The Mystic Pen
Remembering the Life
of Annemarie Schimmel
I am s-w-e-a-t-i-n-g. My heart is beating as fast as the deaf-defying whirl of a hummingbird’s heart. It is so loud that I am sure the stranger sitting next to me can hear each and every frenzied beat. Exams are within the next few weeks. There is so much to study, absorb, assimilate, do. I begin the simple repetitive calculation that I always make on the final weeks preceding exams...there are seven days a week, twenty four hours in a day, four hours of classes, deduct an hour for lunch and dinner, six for sleep and I am left with... A loud bang (I jump) as someone accidentally drops a very heavy book onto the fine, highly polished marble floor. Suddenly I am brought back to the present moment where I sit huddled and now startled over a mass of papers and books at the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, Harvard’s oldest and grandest testament to humankind’s love of learning. But that is not all this library is. It stands as sheer architectural proof of a mother’s undying love for her young son Harry who was tragically lost to the icy waters of the North Atlantic in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912 while aboard the Titanic. It was a fate spared Eleanor when her husband George Dunton Widener placed her and her maid on lifeboat number four, a boat they had to wait an hour to board and one George insisted she take. As history tells it, Eleanor’s boat survived and was later rescued but her husband’s and son’s did not. They were trapped on the keeling vessel, doomed by a cruel fate, swallowed by an unforgiving sea, never to be seen again.
When I get tired of crouching over books or my hand gets weary from taking too many notes, I stand up and walk around, working out the many kinks in my spine by strolling through the endless gleaming corridors or wandering amongst the labyrinthian stacks which contain three and a half million books, organized neatly on 55-65 miles of linear shelving. There is always something interesting to look at in the bowels of the building or to research in one of the many reading rooms.
Sometimes after an intense morning of study, I put my head down on one of the long, trestle-style tables I frequently sit at in the central reading hall and take a much needed nap. Some of the best naps I’ve ever had were in Widener. Here, I can sleep like a baby, for there is a certain womb-like security derived from sitting amongst so many books and having the Harvard Online Library Information System “HOLLIS” at my fingertips.
And on days when the sky turns tenebrous and starts to pour, I take simple pleasure in watching the rain sluicing down the enormous windows, thinking how the branch-like path of each sliding droplet captures in full visual form the complete expression of a fully explored idea. The imposing brick Beaux-arts-style edifice, shored up by twelve impressive Corinthian columns and flanked by the thirty cement steps which lead to the main entrance, is nothing in comparison to the world which lies within. And this is why I always run like “Rocky” up the many stairs and why I inevitably arrive breathless at the top. For no idea has to ever be left unexplored at Widener. It is the perfect bridge between my thoughts and the papers and exams I will now have to write.
The Gibb Room provided a quiet refuge from the more noisy central reading room and housed the research interests of the late Gibb himself which included a wonderful collection of more than 5,000 books on Islamic history, religion, languages, and literature. The heavy oak door to the room was always locked, accessible only by the firm clockwise twist of a single brass key. Only a handful of students had access to the space at any given time thus ensuring what was an almost predictably solitary room. The few scholars who would enter on occasion were always announced in advance by the loud turning of key-in-lock, a noise which echoed throughout the grand corridor and inevitably jolted the person sitting inside quietly reading - or drifting off to sleep. I often knew the room’s few visitors and eventually grew to enjoy the occasional company their surprise jolts brought to an otherwise dusty, tomb-like space.
But Widener was also the place that I would sometimes meet Annemarie. Usually we’d agree to meet outside. On the right hand corner of the exterior of the building there was a space that lent itself well to such impromptu meetings that usually happened in the fleeting moments between classes. I remember one such occasion in which I had wanted to show her a rare book that I’d purchased from a fascinating store in Harvard Square. Berenstein’s, as I believe it was called, had the most fantastic collections of rare antiquities from the Orient. The main store was in New York, but they also had this smaller version in the square which was soon to leave Cambridge forever and be consolidated with the New York store. Amongst all the largely unaffordable jewelry, vases, sculptures and such, I came across an old leather-bound book bearing the name Dala’il al-Khayrat. A classic work in the field of Sufism. From the inside inscription it appeared to have been copied by hand from the original text which was written by Shadhili Sheikh Muhammad al-Jazuli and dates back to the fifteenth century. It had been rendered in beautiful Arabic calligraphy by a man living in Cairo in the early 1900s.
I was deeply intrigued by all the notes that he had carefully written in the margins and had wanted Annemarie to look at the book, his notes and underlined passages and comment on them both. I had carefully wrapped it in a colorful silk scarf to protect the leather cover and fragile pages and packed it carefully inside my book bag. When I met Annemarie later that day she was wearing a long beige trench coat and had pulled a simple headscarf over her pale grey-blonde hair. She was on her way to teaching a class and had stopped for a few minutes to meet me outside of Widener. I carefully unwrapped my treasure and proudly handed it to her; eagerly waiting her response. “Oh yes” she remarked, “This is a very well-known work and a lovely calligraphic version of it.” She seemed enchanted by the black and red ink and only stopped at the carefully scrawled note in the left-hand margin that I was so interested in having her translate. After a short pause she read:
The secret to my existence (or essence) lies in the beauty (or mystery) of His truth. “That is how I would translate it.” After she read the Sufi phrase she had a certain gleam in her eyes that she would sometimes get when she was amused and remarked, “I love how you’ve wrapped the book.” And then she was gone, floating off to her class which was located next door in Sever Hall.
