My friend Sara, who is a consummate heart-inquirer and beloved friend, wrote me a letter. On paper. In purple ink. And in Sara fashion, she dove into the heart of describing her current experience, and posed questions that required a substantial degree of ruminative consideration. I decided to respond to her questions here.
When you returned to Florence, what was it like? Did it seem familiar and loved, or did you feel like you’d grown somehow, and the fit was different? Did all of us (who you visited) seem less real or dream-like? Travelling changes one’s perspective, nudges our deeper self, shows us what we’ve forgotten or never knew— and then you Return. Huh. Into many open arms and exclamations of being missed, but beneath the words spoken (sometimes) are half-registered feelings and observations. What of those? I’d love to hear.
Oh heavens, Sara. How do you always come up with such good questions?
What was it like to return to Florence? I felt like I limped back into town, honestly. I was exhausted, drained in every way. I had driven 9,000 miles. (I’m still trying to tally a more precise number but that’s the approximate distance.) My heart had traveled many thousands more.
It’s impossible for me to write about returning to Florence without writing about being separated from Tom and my life otherwise being in a state of relative disarray. Sometimes other people ask me about what it’s like to be back in the same house, the same routine, and I want to say, stridently, there is no Same House. There is no Same Routine. I think there is a Big Journey Narrative floating around that goes something like: heroine makes big journey, is forever changed, returns to all that is familiar, integrates journey into her solid, established life back home. But solid and established and at home are not words I can use to describe my recent experience.
Is it familiar here? In some ways, yes, there are familiar aspects to lean on. I’m relieved we could return to the same house, for now, with our very fluffy calico Ophelia awaiting us, and it was gratifying to witness Lily’s joy at being back. She says things like, “Isn’t Florence wonderful? Don’t we have the best house in the world? Isn’t it the greatest place to live?” She says it enough that it makes me wonder, how much is she trying to quell my sense of unsettledness? She realizes that things have changed. We have talked about Daddy moving out and how we came to this decision because we felt it would meet everyone’s needs better. She sees that we still spend some time together, the three of us; she sees that there is still a great deal of affection and praises us all for being such a loving family. We are all doing our best at these new forays into alternate living arrangements, trying to gauge what works and what doesn’t.
I’m here and I see that this is a House in a Place and we happen to be dwelling here. It’s not a bad place, but I don’t feel like I’m at home. I think I’ve gotten better, over the past number of years, at maintaining some sort of equilibrium and letting in some happiness, and those are cherished abilities that keep me going, but honestly, I’ve been sad a lot, and feeling isolated a little too often.
It hasn’t helped that as soon as we returned, I felt an overwhelming internal demand to figure everything out and make sure I would somehow, miraculously, manage to homeschool Lily, manage all our activities, whip out a book, and figure out a way to bring in income such that I could be independently, financially stable. With a very limited budget, and Lily only out of my presence on weekends. Ha. Ha ha ha. And what of integrating everything that just happened on that epic trip? My whole being balks at inner ultimatum after ultimatum. I can’t live like this. That has been ringing in my ears for quite a while.
Yes, I’ve grown, and I haven’t begun to understand my altered dimensions. Does the place I’m in fit me? Did it ever? Has any place? It baffles me. The questions are relentless, “tiny and frightening” as the poet David Whyte wrote, waiting for me between the trees.
When I set out to write my book I knew I wanted to think about home and community and what those things mean, and it brings me smack into the wall of belonging. Where do I belong? I feel like I’ve been asking that my entire life. I’m less sure than ever that it’s the question I need. It seems to imply that I’m either belonging or not belonging, and my inclination is always to be located somewhere on the radical fringe. I want to find the center, the nest, that accompanies me wherever I go, no matter how my location is defined in relation to anywhere else. I’m not sure that makes complete sense to me yet. I feel like a nonstop nomad who is unquenchably Here.
You ask if everyone I visited seems less real or dream-like. It’s not hard for me to conjure the memory of your house, your cats, your trampoline, your family, expressions on your face, intonations of your voice, where we sat at the picnic table by the lake. But that’s memory, you might say. Where’s the line between then and now? It doesn’t feel terribly solid to me. Maybe I simply can’t bear to accept these time-space distances; maybe my way of coping is through this neat trick where you and the others are so vivid to me. I can spin a daydream like nobody’s business. It doesn’t eliminate this constant ache of yearning but it hangs scented garlands on the sharp corners. I think we humans are meant to be gathered, physically, in mutually-interdependent tribes, and to witness the forces that prevent that from happening stings daily. I can only remind myself that I keep trying to change that, in ways that sometimes strike people as crazy, or creative, or foolish.
The questions reverberate. I can’t stop the aural veils from blowing and lifting, taking shape, dissolving.
“… I would like to beg you, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
~Rainer Maria Rilke