Perpetually Ungrounded

 My darling K,

I, too, am writing to you from a floor — the third floor of Ginn library, to be precise. I am sitting at what I feel is my ‘assigned seat:’ by the window, across from the tree by which I mark the seasons. At the moment, I am living to the tune of red leaves – perhaps my favorite seasonal soundtrack. When I think about ‘putting down roots,’ as you put it, I think of red leaves and the first raindrops on library windows. There is something peculiar about being grounded by transience, about finding one’s roots in seasons which — by definition! — change. Perhaps this is the kind of permanence that you and I can aspire to: the sense of being rooted and grounded, with just a pinch of whimsical nostalgia, remembrance, and dreamy transience to keep our wandering souls alive.

I picture you in your new apartment, K, and in that same image, I picture possibility. Don’t you love the echo of a space that hasn’t yet been cluttered by stuff and memories alike? I have always been deeply resistant to ‘stuff’, to anything that is not immediately needed that might deprive me of my weightlessness and ability to float away on a moment’s notice. It is, perhaps, for this reason that I treat the process of making a home as an exercise in piling up — an exercise in holding on. Conference programs, ticket stubs from concerts, little kitschy mementos that we buy each other on a trip — I have always cherished them, and have always let them go, in the spirit of making space to breathe, in the spirit of lightness. Those travel souvenirs are not any less kitschy now and the conference programs are not printed on any less paper — but I am less trigger-happy with tossing them. We need the objects of a new era to fill the empty spaces. The process of anchoring ourselves has to start somewhere and, for me, it starts with allowing myself to be weighed down a little by new memories, with slowly putting objects on the wall to stop them from echoing with the sounds of the past. 

There is an antsiness to making a new home, K. I nested aggressively when I moved here, as though I was making a point that I am now anchored in place. I own, and use, three different types of coffee-makers. There are nails in the walls, holding up photos of the Elsewheres I have loved. This home feels like me. It smells like me — like ‘frosted cupcake’ and ‘marshmallow fireplace’, though I will never for the life of me understand why these are the names America chooses for its paint swatches and candles. And yet, K, and yet… I don’t feel quite like myself in it. 

There is nothing wrong, per se. I am surrounded by so much of what inspires gratitude in my life. I walk out my front door each morning and marvel at the reddening leaves. I am impressed by them anew every time I step out, even though they were red yesterday and likely will be tomorrow as well. There is an abundance of awe in my life — and is this not the stuff of gratitude? Can one be filled with awe and numbness in the same breath? 

The forces of my life are pulling me in different directions and, as a result, I feel like I was just spat out by the rinse cycle of a washing machine. Here is some of what occupies that spin cycle: How does one narrate stories of conflict that were trusted to her while being conscious that these are not her stories, that her ‘I’ is not/should not be central to the narrative? How does one continue to practice humility in the face of awe-inspiring kindness and atrocity alike, without letting that turn into paralyzing self-doubt or disillusionment? How does one critique without becoming cynical? How does one bear witness to so much of the world’s atrocities without the kind of judgment that blinds her ability to serve? Where does one find her own place amidst all these narratives, without having her sense of self rocked every single time by the opposing forces of kindness and injustice? I am living in these questions at the moment, K, and the more I ask them, the more silent I become. The more I learn about trauma and collective memory and transitional justice in the wake of armed conflict and patterns of violence in mass atrocities, the less I know – and the less I know about my own place in this field specifically, and in the universe at large. When does awe in the face of the questions – in some senses, the very definition of humility – become disorientation? 

I wish not for a life without questions. But on some mornings when I wake up rattled after a particularly grueling night of reading testimonies, all I can know is the marvel I feel when I walk out that front door of mine to stare at a perfect red leaf of fall. All I can know is that even in our perfectly grounded spaces, in the homiest of homes, our heads can remain ungrounded. Our hearts can wander. And depending on just how beautiful the leaves are on a given morning, I find those realizations exhausting or enlightening at once. 

So, ground yourself with reckless abandon, K. Hammer those nails into the wall. Unpack, and don’t buy a cardboard box again for months, even years. Exhale with pride when you realize that you – the girl who loves to wander and wonder – can find beauty to being firmly planted in place. And then when the moment comes that you discover that the questions we ask ourselves at all the Elsewheres we have loved follow us to Boston or Washington DC as well, give yourself a hug from me. It is in those moments that I most wish we could sit in your car parked outside one of our temporary homes and begin to unpack every sentence that ends with a question mark.

Love and stories,