This week on mourning, learning, family, and things that sometimes are clearly just “meant to be.”
- Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (via purplebuddhaproject)
From Stories of Conflict and Love, August 21.
It is the smell that catches you first.
You open the front door gently—a skill you learned when you were 15 and tried to glide into your house without anyone noticing you are wearing blush. You didn’t know then that mothers can detect makeup on their daughters with infrared vision, even if the teen magazines swear that it’s a “natural neutral look.” But you did know just how to turn the key so the door doesn’t squeak and which tiles to step on so you do not wake up the whole house. This is how you still enter your childhood home, even though your cheeks can shimmer without inspection.
It is always the smell. It does not emanate from the people. It is steeped in the place. You have left and returned here before, but you always somehow forget about the smell.
It escorts you from room to room. You feel larger than life and play Alice in Wonderland with the objects of your childhood. Were the shelves always quite so low? Were the curtains always quite so… pink? You were as tall when you left this home at the age of 17 as you are now, but everything feels miniscule.
You notice how carefully curated your lives here had been. Your mother had always loved the details. You open a drawer and it is filled to the brim with tablecloths. Each one of them is gleaming white and smells like soap, because she always hid soap between them. It was her fragrant curating. Your grandmother had hand-stitched designs onto the fabric in the era in which tablecloths were part of a woman’s dowry. Your mother had asked you once to take them with you. You didn’t know if you should tell her that you don’t quite have a dinner table—one that would be worthy of the hand-stitched grape patterns and soapy smell, anyway. Or that sometimes you do not eat dinner at a table at all. You just wave her off for now, but ten years later, you are filling your return luggage with tablecloths full of grapes and soap. You will find a table worthy of them and you will eat dinner at it. You are an adult now, filled with the nostos of your revisited childhood.
All those years of change and migration and grief and a robbery later, and everything still feels like it belongs in space — like it was placed there deliberately, with care, and with thought, probably because it was. The blue and white lanterns sit on the balcony where you had last left them, with unburnt candles waiting to be lit. Homes keep us honest, one of your wisest colleagues had said.
The balcony is your honest place. It is the view to which you remember waking up every day. You will return to America and you will instantly miss having a balcony onto which to step barefoot and stare at the sea. You will miss the mother too, who would have told you to not dare climb back into the clean sheets with those now dirty feet. It did not matter that neither was the balcony dirty nor were your feet. You wouldn’t dare.
It is on this balcony that you memorized IB Biology for your high school exams and that you read every Nancy Drew book that made you want to become a curious, mystery-solving girl with auburn hair, even when you didn’t know what ‘auburn’ meant.
You sat here on the summer days when the beach felt too far — call these #Greekchildhoodproblems of the most privileged kind. You dangled your legs over the railing. At 4 PM, like clockwork, those legs would be attacked by mosquitoes. Your mother would soon emerge holding what Greeks call a “tiny snake,” named for its coiled form. The mosquito-repelling aroma it emits is one of your smells of summer. Every Greek balcony has a ‘tiny snake’ of its own and the smoke it releases shares Greek summer with us, with the mosquitoes who love us, and the cicadas that interrupt our afternoon naps. Home is where the cicadas are.
On this balcony you had kissed a boy who had flown across the world to see you. You took a teary photo together — on film — when he left. Many years and loves later, you dragged another boy onto the rocking chair. It didn’t matter that it was Christmas morning, that it was not ‘balcony season’, that the shiny new Kindles you had brought with you felt like incongruent balcony reading, or that you were each wrapped in a bathrobe, two scarves, and three blankets to be able to tolerate the balcony at all. He loves you. He needs to sit at your honest place.
You still feel that not having brought him here in the summer is robbing him from some of the honesty.
Your honest place is conducive to many emotions: nostalgia, remembrance, hope, grief, anticipation, celebration. There is a noted absence: worry. Where did you learn how to worry? How did you get so good at it?
What is it about our honest places that keeps the worry away?
You have weathered all the storms here. Here is where you learned resolution, relief or loss. Here is where you learned that potatoes and feta and melitzanosalata are the food that will remain palatable even when you are too worried to eat. When in doubt, add wine. In severe crisis, add tsipouro. Here is where you learned what comes after worry. Here is where all the “after’s” have dawned. A place that holds all the memories of afters is inhospitable to worry.
