Home > faith, life > A First Wednesday in March

A First Wednesday in March

rainy nightA guest post from my talented brother John.  Posted this several months back and after reading it again this morning I wanted to re-post it. 

Final night of a five-day trip to Geneva. It is raining. I have reason to be grateful: I brought my raincoat and umbrella 4,100 miles and they will see some action. Everything has meaning, relevance. The raincoat and umbrella? We all carry baggage… may that which we carry be on us for a reason.

I have packed and loaded many journeys with unnecessary baggage: With a pair of shoes I was too lazy to use; books I hadn’t had the time to read. One time, I took a laptop to Paris and didn’t bother to remember the power chord.

This time, I managed to pack a single oxford shirt that I didn’t need. A few measly ounces of unneeded baggage. I can live with that.

There are other lessons in this rainy evening. My journey, rather, my destination. I didn’t have one when I set out. I had a goal, but no clear view of what achievement looked like. I just wanted an hour or two to run away from the hotel room that had become my eight-hour office after I had already completed my eight-hour day. I needed to use the raincoat and umbrella. I needed to eat.

I walked past pizzerias and pubs, Chinese and Italian. The Four Seasons was packed with cigars and suits, and scotch. It smelled like the life I’m scrambling away from.

I stumbled upon a decidedly Swiss, decidedly local hole in the wall. A beautiful black woman, glowing and towering, greeted me. I put my index finger in the air and she asks me “one?” But in French. The menu, as well, is in French.

And life is like this. An American in Switzerland in March with no socks with his jeans and v-neck, stabbing his eyes into the jibberish on the menu. Squinting for the familiar. “Fromage” marches into view. I know that one. I Google a few more on my blackberry and come to decide on the second item. It turns out I have asked for an orange fondue pot, and a side kettle of little oval potatoes that at first look like sausages. And bread.

I was afraid things wouldn’t be this simple. When I first tried to order just a glass of water to drink, I had nearly led this woman to the brink of insanity.

“Water.”

“Biere?”

“No. Water. Vasa, Agua.” I don’t know how to say water in French. “Wa-ter. Phsssh,” I say, making a wavy motion with my hand.

”Vodka?”

“No. Water.”

She waves me back to the kitchen and bar area, where bottles of wine, soda, beer, liquor greet me. I turn on the faucet.

“Water,” she says. She brings me a 12-ounce bottle of something called Henniez. Gas bubbles suction themselves to the inside of the glass. It’s taken me years to figure out the simple truth that although it will be harder for me to get to sleep on unassuming beverages like Henniez, it will be a hell of a lot easier for me to get up in the morning.

Drinking this water, looking at this food – it translates a message that had long been unreadable for me. We spend our lives scraping away things we don’t understand, as if we are digging for dinosaur bones in a giant desert, only to decipher little chards of the familiar. And so, the potatoes, the bread, the pot of boiling cheese. It is amazing what we can accomplish with the aid of even the faintest sliver of light in the most dark and mammoth of caves. We get a pot of fondue on a rainy night. Or salvation.

I think about the thousands of people who have stumbled into this restaurant, drunk on something liquid or emotional, and failed to notice the cows. Check that – goats and cows. They are all over, and yet, for the first thirty minutes of my stay, they were nowhere. Silent. I sat at my table, eating these potatoes and bread and cheese and started to notice them at my table, lining the sides, wagging their thin little shreds of tail, even as they remained still. First, the cows, painted in a line around the perimeter of the table, came into view in a single file like they are being led off to be milked, or slaughtered. Little furry factories of cheese, and filet mignon.

I ignored them at first, having been so occupied by the task of ordering water and stabbing at the menu. But now, alone with my thoughts and pad, I notice they have invaded the place. The walls are two-tone temples to cows. The top half is plaster painted a splotchy yellow, very Sante Fe or Tuscany. As if someone threw a million sponges dipped in mustard against a white wall. The bottom half is wainscoting, painted black and white cow print. Was it really that subtle that it took me thirty minutes to notice? I also missed the upside down fondue pots, also dressed in cowprint, hanging on chains and serving as single-bulb chandeliers. I also missed the goat figurines on the built-in bookshelves. The goats are wearing sweaters and seem to be imitating people. C.S. Lewis. Charles Darwin. Arnold Palmer. Frank Sinatra. And I missed the quarter-scale goat that sits on a shelf three feet from my head.

Amazing, in five days leading up to my meal here, I was thinking about this moment. The ripping open of my chest and the digging out of words that my heart housed in a shroud of hurry and task. Amazing, I was afraid of what I would find. And yet, what I found, was nothing but what is present. Simple. Those of us who live pensive lives, pregnant with thought, composing prose in our minds, cannot really control what we find upon the evacuation of our hearts. Like a man who practices how he will propose to his love, only to forget what he wrote on that wrinkled paper and instead spills out a reservoir of passion as he cries and asks for her hand, the contents of our heart are only known when they finally hit the page.

(Written by John D. Stoll)

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