I nodded, unable to answer through my tears.
We were standing in the middle of a barn in southern Ohio, my fianceé and I.
The barn was empty, except for a corner filled with my material possessions: a dozen or two boxes, a coffee table, and a huge, oak bookshelf. All the things I had stowed here three years ago at the generous insistence of the friends who owned the barn. Shortly thereafter, I'd moved to Germany for two years, researching for my dissertation, and after that, to Canada to live near B.
Now, two months shy of our wedding we were back in Ohio, sorting through my things so they’d be easier to move once I had residency status in Canada. The process was going smoothly until I made it through the last of the boxes.
“What did your grandma’s china look like?” B. asked, his brow furrowing as he scanned the barn.
"White and blue,” I replied. “White with blue floral around the edges.”
“Okay,” he hesitated. “Because there were some solid navy blue plates in the last carload I took to Goodwill…” But I shook my head.
“No, I'm sorry, that wasn’t them.” And then we just stood there awhile, breathing in the slightly moldy smell of the barn.
“I wish I could make them reappear,” B. said, pulling me into him. “That was the one thing you really cared about, I know... I just can’t believe your grandma’s stuff is gone--things like this don’t just disappear."
I nodded again. But, deep down, I was doubtful. It didn't seem that far-fetched for things to just disappear, for things to be impermanent and unmoored. A settled understanding crept into the pit of my stomach, the same sort of understanding that arrives hours or days or months after a loved one has died, when the shock and denial start to give way to something new, something unbeckoned: the silent, stubborn sense of reality.
And as we stood in that barn, despite my best efforts to maintain my grip on denial, I began to realize that my grandma’s china was lost forever.
We drove back to Toronto on Canada Day (July 1)--friendly red maple leaf flags greeted us from every nook and cranny once we crossed the border. The customs officer asked us if we had brought any valuables back with us—we had to say no.
One month later, I was once again back in Ohio, not in a barn but in the cozy dining room of a professor, who stood to pour me another cup of coffee. We sat around the table, ensconced by tarts, scones and the 200 or so pages of my latest dissertation draft. Though living in Canada, my professors stipulated I return to Ohio every so often to critique drafts of my dissertation--skype, evidently, has not yet been invented in the academé.
“It’s fine writing,” my professor was saying, her words etched out in her precise, British accent. “But it isn't you. It’s too careful, stilted, fact-oriented. It’s too… Academic.”
“Well, it is a dissertation,” I pointed out.
“Yes, but…” She fumbled. “You’re trying too hard--there are all sorts of academic writing. History doesn't have to be this austere. What is it you're afraid of?”
Apparently, as my professor explained, my academic prose used to be creative and passionate--back when I first started my PhD. Lately, though, my writing seemed hijacked by overqualifications and unnecessary facts, footnotes and jargon. In short, she said, my writing had gone cold.
“You need to find your voice again.” She motioned towards the stack of pages I’d spent the better part of a year amassing. She shook her head. “This isn’t it.”
Every time I try to count, I lose track. But I think it's safe to say that I’ve moved something like twelve times in the last ten or eleven years.
At times, this strikes me as ironic. Growing up in a small town in northeastern Wisconsin, I wanted nothing more than to move somewhere--all the cool kids' families did. I pined for the surge of packing, traveling, unpacking, of smelling the flavor of a new house, picking a new bedroom, attending a new school. Now, I sometimes wish I could take that child I supposedly was by the shoulders and shake the Wanderlust plum out of her. Moving is exciting, I would tell her, but the surge wears off.
Since becoming an adult (does this every actually happen?), it seems I've done little else but move. While attending a college in my hometown, I took a job in Germany for a semester, went to Ohio for graduate school, taught a term in New Hampshire, moved back to Germany for research and most recently moved to Toronto where B. has his job. (Don't worry there won't be a quiz on all of this!)
And then there were the different kinds of moves that were no less life-changing. Like when, after several years of thinking and praying, I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. Like completing academic degrees that forced me to see all the complexity in the world, past and present.
In any case, I know there are many things one is careful to pack when moving, when leaving home. You sift through everything, discarding what won’t be helpful or meaningful in your new life. You pare your life down to a minimum of boxes or suitcases: enough clothing, for example. Important documents. A pot or pan or blanket or two and the myriad other necessary accoutrements that make a life work on a daily basis.
Not until afterwards, in the midst of unpacking, do you discover what didn’t survive the move intact: that white teapot you always liked, the glass in a favorite picture frame. It takes time to adjust to all these new facts, these damages and losses.
Even more time is needed to assess whether the deeper, non-material stuff of life have made the move, too. These are the items you never thought to pack because you thought they were automatic: your sense of stability, for example, or cultural identity. Community. History.
My voice, I’m guessing, must have been one of those things. I don’t know when I lost it—was it moving to graduate school in Ohio from my hometown? Or was it moving to Germany for research? Toronto? Was it one of the many smaller moves in between?
