Malev flight 4049 is halfway across the Atlantic, and I am on it, en route to JFK. Less than 48 hours ago, the transatlantic shipping company that took my stuff away in August of 2010 delivered it all to my door. The timing was admittedly weird, but thinking it had a certain symmetry, I decided to run with it. It was worth it. When I woke up this morning to go to the airport, I crawled out from under my own duvet with its red tapestry cover and matching shams covering my own memory foam mattress. My paintings were hung, the house was clean and I had fallen asleep content, once more surrounded by my favorite things, including my grandmother's wedding portrait, an antique sliver-hammered Virgin of Guadalupe and a pen-and-ink whimsical nude, purchased from an Arizona artist. My move was complete at last. Budapest is home now.
There were hurdles. You expect that, if you make this kind of move, especially alone and without a lot of money. I had to find a flat. I had to get my residency permit. I had to replace my Mac laptop at Hungarian prices, setting my finances back at a very bad time. I had to figure out how to support myself, without a work permit or the book sale I had hoped for, and to build an international client base. By the time I wired the money and gave the go-ahead for shipping my goods, a year had gone by. Then came Hurricane Irene. No shipping that week. So my artwork and dishes, my grandmother's favorite chair, and the chest that moved from Brooklyn Heights to California, and back again, languished on a pallet in a warehouse in New Jersey while I camped out with Early Expat furnishings: an odd assortment of Ikea, the owners' antiques and posters, and minimal cooking supplies. I managed. By Christmas last year, I succeeded in cooking a goose dinner for a dozen new friends in my galley kitchen, served on borrowed dishes.
It is only now, looking back a year into my new life, that I realize what a crazy thing it was to do, and what a brilliant one. What made me take the leap? I went for a few months, to write and gain some perspective. Sure, I had a good time. I made some connections. I liked the art and music, and of course, the food and wine, but is that a reason to pick up your earthly possessions, get rid of three-quarters of them and ship the rest across the ocean, with no clear means of support and no predictable future? It's not like I had a job there, or a trust fund, or even social security, for Heaven's sake. What made me do it?
One thing: desperation. My soul was shriveling up and dying. Moving back to California wouldn't have solved a thing. I had to leave everything. I had to go somewhere completely new, and start a new life. My soul took me to Europe. I don't know why, but I know it was no exaggeration: I did it to save my soul. If I hadn't I would have slowly died inside.
For some folks, I suppose, that wouldn't be much of a problem. It might even be a relief. Souls are an inconvenient thing to have. They don't help you earn a living. Sometimes they downright interfere, with their insistence on ethics and justice, beauty and grace, and a desire to connect all the time instead of just going through motions. Pain hurts a lot more, pain hurts a lot more, as Sophie Barth shows us in her quirky indie film starring Paul Giamatti, "Cold Souls," in which an overly sensitive actor decides to put his soul in storage. In a world dominated by expedience, a soul may seem like a luxury, like a pet ocelot. They cost a lot, constantly have to be tended and groomed, they require substantial food, and don't like waiting for dinner. Damned impractical, I'd say, in the current economic climate. It might make more sense to focus on saving your saving your job, your house, and your credit rating than your soul... and most of us do. These days even artists are more concerned with design than souls. No wonder they've gone out of fashion.
There is very little in American culture that feeds the soul. The first serious sign I've seen of a common soul there in recent years is in the OWS movement. Its sounds resonate with the wails of prophets of old, crying into the Wall Street desert that life is not merely a commodity to be bought and sold, and that danger lies ahead for a society that does not heed. That is the soul of America, reawakening in a land of greed and easy answers. God and the soul cry out for justice.
Alas, prophets are seldom heeded in time. Instead, a lot of rhetoric called politics, spirituality, and religion gets passed out, like fast-food for souls -- sugary and easy to digest, a sentimental, feel-good palliative, but not very nourishing. The soul is a demanding mistress. She won't be placated for long; she demands real food. If she doesn't get it, eventually she goes crazy, or gives up and dies. Inconvenient wench! But "What profits a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?" (Mark 16:26) In other words, life without a soul is empty and worthless. Ask the Wall Street bankers. Do they look like happy campers to you?
I followed my soul to Hungary, where people still have music salons in their homes. I had no particular other plans or alternative, other than to give up on beauty, courage and passion, and die slowly, which wasn't much of a plan (not that I minded dying. Life had gone pretty badly for awhile, and survival for its own sake held little interest for me). But living a half-life -- a life without soul -- was unbearable. So I took the risk. I did not know then what awaited me. I certainly did not know that I would be founding a post-modern ministry there called Spirit Without Walls, which would fulfill me and touch many other lives. I just felt a yearning I could not deny.
Often the soul will take you by surprise, like the Occupy Wall Street movement, or when something on YouTube, like a flash mob, or a piece of music, stops you in your tracks, making you think and feel all at the same time. That's your soul blinking awake and taking a deep breath. The soul yearns: for beauty, grace, love, meaning, justice and God. Following its yearning it will lead you to your greatest love, like a homing device, calling you back to what matters. You may not want that. Or you may want it, but you may not be willing to pay the price. It costs everything. I risked my life for the renewal of my soul. It was the best bet I ever made.