I love São Paulo. I have an affectionate relationship with the city that I cannot explain. In its streets, especially in the Centre and in the older neighbourhoods, I feel inside a universe of endless revitalising force. I like to see cities as living beings. Each one has its own personality, inspiring the people who live there. None is better or worse than another. They are all different, with their own attributes and magic. They have specific energies anchored in their ambience and landscape, partly because of the stories they have hosted. New York will never be the same as Paris, nor Tokyo the same as Moscow. Our moods change wherever we go and we suffer different influences from the place where we are. Different sensations involve us in Porto Alegre or Recife, both with their different beauties and vibrations. We feel at ease in those which are similar to us. Or we are enchanted by cities that offer us the kind of energy we need. São Paulo was built by the force of immigrants. Men, women and children from every corner of the planet introduced specific cultural ingredients into the same cauldron which, mixed with an immeasurable will to make things happen, created the spirit of São Paulo. There is nothing new in my words. São Paulo has always been the inspiring muse, not only of its residents, but of wonderful artists. Paulicéia Desvairada, a book of poems by Mário de Andrade, a milestone for the Brazilian modernist movement in the 1920s, in which the author abuses artistic experimentation in literature, at a time of profound daring, both in relation to the city’s growth and people’s way of being and living, reflected in art and fostering the emergence of a valuable and unique culture. In music, half a century later, Sampa, by Caetano Veloso, offers a beautiful and profound philosophical look at São Paulo, showing the same city that, despite its incoherences, and perhaps because of them, has grown stronger and remained enchanting. One must have eyes to see. Incoherences are often only apparent. They often arise from the lack of understanding we have about something or someone who, later on, will explain who we are. Each person or city has its own enigma. São Paulo has certainly transformed itself without departing from its soul. This has kept it at the forefront of itself and it also happens to us when we live close to our essence.
I was there for two reasons that were happening in close dates. The premiere of a theatre show directed by my brother and the book launch of a great friend. As they were on Friday and Saturday, respectively, I had planned to spend the weekend in São Paulo. A visit to an exhibition at MASP and a stroll through a famous antiques fair at Praça Benedito Calixto were part of the programme. I landed at the airport full of plans and excitement on Friday morning. After leaving my luggage at the hotel, I went to a small bookshop specializing in out-of-print copies that were hard to find. The bookseller, still in the old way, did not use the Internet to advertise or sell his fantastic collection. Anyone who wanted to could go there and lose themselves on the shelves among the thousands of books they kept. Finding a particular copy on your own was an almost impossible task. Despite going to the bookshop every time I visited the city, I had never managed to understand the logic of its shelves. The bookseller’s help was indispensable. However, his joy in helping was enormous, as was the ease with which he could locate a book, whatever the title. Contrary to what one might imagine, the bookseller was not an old man, dressed in an impeccable suit and wearing glasses, like an archetypal guardian of the hidden secrets locked away in the subliminal lines of forbidden books. Nothing of the sort. The bookseller was a guy in his early thirties, replete with tattoos, earrings, piercings and a lover of classic rock’n roll bands. Contrary to the common stereotype of prejudice, he was extremely polite, kind and very cultured. When asking for a title, he would invite us to accompany him to the place where the copy was kept and on the way he would comment on the book requested. I always had the feeling that he had read them all. It was at such a moment, while we were browsing among the bookshelves, that I came across Denise. There is little point in having plans for yourself when they do not conform to those laid out by the universe. No matter how much we want winter, it is impossible to prevent the arrival of spring.
Denise was a nun of the Esoteric Order of the Mountain Monks, a brotherhood dedicated to the study of philosophy and metaphysics, of which I had been a member for many years. I had met her at the monastery, where the monks, as its members are called, have to be once a year for their studies. She was the director of a bank and had a very dynamic personality. Intelligent, well articulated and collaborative, she was much loved by all in the Order. However, she had disappeared and had not been in the monastery for the last few years. Her absence was felt, all the more so because of the lack of news. The last information, unconfirmed, brought by a monk, was that she had resigned from the bank where she had worked since she was very young. Everyone was surprised and worried, but no one had been able to contact her. We were of approximate age. Denise had become like one of the rare books on those shelves, apparently lost among so many others. Hard to find and precious for its content.
