A move of five thousand miles is both big and small. When it is not being done, it seems small. It is a place in your mind. You can see one thing, imagine another and then the expansion stops. The imagination circumscribes itself with the limits of your own sight–the limits of your senses both physical and essential. It is, in fact, enormous in its scope.
I had been taking it one small chunk at a time. I allowed myself only one variable at a time, trying to push aside all the other possibilities of the failure of ventures, large swings of fate. The way seemed clear. Getting rid of all the clothes that were not absolutely essential. Trying to sell and then giving away hundreds of books, winnowing, winnowing down through the levels of friendship until there were five or six boxes–still too many. Unpacking all the boxes, full of mildew, where I’d stored the leavings of my children’s childhood, reading, discarding, treasuring, crying with joy or grief at its passing, saving what I could not part with for the moment, sending some to my children, going back to some after weeks and finally throwing them quickly in the trash. Giving away so many little treasures, things I’ve held on to through moves and phases of life.
Getting estimates for shipping things to France, it becomes clear that unless the emotional connections to things, to their history, have true value, something beyond the mere presence of stuff, unless they add to some crucial continuity of social life, then they will need to be left behind, gone or perhaps delayed in storage. Even photos. Even childhood treasures. What is really needed to maintain the connection with the past of family and the history of love? All those who have left behind everything to save themselves and their families—amidst all the grief of loss, alongside the anguish, can there somewhere be a deep sense of relief, a deep settling-in to what is?
I will continue to lose sleep until I understand this calculation deeply. It never ceases to amaze me where the true work of life lies, day after day, moment after moment. This evening, a pair of young eagles have alighted in the cottonwood tree at the top of the hill overlooking our back field, perching for hours in their strong, solid way and looking out over the surrounding sky and landscape. Maybe they are examining a new territory, experiencing with their expansive perception where to make their new home. They have brought nothing with them except the dust that gathers on their feathers after flight.
Yesterday afternoon, as I was weeding the strawberries, I got a call from my only remaining mother. Her name is Toni, one of the very few women in the universe with my name. I got it from her. She had thought it would be a faint thumbprint on my forehead, to inevitably be washed away by the flood of love from new parents when they adopted me. It stuck, maybe from a sense of gratitude, maybe compassion, maybe unknowing, but my new mother recognized it as my name.
It was right about this time thirty years ago that I met her. My birth father had made the voyage out from upstate New York to Vancouver, Washington, a few weeks before. He had wanted to give her some time to absorb the impact through him. He had wrapped us in his large warmth and generosity, sealing the bonds all around, and had gone back to move forward with a life that included five children now instead of four and four grandchildren instead of two and to weave us into his life with Toni, his wife.
The anticipation of her arrival was immense. When I was a child, I had looked at my mother knowing that, unlike other children, I had not come from inside her body. A sense of vertigo would overwhelm me, like Alice falling down the yawning hole. I had sung to this first mother, connecting to her love though the sound of my voice, wandering out in search of her.
Preparing now for her coming, the house was as immaculate as I could make it. There was a basket of primroses on the table. In addition to being a history professor, I knew she was a master gardener, so the garden was weeded. I had gotten a haircut for the event and the kids were all bathed and brushed. We went to the airport early, I with my new camera in hand. As we waited, I sat with my eighteen-month-old son on my lap in one of those molded plastic airport chairs of indeterminate brown, watching the sky and the clouds drifting by over the waiting airplanes. I stood up, thinking I saw her plane taxiing into the gate.
As I turned back to gather my coat, I watched in a frozen moment as my son held my camera over the stairwell behind his seat and let go of it. An infinite moment later–the slight crunch. There are no family photos of my first mother’s arrival, of her first hugs, of the grace of her movement and the laughter, of standing next to each other to compare our heights, of looking for the similarities of eye color, chin, hair—of sweeping up her things and swirling to the car in a kind of awkward dance in which feet seemed to have difficulty making contact with floor and sidewalk.