Fast forward. Exams are almost over and I am to be married in June which is only a month away. It is through Annemarie that I met my future husband, although she didn’t know this until much later. It was her final semester at Harvard and there were many retirement parties being held in her honor. I remember the last such event because I had decided to skip it since I had faithfully attended all the others and now really needed the extra time to study. I remember walking through Harvard Yard heading towards Widener. I also remember climbing halfway up the multitude of steps one has to climb to get to the main entrance of the library when I suddenly stopped and paused before running back down again.
As if by some powerful invisible thread, I was pulled in the opposite direction toward Winthrop House, ironically a building which consists of both Gore and Standish Halls. For reasons which would become all too clear later, I had decided to attend the party after all. I arrived late; the door was locked; the customary farewell lecture already in full swing. So I waited outside closed doors for what seemed like an eternity. I couldn’t quite make out what was being said inside but could hear her voice and the silence indicative of a deeply rapt audience. When the door suddenly swung open in order to release a student in a very big hurry to go somewhere else before the class bell tolled, I took the opportunity to enter the very warm, overly crowded room with Annemarie standing at the helm.
It was in this space and at this event that I met my future mother-in-law (then a student at The Kennedy School of Government and the Artist-In Residence at Dudley House) and began what would be a life-long friendship of mutual respect and admiration. I later learned that she had been sent by my future husband to attend this final lecture as he was unable to attend himself, caught in the fiery throes of PhD qualifying exams at Yale. Because he had just recently read Annemarie’s classic tome: Mystical Dimensions of Islam and had become fascinated by her life’s work, he had insisted that his mother attend on his behalf. And so it was through both Annemarie and the invisible thread that I felt tugging at me on the steps of Widener that I was eventually put on a course which would lead me to meeting the man I would one day marry and with whom I would raise three beautiful children. After a very short courtship he proposed in the form of a fifteen page poem that he had authored...written in Old English and incorporating some classic Sufi concepts. I read the poem at night, by myself and under the soft glow of a lone candle encased in a Moorish lamp which when lit from inside cast an elaborate pattern on the ceiling.
His gift to me came in the form of a poem which was perhaps only marginally eclipsed by an event which seems just as other worldly today as it did back then. There is a movement within Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Season’s called “Summer.” Within “Summer” there is an even smaller section in which the composer tries to invoke the musical equivalent of a raging thunderstorm. I was deeply moved by the presto measures that the storm builds up to. And although the actual part I speak of only amounts to about twenty-five bars or so and is part of a much larger work, as a young twenty-year old music student seeking to express myself in ways that did not involve the use of words, those fervently played bars were the perfect conduit for which my spirit could flow and be fully understood. I had often imagined that my part of “Summer” would accompany me at all my most significant life events... even my funeral. Note for note, I had concluded that this small musical paragraph was my soul encapsulated, a sentiment I had kept to myself and never ever shared with anyone else.
I had no idea that years later, a young graduate student with whom I had fallen in love and decided to marry would one day be standing in front of me with a small cassette tape, imploring me to listen to a few measures of music that had deeply affected him years before, all the while thoughtfully asserting that, “...When I heard this music by Vivaldi, I always knew my soul mate would be the embodiment of these few bars...so I really want you to hear it...as this is truly you.” I only half paid attention to what he said, distracted by a painting on an adjacent wall that had caught my attention earlier and not really in the mood to hear any music at all. That is until he pressed play. For it never ever occurred to me that what he would play for me that day would be my beloved section of “Summer.” What are the chances?
Her gift to me, delivered into my right palm, arrived in the form of a small, rectangular, matte-gold box with the inscription “Godiva” embossed cleanly across an otherwise silky smooth lid. A wedding present she had said. What Annemarie did not know however, was that I do not eat chocolate, a fact that I am sure she would have missed given that she herself loved to indulge in such gastronomical splendors. And so, she couldn’t possibly know that her gift would lay unopened, placed high on a shelf and saved for an occasion when it could be offered with coffee or tea to some sweet-toothed guest. I can’t remember how long it sat undisturbed, its smooth cover collecting dust motes which briefly danced on her lid before eventually settling into the small groves alongside the vendor’s letters. But I do remember with some clarity the day “Godiva” was opened. I was studying for exams and had run out of food and so decided to chew on some chocolate until I could get to the store later. Lending further merit to this compulsion was the feeling that I really should sample this gift in order to tell Annemarie how it was.