On seeing me, she opened a kind smile. We exchanged a long hug. I spoke of how much everyone at the monastery missed her. I asked her if her departure was due to some unpleasantness she had experienced. She denied it: “Of course not. The reason was quite different. Life offered me another flight plan and I accepted it”. As she must have noticed a huge question mark on my features, she added: “Shall we go for a coffee? I suspect I really needed to talk to you.” Understanding even less, I accepted the invitation. The bookseller brought me the book I was looking for. It was the Manual of Epictetus, whose original text, dating back two thousand years, had been reedited more than twenty years ago, with comments written by the Elder, the oldest monk of the Order, in a reduced edition. As the Elder had not authorised a new edition, the book had become a rare jewel. I thanked him, paid for the copy and we left. In the same street, we sat in a cafeteria.
In front of two steaming cups of coffee, Denise told me: “My life has undergone an angular change. I have always had a distant relationship with my mother. My father passed away while I was still a child. After the initial mourning phase, my mother went to work. It was very important for her. This helped rebuild her life, besides meeting our survival needs. It also helped her to balance herself emotionally. Mama was young and very beautiful. She had a few boyfriends until she fell in love with Joao and they got married. He came to live with us. He was a good man, hardworking, honest and quiet. However, they lived for each other, a great passion that did not allow them to look at anyone else. I have three brothers, all from the first marriage. We always had food on the table, clean clothes to wear, school and books. However, I always had a feeling, which I couldn’t interpret at the time, that I had a home but I didn’t have a family. Yes, they are quite different things. Though there were six of us living under the same roof, my siblings and I, after my father’s death, were left without guidance and with an ununderstood feeling that the amalgam that held us together under one emotion was missing. We each went about building our own lives and interpreting the world without any help or any nexus that brought us together. Little by little, as we grew up, we went to college and, as we started working, we left home. The emotional bonds faded away.”
“I lived with my mother until I got married. Maybe too soon, I hadn’t finished college yet. Although I didn’t know it, deep down I was looking for a family, the one that had fallen apart at my father’s departure. João never wanted that role for himself, just as my mother seemed disinterested in the role of mother. What mattered was their romance, the trips they took and the life they had, which did not include us. They had a respectful but far from loving relationship with us. My doubts, anxieties and important emotional issues linked to adolescence, of fundamental importance in the construction of personality, were in the background. As long as I didn’t cause any trouble, everything I did was right for her. I had no sense of my own value. This brought me difficulty in acceptance and self-esteem. I had to retrace many roads I travelled. I learned a lot, but the hard way. For different reasons, my marriage shipwrecked. With a degree in economics, the bank job was an escape and encounter route. I immersed myself in work, where I tried to make up for the incompleteness that existed in me through professional relationships.”
I interrupted to comment: “I don’t think you have succeeded”. Denise agreed: “Of course not. As I climbed up the bank’s organizational chart, I became a person of solid appearance and rarefied in essence.” She took a sip of coffee, her gaze wandered to distant universes and she murmured as if talking to herself: “Who was Denise?”, paused and added: “Being an important director of one of the biggest banks in the country doesn’t in itself explain anyone.” She sipped her coffee again and then pondered: “I didn’t know who I was because I didn’t know what I was looking for”.
She looked at me like someone making a confession and said: “It is sad to become an important person for others and to be nobody for ourselves”.
“This was the crisis I was experiencing, but I still didn’t understand. We are more our unconscious than our conscious. We have no idea how much influence the unconscious has on our choices and emotions. It is hard to commensurate how uncomfortable memories act as generators of dense emotions and censor the creation of lighter feelings and new ideas. In turn, this brings us suffering that we neither admit nor can decode until we migrate these memories from the unconscious to the conscious. Emotions are only the symptoms. To eradicate a disease, it is indispensable to find its cause”.
