I went into Chamonix’s three bookstores almost every day I lived there. I couldn’t match storefronts with interiors in my mind, let alone matching that information with where each was located, so I kept going in. Every time I was vaguely surprised to find that the one with the blue awning was the tiny one, the red awning was the one with the poetry section, and the other blue awning was the one that had a downstairs full of used books, video games and stationery. (Of course, now I remember them perfectly.)
One afternoon on my daily walk around town, I bought a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet in French. A few days later I went back to the same bookstore and bought a book for a friend, contemplating whether this was a good gift for someone who, as far as I knew, spoke as much French as I did (i.e. bonjour and merci and an exuberant mais oui!).
As I slid it across the counter with only a smile and a very American bonjour, the woman who was there every time I came into the store asked me if I was learning French. I told her I was trying, and that I was buying the French versions of books I already knew well, hoping to read them side-by-side. She offered to point me to some easier titles, clearly thinking my idea was a little bit lofty and impossible. I politely declined (perhaps too stuck on my idealistic language-learning goals), and she wished me luck. I told her how much I loved her store. That was the last time I went in; I left Chamonix a few days later.
On the plane home I thought about the inscrutable books I’d brought back. I lugged them through impossible customs lines and threw them in security bins over and over. I thought about the way I’d filled in the blanks of even their titles—assuming jeune meant young, for example. I fell asleep curled up in the very back of the plane over the ocean with the image of my dog-eared English Rilke open next to its French mirror in my mind.
I don’t know much about what it meant to live in France for three weeks. I don’t know what I’m going to do with everything that happened to me there. But those books make me think about placing what we know right up against what we can’t understand. Isn’t that how we deal with, as Rilke says, “all that is unsolved in [our] hearts?” He says to “try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
I’ve always been drawn to this particular passage from the Letters, and when I say I didn’t know what it truly meant until right now, I mean that I didn’t know I was going to use it in this blog post until the “unsolved in our hearts” line came to mind. I looked it up to make sure I was quoting it correctly, and there were the books. There was Rilke offering a bit of what France meant. The point was to live everything. To be in the tension between what I knew and what I couldn’t know. Not to walk around wishing I could read the Letters in French but to tuck the book away in my purse, trusting that, someday, I’d read it and understand.
Perhaps how we “live along some distant day into the answer” goes something like this: we take hold of opportunities that bring us to something that feels like the moment right after the plane takes off, when you really feel that you’re in the air—the moment when you realize you could fall, but also that you’re already flying. A little drop in the stomach that starts out fearful but ends up exhilarated.
In France I felt like I could do anything. It was the first time I did something and, in the middle of it, noticed that I was already flying.