My favorite aunt, the last person my mother called on the phone before she passed away, wrote these words to me today: “What cannot be cured, must be endured.” She was talking about personal difficulties, the lives we’ve each lived, the set-backs experienced. I’ve been staring out of my window here in my study, thinking about those words and what they could mean.
In the popular philosophy of my American life, endurance is something associated with distance running and officially undocumented cross-border travel. It is a trait that yields the aquisition of something: accolade or livelihood. In the Buddhist philosophy of my homeland, the term ‘endure’ means something else altogether. It is still a positive, but it is associated with relinquishing the desire for change of any sort, rather than obtaining anything measurable in material terms.
I’ve been thinking about a woman I met in New York two days ago while I was there for Book Expo America. She is a Peruvian woman named Carmen. She spoke very little English and her sentences were punctuated with long strings of Spanish as though she were asking some invisible multi-lingual person for help in translation, and many repitions of the word ‘pero’ which means, ‘but.’ For my part, I speak no Spanish at all, though I can read it and make it sound like I can speak it and understand it. Still, we communicated. I understood what she was telling me: she worked in a hotel as a maid, her husband died of cirrhosis, her son of cancer, seven years after he was supposedly cured, her daughter attends LaGuardia Community College and works at the airport, her mother lives with her. She has tried to learn English but after menopause, she claims, nothing can be retained in her head. By the time she gets home, she is too tired to read or even watch TV. She showed me a photograph of her daughter. I told Carmen that she – Carmen – was beautiful. She is. She said thank you, and told me that people ask her what she puts on her face to have such lovely skin. She told me she puts nothing on her skin, no make-up on her face. But what struck me most was her resignation. She kept saying “no more, no more,” this was it, there was “no more” for her in life. She was searching for the word to describe what she felt, looking off into a distance the way we all do when we are trying to bring back to memory what we know but cannot yet recall. I said, “destiny?” Yes, she said, this was her destiny. To be here, to work as a maid at a hotel, to help her daughter pay for college, and take care of her mother.
I can’t get her out of my mind. I wonder to what extent the simple beauty she exudes comes from her deeply felt acceptance (endurance) of the circumstances of her life. The unmourned loss of a reprobate father of her children, the lasting grief of losing her son, the difficulty of navigating a new country where she is often among people with whom she cannot speak easily. She admired what I do – writing – and spoke about the importance of education. I don’t imagine she considered me beautiful and perhaps at least some of that comes from the fact that I do not practice acquiescence as she does, though I have endured. Maybe my endurance is different from hers, mine a form of suffering/tolerance, rather than a yielding to the way things are as it is for her. Mine is the endurance of wanting a different result, while knowing full well that there is never going to be one. It is the kind of endurance that my mother practiced all her life, staring directly into the pit of her despair while imagining that someone was going to step forward at any moment, fill up that vast depth, take her hand and lead her gently away into some better light. It is the endurance of continuing to stand facing in that same direction while holding on to the hope that such a benign presence will eventually materialize beside, convincing her that yes, that pit was an aberration, not a permanent reality.
It is the endurance of a person like me whose character is built around fixing and solving. To turn away from my version of that pit would not be hard for me. But to leave the pit unfilled as I walk away is impossible. Somewhere within me is the notion that if I could only fill up that pit, smoothen the edges, maybe even plant a fruit tree in fertile soil upon it, then all will be well in the world. Until then, I, like my mother before me, keep staring at the pit, wondering about its origins, looking around for the tool or asteroid that might have created it, figuring out if there is some greater purpose to its existence than I have the capacity to understand. My mother decided that it was her destiny in this life to endure her vigilance over the circumstances of her life. I don’t know what I have decided about my own version of that great unknown.
I am the child of a culture that believes in many lives. I live in a culture that belives that our many lives are our own to make and that all those transformations take place between one birth and one death. I come from a place where changing what we do not like is an indication of moral avarice. I live in a place that belives that we must strike out and secure the things we do not have, and that the ability to do so is a sign of moral strength. I often hear my aunt speak with admiration about other women of my generation who made different choices than she and my mother did. I wonder what my mother might say to me if she were to know the real details of my life that she either never saw or chose to ignore in the face of such seeming prosperity. I wonder if she would nudge me away, tell me that there is no merit to staring at emptiness, expecting it to resolve into a recognizable and human shape. Or would she say that what I have in my life is so much more than she ever did, and this alone is enough? I believe she would. I believe she would ask me to behave more like Carmen, who is a better, more calm, iteration of herself.
The name Carmen means many things, but the derivative the Carmen I met embodies is that of the Virgin Mary, and perhaps the tragic heroine of George Bizet’s opera. I was not named Carmen. The name I was given, ‘Ruvani’ means, loosely, everything that is precious. The name I go by here in the United States, ‘Ru’ is a dimunitive. It was an alteration that I chose because it allowed me to be favorably disposed toward the Americans who speak it, because it sounds like an endearment, unlike ‘Ruvani,’ a name they cannot pronounce correctly and which – that mispronunciation – always infuriates me. But it is not my given name. I wonder sometimes what aspiration was tied to the name I was given by my mother, this ‘Ruvani,’ which was a correction of the one my father preferred to give me and did, ‘Rushitha’ (which means the angry one), a correction that appears on my birth certificate, the first name crossed out, the new name written in. The ‘Ru’ that I go by now, the name that appears on the covers of my books, is what unites – and all that remains – of both my father’s recognition, and my mother’s hope. But I do not know what that name means.