Thursday, June 21, 2012

Making homes out of numbness

Melting ice cubes, drinking sailboats. 

"Are you sure this does not come in any other color?" I ask with the face children make when they do not want to eat their green beans.
"Yes, I am sure. This is the hot color of this summer," the salesperson informs me with mild irritation that I did not already know that.

That is how I found myself on a Greek beach in a fluorescent pink bikini. I am a creature of forest greens and soothing ivories and maybe teal on an optimistic day and, here I was, floating in the water in the loudest of pinks. My pupils expand to accommodate the rush of color. Municipal laws in Jerusalem require that buildings be faced with local stone and my images of the city reflect this uniformity. My Jerusalem was a photograph in white and pink, of an orange night-time glow courtesy of the street lamps. The greens and blues of Greece, the fluorescent pinks, diversify my color range in a way that forces me to squint.

I feel naked in Greece. I am wearing one of the largest bikinis here and I am still grabbing for more fabric. My collarbones are used to being tucked under pashminas, my fuzzy knees are accustomed to being concealed. No amount of SPF could have prepared me for the fullness of exposure. My body is struggling to remember that this is the culture into which I was born. I am from small bikinis and bright colors, from summers of green and blue.

In Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, André Aciman reflects on the lenses with which we color the different places we have called home. In photographs and in life, in the white stone and pink light or green backdrops and blue seas, he argues that we employ filters to construct a narrative of place that suits our longing:
It wasn't Rome itself I was seeing; it was the film, the filter I'd placed on the old city that finally made me love it, the film I went to seek each time I'd go to a bookstore and would come out late in the evening to stroll down my Nevsky Prospekt in search of vague smiles and fellowship in a city I wasn't even sure existed on the sidewalks. 
Did we construct the hues, then? Did I imagine Jerusalem? We might have, claims Aciman, but that does not detract from our sentimental attachment to the sense of place we dreamed up. In his words, "what we reach for and what ultimately touches us is the radiance we've projected on things, not the things themselves -- the envelope, not the letter, the wrapping, not the gift."

And if I did conjure Jerusalem out of my mind, why can I not apply the same same creative visualization to a place that should have been a more natural home? Greece lacks neither beauty nor memories, neither magic nor love. And, at this point, neither conflict nor complexity. It is I who is lacking here: I am lacking in wonder. I am lacking the curiosity with which novelty gifts us. I am doing my homeland an injustice by failing to approach an old, beloved and familiar place with the new, wide, and inquisitive eyes that I brought to Jerusalem. The nostalgia Aciman ascribes to Rome, I feel for the self I was in Jerusalem:
It's not just the beauty that I'll miss. I'll miss, too, the way this city gets under my skin and, for a while, makes me its own. [...] It's a feeling I wear with greater confidence every day. I know it is a borrowed feeling -- it's Rome's, not mine. I know it will go dead as soon as I leave the Roman light behind. 
But what about e.e. cummings? What about "i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)"? Why do curiosity and aliveness have to reside in a place, as opposed to within us?  

My answer is that curiosity requires a presence and an openness that I cannot supply right now. After three years of work with women survivors of conflict in the Middle East, East Africa and Latin America, I am preparing to return to graduate school in the United States and to a different way of learning. It is a summer of holding my breath and wishing that the bureaucracy allows this next dream to materialize. In that sense, Greece hangs in abeyance. It is the stopped gondola in the air between Jerusalem and Boston and I am the anxious passenger waiting for forward motion. It takes a more open heart than the one currently beating inside me to love the place in between. Aciman has a name for this too: psychological temporizing.
It is the psychological temporizer who defers, denies, disperses the present, who accesses time (life, if you wish) so obliquely and in such roundabout ways and gives the present so provisional and tenuous a status that the present, insofar as such a thing is conceivable, ceases to exist, or, to be more accurate, does not count. It is unavailable. He is out of sync with it. By abstracting himself from the present, by downgrading it, what he gets in exchange is an illusory promise of security away from pain, sorrow, danger, loss.
Pain, sorrow, danger, and loss exist in abundance in Greece this summer. Even before the financial crisis, before the evaporation of hope, my Greece was tied up in the sense of grief that is difficult to shake, no matter how much time has elapsed since the period of mourning. I sleep under posters of Leonardo DiCaprio, slapped onto my walls in the Titanic era that preceded my realization that Kate Winslet would be the one I'd eternally love. I open books and find the napkins on which my father would scribble mathematical equations. The pages still smell like his cigarette smoke. Nobody sits at his chair on the dining table. Nobody really sits in our living room any more. Grief shrinks a former home to the portion that you can digest without choking on memory. That portion for me extends from the Leo posters to the balcony. Mindful presence is elusive under those constraints. Aciman writes:
The present is an arbitrary fulcrum in time, a moment delicately poised between two infinities, where the longing to escape and the longing to return find themselves straightly reversed. What we ultimately remember is not the past but ourselves in the past, imagining the future. And, frequently, what we look forward to is not the future but the past restored.
I do not know how to be here; I do not quite know myself here. The assault of Cairo onto the senses, the injustice and beauty dueling in Jerusalem, the conflict and love in Colombia demand that you dig into them because of an irresistible need to know. You cannot shrug. You cannot not care. The process of forming an opinion is exhausting; the process of revising it every time the conflict takes an ugly turn even more so. But you live then, you ask questions, you shake the numbness because it is too callous a reaction to the humanity in front of you. I do not know how to return to Greece, to a place and a home without quotation marks. So I return to the page, hoping that the process of making sense out of mayhem and magic out of hopelessness unveils colors that I am too numb to see. Wishfully, Aciman posits:
Writing might even bring me closer to this street than I'd been while living there. Writing wouldn't alter or exaggerate anything; it would simply excavate, rearrange, lace a narrative, recollect in tranquility, where ordinary life is perfectly happy to nod and move on. Writing sees figures where life sees things; things we leave behind, figures we keep. Even the experience of numbness, when traced on paper, acquires a resigned and disenchanted grace, a melancholy cadence that seems at once intimate and aroused compared with the original blah. [emphasis mine] Write about numbness, and numbness turns into something. Upset flat surfaces, dig out their shadows, and you've got dreammaking.
This post is part of the Books Well-Loved series on Stories of Conflict and Love. For more literary reflections that have struck a chord, see here

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