A phrase came to mind from the alchemist MM Schweitzer, which had caught my attention in one of his recent short stories: “Consciousness is a traveller; ideas and feelings are roads”. Denise paused for a few seconds to reflect. Then she agreed: “I know no better definition. At that time, I had no idea which road I was travelling on inside myself”.
I asked her to continue her story. Denise said, “It was when on a trip, chance led me to the monastery. I attended a lecture by the Elder, I talked to several monks. The following year, during my holidays, I returned for my first period of studies. I came back several times later.” She looked at me again with a serious expression and revealed: “This changed my life. Little by little I understood who I was, who I wasn’t, who I wanted to be and what I had to do to get from one point to another. I began to understand what was holding me back from being whole.” She paused for a second, as if a whirlwind of memories danced around her and said: “It was also very important to understand how painful memories, many that we believe we have forgotten, have a strong influence on our choices and we are not even aware of it. The need to dissolve them in light is fundamental for the indispensable transformations towards plenitude.” I interrupted again, because something similar had happened to me: “So it is with everyone. Although it is a slow process that requires a lot of effort, it has so much charm and beauty that it is almost impossible to go back once we get past the first stages.”
Denise nodded in agreement and said: “Then each one begins the search along the path they have affinity with. Some follow Philosophy, others History, some Physics, Art or Religion, among many others. All paths lead, in due course, to the same truth. I went to study Psychoanalysis, I have a fascination for the unconscious and all the hidden influence it exerts in our lives”.
I asked her what had been the reason for the angular change which culminated in her leaving the Order: “After some years of harmonious coexistence in the monastery, my professional career followed in ascendancy, until I was cogitated to assume the position of vice-president of the bank. Although it was not an invitation, my name was openly discussed as an inevitable indication. Of course, I was very excited, after all I had joined the company as an economics trainee in the investment sector. On the day of the meeting, I even had a speech ready, but the nomination fell on another colleague, no less capable. The disappointment was enormous, but I had already learned to deal with similar situations, common to the corporate environment of large companies. I continued my work with the same dedication as before, but without the same enthusiasm. They are different things, it’s as if dedication is the body and enthusiasm is the soul of everything we do. When this happens and one or the other is lacking, believe me, the result crumbles. Something had broken inside me. At first, I thought it was the disappointment, but as the months went by I understood that the bank no longer fits me. There was no longer the affinity or the connection as before. It was the same bank, still a great place to work, a job that had enabled me to learn many things. However, I was no longer the same. I had changed. My life also manifested the same desire to change. When this happens, we must not prevent the transformation. Or we will suffer greatly.”
“These facts occurred about three years ago. At the same time, João had passed away. Emotionally shaken, the suffering altered the functioning of my mother’s organism, aggravated by her advanced age. She began to need intensive help. I met with my siblings. They were unanimous in deciding to admit her to an excellent geriatric clinic, specializing in this type of care. They claimed lack of time and the detachment that our mother had imposed on herself since our childhood. There is no denying that, because of all we had lived through, it was a fair decision. We were willing to contribute so that she would have the best possible assistance, but from a distance. We even went to a clinic that was highly recommended by doctors we knew.”
“The day we admitted her, as I said goodbye to her, the look in her eyes touched my heart. They were eyes that perfectly understood why she was there, but also carried the regret for not having done differently and better as a mother. She, in that moment, had become aware of part of the life she had wasted alongside her children. There was no rancour or sorrow on her part, on the contrary, it was as if her eyes were apologising to me. That look had a transforming effect on me.”
