professor Eli.
“What kind of help do you need from me?” asked Professor Eli.
“I need you to read my work and talk to me about it. This will help me see where I falter and how I need to make progress.”
“I see.” The Professor regarded her with seriousness. “How soon can we start?” he asked.
“Monday,” she said.
“Okay then. I will see you on Monday morning at nine.”
Every Monday Professor Eli would arrive sharply at nine in the morning and was ushered to Grace’s library. Both of them sat in the library till midday discussing her work.
“Passion has its place in life but it can also be very consuming. I see in your work that kind of passion. I want you to think about temperance.”
“Temperance? That would make me dull. I love working on my essays and stories. Its passion that motivates me.”
“You have a curious mind. You want to explore different subjects and emotions and that is fine. But it’s best to do it analytically. In philosophy you develop the arguments dis-passionately.”
“And in literature?”
“Literature is more feeling based—closer to the heart.”
“I understand that.”
“Writing has its own demands. Writing is not life. It strives to be as close to life as possible, but the writer always knows and respects the boundaries of writing. It speaks of flesh but is not flesh. Your writing is sometimes excessive, too passionate. You need to learn to speak within the form.”
“You think that would be more effective?”
“Yes. It will be more effective and it will endure as a piece of writing. If it overflows, chances are it will escape the complexity you need to be attentive to. You want to write in a way that lasts.”
Grace listened to Professor Eli’s suggestions, but she also noticed he spoke in subdued tones. He chose his words carefully, almost meditatively. He took care how he spoke to her—with a reserve and a tenderness that she thought was touching. She also noticed how well-dressed he was. His jackets were tailored, and his shirts were crisp. He came across refined in his appearance and in his demeanor. Every time he sat opposite Grace explaining good writing, she couldn’t help notice his elegance. She felt drawn to this beautifully mannered individual who never spoke about his personal life or asked questions about hers. She liked his reticence and his willingness to share his wisdom with her. He was generous in ways that made Grace feel nurtured and encouraged to write more.
“Does feeling have a place in my writing?”
“It does but you have to be careful how much you express. When you are developing thought, then stay with analysis even when you analyze feelings. In stories and in poetry it’s different. You can go inside an emotion and let it shine.”
“I like that,” Grace said reflectively.
“You need to continue writing. That is how you will learn to do it better—not just by listening to me.” He smiled when he said that, and Grace picked up on how his face lit up with his smile. He relaxed just a bit and his demeanor became friendly, less reserved.
“When did you begin writing seriously?” Grace asked.
“Very young—but then these sessions are not about me.”
“I know. I just wondered.”
“It’s a discipline. One has to practice it seriously.”
“But you give the impression you practice life seriously. Is life also a discipline for you?”
Professor Eli did not answer. He looked away for a moment. He wasn’t expecting a remark like that from his young pupil. Finally he looked at her and said, “Well, one has to respect life.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means we should refrain from breaking spiritual laws that are not supposed to be broken. They are meant to protect our humanity. If we trespass we will suffer—to what extent we don’t know—perhaps forever.”
“How do you know this?”
“By living, reading, and observing. For generations the men on my mother’s side were monks and mystics. I chose academia over a monastery but I have a soul of a mystic.”
“You think knowledge has a divine source?”
“I do. I think all forms of life have a divine source. So when some of my family members died in the Second World War it was difficult to reconcile with the sacred origins of life.”
“Do you have children?”
“No. I live alone very much like a monk out of the monastery.” He smiled and his face lit up again. His eyes were dewy soft and it reminded her of the immensity of the sky.
Grace smiled too under the spell of his radiance. She wondered if she was falling in love with someone who had just told her he lived like a monk. After he left, she thought about what Professor Eli had said about life having sacred origins and how she could make that thought part of her own life. She imagined being wise and serene like the Professor. She went on long walks in the woods and would meditate on the beauty of trees, streams, sky, and birds. She felt she could concentrate on her music better, and her writing gained more depth. But there was a shift in her emotional life. She felt a tug at her heart when she thought of her Professor. She wanted to be around him more. She didn’t want him to leave when it was time for him to go. She was afraid he might find out how keen she was for his company. For her he became someone who offered sustenance but also kept it from her. She cherished him and dreaded him. Her longing for him made her see him everywhere. He was an image, an anguished feeling, a burden, a reassurance, a promise that subsumed her entire being.
