From the “life’s sometimes surreal” file:
On Thursday, my little family and I took a trip to the Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) International Airport. The journey formed the final leg of our year-long adventure in hosting a 16-year-old German exchange student. A hot and cloudless summer solstice day, it was finally time to see our unofficially adopted teenage daughter back onto a plane for the nine-and-some-odd hour return flight to Germany, where her mother, brother, and hometown just twenty minutes from the Polish border eagerly awaited. It had been year of ups and downs, as two middle-aged American host-folks groped their way through the sometimes dark and twisting passageways of parenting a teenager, and a painfully shy, introverted girl from eastern Europe learned what it is to live with a loud, relentlessly upbeat, sometimes uncomfortably close-knit North American family. Saying goodbye turned out to be a might more emotional than any of us had reckoned with. Our two biological daughters—ages five and seven—both wailed until well after we had managed to get back to our house in the northern burbs.
Amid the emotional upheaval, last-minute fussing with a carry-on too heavy to meet muster, and our German daughter’s new American beau and his friend showing up to say their own tearful, drawn-out goodbyes while snapping plenty of pics for the social medias, imagine my surprise to find myself coming up near the Icelandair counter on a burly fellow in a black teeshirt emblazoned on the back with a symbol I immediately recognized: an illuminating fire inscribed within a triangle resting atop a short tripod. I had seen that symbol countless times before while watching YouTube videos of the Polish extreme metal band Behemoth. Next I noticed the numerous metal cases of odd and unwieldy shapes and sizes, unmistakable impedimenta of a rock band in transit. Glancing up to take in faces now, I seize upon the same fire symbol again, this one tattooed on the sinewy neck of an athletic-looking rocker with a well-groomed salt-n’-pepper beard and a piercing gaze: none other than Behemoth frontman Adam ‘Nergal’ Darski.
To my surprise, no fans thronged the band. No entourage encircled them. No security goons intervened as I broke from the five-person party of our passing family to approach Nergal and offer my hand for a shake. “I really enjoy your music,” I said with a smile. He paused for moment, clearly surprised and unsuspecting enough not to have a response waiting at the tip of his tongue. He scrapes his hands, palms in, down his face in a gesture of exhaustion and relief (had I scared him?), before meeting my open palm with a firm grip and replying something to the effect, “Thank you so much.” With that, I withdrew.
The controversial Polish metal and TV star was clearly tired, coming off seven weeks of thirty-one shows in total on a North American tour supporting Slayer along with Anthrax, Lamb of God, and Testament, not that I had been paying attention. I was too emotionally drained from the lead-up to bringing our exchange-student’s auslandsjahr to a close. Sure—I had seen some friends posting online about catching the Slayer show, complaining of the obligatory “Christian™” protesters accosting concert-goers, but no one had mentioned Behemoth being in town. Still, no selfies were taken. No autographs requested. Equally unsuspecting of the whole encounter as I was, I had nothing on me worthy of autographing anyway. The meeting happened in a heartbeat and, once over, had the lightness in memory of a passing daydream. Nothing more.
In his 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Franco-Czech author Milan Kundera examines the Nietzschean idea of “eternal return”—to wit, “a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing” (p. 3)—and reflects on how photos of Hitler in a history book can provoke in him feelings of nostalgia for his childhood, during which Hitler and the Nazi party were active, and members of his own family perished in concentration camps. His ability to see in memory only the proximal (his own lost childhood), even in the face of the large sweep of history revealing Hitler and his regime for the monsters they were, uncovers for Kundera “the profound moral perversity of a world that rests essentially on the nonexistence of return.” Kundera continues his meditation by observing:
“If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. It is a terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make. That is why Nietzsche called the idea of eternal return the heaviest of burdens (das schwerste Gewicht).
If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness. … [T]he lightness/weight opposition is the most mysterious, most ambiguous of all”
So much of our modern, twenty-first century lives struggle beneath the weight of evidence and the evidentiary impulse. As a parent, my most finely honed instinct at every major milestone and minor blip in my children’s lives is to reach for the iPhone with its trusty—or lately, not so trusty—camera to snap a few for posterity and posting on social media, where our unbearably light existence finds the heavy validation of a poor technological simulacrum of eternal recurrence.
In the case of my recent brush with Satanic greatness, though, I’m left only with the lightness, the personal remembrance, an experience I can share only in word, fully aware of the warning Siddharta offers in Hermann Hesse’s 1951 novel of the same name: “I cannot love words. Therefore, teachings are no good for me, they have no hardness, no softness, no colours, no edges, no smell, no taste, they have nothing but words.” Whatever their power and allure, words will forever remain but poor proxies for experience, or none at all.
In the Chinese Chan or Zen Buddhist Flower Sermon, the Buddha seeks to teach his disciples by simply plucking a lotus flower and offering it to each of them in turn. As he holds the flower still dripping and muddy before them, none understands their teacher’s purpose or meaning. They respond with befuddlement and expressions of frustration. When Buddha finally makes it round to his disciple Mahakasyapa, the latter smiles and begins to laugh. Teacher hands star pupil the flower and finally breaks the silence: “What can be said, I have said to you; and what cannot be said, I have given to Mahakasyapa.”
Dziękuję bardzo, Nergal, for giving me a similarly precious, fleeting experience I will not soon forget: one I cannot explain well to others so that they understand, but can only cherish all to myself. Thanks, too, for being gracious enough neither to punch me in the face for accosting you unawares nor, for potentially risking your apparent anonymity in DFW airport, to simply tell the annoying fan to fuck off. Wszystkiego najlepszego, brother. Ave temetipsum. Ave Satanas.