“At that moment, I understood that I was being offered a unique opportunity: to rescue the pending relationship with my mother and to pacify my memories. To dissolve and enlighten the bad relationship I had with her and, with it, the influence on my way of being and living, which had been the determining factor for all my relationships to sink. Without it, I would not be able to have a healthy relationship with myself, with life or with anyone. My emotional fractures were brought in like soldiers on the front line of a battle, with the pretence of protecting me. I would be worried, anxious and tense so that situations similar to my childhood would not be repeated. Thus, the best perspective was stolen from me by myself.”
“I discovered something of fundamental importance. Contrary to popular belief, the dark emotions that imprison us so much and prevent us from moving forward are more rooted in habits than in the facts of the past. To undo these emotions is to create new habits of being and living, new perspectives to see ourselves, the others and the world.”
“Dense emotions, as well as subtle feelings, create a pattern of thought and, more seriously, of perception. Through these ideas we will interpret each fact superficially or deeply; sensitivity brings the best perspective closer or further away. However, without new habits, nothing evolves.”
“No suffering is undone without love. It is important to understand that love has degrees and steps. We choose the type and level of love we offer to ourselves, to others and to life. Let it always be the most intense, with the greatest commitment, because only this has transforming force.”
And he went back to his story: “I resigned from the bank the same day. I went back to the geriatric clinic, terminated the contract, paid the fine and took my mother home. I live in a large flat in Higienópolis. I put her in a room with every comfort and made a commitment to myself to offer her my best, especially affection and dedication, structural elements of love. I saw when her eyes sparkled again”.
I asked Denise if her choice was free of guilt in relation to her mother, because of the ancestral responsibility of caring for our parents, and the frustration of having been passed over at the bank. She arched her lips in a smile and replied with sincere serenity: “Many to this day think I resigned out of disappointment at not being chosen as vice-president. Just as my brothers think I would feel guilty for leaving Mama in the clinic. My days at the bank had been over for some time. It was just life signalling me when I was passed over for the position. A lifestyle that no longer added to me, even though it was full of apparent advantages. A cycle had come to an end. For a long time it was very good and had meaning, but something had changed inside me. When this happens, something also has to change on the outside. This is why habits are so important. The studies in the monastery taught me this. I was no longer the same, so an existence with the same routine did not fit me any more. I was facing a beautiful opportunity to retrace a trajectory of love and life with my mother. An indispensable phase of my process of liberation presented itself to me. It was time to undo the knots of the nest to be able to fly”.
“It is worth pointing out that there is no blame to be laid upon the choices made by my brothers or the colleagues who have continued to work at the bank. To summarise situations as if they were merely questions of right or wrong is to reduce life to a vulgar simplism. Everyone has their own path and knows their own steps.”
“I know only about myself. Even then, far less than I would like. I was a strong executive at the same time that I felt fragile as a woman. It wasn’t just my marriage that sank; all my other relationships sank too. The influences of the past are overwhelming and, worse, almost imperceptible. I looked for the love and attention in my boyfriends that I did not have in my childhood. It was an immature love, even more concerned with receiving than giving. Something impossible for anyone to supply. Everything was falling apart and I blamed them. I didn’t understand my own causes.”
“My affective incompleteness, whose root was the fragility of family relationships, made me an insecure and affectively distrustful person. I sheltered myself in the right to set unacceptable rules and conditions, believing it was a way of protecting myself from the disappointments I had had in childhood. No relationship is healthy that way. To compensate, I became an efficient and admired executive. Unconsciously, I tried to counterbalance the love emptiness with professional excellence. That´s impossible to work.”
“It may seem incoherent. Indeed, it is. But only while I did not understand the hidden reasons that truly moved me. Only from understanding the causes, was it possible to rebuild the personality, retrace the quests and refine the choices. Much of what we are is not us”.
I interrupted to say how incoherent it was. We laughed. Denise explained: “These are experiences that are so painful that we become someone else, very different from who we could be because of the influence that suffering, even in the unconscious, exerts on free thinking and light feelings. Incoherences are incompleteness of the past while in the ostracism of consciousness. How many, like me, have sad memories on their fingertips and, without realizing it, do not understand why life continues to slip through our hands?”