And yet during the study sessions, she would sit behind the desk like a student attentive to her tutor’s suggestions and recommendations for further reading. He appreciated her writing and said it was improving. In a week’s time the summer was drawing to an end. The Professor had to go back to his teaching job at the university. As the days came close to saying good-bye to him, Grace became increasingly withdrawn. She would not engage with her tutor as she used to. Professor Eli observed her long silences.
“Are you not well Grace? Should we discontinue today’s lesson?”
Upon hearing his question, Grace felt he must have picked up some of her sadness. Instead of answering him she rested her head on the desk and sobbed. The Professor gazed at the despondent girl. His shoulders dropped a little bit and his eyes grew misty. He knew he must leave. Without saying anything he picked up his leather briefcase and quietly left the house.
Grace did not know when he left. She cried for a while and then wiping her face she looked up and found his chair empty. She ran to the window to see a glimpse of him but he was nowhere. Grace returned to her room and with a sinking feeling went to bed. The next morning she was unable to get up and had a high fever. Her parents became very worried and called a physician to attend to her. He recommended that she rest for a few days for, according to him, she had fainted from exhaustion. He assured her parents there was nothing seriously wrong—that a little rest would restore her energy.
Grace’s physical energy did return. She was strong enough to resume her piano and went back to reading and writing. But her activities lacked the fervor they used to have. She carried his image within her every hour of every day. It wounded her to think of him and yet she did not blame him. He had taught her to understand her feelings and how to channel them in her writing. He had taught her not to feel overwhelmed by passion but to learn to live with the intensity without feeling shattered. He used to say if I knew how to practice this discipline I would also be a mystic. But she was failing him in what he had taught her for she felt the weight of desire. She did not know how to put down this burden—how to extricate herself from this entanglement. She wanted to make herself anew without this image that seemed to overpower her. Her parents saw her suffer with some unknown malady and prayed for her. They tried to amuse her with gifts and parties, but Grace’s spirits grew dark and heavy. Some days she would hold her chest and cry for hours. Then she would fall into a dreamless sleep. It felt to her she was haunted by a specter. It felt to her she had swallowed a million shadows. She yearned for light and levity. She wished someone would carry her body and plunge her in waters of healing—waters of forgetfulness—waters of restoration. She would have walked barefoot to find that healing.
And then one day she did walk outside the gates of her parents’ house. She left from the back door and walked until she reached the woods. She had never been in these woods before, though she had heard her mother talk about it. Night fell but she did not return to her house. She continued to walk looking for waters that would heal her. Exhausted from her wanderings, she sat on a moss-covered rock and prayed with her eyes closed. In the silence and dread of the woods she heard the gentle murmur of water. She opened her eyes and looked around and couldn’t see anything, but her feet followed the sound of water. As she grew closer the water sounded louder until she saw from a distance a small basin of white marble with water flowing from its edges. The white marble had a luster that glowed in the moonlight. Grace felt encouraged to go near. She leaned in and dropped her arms in the cool waters. For a moment it felt soothing. She stayed there leaning on the basin like a body parched—until gradually the water became warm and she felt the heat rising in her body. She tried to pull her arms out of the basin but couldn’t. It was as if the whirling waters had held her hands and wouldn’t release them. She felt a needle prick one of her feet and her leg jerked in pain. Then she felt the same pricking pain in her other foot, and then on her calves, thighs, the sides of her hips, her waist, her chest—her entire body was engulfed in intense pain and all the time she could not step away from the water. Grace fought hard to release herself from this invisible grip. She felt her body flung around like a piece of cloth and she desperately tried to control it. After a while she felt too exhausted and gave up the struggle. She relaxed and gave in to the force inside the water. She let it wash her as hard and as long as it wanted. She let go of the fight and swooned.
When she awoke, it was morning and she was lying on the grass. It felt soft and comforting. She felt like a nymph who had lived in these woods for a long time. She felt she belonged here with vegetal and bird life surrounding her. She turned her head and saw the white basin gently spilling out the water. Her body felt energized by her deep sleep. A pleasurable bliss spread in her limbs, her torso and her chest. She couldn’t think of a time when she had felt this happy, contented and light. Gradually she felt love make its way in her heart—love for light, for water, for air, for grass. Love for life and for herself.