Yesterday, too typically, I was in the airport in Santa Barbara by 4:15 a.m., and then at SFO for six hours and then, 11 many hours later, touching down in Zurich’s airport. Everywhere people were racing past in a state of stress, the names of cities were flashing on screens, the hours themselves seemed cut up into seconds as I checked the time again and again and wondered why the line I was in—at security and immigration and for boarding—never seemed to move. Now, 100 yards from the grand and silent 12th century church of Grossmunster, in the cobbled center of Zurich, I step into the ancient space and lose myself in something larger.
The ceiling is so high, I forget myself in its vastness. Late-summer sunlight is streaming through the windows, sharpening indigos and scarlets. Candles all around draw my attention to a point. And, though a few other souls are shuffling around, everyone is hushed, rapt in the special kind of attention we bring to those rare moments when we are lost within what we contemplate.
I sometimes think that I was trying to get this kind of cathedral time–regardless of what one thinks or doesn’t think of churches–when I left my exhilarating life in airport-time Manhattan, at the age of 29, for a single empty room on the backstreets of Kyoto. Writing on world affairs for Time magazine from a 25th floor Midtown office–with kind and fascinating colleagues and very few responsibilities–I reeled from excitement to excitement like a pinball on a flashing machine. But the stimulation was so constant, I had no chance to see what any of it meant (or how deeply it reached). Only when I left my apartment on Park and 20th for a tatami room along Kyoto’s Eastern Hills, with almost nothing visible within it—no telephone, no toilet of my own, no discernible bed—did I realize that joy was what was left when every passing pleasure had been exhausted.
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