At twenty she was a bourgeois upperclass girl, married and with one child, living just the kind of ordinary life that was expected of her. At twenty-four she had published an award-winning book of poetry that shocked with its erotic imagery – and was tailed by secret police because she had joined Sandinistas, a rebellious underground organization working to overthrow the dictatorship. In her autobiography she describes intimate conversations with poets and political leaders such as Fidel Castro, who took an interest in her, – and intimate love affairs with guerrilla warriors cut short by death. The Nicaraguan Gioconda Belli (born 1949) has lived quite an extraordinary life. It almost seems that she has lived a few separate lives and in fact that was what she herself felt from time to time.
Hers is a life of opposites: Combining undercover revolutionary activities and love affairs with guerrillas with motherly responsibilities of taking care of small children is a hard task. But she couldn’t help to notice how irresistible a strong man with a mission and with death written on his forehead can be. At one point she tells about how she made love to a guerrilla warrior called Marcos – who was gunned down in the backseat of a car a few years after – and how before lovemaking on the cold, hard floor of his hideout he ”placed the gun and the case with the hand grenade against the wall”. Marcos wants her to stay the night but she refuses because she has to tend her daughters. And half an hour after this passionate and secret love scene she is again the bourgeois mother cuddling with her daughters.
Reading her autobiography it becomes clear that what made all the difference to her life was the fact that Gioconda Belli is that relatively rare kind of person who thrives strongly on meaningfulness. In her twenties she realized that her desire for meaningful existence is so overwhelming that she is willing to jeopardize everything she has – her family life and even her own life – in her pursuit for it. When she is about to join the clandestine Sandinista movement she backs up a few times because of being afraid of the very real consequences. But then, ”all of a sudden, I realized I was on the verge of closing a door that was my only way into a more meaningful existence.” She gathers her courage and takes a step out of the bourgeois life, into the life-threatening world of a revolutionary movement within a dictatorship.
Because of her bourgeois public image she becomes the courier who passes important messages from one part of the organization into another. The life of a rebel is hard, many were the companions that suddenly were killed and whom she had to grief in secret in order to not reveal herself. And these losses hurt:
”At some point I fell apart, and began weeping in despair. The intensity of the pain startled me – it was as if one of my own brothers had died, someone close that I loved and not a person I barely knew. That was when I understood how strong the bond between those of us who were in the struggle was: we were a team, a unit.”
This was when she learned about the killing of Ricardo Morales Avilés and Oscar Turcios, persons she had only met briefly a few times. Later on she would loose a man she passionately loved. That pain stayed with her for years.
Despite its dangers, the rewards this lifestyle gave made it impossible to stop. The bond with the organization was so strong, participation in the revolution filled one’s existence with such a insurmountable sense of purpose, direction and meaningfulness that it justified all the sacrifices. At some points even she herself was baffled by how deeply she had connected her faith and identity with the revolutionary cause:
”Were we all mad? What mystery in human genes accounted for the fact that men and women could override their personal survival instincts when the fate of the tribe or the collective was at stake? What was it that enabled people to give their lives for an idea, for the freedom of others? Why was the heroic impulse so strong? What I found most bewildering and extraordinary was the real happiness and fulfillment that came along with commitment. Life acquired unequivocal meaning, purpose, and direction. It was a sensation of complete, utter complicity, a visceral, emotional bond with hundreds anonymous faces, an intimacy of multitudes in which any feeling of loneliness or isolation simply evaporated. In the struggle for everyone’s happiness, the first happiness one found was one’s own.”
There are many ways to go through the human existence. Martin Seligman separates between three forms of happy life: The pleasant life, where one chases after pleasures and happy emotions; a life of engagement where one’s existence is filled with some activities into which one is absorbed; and a meaningful life where one has a sense of working towards goals that transcend oneself. Of these three, the last-mentioned provides most solid forms of happiness according to Seligman. And if one wants to learn what this meaningful existence is all about, I can’t think of a much better book than Gioconda Belli’s autobiography ’The Country Under My Skin – A Memoir of Love and War’. In her life the innate search for meaningful existence is combined with a unique historical situation provided by the revolutionary movement to follow those instincts to the max – and an ability to carefully reflect the psychological landscapes in which these desires for purpose dwelled.
