Sunday, October 15, 2006

Four Lessons from a River Walk

Four Lessons from A River Walk
1. You cannot be in two places at once.

2. When you are in One Place, the Other does not stop.

3. There are infinitely many Other Places.

4. We need Other Places to define the One Place, sometimes known as Home.

Walking in circles often helps me think straight. These 4 rules settled out in my head as I was walking around the river in Thurso. Many philosophers and writers have said it much better, including Milan Kundera, whose novel, Ignorance, I finally finished after renewing it 3 times at the library. Because it has to do with nostalgia and ex patriates and returning to their original countries and sharing reminisces with friends, I needed to read it, but I had to read it in small doses.
Books, like cats, find us when we need them.

Xuan (pronounced something like Shou- Ahn) was born in Shanghai and had traveled widely by the time I met her in Indianapolis. She talked to me about double homesickness: a feeling of loss when she went home to discover that it was not as she remembered it and then coming back to her newly chosen home and discovering that it was not quite as she remembered it either. I like to think I listened sympathetically but at that time I could only appreciate it intellectually. I may have quoted Aldous Huxley's description of "hole cutters"--people who for whatever reason can rise above the fabric that holds them to be able to observe it as a fabric. If I recall, he argued that was a unique gift but that once out of the fabric, these hole cutters could never be returned completely within it. As a rebellious adolescent when I first read that description, being outside a fabric had more appeal than it does now.

Now having slipped out of the fabric of Indiana to the highlands of Scotland, I have made my own description for double barreled homesickness: first the loss of the familiar and then the realization that the familiar is not a commodity that can be retrieved at will.
Losing the 'familiar', the first barrel of the shotgun, meant that simple things that we normally can take for granted required conscious effort. I had to learn how the digits in a phone number are arranged, how light switches work, how to use sinks that do not mix hot and cold water through a tap in the middle, even how to cross a street "Up is off, and down is on. " "Drive on the left. " "The coin that looks like a dime is 5 pence; the one that looks like a fat quarter is a pound."
The second barrel of the shotgun was the realization that the covert knowledge of nativeness wouldn't be lying someplace near the airport where I could pick it up again, pull it on and slip back into the American I was. I will recognize a dime as a dime again, but the things that mark us as belonging change imperceptibly moment by moment. Even if I had stashed them carefully behind and slipped them on at the airport, they would be odd and slightly out of step--somehow not quite right to the eye or the ear.
James Baldwin wrote about walking down the gangplank of the ship that brought him back to his native America after having lived in France and learning in an instant that he had lost something in the way of saying 'hello' that marked him as an outsider. As a Black man, this made him particularly vulnerable. Although I will not face the kind of threat Baldwin did nor have I ever planned a Great Return as Kundera's characters did after a long exile, nonetheless I have to accept that my native country will have moved on without having noticed that I am no longer there.


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