Prose: Robert Vivian

Falling Into The Arms Of A Dervish

Coming home from Turkey after living on the Black Sea for almost half a year, I feel like something’s missing, but I don’t know what it is. I keep looking and waiting for it to return in a flash of recognition in the oddest, most random and forlorn of places, on the bathroom floor under a rug for instance, in the wailing refrain of a garbage truck taking a corner at 20 mph, in heat waves rising off the asphalt or a smoker’s wracking body hacks, but so far it’s nowhere to be found. So I keep waiting and looking, glancing with shy and furtive eyes into fellow American faces as if I’m seeing them for the very first time, at the snaky blue vein-work of an old lady’s forearm at the grocery store, or the raucous laughter of tough-minded teenagers wearing their baseball caps hip-hop sideways, shoulder-dipping down the sidewalk. I keep waiting to see it or for it to find me, to grab me and clutch me with eager, loving fingers by the elbow and whisk me away to impart its loving secret, but it hasn’t happened yet. And right when I think I almost know what it is so that I can reach out and touch it, it vanishes and moves beyond me, leaving only the smoke of an ineffable longing behind.

And to not quite know the thing you are missing and to miss it at the same time with a joyful, keening, even madcap love and sorrow is a strange kind of double, even triple whammy, something I never could have anticipated upon returning home. I suspect I may not find it again no matter where I look or go, even if I return to that mysterious and beloved country that has already cast a life-long spell on me like so many sesame seeds sprinkled at the bottom of a simet seller’s basket. I know such powerful and primary experiences can’t be duplicated, nor would I have the heart or audacity to even try. All I can really say for sure is that the best and brightest part of me is still back in Asia and probably always will be, clumsy and fumbling around at the mercy of another culture and every passerby, knowing just a few spare phrases of Turkish and trying to understand and be understood, which I now have come to believe is oddly overrated. Something of precious and inestimable value happened while I was there, and not just to me: it was like the sudden flowering of an awakening that can’t be relegated to just one person, which no doubt partly accounts for the fairly hysterical tone and trajectory of this headlong essay.

What I mean to say and breathe out in a cooing sigh is that going to Turkey was like being spring-loaded and shot out of my life to be emptied and filled and turned inside out at the age of forty, going back to something I once perhaps knew as a child in the light of a doorway or the shaking leaves of a tree lit up in the glowing roadmap to heaven that still somehow got away from me over the years, something precious and outside of time that kept popping up its peek-a-boo head once in a while that I never could quite get a bead on. I mean that I came back to the states tenderized and fairly cooked, with faint wisps of smoke rising from the top of my head sizzler-style, that I cried and wept more tears of joy there than I ever have before at the simplest gestures and overtures I saw or encountered there, an old man moving beads through his fingers next to me on the bus, a young woman who took my backpack in her lap when I gave up my seat on the crowded dolmus. I kept finding myself suddenly flooded with waves of gratitude and wonder and something very akin to a heretofore unrealized and unarticulated hope—with gradually but surely the strangely insistent imperative that this somehow needs to be told, somehow communicated—not because it happened to me, but because it happened at all.

Because it seems what we mostly hear about nowadays is the heartbreak, mayhem and destruction that’s going on all around us, not to mention the division and suspicion between peoples and nations that keep breaking out into war and genocide: rarely do we hear how the world is mending itself one human encounter at a time, how it can and is learning even now how to love and respect all of its diverse elements from people to polar bears, that some motorists still stop on the side of the road to pick up turtles as they try to crawl across a treacherous highway, as I saw one woman do the other day in her stylish high heels. For whatever reason we just don’t often hear about these things: and when we do, they’re quickly drowned out by the seemingly more important and pressing issues of the day, which usually involves the din of imminent disaster or the latest tick-tock of doom’s comeuppance. Many of these same issues—from global warming to acts of terrorism—certainly do occur and need urgently to be addressed, but their very deluge seems to wipe out the reality of any other kind of exchange.

These just aren’t the whole story nor ever were or will be, even if we as a species end up blowing each other into smithereens. And sometimes I think people don’t really want to hear about love, especially between people of very different cultural backgrounds; they don’t want to see it in each other and see it in themselves for a whole host of painful, legitimate and bogus reasons. They don’t want to see it because then all the walls and flags would come toppling down—they themselves would come toppling down. Because I know for a fact, for example, that there are several bus drivers in Turkey that I will meet again in the afterlife for the kindness they showed me time and again, for the brief, radiant views they offered me behind their drivers’ seats with the whole city of Samsun in front of the windshield like some kind of sweeping, seas-side panorama inside the flashing interstices of overpasses, a kindness that happened to me so many times that I started to suspect a subtle, even cosmic and beneficent sleight of hand, a little divine tomfoolery masquerading as public transit. Many of these drivers wouldn’t allow me to pay the fare for reasons still unknown to me, perhaps because I looked so obviously foreign. So they let me ride for free, like any wide-eyed guest under the auspices of a host’s sudden hospitality.

