At last we wrest ourselves from gravity’s firm grip
And hurtle upward in our magic flying chairs.
The world expands.
Ant-sized creatures turn tiny switches,
Illuminating the place we just left like fireflies.
Bladders press against belts buckled low and tight.
Strangers brush limbs and stretch backwards into each other’s laps
without embarrassment or apology.
Reasonable standards plummet
to new depths–People magazine and snack packs and Bridezilla–
Because, now jaded,
Teetering in a tin can six miles off the face of our planet seems unremarkable.
The hours must be whiled
by any means necessary.
**Many thanks to Louis C.K. and last night’s flight for inspiring whatever that was.
Before traveling to Japan last summer, my ten-year-old taught me six phrases:
Toire wa doko desuka? Where’s the bathroom?
Sumimasen. Sorry/excuse me.
Arigato gozaimashita. Thank you so much.
Gochiso-sama deshita! It has been a feast.
Ohaiyo gozaimasu/konnichiwa/konbanwa. Good morning/good day/good evening.
O-kanjo o onigai shimasu. May I please have the check?
But if I had to boil it down to the bare essentials, the top three would have done the job.
While in Tokyo, we had lunch with my brother’s in-laws, wandering afterward to Meiji Jingu, where he was married many years ago. Together, we pleasantly whiled away three hours, pointing, gesturing, smiling, looking at photos, exchanging gifts. It is astonishing how few words can communicate so much.
I suppose we couldn’t discuss the fine points of Kierkegaard’s Upbuilding Discourses, but I couldn’t do that in any language. I’m not advocating for monolingualism–so much of our history and culture is embedded in our words and silences. I am merely pointing out that speaking is not the same as communicating, and listening goes deeper than hearing words.
This is the story of abandoning my family for two and a half weeks one summer to do something ridiculously selfish and wonderful. It is also about gelato, meltdowns, memory, and déjà vu. Have I mentioned that already?
Here’s how it started. A photography professor of mine leaned across the aisle during a lecture. She told me that she was taking a group of students to Italy during the summer. “You should come,” she said.
I laughed a little hysterically, to the point where the exchange became awkward, and we tuned back to the lecture.
Up until then, I’d only slept away from my four-year-old two nights of her entire little life, and those were spent on the floor of a friend’s house a couple blocks away–clutching my phone all night, just in case. And I’d never been away from my two-year-old. I had to lay down with her for an hour or two every night to get her to settle and go to sleep. Though I had weaned her at 18 months, she had taken to digging in my belly button as a replacement soothing mechanism. She picked at me with her tiny talons until I bled. Scar tissue, it turns out, is surprisingly sensitive, but I wasn’t sure how to wean a child from belly-digging.
There are probably a few people reading this that will roll their eyes and mutter in that superior way about sleep training. In my defense, I did try it with the first child. After several unsuccessful attempts on my own, after reading a pile of helpful books, I finally hired a sleep consultant, and tried again. My child cried and cried and cried and cried. She did not let up for naps; she did not let up for nights. She would doze off occasionally, only to wake up ten minutes later and start again. I let her cry and cry until there was a hole in my heart the size of Saskatchewan. So after THIRTY DAYS, I gave up. I didn’t even bother to try with kid #2. Now, how was I going to leave my spouse alone with such a mess?
With all of this in mind, I mentioned the Italy trip to my husband, so he could have a good laugh as well.
“Maybe you should go,” he said.
Best not to ask twice.
Strangely, despite the enormity of the impending separation, I didn’t freak out right away. I had childcare issues to resolve, packing crises, film and equipment to procure, and a research paper due upon departure. I worried about all of that instead.
Then I got on the plane…and cried for a couple of hours straight. Not demure little teardrops, either, but swollen, hiccoughing, snotty, sobbing. My apologies to the bewildered man seated beside me. Eventually regaining composure, I spent the rest of the flight listening to language lessons and, undoubtedly, murmuring along with the patient Italian lady in my headphones. Again, apologies.
The first couple of days on the ground were a blur of disoriented jet lag, a breathless march from church after church to museum after museum. Honestly, all I really remember about Florence is the gelato. Limone. Pesca. Caffè. Cioccolato. Shop after shop, fresh fruit piled high atop the frozen tubs, a little melty on the sides from the summer heat. In between scoops, I was having an out of body experience with some really fabulous twenty-year-olds. I was completely untethered.
On day four, we headed off to a monastery in Tuscany, where the landscape did something wholly unexpected: it became familiar.
I had already seen this place, on coffee tables, in ads, in my dreams. It looked exactly like it was supposed to look, and I was unable to see it as a foreign place. Even as I was wandering this countryside for the first time, it was already a memory, part of the landscape of my psyche.
