I’ve come back to New York recently after spending the better part of the previous year in South America. Needless to say, I am still adjusting to being back. When I was there, I found myself seriously missing New York. Now that I’m back here, I find myself seriously missing my various homes in South America. The move back and forth has been jarring and I find myself not so able to reconcile the differences.
Staying put is so hard once you’ve started moving…but moving or living somewhere else can also be difficult sometimes because there isn’t a lot to ground you, except maybe finally grasping the etiquette re: local trains and buses and how to board and disembark without calling attention to yourself. I’m tired of being so torn, how do I settle back down into some sort of middle ground?
“It was just being in the shadow after being in the sun. But that was what it felt like to be going home.” Rupert Thomson puts the experience of stopping travel so neatly. One misses the intensity of the sun. One minute you are able to feel every inch of your skin, and even if there’s a little pain involved it is exhilarating and dizzying. And then, relief. Relief that is both good and bad.
But one cannot live in an exalted state forever. South America would have eventually become home, and it would have provided its own shade. To live forever in the sun, forever in exaltation, is exhausting.
So, what now? To travel is to set yourself up for homesickness and nostalgia. You will probably forever miss the places you have loved. Sometimes when I close my eyes I see the Alp that existed outside my window for three weeks a few years back, and I have the impulse to never again open my eyes and see what is outside my window in the present. I long for that mountain, and the way it glowed pink at dawn. It’s not gone. It still exists. It’s me who has moved on and left the mountain behind.
I think of the heartache of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart. A young girl, so used to travel and being dragged against her will by her mother, now finds she has to cope with staying in one place. She takes to it about as gracefully as those first steps you take after removing your roller skates. Your body wants to glide. Your knees forget to bend. “Wondering if this could ever make her suffer, she thought of Windsor Terrace. I am not there. She began to go round, in little circles, things that at least her senses had loved — her bed, with the lamp turned on on winter mornings, the rug in Thomas’s study, the chest carved with angels out there on the landing, the waxen oilcloth down there in Matchett’s room…” Bowen handles nostalgia so well, and how it colors our memories. It is always easier to be in the place we are not at the moment. So much better back then…
The middle ground is you. You can carry certain things home with you from your travels. Not only shells from the beach or pressed flowers in your books, but habits and rituals you witnessed and took on as your own. It’s the physicality you miss, the landscape you can’t pack into your bag. That feeling of being in the sun, or of gliding on your roller skates. That little I am not there deserves its italics, as Bowen well knows. It is a tiny sentence that can make you suffer, but not enough to erase the joy of the journey.
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Illustration by Thea Brine.