[perennial blog post to let everyone know I am Alive and Well and Overcaffeinated Per Usual!!]
I am about to commit treason to my literary kind: numbers fascinate me. The fact that math is an entire art based on the assumption of rules to be true is endlessly compelling. That you can use symbols that someone assigned meaning in some sort of code to quantify and calculate divisions of your life? Ridiculous. Crazy. Absolute certitude of how many days I have been alive (at the time of writing this, 8599), inches of rain fallen today (in Scotland right now, 3.4 with the conversion from centimeters), number of index cards sitting on my desk (94). And then people take these certitudes and combine them to establish larger averages of certitudes in an insane amount of ways!
How many hairs on my head: 90,000 (brunettes, 140,000; blondes, 110,000)! How many miles I’ll walk in my lifetime: 110,000! How many questions it takes to fall in love: 36! (or so they say, whoever the elusive “they” is.)
But how do we arrive at certitude? By arriving at the same certitude as someone else and deciding we must both be correct. Thus I contend, to any number-lover who tells me that they like math because it is black and white and not the shades of gray that words are, there is no difference. Numbers are like stories; established, tried, tested against time. These rules and theorems that create your number laws come from the same place that words do: the repetition of stories over millennia.
Words have always been, and continue to be, the most effective way I have found to fall in love. With people, with the world– in my twenty-three trips around the sun, like the way most people shove souvenirs into carry-ons, I have tried to take as many with me as I can fit. I have pried them from novels, dictionaries, poems, sermons, songs, presidential addresses, newspapers, road signs. I have papered my walls with them, painted them, folded them into my wallet, taken them on trains. I spent most of grade school literally memorizing the dictionary (this can be explained). I majored in words in college; I still major in them now. I teach them, I take them, I cut-and-paste them. I make promises with them, resolutions.
In 2015, it was to stop justifying, to no longer use words as cushions for things I was passionate about. In 2016, it was to read others’ words, and to listen, and to learn– fifty-two books in fifty-two weeks.
But like all things and ideas and people I love, words are fluid. Every time I think I have them committed to memory, I learn something new–an alternate definition, a changed meaning, a different dimension in context (in Ireland, they call sprinkles “hundreds and thousands,” which I think is adorable; in the UK, they call underwear “pants,” which I think is just confusing)–that complicates our relationship, requires an adjustment. How do I understand them? How do I move forward with the knowledge that they can change tomorrow?
My favorite words: Chiaroscuro. Inextricably. Scintillate. Mahogany. Returning. Insh’Allah. Effervescence. Poittuvarane. Found. Absolutely. One of my favorite words comes from Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “The Sonnet-Ballad” (another poem of change); the speaker laments, “I cannot guess/ What I can use an empty heart-cup for.”
Heart-cup: the word is a kenning, two words put together, in the tradition of Norse poetry (“sea-steeds” were “ships;” “ice of shields” was “death”; my personal favorite kenning, “hawk-mountains,” literally means “arms” [Eyvind Finson, circa 990]). It is a word of implications– that hearts can hold, that we can fill them, that we can pour out whatever we have been carrying inside of us, that we can start over. And I love the phrase “ghost exposure”: when you try to take a photo of a moving subject for a long period of time (here), but can only catch the subject in fragments. Resolution. Home.
The longer I think about it (I’ve been sitting on a blog post like this one since around last Christmas, or about 362 days), the more I wonder how words become more than words to us– how do they become definitions, concretions and abstractions and amalgamations of the in-betweens, rising out of letters swept into piles? And how do we know they mean the same thing, the age-old “how do I know if what I see is blue is what you see is blue” conundrum? Specifically, how do we create a word that is not a word but a place and an idea and a feeling and a verb and a color and a smell; how do we define home?
I used to think of home as spreading shaving cream across a table and writing my name with it in my finger. And cherry icebox cookies, and shiny pink dance tights. But lately all I know is what home is not. Once a boy I had known for an hour asked me if I could live in Madras forever, and I told him I didn’t think I could live somewhere I couldn’t see the stars. On Arthur’s Seat at midnight, a friend asked if I could try to stay in Scotland (there are stars here like spilled-milk galaxies) and I said that somehow the sky still seemed smaller. A woman in Malta asked me to describe where I was from and I realized that in all the languages I’d met so far, I couldn’t translate the vastness of “prairie.” This is the closest I have gotten.