For days, I couldn’t make a picture because all of the photographs had already been made; making another would be superfluous. I focused on the long, lazy dinners–completely unknown to the parents of small children–the carafes of house wine, the late night walks filled with fireflies, frogs, and stars. I focused on the warm camaraderie of young strangers, who asked questions such as, “What is childbirth like?” “What are your irrational fears?” “Who do you secretly, shamefully lust after?” Or, “If you had to eat someone here, who would it be?” Those questions don’t often come up at pre-school potlucks. It felt so good to contemplate anything besides bowel movements, discipline, and sleep deprivation.
Since I would never forgive myself if I went home empty camera’d, I figured it was time to shoot something. And because I couldn’t make a new picture of the landscape, I tried instead to make pictures that looked like what I could see in my head. I attempted to capture on film my memories that were not really memories, that were not really mine.
After I returned to the States, I stumbled upon a passage that put this sensation into words:
“The very colors of the place had seeped into my blood: just as Hampden, in subsequent years, would always present itself immediately to my imagination in a confused whirl of white and green and red, so the country house first appeared as a glorious blur of watercolors, of ivory and lapis blue, chestnut and burnt orange and gold, separating only gradually into the boundaries of remembered objects: the house, the sky, the maple trees. Even that day, there on the porch…it had the quality of a memory…” excerpted from The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
A very belated thank you to those of you who made that trip possible. I had a strange and wonderful time.
I just got back from the trip of a lifetime, so you probably won’t feel all that sorry for me, despite the fact that I am waking up every day at 4 a.m. I toss and turn for 45 minutes or so–just long enough to really start annoying the spouse–then drag myself out of bed and stare at the wall, waiting for the kids to wake up. They have jet lag, too, so this doesn’t take nearly as long as one might hope.
Though cranky and somewhat incoherent, I do manage to muddle around somewhat successfully until about 4 p.m, at which point I give up and let the kids watch Project Runway reruns ad nauseum. Meanwhile, I push myself to multitask; I try to think about dinner magically appearing while simultaneously staring at the wall.
In a burst of inspiration, I have decided to try to use the extra comatose hours I now have each day to do a little writing. Staring at a blank computer screen is not that much of a stretch.
Let’s start with Iceland, then.
As you may have gathered from my post title, going there did not suck, and someday I will wow you with amazing stories about the days and nights I spent in Reykjavik and beyond. At the moment, though, I am still mourning my departure. In fact, in order to pry myself out of that country I had to make a list of the things I would NOT miss, which is all I am prepared to share at the moment.
THINGS I WILL NOT MISS ABOUT ICELAND
1. The midnight sun is unbelievably awesome but no love will be lost on the 4 a.m. sun. Reykjavik is nestled much closer to the North Pole than anywhere I have ever visited, and I was eagerly awaiting the impossibly long days. But, I did not fully comprehend that there would be no darkness at all, or how that would feel. The sun sets and sets for hours and hours, burning across the horizon line; teasing. There is a buzz of anticipation, like when you throw something up in the air, and you don’t see or hear it hit the ground. You keep looking, stomach in a lurch. Likewise, I kept waiting for the moment when a breath of shadow would bring relief and the capacity to sleep. I had a sleep mask. I had melatonin. I had ambien, but even when I dozed off, I simply could not continue to do so for a reasonable number of hours when all visual indications were counterintuitive. With my temporal clues turned on end, I was actually widest awake at all the wrong times. Of course, now that I am home, I am still a mess. It gets dark here, but I still lie wide awake, waiting for the sun to finally drift out of the Icelandic sky.
2. Taking a shower at our apartment in Reykjavik. Iceland has about 130 volcanoes. Consequently, they use the hot water and steam from geothermal hot springs to heat homes and generate power. There is absolutely no need for water heaters. That is fantastically green and fabulous, and there are some marvelous side effects: the pools, geysers, steaming landscape, and all. Meanwhile, the hot water from the tap smells overwhelmingly like sulphur. Imagine taking a shower in that. Steamy, rotten-eggy nastiness, streaming over your head. Possible upside: whence emerging from the bathroom after a lengthy spell, no one is quite sure if you have taken a particularly malodorous dump or merely washed your hair.
3. Vegetables? What vegetables? There is very little that grows in Iceland. No trees, for example. Or nearly none. This is the source of the only Icelandic joke, according to the internet. (i.e., “what do you do if you are lost in the forest in Iceland?” Stand up.) Visualize stark, stoic, volcanic peaks rising sharply out of lava fields like Scandinavian relatives. Throw in some glaciers. In the other direction, fjords, the ocean. There are sheep–lots of sheep–and a multitude of mullet-sporting horses, but no foliage. A chocolate bar is therefore less expensive–not cheap!–and much easier to find than an apple, for example. I spent $3 on a half-rotten onion. One dinner at a lovely, well-regarded, jaw-droppingly expensive restaurant, I was initially thrilled to find a single mangy-looking strawberry garnishing my plate. It tasted like dust.
Ah, the memories.
As the rest of the world is starting to stir, the remaining list items will have to wait for another day.