On a tight ridgeline, which rose dramatically above a fertile and dank river valley — in a cold rain is how I would envision it — a bearded and rather bedraggled Leo Tolstoy gathered his middle-aged wits and good sense and asked a big question:
“What will come of my whole life?”
The author of Anna Karenina and War and Peace was at his pinnacle, born to wealth in early 19th-century Russia, his skill and success as a writer unequalled.
No one was writing it any better than Leo Tolstoy. Then the bottom fell out, depression gushed in, creativity suffocated, and the gifted Russian writer is moved to ask the big question:
“My question — that which at the age of 50 brought me to the verge of suicide — was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man from the foolish child to the wisest elder. What will come of my whole life?”
Tolstoy posed the question and for the next 32 years he worked at understanding the end product of this thing we call life.
He was close on the heels of the fully developed human.
A Confession and What I Believe, published some 11 years after his death in 1910, is a divine manifesto of his search for high art and true self.
Tolstoy’s eventual answer came, in his own words, as a “religious certainty and deep faith, based on strict adherence to the teachings of Christ.”
Goodness and God, peace, justice, service, all of these according to Tolstoy can be found in the strict devotion and unquestioned faith demonstrated by common working people.
For Tolstoy, a peasant’s life is the answer to the big question.
I think about Tolstoy’s conversion and confession while waiting for my table at Theo’s Greek Restaurant in Penticton.
I am here to visit owner Nikos Theodosakis about his work as cook, entrepreneur, filmmaker, arts presenter and educational guru.
Nikos is tired I can tell.
I am late.
Seated right up next to the band, at a small hand-painted blue- and-yellow table, just out of the main light, mood takes over. I find the scene perfect and I catch my breath.
I order halibut in red pepper sauce, potatoes rather than rice, additional hot peppers and a plate of oysters up front.
I wait. Watch the hurry of the place. I marvel at the dance people do when they go out to dinner, and I soon get caught up in it.
I ask for more water. My thumb strikes the table a few times and all at once I’m pounding out a rhythm. What it is I don’t know. Doesn’t matter.
I stop. Look around at all the entrées and wines being hauled out to tables. The tables become boats and their crews are storing up for the long haul.
My head feels light. I fold my hands onto the table and stare into their folds.
I hear myself asking the big question.
“What will come of my life?”
Here, at a seemingly inappropriate moment, up front near the band, in the crimson light which hangs over a blue-and-yellow table, the big question hits me.
It is a full hour before Nikos joins me again. He is wired now and into the full swing of Greek fare.
He rambles about Lucy, his latest film, which sets out to explore desire and passion in the life of a young girl. His summer film festival was a hit, sold out again.
And he talks about life on the Greek isles. He moves his hands like warm water, back and forth, painting me a cozy picture of Mykanos and Santorini.
The hostess taps Nikos on the shoulder and he is gone. I stay behind in dim light, hands still folded. And I see myself with rounded shoulders.
The big question again hovers over me, bears down hard now.
“What will come of my life?”
My search for meaning has not yet driven me to God. My inroad to the divine is still a long walk alone in quiet country under a sunset spread over a sky full of clouds. My temple is the small art gallery just down the street. There I find expression and sensibility and mystery enough.
Nikos jumps up and moves directly into the harsh light in front of the band.
He raises a dinner plate and presents it to the crowd.
In an instant, he smashes it on the tile floor. Bits of porcelain splinter everywhere. He grabs another, smashes it. Let the dancing begin.
He breaks plates as the traditional Greek way of calling our attention to the present. Be in the moment he says. Love life he says. Dance. Let God swing you round.