I know they were doing the work of angels and were gritty angels themselves, that no suicide bomber or green house gas can mitigate the quiet, gentle light coming out of their faces or the way they took a corner cranking the man-hole sized wheel in their hands. I know they weren’t rich and that they worked long hours, that they didn’t have to be kind to me or make me feel like such an honored if somewhat bewildered guest. And though it will no doubt come across as a bit over-the-top, one of the most important things that ever happened to me was riding on a packed and crowded bus seated on the steps of the stairwell because there was no other room as the driver and I tried to communicate between stops, then coming up to a red light and boulevard awash in sunlight where a city worker was watering a median of tulips atop a fire-truck’s turret inside the enveloping and misting arc of a dazzling rainbow, as beautiful as any dew-drenched dawn.

I thought then, even as I think now, it was more, much more, than being a foreigner in a strange and distant land—more than being the first American the vast majority of these Turks had ever seen or talked to, or being the only westerner anyone knew of in a city of over 700,000: rather it was like the peculiar timing and circumstances of this place and people served to open the doorway to the person I never knew I was or ever had the chance to be back home, which is one of the most astounding realizations of my life. I could have gone my whole life without going to Turkey, lived out the rest of my appointed days as a born and bred Midwestern American, faintly troubled sometimes perhaps but basically happy and fulfilled nonetheless with a very comfortable and privileged life, and I never would have known or experienced the most basic but also mystical kind of human connection that exists between people of any culture or ethnicity, walking down the street day after day arm in arm with my appointed tutor or hoca named Kadir, a young master’s student who tried to teach me Turkish though I proved to be a woeful student, or running into the arms of friends in a parking lot just to greet them or say hello or goodbye in the course of another day as a guest lecturer at Ondokuz Mayis University teaching American literature: I was always running into someone’s arms the whole time I was in Samsun, like the late college basketball coach Jim Valvano looking for someone to hug after North Carolina State pulled off a most improbable upset over a highly favored University of Houston team in 1983. I don’t mean to suggest that this trip was not without its serious bouts of loneliness or struggles or comedy of errors and rife frustrations (any westerner who has spent in the Middle East will probably have their own experiences of this, i.e., whatever you think is going to happen, happens in a way you could never quite anticipate), only that these kept giving way time and again to a vast but personal embrace that at times reached out to encompass the entire world.

And this sense of imminent embrace followed me everywhere I went in Turkey so that I never felt truly isolated or alone for long but usually just grateful and full of a sense of possibility, ready to reach out no matter who or what was before me, which was always changing and swirling before me. Everywhere I went someone was waiting to take me into their arms, from shopkeepers, friends and colleagues and people in the streets—everywhere around me I sensed an almost delirious love closing in, the kind of love that has nothing to do with nationality or gender, nothing to do with distinctions at all: like some grand and immense tipping point of which I was just another small part of a huge and sprawling human chain.

I don’t even expect this to be entirely believed because there are some moments, cynical ones it is true, that I wonder about it myself, and wonder furthermore if I wasn’t just lucky to catch a particular human wave at a particular time whose very timing made it a one-and-done deal, never to be repeated again. But then I remember, No, that’s not true: these things really happened, really touched me: I still feel the after-imprint of so many bosoms pulling away. Part of me wants to sing and shout about this above anything else I have ever known, part of me wants to announce in clarion call that whatever people are doing to each other or about to do or afraid of what the other will do, it’s not so bad, even though it may in fact be terrible—that love still somehow manages to flourish in the most unlikely of places between the most unlikely of peoples and always has and always will. And here is my humble, if somewhat crazed dispatch as an imperfect testimony.

