Friday, November 13, 2009
"As though to breathe were life"
I have officially been home for a week. I have eaten all of, or most of, the foods that I so missed while I was abroad. I have made trips to my beloved Ukrops and Target. I have seen my lovely friends and family. I have done and eaten and seen so many of the things I missed so dearly when I was in Thailand. I have "come home".
But as anyone who has traveled for long amounts of time knows, "coming home" is not necessarily the same thing as coming home. I'm still working on the latter. I wish I could write more. I wish I could write about all of the things I saw and did in the last month. I wish I could write about those unreal waters, so blue they almost hurt to look at or the night the entire ocean glowed with the phosphorescense from plankton, the gray hulk of a volcanoe rising over the impossibly green lands of Bali, the 10 minutes of utter quiet in the middle of bustling Little India in Kuala Lumpur, when ordinary men and women knelt down in the middle of a market, in the middle of their work day, and prayed to their God. I will write about all of these things in much greater detail. For now I just needed to write something, to try and explain why seven days later, I'm still working out what it means to be back, still trying to reconcile the great joy in my heart at seeing all of these people I love with the deep sadness that comes from leaving behind an experience that was life changing in every possible way.
You see I was cursed from birth. I had the great fortune to be born a Southerner. And this means, will always mean, that a tie to land and place are a part of my blood. Southerners don't just live places. We become a part of the places we call home. The moment our feet hit the ground we start putting down roots. We will always be moved to tears by coastlines and mountain ranges and endless golden fields. We're like barnacles. We just don't know how to live somewhere and not grow fiercely, stubbornly attached.
But I was also born with wanderlust running through my veins. To travel has always been one of my deepest and most abiding loves. I love new places. I love going to a country that is 100%, competely foreign. I love strange foods and lanscapes and experiences. I love standing in the middle of a bustling, foreign city and not really having any idea where I am. I love the process of getting to know a place, the same way you get to know a person, layer by layer, bit by beautiful , weird bit.
But these two traits don't mesh. You see, every time I travel somehwere and stay for, well, let's see, more than a week, I start to grow attached. I get attached to hotel rooms which are designed to be places you don't get attached to. And when I travel to a place for a long term, for several months or longer, whether it's Paris or Thailand or my dear, gorgeous Charleston, I do put down roots. I am a creature of habit. I went to the same Pad Thai vendor at least twice a week in my town in Thailand. Every time I went to Bangkok for the weekend I stayed in the same guest house (the last time I stayed there, the week before I left, I walked in and was greeted by warm and familiar hellos from the staff and questions of where I'd been). I can't help myself. I am pathologically incapable of keeping a place at a distance, of just living somewhere. I can't help but let these places become a part of me. I let them embed themselves firmly and permanently in my heart. And so after 6 months in Thailand, it was a done deal. A piece of my heart was completely and totally lost in this land of elephants and traffic and monsoons and endless green for miles and miles and miles.
And so leaving that place did what leaving always does to me. It broke my heart. I cried a lot on the way to Thailand. And coming home, when I looked up and saw that the little GPS airplane on the screen was back in the U.S., well I cried then too. And I felt incredibly guilty. I was home, back in America. I had missed it so much. And I was back. But more than any other emotion running through my head, the most abiding one was grief for what I was leaving behind.
A week later the grief part of the whole process is starting to lessen. I'm getting more and more used to the idea that I've come back to this side of the planet. I'm looking forward to what's next. But something tells me that grief will never completely go away. It hasn't for Paris. And Charleston, well I miss Charleston every single day. And because I still can't wrap my head around all this, I'll let another writer do it for me. This is one out of about three poems that I actually like. I remember getting a little misty the first time I read it, in a English class in college. But I wasn't sure why. Now I know. This poem speaks to the person I am, a Southerner who is always in the process of creating a home, and a traveler who is always looking ahead to the next adventure. It is an impossible situtation to be in. It is the only kind of person I would ever want to be.
From Tennyson's "Ulysses". It all applies except for the whole "drunk battle with my peers" part. But you get the general idea.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honoured of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield
Tanah Lot, the sea temple in Bali
Volcanic Mount Batur in Bali
Sunrise in Lovina, Bali
Overlooking the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia
Ko Phi Leh