By RANDALL BABTKIS, writer, poet, and professor in the Department of Writing, Consciousness and Creative Inquiry
Photo by Lisa Moriss-Andrews: Early gathering “scene” around bagel party, courtyard in Vilnius, Lithuania
Last August, I was scheduled to give my first overseas reading of work from a novel-in-progress. An excerpt from the book landed me in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. I invited my new friends Elena and Gintaras to the reading. I met them because we kept showing up at the same spots—molecules held together by a mysterious band of hydrogen. At first I believed Elena and Gintaras might be following me. But since we seemed interested in the same things (I was here looking for slaughtered forbears, they were tuned into the historical vibe), I latched onto the pair as they latched onto me. Elena and Gintaras were the only Lithuanians I knew, so I wanted to nurture our friendship.
It turned out the young couple already planned to be at the reading—serving home made bagels—they were hosting the event.
Moments before our bagel party/reading began, a well-known Vilnius writer remarked: "Lithuania is so small that a visitor may come to recognize all the same faces he has seen one day, again the next morning." Certainly it was true in the case of Elena and Gintaras. It seemed to me Vilnius offered so much of that fusion, the entire city appeared under a double helix.
So the writer's remark felt convincing. 850,000 inhabitants of Vilnius and its surrounds today? Never mind. The idea one might continually see the same people conjures the sort of exotic distortion one experiences in travel. While I remain on foreign ground, I drop all doubts. The secularism I wear like dress code in home-life disappears. Routines in everyday places—dreams of cleaning the same cupboards I scrubbed that morning, or mowing lawns I clipped this afternoon—give way to telepathic imagery. Those chimeras are as intense as they are extraterrestrial. False awakenings I experience back home—through which I really only continue to sleep—fall away to more profound visual fields abroad.
How do we hold onto that poetic jetstream, once the banality of our return home surrounds us again? Walter Pater writes: To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. That burning is success in art! I hoped to return with the force still in my head.
It was early August; we were in the far northern hemisphere, corralled in a small courtyard behind an ancient arts collective, to which Elena and Gintaras belonged. Perhaps 60 of us gathered in the twilight. The crowd was young and hip, highly ambitious faces with keen expressions.
Most were North American—writers half-way around the world mixed with a small fusion of Vilna bohemia. My two young Lithuanian friends offered a flourish of artisanal bagels with salmon fished out of a briny looking barrel. Posters of Elena's printed invitation in 12 icy shades of blue were stapled around the courtyard. Elena spelled “party” with an “i” someone pointed out. Her boyfriend, Gintaras, said that was the correct spelling, he double checked it for his e-blast before sending it.
The sunset tore across the tops of the courtyard walls and vaporized into mist and darkness. We drank beer and wine that was mysteriously warm, and put away six dozen bagels between us.
The moment was so perfect all of Vilnius could not contain it. This burning I felt inside could only happen here, it occurred to me. I fantasized a flash mob breaking into Baltic song and dance, raising me on a chair, in cinematic climax.
We waited as the daylight disappeared altogether, while someone went out to try to find a mic. We shivered, captive to the mediocrity of such bureaucratic delay. Yet the charged particles of an approaching weather system flashed around us, ever more representative of the larger experience I sought to hold onto.
Soon it began to rain. My teeth chattered. I pointed to the mic (found!) and started to read. I couldn't tell where I was or whether I was just talking under my breath. I couldn't see. Someone held an umbrella over my head. The podium appeared electrified in the rain. I swallowed my subconscious and discovered the roar. It was not coming from my mouth. It wasn't coming from the crowd, either. It was the sound of dispersion – between the temples or between this clump of adenoids – the multiplier of my creative powers.
Here's my new friend Allen from Alabama. He and his wife, Rose, grabbed me and put me on the dark path home. For five-and-a-half miles we walked together, arm in arm. No, we floated that way, all across Vilnius. I don't know how the reading went; Allen and Rose were too polite to say. And charged up with their own epiphanies from foreign travel. We didn't laugh about the reading either. It's mischievous to tear at such internal dams; it messes with our heads. We were cultivating our thoughts for reentry into the real world. You close your eyes and all that transoceanic distance can, again, be accessed. It lives inside.