What we learn from Belli is that if you have a change to find a purpose you could believe in, a cause you can strongly identify with, values you are willing to sacrifice your life for, then be prepared: Chasing them can lead to unimaginable forms of fulfillment and happiness. The highpoint of Belli’s life as a revolutionary is encountered in 1979 when the freedom fighters had taken control of the capital and the dictator had fled. After living in exile for four years and using her time to handle press relations and gather international support for the Sandinistas, Gioconda Belli was finally able to return to her beloved home country, to the streets of Managua:
”And so we began yelling out ’Freedom’ as loud as we could … People responded ’or death’ completing the Sandinista war cry they were all so familiar with. … That cry was now a symbol of victory, of the courage that had brought about that hot day when freedom finally showed its face in the streets of my city for the first time in half a century … I will never forget the eagerness, the hope, the joyous optimism of those faces. All the grief, tears, everything I had lived through had been worthwhile if only to live through this moment. What more could I ask than to bear witness to so much happiness? What had been the goal of all our efforts, if not these smiles? Whatever existential doubts one had disappeared right here. This was our life’s purpose: to see others smile, to take human joy to its full potential.”
What can we learn about good living from Pablo Neruda, the greatest Latin American poet? Reading his autobiography I argue that at least for me the most important lesson is about learning to embrace the richness and beauty of life. From the way he depicts his life-story one can’t fail to see that here is a person who finds tremendous beauty in whatever he happens to encounter. Be it some person he meets or a snail shell he finds on a beach, Neruda is able to have his eyes open wide enough to capture the beauty that is inherent in it. When Neruda let his passion run free ”everything is seen in its best light, everything has value, everything deserves to be the subject of a poem”, as Strand so aptly puts it in the New Yorker. To let the poet speak for himself, here is Neruda getting ecstatic about a stamp album:
Album of perfect stamps!
sea shapes, corollas,
dark eyes, moist and
round as grapes,
in search of
distant pleasures, forgotten
of all earth’s
of the wind,
fruits and territories,
on its treasure,
Neruda’s autobiography starts with an exalted description of the Chilean forest. He describes its small details and smells, how ”the wild scent of the laurel, the dark scent of the boldo herb, enter my nostrils and flood my whole being.” In describing his encounters with nature words such as ”euphoric”, ”fascination” and ”miracle” are lined one after the other. He exclaims that if one wants to understand himself and his poetry one must understand where he came from; how he and the land were united: ”I have come out of that landscape, that mud, that silence, to roam, to go singing through the world.”
Neruda extended the same enthusiasm that nature received also to the people he met. The book is filled with small odes to the greatness of certain poets, artists and politicians that Neruda had the honor of crossing paths with. As only one example, in describing his late friend and colleague Paul Eluard (in a section entitled ’Eluard the Magnificent’) he closes with the following words: ”Tower of France, brother! I lean over your closed eyes, they will go on giving me the light and the greatness, the simplicity and the honesty, the goodness and naturalness you sowed on earth.” I stopped counting how many times Neruda exclaimed how – sometimes after a brief meeting – he and someone he met became dear friends for lifetime.
All in all, his autobiography itself is not a chronological recounting of the major points of his life but rather a collection of small stories and snapshots from here and there along the path he walked. Small moments of beauty, encounters filled with wonder, tiny bits that make human life so beautiful. I guess that this was the only way a person like Neruda could write his memoirs.
Reading Neruda I feel myself to be an engineer cursed with the gift of ’concentrating on the essentials’; only taking into account the facts that matter and ignoring everything else. This might be an effective strategy when one wants to build a bridge or an airplane. But living one’s life in a way where all the unnecessary stuff is extracted out will miss out so much beauty in the world. Concentrating on the important facts might lead one effectively from one place to another. But life itself is not so much about getting from A to B than it is about enjoying the trip itself. And in here, embracement rather than ignorance of detail is the recipe.
What is thus the most standing legacy of Neruda’s life is the way he reminds all of us how beautiful even the small details of life can be – if we just watch them with eyes wide open. As Mark Strand writes: ”There is something about Neruda—about the way he glorifies experience, about the spontaneity and directness of his passion—that sets him apart from other poets.” The best way to make one’s life experience more aesthetic is to understand that richness of observation is as much the feature of the eye as it is a feature of the world. When we learn to look at the world in the right way, we can find beauty even in a plastic bag.
Neruda found his gift of appreciating the beauty of life early on: ”Along endless beaches or thicketed hills, a communion was started between my spirit – that is, my poetry – and the loneliest land in the world. This was many years ago, but that communion, that revelation, that pact with the wilderness, is still a part of my life.” We should make the same pact with the world promising to remain open for the beauty of it all to flow in. We should enrich our lives through embracing the inherent beauty of the world.
I’ll let the master himself close this post, describing how he felt when he wrote his very first poem:
And I, tiny being,
drunk with the great starry
likeness, image of
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss.
I wheeled with the stars.
My heart broke loose with the wind.