Sunday, October 13, 2013

On Horcruxes and Homes

What a view. Cape Elizabeth, Maine

It’s twilight, and I’m at my parent’s beach house outside of Portland, Maine. I am out at “the Point,” which I regularly describe to people as my favorite place in the world. It is a rocky promontory jutting out a few hundred feet into Casco Bay, surrounded on three sides by sighing waves; wheeling seagulls; and idyllic views of other cottages, seaweed-covered rocks, and lobster buoys. Across the cove, the world-famous Portland Headlight twinkles once every few seconds; on foggy days you can hear its low moan, as well. This place, in its tranquil perfection, is a three-minute walk from my parents’ house, and I go there every chance I get. However, living the expat life I do, those chances don’t come very often these days.

This particular evening, I’ve come out to the point with a friend and a glass of wine. We’re having one of those deliciously meandering evening discussions about life, but as the sunset deepens, we can’t help but grow silent. The heavy clouds of earlier in the day are giving way to a radiantly-setting sun whose rays are somehow intensified by the low angle, seeming to set alight the thicket of weeds and wildflowers that grows down the spine of the cliff. Openmouthed, we watch the conflagration grow, staining the water pink. When the show is over, we pick up our empty wine glasses and walk back to the house. But as we start down the path, I feel a deep ache at the idea that in a few weeks I am going to have to leave this place again. I take a breath, straighten my shoulders, and put it out of my mind. This is the life I’ve chosen.

So, what I’m saying is: I was going to write about this anyway, but Pico Iyer got there first.  A few days ago, a friend sent me a link to Mr. Iyer's recent TEDtalk-- he has long been one of my favorite travel writers-- and I was excited to see the topic: "Where is home?"

Mr. Iyer's family is from India; he was born in the UK and has lived in Rio, Japan, and the US. He spent much of his TEDtalk discussing just what that means. When people say, "Where do you come from?" does that signify, "Where were you born?", "Where do you see your doctor and your dentist?", or "Which places goes deepest inside you?" When I got to this point in the lecture I actually had to pause it so I could bang on the table and grin and send it on to other traveler friends.

I remember the first time in college that I referred to going back to Wesleyan as "going home," and how strange that felt; how quickly going back to my host family's house for lunch in Kunming became "going home;" how I struggled to figure out if my apartment in Allston was 'home' in Boston or if going to eat dinner at my parent's house was "home." In Spanish the word casa translates as both 'house' and 'home,' which is confusing but poignant. Although I'm glad English separates those concepts, the word is still equally slippery. 

The ruins of a Visigoth temple in the basement of the Palencia cathedral, one of my favorite Palentino secrets

Going back to Boston (so easy to type the word "home" there, but that’s the point) this summer, everything was comfortable, familiar, full of love and history. But in the TEDtalk, Mr. Iyer talks about how the "beauty of being somewhere foreign is that it slaps you awake," which is a perfect way to explain a feeling I never had a name for.  So I wonder: is home friends and shared jokes and comfort? Or is it where one feels challenged and excited, always facing newness, that special kind of ‘awake’? Is it where one learns, where one works, where one loves? What if home could be all those things, could be multifaceted instead of one address and one family? My favorite line of Mr. Iyer’s entire talk was about the community of travelers and expats he’s built around himself. They, too, hold this idea of a multifaceted home. “Their whole life,” he says, “will be spent taking pieces of different places and putting them together into a stained glass whole.  It’s less to do with a piece of soil than a piece of soul.

That piece of phrasing is particularly perfect for the idea I wanted to write about even before I saw Mr. Iyer’s talk. Walking back that night from the point, full of an exquisite mix of sadness and joy, I was reminded of nothing so much as a Horcrux. Fans of the "Harry Potter" series will be familiar with the idea of a villain who made himself immortal by cutting his soul in parts and hiding them throughout the world (does that still merit a spoiler alert if the last book came out seven years ago?). I don't seek immortality, exactly, and I'd like to think I'm something less than a megavillain. But it still seems that the life I've chosen requires this process of dividing my soul and leaving it in places that are beautiful, meaningful, or otherwise part of my stained-glass ‘home.’ I feel that same sweet pain when I see the moon reflecting on the Charles River or walk through the colorful chaos of Haymarket in downtown Boston. I feel that loss, small but sharp, when I remember voices raised in harmony with a jangling guitar in a stone basement in Linares, the bustle of Calle Mayor in Palencia at 7 o'clock paseo, Bai farmers scooting their way across the wire bridges in the lush greenery of Nujiang valley, or rainy mornings listening to the foghorn across the water from the warmth of my bed in Portland. I’m coming to terms with the cost of exploring, adventuring, and setting down roots. Letting in beauty and kindness, continually constructing my stained-glass home, means making horcruxes-- leaving tiny pieces of my soul around the world.

And in a way this realization goes a long way toward explaining my feelings in the last weeks. As I’ve settled into Talavera, I’ve found myself thinking longingly of Sunday mornings in my favorite Watertown diner, Friday nights eating tapas and listening to Linarense flamenco, rock concerts at Lemon Society bar in Palencia, or the brilliance of fall colors on my family’s customary apple-picking trip in inland Maine. And I’ve been confused, almost resentful, at the realization that it's possible to be homesick in such a mixed-up confused way, for multiple places and times. I thought I could only miss Boston this way, but that was, in retrospect, a silly assumption. Boston has never been my only home, and when I really think about it I know I would never want it to be. Deep down, this is how I am made: to leave horcruxes like breadcrumbs in my path through the world and always be looking back to find them again.
My blended Pumi-American family in Nujiang, Yunnan, China


Linda S. said...

Love that quote: "beauty of being somewhere foreign is that it slaps you awake,"!

Alissa said...

I know, right!? He's a smart guy, Pico Iyer

Julia said...

I LOVED this entry, everything about it. I'm drawn to any discussions on the meaning of homes and then you added horcruxes (!!!!). This is to say, I adore you. <3

Dani said...

Hi, you don't know me, but our mutual friend Julia pointed me towards this blog post and I just want to say that it's really lovely and moving and I can't wait to watch the TED talk you reference.

Alissa said...

So glad the both of you enjoyed it! Thank you for the kind words. And Dani, any friend of Julia's is a friend of mine!

Dani said...

:) I'm going to start blog stalking you, hope you don't mind. You can stalk me back if you want but my blog's sort of random and not always travel-related.