Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Rainer Maria Rilke, the Future and the Past

Maxwell Peterson (student at Austin College):
"Verteilung, auch am Vertrautesten nicht ist uns gegeben."

The first line of the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke's poem "To Hölderin" has always been profoundly significant to me. Loosely translated, it means that we are not permitted to linger, even with that which is most familiar, a concept that I have struggled to internalize for many years - the painful regret of the thoughtless and hurtful words I said that ended a friendship and the thought of what a beautiful relationship we could have had, the longing for a return to the togetherness of my family before my parents' divorce and the visible pain and anguish of my parents that came along with one of the most difficult decisions of their lives, the desire for a class load as easy as Freshman year, when I could party every single night and still round out a solid B+ average with not much work. Yes, dwelling on the past is something that is almost second nature to me, but it hasn't improved my life in the slightest.

This past Summer after my dad, brother, and I moved into our new house, leaving ten years of memories in our old home, I found myself yet again reminiscing for a time that would never return. For a few days, it felt as though an emptiness was constantly bearing down on me until I came across Rilke's poem again. This rereading of his poem that I had already known for years came at just the right time, allowing me to begin to leave the past in the past. So that very night, I drove downtown to get those eight words tattooed on the inside of my left arm.

On the drive back home, I went over those words like a mantra, repeating them over and over again in my head, all the while feeling the more difficult periods of my life settle down where they belonged - in the past. When I arrive back at my dad's apartment, I had to read the poem again before I went to bed, but was absolutely shocked when I read the first line.

"Verweilung, auch am Vertrautesten nicht ist uns gegeben."

The first "t" of my tattoo was supposed to be a "w."

I thought to myself, how could I be so foolish as to misquote one of my favorite poems? Anyone who can read German or knows Rilke is going to immediately think less of me. I'm going to have to cover this up when I study abroad next year. I need to get this fixed immediately.

After a few hours of thoroughly freaking out, it dawned on me that this mistake was one of the most beautiful that I had ever made. If there is a better way to internalize the quote, "We are not permitted to linger, even with that which is most familiar," than to mess it up in a tattoo, the most familiar of objects, I certainly can't think of it. Certainly, the past is important and we should respect and learn from it, but denying new breath, new love, new life, while focusing solely on lost breath, lost love, lost life is not a way that I want to spend my time.

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