Wednesday, November 9, 2011

when you realize something is happening to you

His book is hiding on the shelf, behind a teetering pile of thesis books and papers. I haven't read it in a long time. The pages are a bit dog-eared, from the hours I pored over the unfamiliar syllables and wondered about what you do when you find something someone wrote a long time ago that feels like he wrote it to you.

That's who Rilke is. 

He first found me in my inbox freshman year, from the friend who would come to know my heart better than I do, and she shared his words with the suggestion, "I thought you would hear this." And it was letter seven, the one about love being oh so difficult, but so worthwhile. 

And he followed me - across an exhausting sophomore year, through summers of longing to be different, and longing for answers I couldn't hold in my heart. He followed me to DC, and into the hearts of the people I met there. He urged me to be patient when everything in me wanted to rush ahead, he reminded me to love Nature when I was angry with the world.

He found me in Italy, too.

It was the last day in Rome, the only bookshop we had seen. It was a small, almost invisible stack of books just by the cash register. I walked up, my scarf trailing off my neck, my eyes a bit red from the idea of leaving beloved Italy, and there he was.  I carried him back with me, to help me find the words to hold my heart in the long winter months of rain and snow and homesickness.

And tonight, he's writing to me again. From Borgeby gard, Fladie,  Sweden in August of 1904. He is writing to me about sadnesses, the large and small, that enter our lives and that shift us, challenge all our patterns of living at once and make us wonder what we are doing, and where it is going.

Here is what he wrote:

    So you mustn't be frightened, dear Mr. Kappus, if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don't know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change. If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better. In you, dear Mr. Kappus, so much is happening now; you must be patient like someone who is sick, and confident like some one who is recovering; for perhaps you are both. And more: you are also the doctor, who has to watch over himself. But in every sickness there are many days when the doctor can do nothing but wait. And that is what you, insofar as you are your own doctor, must now do, more than anything else.

Something is happening to you, and you wished for nothing so much as to change. I hear the words echo next to the quiet of this week. There is so much I don't understand, so much I want to know, but can't yet... And I hear his words and I remember: how I prayed, and asked, and sang out for change, how I longed to do the awful obedient things, how I asked for a way in the wilderness to become myself. How in the messy, confusing, chaotic year I yearned to be taught how to be my best self. 

The learning has begun, and growing is hard. So I must realize that something is happening to me, and that life has not forgotten me, and that I wished for nothing so much as to change.

I hear him scrawl the words a hundred and seven years ago to dear Mr. Kappus, how so much is happening right now. He is right: it is time to be patient.

And Rilke? Thank you.



  1. love this, rilke, and you.
    let's talk this week?

  2. love this, hilary! i'm going to have to look rilke up, thanks to you :-) blessings to your heart this week. keep holding tight.

  3. I've read Rilke in bits and pieces over the years. This reminds me of the need to track down my own copy of his words.


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