Das München Mädchen03 January 2016
For the last five or so years I’ve taken the Christmas and New Year holidays for retreat. Which means, no Internet, no talking, lots of sitting still and this year, with a special guest appearance from the click of an electric heater turning on and off every 5 minutes.
I can’t press the point enough just how unsurprising long hours without distraction can be. It is, as you can imagine, a fertile breeding ground for boredom and the endless seep of gnawing existential angst. Yet at the same time, somehow, it manages to be by far the most fulfilling experience I can gift myself.
At first there was some light relief in the form of disregard for any attempt at productivity. What simple pleasure there is in literally having nothing to do but breath, eat and sleep. But soon I began to feel the weight of reality on my shoulders. The world felt bleak and I felt lonely. What’s more, this wasn’t a new feeling created by the retreat, it was an uneasily familiar one. The simplified routines merely brought it to the fore. Haunting scenes and fantasies flickered in my mind’s eye. In particular I replayed the memory of a distraught little girl I’d recently glimpsed in Munich.
About two weeks ago I stopped briefly in Munich to meet with my friend Katja Durrani from Bristol. Her parents live nearby, so her and her family were in the area to spend Christmas. It was lovely to see some familiar faces from back home. She knows the city well and we explored the streets with her husband and two children. We passed through the Christmas market in Marienplatz. The Bavarians (Bavaria being a large region of southern Germany, in which Munich resides in the South and where I’ve been staying these last weeks in the North) are widely credited as the source of much of modern Christmas’ symbolism: Santa Claus, the Christmas Tree, elves, Silent Night and of course, warm and bustling Christmas markets selling mulled wine. Bavarian decorations are way, way classier than their flashing, technicolour British counterparts. In fact I rarely saw colours other than white, which I found so much more enchanting. The civilised use of colour acts as the crucial ingredient in that quality prized in the world of theatre: suspension of disbelief. OMG, I think Christmas might really be magical!
So there I was, nestled in the heart of Christmas, so to speak. We were snacking on some hot, sugary almonds when I heard a girl, no more than four years old, pleading, through tears, to her father. That in itself is not such an unusual sight; last minute Christmas presents to buy, busy shops, hordes of people, it’s a stressful time. But what sticks in my memory is the look on her father’s face. He didn’t say anything, yet what he expressed with his eyes struck me as heartbreakingly disproportionate. It was more like the expression from the pent up anger and despair of a husband discovering that his wife had, for the second time, sold their car to pay for her drug addiction. But this absolutely wasn’t the case. It can’t have been the case. He was a looking at a four year old girl.
Even in the moment I felt for that girl. I knew that there was nothing she could do to make her dad happy. Yet she was old enough to understand that her dad thought there was something she should be doing. I’m sure the reason it struck me so deeply is because it reminds me of my childhood. It wasn’t until decades later that I understood Robin Williams’ insistence to Matt Daemon in Good Will Hunting, “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault”. That Munich girl, das München Mädchen, was being blamed for, not only something that wasn’t her fault, but for a problem way out of her league.
The tone of that Munich exchange perfectly captured the place I had arrived at through the slow, solemn ritual of silence. Understandably it represented my own past, something that I will always return to nurture. But also something bigger. It resonated with the sense in which we all have burdens that are not our fault and are out of our league. War, poverty and global warming are the obvious ones. But closer to home; How do I face the certainty of death? How do I help those closest to me be happy? Life, laid bare, without anesthetic platitudes, is tragic. Let’s be realistic, there is a more than fifty-fifty chance das München Mädchen will grow up to have a series of disappointing relationships and one day look at her daughter the same way her father looked at her.
Meditation, as far as I understand it, has no remedy for such suffering. It is just a tool that facilitates perception. To help allow the shockwaves of experience reverberate naturally through the waters of our hearts. When something seems too much to take in, when it’s not my fault and I don’t have the resources to even begin to digest it, I need a reminder to ask the question once more, “Are you sure?”. Am I sure I don’t have the strength? Am I sure that I can’t at least take one symbolic step in that direction?
I want to see the world, both literally and metaphorically. I want to be touched by the majesty of the Alps as much as by the heartbreak of the Munich girl. We are all travelers, all of the time. We lift our protective covers just a little, to better glimpse a view or to better take in someone else’s feelings. Sometime it’s breathtaking, other times it’s gut-wrenching.
And so I continue, with wider eyes and stronger steps.