Home-creating, door-opening, is my resolution for 2017. Reading fifty-two books in fifty-two weeks allows you to peer into windows of fifty-two people’s (okay, fewer than that, I had a lot of repeats) everyday existences, like wandering museum exhibits. In the vein of one of my undergraduate mentors, I tried to take daily inventory of my life for a year (“take better notes” was the name of the resolution). In some ways I succeeded, in others I did not. (I never asked Dr. H how she does it–“On your Excel sheet, do you inventory strained friendships, lost earrings, other people’s dogs? 0700 hours, January 7, I burned rice again.”) (Another favorite word, parentheses, from the Greek for “put in beside.”) Margins are bursting, notebooks split from the stories I have been frantically trying to carry with me. They are stacked on shelves here, tucked into boxes, left scattered in strangers’ apartments on my way passing through. But in gazing into other people’s lives, I wonder how many people I have forgotten to let into my own. So many questions of home come up when you spend holidays in different hemispheres; how many Christmases and babies and weddings have I missed? How many sunflower seasons?
A year of home, inventoried and kept like minutes (525,600) across continents (4), countries (16):
In January, I would have shown you the 400 scrawled crayon responses from my students, meticulously surveyed– “home is henna, home smells like jasmine, home tastes like butter chicken and kisses, home is the feeling when you see a bracelet in the market and it fits your wrist exactly” (which reminds me of another story).
In February, I would have recorded a three-hour international phone call and played it over and over again.
In March, I would have said home was sweet, buzzing lime juice sweating through its glass, and dragonflies.
April’s home was the assortment of Things I Carried On Planes–a journal of hastily scrawled poems, camisoles turned green by our mysterious washer, Kashmiri scarves, a light-up statuette of Jesus, sunfaded sorority t-shirts, and three bags of palm sugar that had gotten my name on Chennai Airport’s security “watch list.” It was also sleep, and Spanish hydrogen peroxide, and rain.
In May, I would have told you that home was “a returning,” specifically to food, especially to queso– and that it was a turning away, like trying on old shoes that still fit but might give you blisters.
In June, it was a clicking of jigsaw puzzle pieces and the rediscovery of sunburn; July, a game of charades and the mosquitoed drive to a Jolly Rancher vineyard; August, the breaking of shoestrings, the tying of knots. A best friend’s quilt, a snakeskin.
In November, home was a sweater and a wine glass of skies like gasoline rainbows. And in December, home has stretched across partitioned time, snaked along gulfs and across dinner tables, through landlines.
All of these are integral; none of these are foundational. None of these can tell you, exactly, what home is. They are all defining moments, but they are not the moment of home defined. Words become frames of definitions, snapshots in a larger ghost exposure in the way that lightyears and lifespans are just ghost exposures in numbers. They are singular whispers of ghost exposure laid on top of each other time and time again until they eventually form a larger picture, until they create a rule. Home then is not stasis, or the average number of REM cycles in a night’s sleep (4.666). You cannot predict home. You cannot expect places or words or people to remain as you once knew them. This is something I struggle to adjust to, the shift in time zones, the jet lag of leaving people and expecting them to remain like dollhouses. The concept that once you have set a definition or left a place, it is not impervious to further exposure. That borderlines are created, that homes can be destroyed. Life allows for sun fades and crow’s feet and new cereals and scrawled-out notes in the margin, for better or for worse. Change happens. People move. People are stories re-created.
But home is not exclusively change, either. People are stories, repeated. Home is, then, the bridge between those notions of going and staying, of change and remnants. It is exclusively connections: rather, it is the things that change with us, alongside us, like cities, photo albums. People are as much places as any pinpoint on a map, and we are also less than those places because we are simply prisms of every lifeworld that we carry with us, and not the lifeworld in its entirety. Worlds as they once were, or are, or will be, in space and time and words– smiling, flickering outlines, shifting nearly imperceptibly every day, like people. Hundreds and thousands of frames.
Now I think of home in vaguer terms– in cups of tea, in poems. Home is counted in dog years and sparklers and ice cream cake, and it is the leap of joy when you see the person you’ve been waiting for in the airport. Today it means ghazals. Yesterday it meant a red leaf rain-plastered to the ground. Tomorrow I will continue to piece it together, in every second of this life. Home is something I live and redefine every single day, in heart-cups overflowing.