We that are not ours
There’s a poem I love by Tomas Tranströmer called “The Blue House”. It has been a constant hum in my ears since I read it. I think of it so ceaselessly because of all the irrevocable choices that we have to make. To marry or not? To have kids or not? To change jobs across fields or not?
The poem is narrated by a man who is standing in the woods near his house. He is dead and among the trees. He looks at the house from this vantage point.
It is night with glaring sunshine. I stand in the woods and look towards my house with its misty blue walls. As though I were recently dead and saw the house from a new angle.
It has stood for more than eighty summers. Its timber has been impregnated, four times with joy and three times with sorrow. When someone who has lived in the house dies it is repainted. The dead person paints it himself, without a brush, from the inside.
There is a transformative power in seeing the familiar from a new, more distant perspective. It’s in this stance that the narrator is capable of seeing his life for what it is while acknowledging the lives he might have had.
Open the doors, enter! Inside unrest dwells in the ceiling and peace in the walls. Above the bed there hangs an amateur painting representing a ship with seventeen sails, rough sea and a wind which the gilded frame cannot subdue.
It is always so early in here, it is before the crossroads, before the irrevocable choices. I am grateful for this life! And yet I miss the alternatives. All sketches wish to be real.
A motor far out on the water extends the horizon of the summer night. Both joy and sorrow swell in the magnifying glass of the dew. We do not actually know it, but we sense it: our life has a sister vessel which plies an entirely different route. While the sun burns behind the islands.
Every life, Tranströmer writes, “has a sister ship”, one that follows “quite another route” than the one we ended up taking. We want it to be otherwise, but it cannot be: the people we might have been live a different, phantom life than the people we are.
So, sit down on the floor with your gigantic piece of white paper like the ship’s sail with things written all over it. Things that you know and don’t know. The lists you have made, questions you have answered and the future that you have imagined. Would you forego a chunk of your personal freedom to raise children and experience this powerful love like no other? Would you be happy cycling around Iceland, unfurling in Morocco or hiking in Peru all by yourself?
Now, the sketches of your real-life and your sister life are right there before you and you get to decide what to do. One is the life you’ll have; the other is the one you won’t. Switch them around in your head and see how it feels. Which affects you on a visceral level? Which won’t let you go? Which is ruled by fear? Which is ruled by desire? Which makes you want to close your eyes and jump and which makes you want to turn and run?
We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.