The next scene is at the house where I sat across from her at the wooden kitchen table with a glass of white wine. As we talked in rushes, full of questions, we looked at other furtively yet greedily, periodically lowering our eyes as if to shield from too much sun. Her speech was so familiar, yet new, like some perfected, more patrician version of my own.
As I watched her talk, I felt an uncanny sensation of familiarity that one sometimes has when seeing the face of your child or your spouse after a time of separation, and then the dizzying sensation of looking into a glass. As if watching myself in a shop window, seeing only some of the image but catching the reflected movement, I saw she moved her hands when she talked just as I did, with the same expansive gesture and the same gaze. Later, as we sat in the living room, I watched her sitting close to my son and daughter, with her arm draped over the back of the sofa. In the way that arm found its comfort was the incontrovertible evidence of the ineffably subtle information passed on in the DNA. Her turn of phrase, her love of language, the music of her movement all emerged from the same place deep within those twists of adenine, guanine, thymine and cytosine. Somehow those things had persisted even through the immense force of the ocean of experiences that had shaped us.
As we stood in the kitchen, cleaning up after dinner, kids underfoot, she said,
“This sounds really odd, but do you mind if I smell the top of your head? When each child was born, I smelled their heads and each time the fragrance was so deeply familiar, so sweet. It was such a treasure. My grandchildren had the same smell. I would recognize it anywhere. Let me see if you still have that fragrance, even faintly.”
As I bent down to let her take in the smell, something passed between us. She said,
“Ah yes! That’s it.”
“Do you know, ever since you were born I’ve felt something connected us like an umbilical cord of energy that extends from somewhere around my solar plexus to that same point in you. I remember being struck that Jane Eyre spoke of the same kind of channel. She described it as a cord of connection that began from somewhere under her left rib and tied to a place in Rochester.”
We stood for a moment, feeling the warmth in that place where the ribs come together, over the heart.
“Yes. I know it,” I said.
I have never dared to speak of the next part of this passage in which she expresses the fear of the bleeding within that would happen if he were to leave her. And then the terrible abandonment of his eventual forgetting. It was not just I who was abandoned.
It had become a forbidden love for her, I thought.
Now, after we have churned through all the years of initial joys and family complications and my birth father has died, we speak as friends who are still somehow a bit shy of the deep connection, who know where the hurts lie. We skirt around them, delicately, sharing our passions for politics (just to the edge of divergence), gardens, and most important, family, still connected by a vibrating cord of energy, fueled perhaps by those nucleotides of DNA and the empathy they have lent to all the movements of life that have worked to pull us apart.
Returning from the voyage to my son who will turn thirty in a week, I watch the images of our last hours together drift across the sky outside the window. After having coffee that morning, he drove me to a spot in the outskirts of Bloomington where suburban houses gave way between to woods. I’m no longer used to deciduous forests. The twisting black forms of the oaks contrasting with the lighter ash and the understory trees, clinging to their brown and whitening leaves is extraordinary to me now.
My son was driving and we were bathing in the kind of comfortable companionship we haven’t been able to experience together for many years. We had spent hours together relaxing in his rented house with his girlfriend and without her. Unwinding the time, there were the right moments to ask questions, the right moments to say things long unsaid, the right moments to dive in to answers long unarticulated, to cry some, to laugh some. We talked about the way we experience things. We even meditated together. There was enough time for it all.
It was my last morning with him. After we went for coffee and pastry at his favorite coffee shop, I suggest there’s time for a walk before he drops me off at the bus to the airport. He thinks a bit and says he knows a place he’d like to show me, a place nearby he hasn’t been to yet. That was why we were driving now through these forests of twisting dark winter bark.
He thinks we are close. We see a wooden sign with colorful letters saying “Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center.” He explains he had heard about this place from a friend, with its peaceful walks on the grounds. Some sense like the quickening of pregnancy touches me–that this man, my son, the economist, the rationalist, would chose this place to come with me. A curious tickling thing awakening somewhere inside the vastness of my mind.