She emptied her coffee cup and concluded, “That is the history and the reasons for my departure from the Order. But I feel that the time is approaching for me to return. My soul is asking for this. It speaks to us all the time, it is the rush and noise of the world that prevents us from hearing it. A little quietness and solitude is enough to get in tune with it. As I needed time for a deep dive into myself, I made the decision to change my mobile number and e-mail. This is why they could not find me”. I asked if she worked, after all survival is necessary. Denise explained, “I work a lot. I have been a daughter almost full time for the last three years, as well as becoming my best friend. In this period I have had the opportunity not only to find myself, but also to meet again a mother I had lost in childhood. We have talked a lot and little by little we are clearing up our past. I understand her reasons; she understands my reasons. It is amazing how clarity in thinking brings lightness in feeling. The dissolution of the sadness contained in my memories freed me from the sufferings and the emotions that prevented me from long-range flights. This is worth an existence”. She then added, “As for survival, I have made a living in the bank. Over the years I have acquired some property. I maintain myself from these rents. It is not much, but it is enough. This is enough for me.”
The dusk reminded me of my commitments. I invited Denise to the premiere of the theatrical performance directed by my brother. She accepted with an unforgettable smile. She only asked us to stop by her house because she wanted to see how her mother was doing. She explained that after the first year, when she herself was taking care of her mother alone, she set up a team of dedicated professional carers who kept her under the necessary care. So she could devote herself more to reading and deep reflection, indispensable to the process of self-knowledge. With time to talk, and with a lot of patience, mother and daughter gave new colours to the facts that were hidden in the dark basements of the mind and heart. “I can already look back without any melancholy. My past no longer interferes in my present”, she confessed with the joy of one who discovers the healing power of forgiveness.
The show was wonderful. Afterwards we had dinner. The next day, we were at the launch of the novel by Marcelo Cezar, a friend who is also a brother. We talked a lot during the whole weekend. At a certain moment, Denise asked me if I found her incoherent, since she had dedicated her whole existence to a professional activity that had dissolved in her in such a way that it seemed it had never been part of her life. “Have I wasted my time?” she questioned. I shook my head and promptly replied, “All relationships and situations are schools of excellence. Every incoherence is absolute until we find the nexus that explains it and that prepared us to be here. Incoherence hides truths that we have not yet discovered, it is the manifestation of the unconscious that has not yet been understood. When it happens, we add something to the perception we have of ourselves; then we expand our consciousness”. Denise smiled and kissed me.
Then I asked her if she thought she was incoherent. She smiled again and said, “Some colleagues at the bank swear I am. I suspect my brothers do too. But my conscience is the real court and the only magistrate capable of judging me. All the rest is speculation and idle talk.” She closed her eyes and pondered: “What many see as incoherence, I consider as patrimony”. I asked her to explain further. Denise did so: “Real wealth is only what nobody can take from me. I only have what is already aggregated to my consciousness. It is structured in ideas and feelings. Habits modify it. Everything else is fleeting”.
“I have been incoherent to the understanding of many. I am not surprised. I understood that emotions are the misunderstood feelings and that every bitter idea reveals a suffocated love. The suffering that endures creates the incoherences. They are apparent and temporary, for they last only as long as we reveal to ourselves our true will and voice. Then, from incoherence is made the solid pillar of perfect coherence. However, although essential, nothing changes just by knowing and feeling; new habits are indispensable for life to renew itself.”
“Moreover, having a childhood full of neediness and afflictions, like mine, does not come to be a tragedy. To turn it into an endless incoherence to the point of obstructing the plenitude of being is the only tragedy. Everyone fervently longs for love, but few have overcome their fear of loving”.
It was time to board back to my city. A kiss and the promise that we would meet in Rio de Janeiro the following weekend. Since then, in a constant air shuttle, I became a paulistano and Denise, a carioca.
Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.