No longer a native in the city’s eyes, you are a guest here now. Luckily for you, in Greece, “guest” is a term of art. “Guest” comes with glasses of wine refilled, and food shoved down throats, and a bed made for you by your friend, with instructions on how to close the balcony door if—you guessed it—there are too many mosquitoes. It comes with questions about the life you now lead, questions based more on how others imagine “America” or the conflict zones you’ve called home. The reality rarely registers and is rarely the subject of truly curious inquiry. You trade imaginations.
You grit your teeth when someone comments on your weight, your vacant uterus, your unadorned engagement ring finger. You are appalled when you realize you don’t quite know how to explain “gender analysis” in Greek. Surely in a language so rich in words, there must be a term for it, but for now, it eludes you. You end up telling people you work on ‘women’s issues,’ even though you once had a 45-minute conversation with a border officer who thought “gender and conflict” means “women and war.” It mattered to you then, standing at an international border as the passport holder of a different land, to explain that gender does not ‘just’ refer to women and not all conflict necessarily looks like war.
Here, though, on your own turf, you shy away from the fight. Embarrassingly, you lack both the words and the stamina. You remind yourself how many feminist battles and social movements alike were born in the home and find it cowardly and condescending alike that you don’t feel like these, here, are yours to fight. You vow to find the words for “gender analysis” next time. What would Cynthia Enloe say if she were Greek? In the meantime, for good measure, you point out every narrowly conceived idea of masculinity on a TV ad. “Πολύ ξενέρωτες οι γκόμενες εκεί που ζείτε,” reacts one of your guy friends when you do that. Just like gender analysis, you can’t translate that.
By the last week, you are no longer a guest. You are at home here. This is where you belong, next to the soap-fragranced tablecloths and the macho commercials and the glasses that get refilled because the recession robbed Greeks off many things, but not of their hospitality.
You move easily between the rooms.
Everything is right-sized.
You no longer bruise your calves by bumping into furniture at night (or, as an aunt notes, “maybe you’re just not as anemic with all the meat we’ve fed you!”).
You know just what time the mosquitoes will appear and when the hot water will run out in the shower.
You have amassed enough intimacy, enough familiarity, enough memory to tackle the basement. The trove of all Memory. In one of your favorite poems, titled “The Plural form,” Kiki Dimoula had the following to say about memory:
noun, proper name for sorrows,
singular in number,
Memory, memory, memory.
You open the door and remember that when you were little, you thought the basement is where burglars come from. How could you ever be Nancy Drew after fearing burglars for so many years? You open the door to the basement regardless. You are assaulted by the smell: cigarettes, books. You hadn’t been here in years, perhaps since the day after your father died.
You leaf through the books. His chemistry manuals, her Simone de Beauvoir. Your copy of Love in the Time of Cholera — that first one, the one that taught you how to read, really read—if not how to love.
Next to the books, you find the cards that you used to send your parents from camp and those little wooden boats that you used to “buy” them as gifts from summer vacation. You feel compelled to pack it all up and bring it with you, along with the tablecloths and the balcony, but you also want to leave it as is, undisturbed. A moment in time.
You are part of this moment now. You are here, at home, in your honest place. And yet you find yourself watching these weeks unfold as though you have floated up above your body and are observing your life from the ceiling. You’ve lost your narrative “I,” ever so present in your stories and you are instead observing — at once the storyteller and the interlocutor.
This is not a full story. If homes are our honest places, part of their honesty lies in being able to hold a piece for ourselves. Like all stories of memory, it is marked equally by its absences, by its silences and erasures.
You will soon find yourself at a border again, carrying more luggage than you have ever traveled with. You ask yourself how ‘people’ can travel like this. You are carrying a briki and a frappe maker because somehow you cannot leave the country without at least four different nationally-appropriate modes to make coffee in the morning. You tried to pack the memories and the silences. And a tsoureki too, because everything becomes more surreal at a border when you are holding what amounts to a nationalist, nostalgic pie.
You are here. Again.
You will walk out of this front door and instantly miss the Aegean.
You start your day with tsoureki. You make frappe. Your mornings are consumed in recreating.
You unpack, you hope the smell of all the books you hauled back can linger a little longer.
You must find a dinner table.