When my professor told me to find it again, all I could picture was my friend’s barn full of my disparate boxes. I’d gone through all the boxes and I knew that my voice, like my grandma’s china, was nowhere.
My voice was probably one of those precious things that, for no rhyme or reason, just got lost in the move.
Slowly, over the coming weeks and months, I took to talking about my grandmother’s china in the past tense. People close to me who knew of my loss asked hushed questions one might ask of a widow: “How have you been holding up--with the china being gone and everything?”
“I’ve moved on,” I’d respond in a calm, metered voice. “These things happen when you move.”
And then, I’d be alone, drinking tea or coffee. I’d think of what it had felt like to sip from one of the white and blue teacups my grandma once used. They were the perfect size, the perfect shape for my hands. I missed the glass ridges, the ones that seemed deftly molded to my long, bony fingers—another thing I’d inherited from my grandma. And I’d start crying all over again.
One day, I found a vintage china replacement site that specialized in piecing together old sets. They had listings and pictures for the same pattern, but the whole set was more expensive than expensive. B. fancied buying it for me, one piece at a time, over the course of our marriage.
“Can we pretend it was hers?” I asked him. “If we have kids, can we not tell them about how I lost the real set?”
“I'm confused--I thought that thing you showed me online was the real set?” He smiled, playing along, because he is wonderful like that.
And slowly, it became okay. I may never have my grandma’s china again, but I’d have something different—the story of something lost and then (in a way) found again. Of losing my grandma’s dishes but finding B.’s love, given piece by piece, again and again, over many long years.
“How does a person just find their voice again?" I questioned my professor as we sat there, the fragrance of coffee still enveloping us.
“That is a hard question--it’s a very individual thing.” She began. “You will not like to hear this, but in order to progress with the dissertation, you probably need to back off a bit. Take a break.”
She said all of this in a cryptic, zen-like tone. Ever the pragmatist, I swiftly pointed out the unavoidable fact that by not working on the dissertation, no progress would actually occur. She seemed to believe this was largely irrelevant, at least for now. A break was necessary, as she put it, in order to open myself up to life again.
“All your moving and relocating,” she wondered. “Have you been able to make friends? Find a meaningful community? Learn the places and things you like about your new home? Is there anything in life that you are truly excited about?”
“Aside from doing stuff with B., I don’t have the time or energy to be excited,” I confessed. “I’m writing a dissertation and planning a wedding.”
“Well, that might be your first problem,” she told me. “You need to get back into the business of living--really living. That might be the only way your writing voice will come out of hiding.”
Parts of us go into hibernation when there’s too many changes, pressures or fears all at once, she went on. Sometimes it’s our sense of humor that hides, sometimes it’s our daily rhythm or inertia. For me, she thought, maybe it was my writing voice. Apparently, I’d unpacked parts of myself—the facts, the footnotes, the safe things. But my real, genuine voice was just not ready to get unpacked and be out in the open yet.
She went on, advising me to engage in shamelessly nonacademic acts as: "finding [my]self in the small moments" and "noticing things around [me]." After three or four of these zen-isms, I seriously wondered whether she was just reading some of the pithy quotes they sometimes print on the tags tea bags--hers had long finished steeping.
"Don't push it. Your voice will come back when it comes back," she finished, concluding with what felt at the time like a death sentence:
"Until then, put the dissertation away.”
Following her advice was remarkably easier than I thought it would be. I did, after all, have a wedding to be in soon. So, upon returning to Toronto from my meeting with my professor, I cleared my work desk, packed up my notebooks and computer files and vowed not to work on the dissertation.
Slowly--very slowly--I started living again, even in the midst of wedding planning.
First was the cooking—taking my time, preparing food for the enjoyment of it. I started remembering foods I’d loved to make somewhere in a past life, before Germany, before Canada: red cabbage, sweet potato Thai soup (my self-invented recipe from years ago!), lemon oregano chicken thighs.
Then came the knitting—I discovered a weekly knitting group that met around the corner from where I lived. Comprised mostly of middle aged women, I had little to contribute to conversation, which mostly revolved around hot flashes and other signs of the perimenopausal times. But I went, and started making things, and having conversations with people. I supposed this was good for me, and it was.
Finally, there was the wedding. By that point, I was getting a little overzealous with the whole "living again" theme. For reasons that still evade me, I decided to cook most of the food for the reception (and by reception, I mean an appetizer hour + full buffet dinner + dessert for about 175 people). For several weeks, my condo-sized kitchen was a veritable whirlwind of herbs, meats, metric conversion charts, sanitizing sprays, freezer bags and unadulterated insanity.
