A few days ago, I hung out with a visiting photographer from Moscow. Oleg Yakovlev (some of his work here and here) was headed to Berlin and wondering how to occupy himself without doing the tourist circuit, when he came up with an idea: ask “locals” to show him their favorite spots in town and photograph them there, letting his subjects explain why these spaces mean so much to them.
Despite Berlin’s famous party scene, I’m a bit of a nerd, so my “favorite” places are cozy, quiet, and calm: a research library and a cafe (womp womp — jk; for writers, libraries and cafes ARE a party scene!). Oleg graciously offered to photograph me in both.
Why these places?
Both of them have given me incredible inspiration and validation for my memoir: the story of an unconventional quarterlife crisis that takes an unexpected U-turn far into the past.
A past life, to be precise.
During World War II.
The library where I took Oleg was a place I used to frequent back in 2014 to try making sense of dreams, visions, and intuitive impressions I’d experienced through my quarterlife spiritual awakening. In a way that felt almost like a sacred ritual of healing, I went there almost daily, settling into the same black chair for countless hours of reading, journaling, sometimes crying. (How does one read about the Holocaust for hours and not cry?) The season was late-autumn then, when dusk in Berlin already has an enthusiastic head-start by around 3:00p.m., so I’d sit beside the floor-to-ceiling windows to catch every last bit of daylight. The skies would turn from gray to blue, then blue to black, leaving only a soft lamp to illuminate the pages.
Despite the tragic history of that site though and the horror of its contents, there is a sense almost of something holy — a peaceful stillness, a restorative solemnity — that reverberates through the building and beyond. “Beyond” because its lessons in tolerance and peace sink deep into the souls of those who visit, and we carry these with us into the world wherever we go.
… So naturally this library goes on my personal “map” of Berlin.
The other spot — and one I do still frequent — is a corner cafe with huge windows; fresh flowers on each of its worn, wooden tables; and a hefty tome of a menu with more tea and coffee options than any writerly type could hope for (#writerheaven). Even better, it’s hardly a 10-minute walk from the Spree river, convenient for long walks to clear the mind and refresh the inspiration.
In all ways, a perfect place. But what makes it significant?
Because despite having huge influence on my journey, the past-life element of my memoir was something I spent years wanting to hide. Fearing that my story was “too weird” and carrying latent anxieties about facing aggressive intolerance for my spiritual views, I held the trippier details of my experience close to my chest. But in 2014, after a few weeks in that library where I forced myself to look directly at the past, I was finally making an odd peace with the “reality” of the other life.
As if on cue, this was when a random traveler from the Netherlands stepped into my world. While we talked about Berlin’s history, he pulled my story out of me and — enthralled with it — eagerly encouraged me to share it. On his last morning in town, he took me to breakfast at a cozy cafe and offered wise, enthusiastic, supportive words to reassure me that my memoir had political, spiritual, and emotional value. It was the first time a total stranger fell in love with my saga, and I was touched. Remembering his infectious excitement about my book has made it one of my favorite places to write. I go there still and feel particularly connected to my story there. This helps the writing flow.
What happened when I showed Oleg these places?
Oleg’s first reaction when we walked into the library (despite its solemn sterility) was “Oh, this looks great!”— particularly the row of chairs next to the window where (he didn’t realize) I used to sit. And when, at the cafe, I invited him to choose whichever spot he felt best for taking photos, he chose the exact spot where I’d sat with the Dutch traveler three years ago.
In other words, in each establishment, the man chose the exact spot where I’d connected with so much inspiration for my book.
Quite an intuition.
He especially loved these places on account of their light. (What a metaphor…)
Here’s what I haven’t been able to stop pondering since then:
I invited into my own favorite “hideaways” a person whose very job is to see the everyday world as a work of visual art. As it turns out, I learned that to a trained eye the settings where magical things happened in my story… are places that look magical to begin with.
On the one hand, I’ve wondered whether that might be part of why I always felt so drawn to them in the first place.
But on the other hand, I can’t help but recall that I’ve been blown away FAR more than once over these past couple years, as I’ve witnessed old soulmates return to the stage in moments that couldn’t have been more brilliantly scripted. And unaware of our own shared past, these beloved companions of the soul casually drop breathtaking lines, deliver awe-inspiring performances. Time and time again.
It’s been hard, at times, not to see the human experience as some sort of jaw-dropping masterpiece of cosmic theater.
And so, in light of everything — and especially ever since Oleg remarked on the beauty of my favorite, unassuming places and the wonder of their light — what I keep wondering is this:
How many of our most powerful life moments are, in fact, exquisitely composed, playing out as though on a masterfully designed stage?
Perhaps all of them.