We drive in slowly past a shrine in the trees and prayer flags draped through the woods. As we park in front of a brick building decorated with dark red, green and yellow paint and with golden figures perched on the roof, we look at each other briefly, seeing reflected a bit of surprise and wonder. Getting out of the car and walking towards the entrance, we take in the surrounding grounds, with stupa, grass and walkways. In a state of unknowing, we wander in through the entrance. As we look at the displays in the hallway, a young monk, dressed in maroon robes, passes by into the gift shop. We follow, nodding hello.
My son is captivated by the sacred paintings and artifacts in the shop. As I look around, I find he has lingered over a wall of prayer beads. He says “I want to buy something. I feel like contributing to this place.” He lifts a set of black beads off the wall and asks what I think. Somehow, clearly, he has made an important choice. Something had drawn him to these. My son has recognized something. The connection is evident as he holds them in his hand. He pays the young monk who makes the transaction quietly.
We leave the building and to take our walk around the rest of the center. We examine the prayer wheel and spin it together, walk around the Stupa, feel the calm. At the far end of the stretch of grass is the temple, topped by golden figures. We take off our shoes in the entry hall and walk into a room of splendor, walls painted orange and covered with Tibetan sacred paintings, topped by intricate green and maroon designs. A golden Buddha presides over a large alter with paintings, flowers, a photo of the Dalai Lama. Icons of other religions are placed around the hall. Abundance. A spontaneous mood of generosity, of bounty. We leave donations in the envelopes, wherever they go. Again in calm, we retrieve our shoes in the entrance hall and walk out together, connected by fronds of silence.
We take photos of each other against the background of the bare forest and the prayer flags, forgetting the rest of the walk we came for.
Now I am at the airport again, watching the sky through the large windows, feeling the presence of my son who hugged me, got back into his car there in front of this airport and returned to his home and his computer, and later to make dinner with his girlfriend, following out the threads of a life hidden to me, like the lands beneath the clouds.
I had decided to go see my son in Bloomington, Indiana just before his thirtieth birthday. There I was, waiting for two hours at the airport for the flight to Chicago. In the large airport hall in Seattle people were seated in almost every seat, waiting for flights all over the country.
As I settled in to a seat comfortably spaced between groups of travelers, I began to notice a loud, sharp barking sound from the corner of the huge space. A small dog, I thought, caged and panicked. “How could someone inflict that on a dog?” I thought, and buried, in that place where self is stored, “Why would they inflict that on a crowd of people?”
It repeated, over and over, becoming an annoying random break in consciousness. The most remarkable thing was that no one else in the large space appeared to notice. No heads turned, no one turned towards a companion to remark. Perhaps there were one or two furtive glances in the direction of the sound that were quickly modified, as if they had really intended to look at the planes taking off or at the reservation desk.
As it continued and no one else seemed bothered, I began to question my interpretation. Under cover of walking to the restroom, I turned to look in the direction of the sound. In the corner where the sound seemed to originate I could see nothing but a woman and maybe a child or two. No sign of a cage or a dog on someone’s lap.
The barking continued intermittently when I’d returned to my seat to continue my wait. As I sat, looking out at the sky through the endless windows, it began to dawn on me that it must be a person making these sounds. As my interpretation shifted, the sounds seemed more and more like human utterances, though wildly sharp and piercing. A child with a severe case of Tourette’s? A person with autism? The lack of response from the waiting crowd was now a gesture of compassion, of empathy or perhaps of embarrassment mixed with a desire to avoid the shame of being the first to acknowledge. Maybe the cries are becoming fraught with the anxiety of being in this strange, stressful place. Perhaps it’s an expression of what we all feel. Perhaps as this person settles into some acceptance of the difficulty, as we all have had to do, the yelping will begin to subside. One of the cries takes on more shape. “Aiy! Aiy! Fuck you! Fuck you!” No one turns towards the sound. I look at the weather in Bloomington on my Smart Phone and think “Who is this human? What is the story?” not asking, not acknowledging, experiencing the collective mind of all those gathered in this waiting space.
Later, as we fly, the clouds below are a continuous floor of cotton, like the rolls that come in a box. An occasional rent in the fabric reveals, almost equally white, mountains and then squares of fields. These places are receiving the sun. The unseen are not.