Chess in the Snow

I’ve been thinking of two ideas recently. One is that of falling snow, a raging blizzard. The other is chess. Regarding snow, in an email, my friend Tara wrote:”I’ve been sitting and looking out my window at the snow this morning being blown around the empty space outside, 14 floors up. A dancing, swirling chaos of confusion, of millions of different particles just being blown blindly every which way. It’s too easy to see it as the metaphor for what life really is – the fallacy of relationships for example, when we’re all being blown in different directions and none of us know where the hell we’re going, and there’s not much we can do about it.”

I’ve been thinking about that for a while now. The sense of helplessness in the trajectory of life, the randomness of all human interactions, the fleeting, temporariness of everything. In a word, transience. And I’ve been thinking about this a lot regarding my life traveling. I’m pretty uprooted in terms of home – I never really feel at home in Michigan, I’m usually concerned and stressed about when the next time I can get out, and depressed that I had to come back again. And so I travel, and go new places, on the move. But then the interactions I have with others, friendships I make, experiences, things I see, as I’m uprooted and wandering, all of these experiences are fleeting. On one hand, that’s part of the appeal. Seeing new things, meeting new people, experiencing the wonders of life. It’s why everyone envies those who can travel, and when you’re stationary, it’s what you long to go do again. The joys, the delights, wonders, of the transient lifestyle.

But on the other hand, I’ve been thinking about the first two noble truths of Buddhism as well. The nature of suffering, that all of life is suffering, and a bit further, that all of life is suffering because everything is fleeting, that all things pass. Samsara. The second noble truth is that suffering results out of a desire, a desire for permanence. And there’s something very sad and very frightening about being that fragile, lonely snowflake, blown about in the abyss, never really knowing where the next step is. And knowing that everyone else is being blown about in the same, frightening manner.

The other thing that’s been on my mind is chess. I’m horrible at the game, and actually only really learned how to play a year ago in Prague. Playing chess on my computer was something to do to waste the hours in my miserable room. I have a marvelous record of zero wins. Despite my lack of skill, the game fascinates me, especially when I think of people who are good at the game. Chess wizards can look at the board, and map out their moves 8, 9 moves ahead, and plan out for all the different changes that might result from where their opponent plays. On the flipside, I look at the board and don’t know if one move is better than another, and I can hardly think one move ahead. I blindly move pieces on the board, uncertainly, frustrated at my lack of the ability to see and decide.

With retrospect, you can see how all your chess moves played out, where the winds changed your directions and the directions of those around you. But in that blizzard itself, in the chaos of looking at a game that you’re in the middle of but don’t understand the process of how to play it, it’s frustrating and it’s scary, and you don’t know what’s going on in the abyss that surrounds you.

….. So there’s this square in central Sarajevo that has a large chess board painted on the concrete. The pieces are about two feet tall. During the daylight hours, old men can be seen here playing chess. They’re really there all day, every day. I’ve seen the some of the same faces there, so I think it’s a regular crew. Two guys are playing, and about fifteen or twenty will be watching, either arguing about the moves, or watching in silence, pondering their own thoughts.

It’s snowy in Sarajevo now, and, while I’m not there now, sadly, I have a snapshot in my mind. The old men are playing the life size chess game, while a blizzard blows millions of tiny flakes of snow all about them. The players ponder slowly, but with this weather, how much thought is given to the moves? The men watching are silent today; it’s too cold for wild arguments, too windy to take their hands out of their pockets or really lift their heads, as they hide their faces for protection from the flurries. They follow the game silently in solitude, each immersed in his own thoughts; pondering the trajectory of the game or his cold hands, or the abyss that both engulfs him and swirls infinitely about him.

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