The lid slipped off easily and unremarkably. It did not seem strange to me at the time that it was not shrink wrapped or sealed by the manufacturer’s stamp and my non-observance of these facts remains a mystery to me even now. But as I held the box in one hand while reaching inside with the other, only dry paper met my fingertips and the soft susurrus of paper being moved reached my ears as my hands slowly made their way through the layered silver paper fully expecting to find smooth, cool, chocolate at the end. Something small, hard, and oval-shaped lay at the bottom of the box instead: a jewelry case covered in an age-old midnight blue fabric and held shut by a tiny delicate brass clasp, responsible for keeping its mysterious contents firmly hidden to the outside world. I remember noticing that the fabric around the clasp was almost threadbare as if the case were opened over and over again for some forty odd years, even if only to view the contents resting deep inside. And as I pressed lightly on the brass closure and the lid sprang open with all the pent up energy of a child’s Jack-in-the-box, it revealed to me a gift of enormous beauty and generosity. Nothing could have prepared me for what was inside.
As though it had never existed at all, it took slightly less than two and a half hours for the world’s largest most “unsinkable” ship to slip completely under the surface of the icy-cold, deep-black waters of the Atlantic. I have great respect for the power of the ocean and what lies hidden just below the surface or waiting in a sudden turn of the weather. I grew up with a father who loves to boat and has spent countless days on his own craft, carving out what little time he has during the year exploring different routes and spending six weeks in the summer going up and down the various intra-coastal routes which flow and connect at various points all across the Atlantic and Pacific. He has navigated in both American and Canadian waters. He has had numerous close calls.
I can recall dramatic stories of run-ins involving a sudden turn of bad weather or the frustrating, at times, overwhelming travails associated with random equipment failures. Annemarie herself comes from a family of well-known seafarers from the northern part of Germany and grew up listening to her relative’s high adventures on the sea, the stories and places they visited being so entertaining that at one point their stories were incorporated into a popular radio show which was played throughout the country on weekends. I know enough to say that what happened to the Titanic is the power of the ocean combined with very bad luck.
I think of Eleanor, on her small lifeboat saying goodbye to her husband and son perhaps not knowing this was the very last time her eyes would behold their faces. I think of her life’s greatest tragedy leading to the construction of one of the world’s greatest libraries...a gift to humanity that is so great that its true worth cannot ever be fully measured, a silent word-filled reminder of all that was lost and all that might still be. Her gift stands as a proud, perhaps even defiant token of hope for future generations... a library that was built with as much care and diligence as the ship that took away her greatest joy. It is a library that gives back over and over again, continually reinventing itself as it moves forward into the next century while remaining truthful to its past.
The delicate, solid platinum watch was breathtaking and flawless in its fabrication: its small face obscured by highly intricate diamond fretwork which was laid out in a labyrinthine-like pattern, much like the Widener stacks which I so loved. When pressed just the right way, its brilliant, sparkling face effortlessly slides open to reveal the sensitive instrument hidden inside, silently recording time in perfect precision. Originating from the highly regarded Swiss jeweler and watchmaker, Carl F. Bucherer’s shop, it was no wonder that such a work of art could also be functional. Founded in 1888 in Lucerne, Carl Bucherer quickly became legendary throughout Europe and to the world as his driving passion, quest for beauty, and flawless execution combined seamlessly with cutting-edge technology to create jewelry and watches that stand in a league all their own. One only has to read one of their many corporate statements to grasp the Bucherer vision:
...Our continuous search for both esthetic and technical perfection, our love of beauty and detail, the uncompromising nature and boldness of our ideas and the great pleasure and devotion with which we carry out our work are all clearly evident in our products...For people who do not go with the times...
It was a watch that she had owned for many years, opening the case over and over again until the fabric wore thin from regular contact with her soft, pale fingers. It was a watch that I knew she could not wear herself as her own wrists and hands had become swollen and knotted over the years as a direct result of a deteriorating osteo-arthritic condition. Instead she had kept it as safe as a promise. When I later pressed her for the story behind the watch she assumed a far-away look...and was pointedly vague. It was at that moment, in the words not said, that I realized somewhere rooted in its long history there was another story left untold.
How often I’ve thought of the symbolism conveyed in this gift, a clear metaphor for her life’s work in the field of Sufism... the message carried out neatly by an unassuming chocolate box whose simple looks belied the treasure inside. I think of her profound thirst for knowledge and truth, of her infinite love for Rumi stoked by the beauty and eternal relevance of his words. But I also think of Eleanor and how in life we can never be too sure of what lies around the bend. Life is predictable in this respect, a great unopened box whose contents we think we know but cannot even begin to fathom until the final moment, when the ink of our existence dries for the very last time.
NOTES AND CREDITS:
I would like to thank the following sources for factual information relating to Widener Library, the Wideners and the Titanic:
I am deeply indebted to Beth Brainard, Director of Communications for Widener Library, for confirming all sorts of information and for patiently obtaining the information relating to the exact number of steps leading up to the main door. I would also like to extend my sincerest thanks to Photographer, Gabriel Amadeus Cooney, for allowing me to use his wonderful, ethereal photograph of Widener.
For further reading on Widener Library see the above site or read Matthew Battles’ book: Biography of a Library (Harvard Press, 2004).