Once I got through that culinary tornado, it was Time--the big day was approaching. My small-town family arrived in the hubbub of big-city Toronto. I found myself, finally, standing with the man I love most in this world before our families, our friends, before God, in unity. I remember things in vignettes--knowing he is there, beside me, all through this life in which I’m still trying to find myself. His smile on that day, reminding me all over again of the peace I had in falling in love with him. My family, trying to dance with his Greek relatives all the traditional but frightening Byzantine circle dances all through our reception.
And then, one morning, over bad coffee and pastries in the resort lobby where we were honeymooning, it happened. Involuntarily, I found myself writing again—pages and pages and pages. It was like breathing, putting into words—this joy, these memories, trying frame in my own words the blessed uniqueness of all these everyday moments that were somehow adding up to much more. It was not academic history, it would not bring me any closer to rewriting my dissertation. It was not as easy as I remembered writing being; at times, my thoughts would run together, fizzle out, start and stop. But it was me, really me—all my idiosyncracies, jokes, ruminations, favorite words and sentence constructions. Like nearly forgotten faces, they were all there. All of this, I thought to myself, must be a start.
A handful of years ago, the first semester of the first year of my PhD, my professor asked all her students to read a story. It was written by a famous historian, a gifted man who probably had much more to say had he not been killed in the concentration camps, an Alsatian Jew.
In the story, the historian tells of a time he visited a friend living in some famous, historically rich city—I forget which it was, perhaps Paris or Stockholm or London. The historian expects his friend (also a historical scholar) to take him to a museum, a famous architectural site or to a big library. But instead, the friend walks him to the main city square—all crowds and cobblestones and cacophony. They sit on a bench amid the general hubbub. I picture them doing something intellectually inane, drinking a coffee or splitting a sweet roll, and catching each other up their lives. Then, for a while, they just watch things unfold all around them, not saying or doing much of anything.
Finally, the first historian grows restless.
“I’m confused, I thought we would end up at some famous, old site with a lot of history,” he says to his friend.
The friend smiles and explains he is a historian—he isn’t so concerned with the past itself, but rather all the ways people live and behave in time. That is, after all, the enterprise of History: the study of people in time. What better way to learn how people live in time, the explains, than to be a real person, caught in time, surrounded by other living and acting and breathing and feeling people? To watch it all, to be part of it all?
“If I were an antiquarian, I’d only care for old things and old places,” the friend says, by way of conclusion. “But since I’m a historian, I just love life. That is my first task.”
I had forgotten this important aspect of history. In the course of moving, of research, of being disentangled from a real home and community, I’d forgotten to love life, to be a real person with a real voice in real time. I’d forgotten that being a real person rooted in a real life is the best means by which we come to understand the past.
I was glad that I was starting to remember this.
And so, I find myself thinking a lot lately about two things: history and home.
History, because it's what I do. It is, for now, my livelihood. And yet, it's both more and less than that. Surrounded by academic history, I often find myself longing for a clearer sense of what history is on the level of personal lives, places and experiences. What is my past? Which of the vast, interconnected tributaries of History-with-a-capital-"H" has shaped my own little-"h" history?
Home, because in the midst of the changes my life has brought me, I have become increasingly compelled by the idea of being at home, of being rooted and situated in some place in this world. Moving, getting married, and numerous other life changes I can speak of: all these things are teaching me that this much sought after sense of "situated-ness" does not happen automatically. But I think this is something most of us long for--a person does not have to move all over the world, or marry a Canadian, to long for home. And as I look around me, I am increasingly fascinated by all the elements that come together to make a person feel at home.
At the same time, I find myself endlessly reflecting on places and spaces I have called home in the past—these include geographic locations like my hometown, as well as ideas, schools of thought, other writers, people, churches and other communities. Part of reclaiming “home” in my life, now, means sifting through all these other homes, finding what has and hasn’t remained with me.
The two are not so distantly related, home and history. Because we are often most at home when we find ways to claim our history in the present moment. I am realizing more and more that writing is one of the ways I do this, sundering home and history from the chaos of the present. More than almost any other activity, writing is the way I reach out and root myself in moments, people, memories that would otherwise slip by me.
It happened some time in the midst of all this—in the midst of our wedding, or maybe it was on our honeymoon, I don’t recall. But I got an email. It was from a couple I knew back in Ohio, whom I hadn’t seen in some time. We were just cleaning the basement, they wrote. We found a box with a white and blue china set—service for 8? We’ve never seen these dishes before—are they by chance yours?
All at once, I remembered. I had held on to those dishes until the last day before flying out, painstakingly searching for somewhere to keep them. I finally just decided to leave them with this couple for them to look after. It was a last-minute decision, and I’d forgotten it until now.
If that china could reappear after I was so sure it had been lost, I wondered if maybe my voice would soon follow.
Just in case my suspicions were correct, I started this blog. Thanks for stopping by :)
Have you ever gone through a period of time in which you felt unrooted or un-at-home in the world?