When my beloved Brooklynite was pregnant with her astonishing child back in 2003, I made a note and stuck it to my computer's monitor. "Now we all get new lives," it said, because that's what her pregnancy made me feel: hope that it was possible to begin again, to move forward no matter what had come before, still to have a chance at happiness, and love, and a future.
I've brought a similar feeling of anything's being possible back with me to England. I had precisely two weeks back home in the US--and back home in a variety of homes, at that: Indiana home, monastery home, even New York City home-away-from-home (though that last has never made a lot of sense to me, given that I have never actually lived there and probably won't, at this point) (though who can say?). The return was an epic one, scheduled as it was for the evening after Hercules stormed up and over the east coast, and by my final count it involved 27 hours spent on five trains (including the NYC subway and the Philadelphia regional rail), two planes (on two airlines), and a car. I saw the back ends of more airport operations than I'd seen before, including the secret back-end security gate through which one can be re-checked into International Arrivals and Baggage Claim at Heathrow's Terminal 1, if one has been directed to use the mysterious yellow Baggage Enquiries telephone.
I got back into my own house only about five hours later than I'd originally planned, and only a little more the worse for wear than I'd originally expected. I ate a lot of sandwiches yesterday. I slept a lot in public places, but only in public places that have wheels or wings. I treated myself to a seat in what turned out to be a decidedly non-quiet First Class Quiet Coach on the final train trip back into the southwest, which is apocalyptically flooded, though I haven't seen much of that yet because of the darkness. I drank wine from a plastic cup and clocked out over the movie Beginners and the latest playlist I've made for my playlist-making-soon-to-be-a-monk friend. I instagrammed pictures of my progress so that my beloved parents would know where I was and what it looked like there. In some of my lucid and not-so-lucid moments, I plotted in my head ways to use the $900 travel voucher I scored from my airline on Friday night in order to see those beloved parents sooner rather than later.
And today I'm settling back in, relearning familiar sounds and beloved lights and comforts. While I was away, when people asked how life in England is, I kept thinking (and saying)--especially in some particular company--that it's lovely and happy but not quite right. "Something is missing," I'd say.
"That's how it felt for me," one of my interlocutors said. "I was living somewhere where people pay millions of dollars to have a second house, and something was missing." He locked eyes with me for a long time over that, and we turned over for each other the idea that even in beauty, even in gorgeously epic travel and the most radical seeming-freedom, something is missing, is still missing. We didn't say what it is, because it's not just one thing, and though we have at least one missing thing (or rather place) in common, it's not clear yet whether there's more than just that. We said goodbye in the glorious sun on frigid, snow-scaped Prince Street. He cycled off to his job; I went back inside to buy books for the return to my job. We're apart again, and yet it feels less as though we are.
"That's how it felt for me," another of my interlocutors said. "It's not even sex that I miss. It's being held by someone. What am I supposed to do about that?" We cried together a couple of times about that, each of us holding open a space in which the other can grieve what's here and what's not.
"That's how it felt for me," yet another said. "I was living in this gorgeous place, in a house I loved, with a job I liked. It was everything I wanted. But something was missing."
It occurs to me now, looking back at how my last few days in the US went, that I managed to have too-brief but intensely meaningful and emotional meet-ups with an extraordinary number of my people. That I was, consciously and unconsciously, treasuring them up against the eight months to come, getting myself ready for nights like this first one back, when I'm perched in the top of the house, hearing yet another gale roll in (for it has rained nearly every day since my departure in December, and all the fields are flooded and we have been warned not to go anywhere near the sea). The washing machine churns and spins in the kitchen downstairs, making its sturdy industrial-domestic sounds. The rain lashes the window above me and the windows before me. It picks up pace, slaps and blows and streams. I have candles and lamps lit against the dark, and it's cozy here. It's a cozy evening in a cozy life. And I am grateful not to be stranded in an airport, or stranded without my suitcase (which I rescued myself after having unsatisfactorily been told that it had gone missing and would probably turn up within the next 72 hours). Or, immeasurably, unimaginably much worse, stranded without a home, or without a steady mind, or without work, or without any love anywhere. Because I have so much love, both for others in my life and from them. And it was glorious beyond description to be held by my parents, and to greet my best friends in the flesh in a quiet apartment and in a crowded bus terminal, and to be seized joyfully by my Zen teacher, and to have people at the monastery literally lining up to welcome me home and then, a week later, to send me off again. It is certainly no small thing to see people startle and brighten at your very appearance, to see them smile and go wide-eyed, to see the cooler of them raise an eyebrow and tip a chin back in greeting.
But something is missing. And a big part of it is me, missing from there and there and there. And part of it is him, missing from here. And part of it is them, missing from here. And also those others, and those, and them, all missing from here, because of all of us, in all of our various configurations and locations, I am the only one who is or will be here, at least until a couple of visitors turn up in the summer. I unpacked my student robe last night and realized that it still smells like life at the monastery, smells of incense and of a body sitting very still while a mind turns and turns and tries to figure out a way to settle down, and of a body moving very quickly to get people's food to them, and of a body standing straight and chanting in the new year. I buried my face in it, breathing it in and realizing how reluctant I am to wash it until the smell of that beloved life in that beloved place fades a bit.
My heart is and will be open and unafraid; that is my central vow for this year. And I think that one of the things I am going to be learning, again, is just how untenable it is going to be, from here on out, to be missing so much.
(My novelist colleague and co-director told me last month that he had finished grading his set of our papers early because he was procrastinating on his writing. I thought, how brilliant! I could procrastinate on my grading by writing! And that is, indeed, how I am going to come to get some writing done this year.)
Tomorrow morning I give a lecture about which I'm both excited and nervous. I'm trying out this whole not-writing-it-at-the-last-second thing, if only because it's a reworking of a lecture I've given before. What this means for today is that I was able to take a walk at dusk--a dusk I'm glad not to have missed.
I thought about waiting until the winter solstice to post again, just to make it seem as though I'd been somewhat deliberate about disappearing for months on end. But then I decided not to wait.
I'm coming up on four months of life back on this side of the Atlantic--coming up, too, on the moment when I'll reenter my own country for a flash of time before returning for the continuation of my latest year away.
Thanksgiving this week staggered me through a range of realizations, chief amongst them that (I learn this over and over again all the time, because I keep forgetting it) there are other people in the world who enjoy spending time with me. The exploits are too many and varied to enumerate here, and most of them rely on chance encounters and someone's willingness to step out and ask an unexpected question or say yes to an unanticipated offering. All over again, I feel myself loosening my grasp on how I think things are supposed to happen.