No one doesn’t want to be loved and appreciated wherever he or she goes—no one wants to go it alone in the desert that we are sometimes called to wander in that may be our very own lives, sometimes for years and decades at a time, sometimes as long as we’re alive. I just had no way of knowing before going to Turkey that this same desert happened to consist mostly of my own beloved Midwestern America and all that it entails, a region and country I can’t help loving even if I tried—and that this same desert was all I had ever really known with a few brief stints to other places. But after just a few weeks in Turkey I came to realize that I’d been swimming uphill for most my life in Nebraska and Michigan, as a person and as a writer, swimming against an invisible current so pervasive and overwhelming that I had no way of knowing it was there until I was briefly air-lifted out of it, looking back over my shoulder from a vantage point 7,000 miles away. There’s nothing original about any of this, no one to blame, no good guys or bad guys: just the sometimes shocking and bracing clarity that certain kinds of far-flung travel can sometimes illuminate leaving behind their own wake of epiphanies like so many spendthrift jacks thrown from a moving van, as I became increasingly marinated and then grilled—I don’t know how else to put it—by the warmth and affection I experienced in Turkey.

It was like I kept falling into the arms of a dervish in the form of this or that person, and it never let up while I was there, that for whatever reason and impetus I was being embraced and embracing back for all I was worth, realizing more and more that, like Rumi instructs us in one of his poems, “Live in the nowhere that you come from, even though you have an address”—my truest and deepest home is no place or single culture at all but each and every person I meet along this mortal journey. And I also came to realize that being at the mercy of others, especially those from a very different background, is a very important and necessary thing to do—perhaps the last hope of this world in the twenty-first century. I put myself again and again in their hands—I had no choice—and I must to report that this same vulnerability opened floodgates of love, wonder and awe.

To my shame and consternation I haven’t been able to realize this in America and I’m not sure why: I don’t know what it suggests about me or where I come from, or how these mysterious and poignant things come about. But maybe it comes down to something as simple and radical as the willingness to walk arm-in-arm down a street with a person of the same sex, and not fear that such touching will somehow be misconstrued. I do know it wasn’t a fluke, just the truest, deepest thing there is for someone on this earth, the sense that he or she is both deeply connected to everyone he meets and also an individual, that such embraces can happen any time, anywhere, and are in fact just waiting for us to welcome them. The truth is I’m a stranger in any country I visit, even my own, but it no longer matters that much where this strangeness takes or wherever it may it may lead, as long as I claim no greater allegiance than an open and vulnerable human heart. Such contradictions are where people live the deepest, richest and most agonizing parts of their lives; it’s in these same contradictions that one’s soul is somehow forged and honed and meted out in the extensions of its own unattainable longing. I’ve always had this longing to a painful, even excruciating degree, which hardly makes me special or unique.

But for some reason this longing found some resonance and even partial fulfillment in Turkey unlike any other place I’ve ever been, and in such simple and even hilarious ways it was like an embarrassment of the ordinary. I still don’t know why so many Turks break into a run or what catalyzes such sudden movement, why before one class the students broke into a round of sudden applause and stopped almost as fast, how Kadir could tell me with great earnestness that he was starting a diet only to take me two hours later to a baklava place without batting an eye. The mysteries of code and conduct, ritual and manner exert their own beguiling influence that I’m coming to learn can’t be predicted, turning every earnest visitor into a wondering child once more. And maybe being a strict minority of one was the key; maybe by being so obviously other and at the mercy of others is the one of the ways to truly realize this for oneself. Because each one of us becomes a witness, finally, only to our own becomings, and ourselves which can occur in our own backyards or very far away. I couldn’t disguise my blue eyes and sandy hair, couldn’t fake my accent, I was marked and branded for exactly what I was, an American abroad with no 7-11 to walk into.

You can go years ever so slightly out of touch with something of ineffable value—you can watch TV and cry at movies and laugh with your friends in a bar, and still not come close to understanding who you really are. I know, because this is has happened to me. I was living my life as a relatively well-off American, teaching at a small college, working on books and essays, which remain my abiding concerns. But as a person I never could have anticipated what Turkey would do to me, like someone or something took my soul and turned it inside out, and not just for kicks either: I started to see in all the people I met there a kind of shimmer, a kind of peace and afterglow, some kind of ineffable brightness that poured out of their mouths as we walked down a busy street. I kept getting swept up on some updraft current of human affection, with someone always seeming to be singing a Turkish folk song in the background, almost all the way to the vortex of a hope and brightness I’ve never experienced anywhere else. And now only the odd, but pressing and almost keening question comes again, Now what? What am I to do with the fact of all those embraces? I don’t have any answer, just the burning dictate of a charge that commands me to say, Yes, it happened this way: Yes, I am, you are, everyone is love incarnate whether we choose to recognize it or not. Yes, we are home-stung and wandering, yes, it is always time to fall into another’s arms right now this very second, whoever they are and wherever we may be.