During our trip, I've re-read Mark Helprin's book Winter's Tale. (I highly recommend it... worth reading and re-reading... in fact, it demands re-reading.) I won't try to explain the book here, but it is a sort of mystical hymn to New York City, not the prosaic everyday New York, but New York as a sort of platonic form of the ideal just city. Helprin's novel is an attempt to describe a universal economy of the spirit, in which every human action and life is part of an immensely greater whole, which, seen from afar and outside of time, enacts perfect justice. Helprin uses New York, a vast and chaotic city, as a symbol of all human suffering and exaltation. What we take to be individual, unconnected acts, occurring without apparent meaning or logical consequence, are, in fact, all intertwined in a single and perfect whole. The hard part is finding the perspective from which to see that nothing is lost, that all is balanced, and that the universe is just.
I've been feeling odd reverberations of Helprin's theme here in Hanoi. Not as vast as New York, Hanoi is certainly a cauldron of chaos, but chaos of the most orderly sort. It is hard to describe the ways in which Hanoi seems to embody both silent stillness and frantic motion simultaneously. -- The traffic is the most obvious example. The traffic flows like water, turbulent at times, but unceasing. Every possible opening for forward movement is exploited, but with a a far greater forgiveness than in the US. Here, I see no road rage, no anger that someone else has moved ahead of one. The endlessly honking horns are not mechanical curses thrown at other drivers; rather, they are like the sonic probing and calling of dolphins or bats (as Matt Wise observed). Call and response with other drivers... "I am here"... "You are there".... The goal is flow, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, but always without stopping. Cars, small trucks, bicycles, motorbikes, odd vehicles cobbled together from others, all move in and out, around and across, using every inch of road and filling every gap that opens briefly.
As I step out into Hanoi, as into a rushing river, I feel the need to move and keep moving. I feel as if I could walk forever, just moving through the streets, no destination other than joining the flow. And there is a sense that I must move, that a trip down the street to pick up fruit might end up sweeping me along for miles.
At the same time that continuous motion seems to reign, there are also quiet pools of stillness everywhere. Walk even one hundred feet into one of the labyrinthine alleys that branch off from the streets, and the sounds of the horns and motorbikes and people recede into the far distance, leaving only a single human voice from high up in a window or the singing of caged birds from behind a wall. Time itself seems to mingle past and present in the smell of woodsmoke and gasoline. Even at the edges of the busiest streets are slowly circling eddies... cafes, bia hoi (keg beer) joints, food shops of every kind... where human motion temporarily ceases. There one sits, safely out of the flow, attempting to see the patterns and meanings beneath the chaotic rush.
I believe (as Helprin asserts in his novel) that nothing is lost, that the dead return to life, and that heavenly grace weaves every breath and gesture and and word into a great and final moment of justice, a vast city of light in which all is redeemed. Thus this trip halfway around the world to be united with a child we decided to love before we knew. It is no more nor less miraculous than every other action and motion.