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Papa Doesn't Preach

His name was Aloumie, a word derived from light, but everyone called him Papa. He had a booming laugh that shook his stocky frame and amber-flecked eyes the color of the pale winter sky. The intensity of them startled me when I walked up to his ramshackle truck to buy soup one bone-cold day in Berlin. If eyes are the window to the soul, his announced that he had something. He had it, whatever “it” is: a knowing, a different way of seeing things. My own eyes were tired from an endless search for meaning, so I sat down at the picnic bench and listened.


Papa held court from his truck-turned-kitchen, where he cooked up staples from his native Ghana for the kids who stumbled into the collective looking for weed. Papa was different from the other collective members. Most of them were young artists from the African diaspora who spent the afternoon warming their hands over fires simmering in metal trash cans and consulted their elder friend with great respect. Papa settled disputes, but more often than not, he simply talked about the world and how to lead a peaceful life. That was the thing about Papa. He was radically uncomplicated, and he produced a forcefield so profound that you wanted to spend all day shivering at that picnic bench, eating bowl after bowl of peanut soup. He moved from chopping board to hot plate as if in meditation, each action in its own time. The kids who came looking for weed, they didn’t see that he had it. They were loud and wanted him to hurry, and they loved him too because his unbridled laughter never changed according to audience, but after they left Papa shook his head, eyes twinkling, and said, “You see? Not everyone understands.”


But how do you see, Papa? How do you exist so solidly, with such joy and presence and conviction, secure in the knowledge that your role in life is running this soup truck and talking to people like me? It feels like the more I seek purpose, the more lost I get. My inner compass is broken, Papa. What do you do when you have a broken compass?


Papa wiped down the counter as he spoke. “In the middle of the night, when it’s pitch black in your bedroom, you get up and start to walk. You go slowly, and you bump into things at first. But if you keep doing it, night after night, you’re going to learn where those things are. And soon you’ll be able to see in your mind how to walk and you’ll be so confident that you will never forget how. Then you’ll be able to move through your entire house with your mind, and only your mind. You get me?”


I tell him that I do, but I am afraid of the dark. 


Another peal of laughter from Papa. “The dark is not the problem!” he exclaimed. “Everything in life is exactly where it’s supposed to be. Your mind is what’s tricking you. You have to sense your way. It’s the only way. You know where things are.”


Gurus are a light, and they aren’t just the wise souls in robes and marigold wreaths. Usually you don’t notice them at all. They are the ones selling soup, the ones asking for change under a cardboard sign in the rain, the ones sweeping the sidewalk and watching in amusement as the rest of us run frantically by, trying to find the meaning of life. The funny thing is, it’s no secret. It’s right here, right in this moment—in the clattering trains passing through Ostbahnhof, in the billows of steam carrying the words of two strangers deep in conversation, in the stirrings of life that ebb with the setting sun. There is nothing to look for, nothing to find. Sometimes a glimpse of truth gives you the courage to close your eyes and trust your own steps. 

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