Tuesday, February 16, 2010

the cold

Many of you have asked how I am dealing with the cold. It certainly is a big adjustment: Australia was much warmer and drier than New England, and Thailand was a humid 90 degrees every day, 85 degrees every night. I became accustomed to dripping sweat, living in a uniform of flip flops, loose shorts, thin t-shirt, sun hat: at home, often just a bathing suit, to better deal with the heat, and to easier jump in and out of our pool. I never loved the heat, but I became comfortable enough in it's wet melting ease.

I came home to cold cold, 0 degrees F (18 C), cold even by Yankee standards. I have delighted in getting at least the end taste of my beloved Winter, but my body has been blatantly slower to adjust than my tastes.

I noticed first and foremost that the cold has made me very aware of my teeth: they feel harder, more brittle, and each of their flaws are made tactile in the cold air. I imagine they are more white, scoured by the cold and gleaming with the pain of the cold.

I am also very aware of my air passages, down to every branching bronchi of my lungs. They, too, feel purified by the cold air, which feels more like liquid than gas and requires sipping. I am limited by how painful the air is in my lungs: I cannot run, and regret a gasp or deep laugh outside.

My eyes feel delicate in the cold, as if the eyelids are made more thin, the lashes more heavy, the liquid in my eyes thicker. My eyes are tired from squinting to keep out the snowflakes, to keep out the white glare of the sun's reflection on the snow. Salty wind-whipped tears trickle out into the New England crowfeet I am developing.

The cold air is dry, desert dry, which ages my skin, making the skin of my hands look and feel like the skin of my mother's hands. My lips become smooth with dryness, and then harsh and rough and a beautiful pink with chapping, then my lips break open like an overripe peach and bleed, the blood soaked up by the parched skin over which it seeps. Chap stick makes no difference: I consider seeking out bear grease.

The heat that keeps away the cold is also uncomfortable: the oven of radiator-baked old wooden houses, the harsh blasts of warm air from doors when opened, the withering wafts from forced-air heating systems. And the exhausting sweat that comes from too many blankets on the bed, not getting your coat off soon enough inside, or the flush from a cup of hot tea.

But the cold is well worth it.

The cold allows for snow, gorgeous quieting heavy blessing of thick white. Today was a snow-globe, a vertigo of fluffy spinning flakes sticking perfectly to the branches and lampposts and making clean and simpler all vistas. Now at twilight, the snow and dusk conspire to negate background, highlight foreground, and wash the world in vibrant glowing shades of light blue. I saw even businessmen transfixed and commenting to strangers on the beauty of the snow today. I appreciate the cold for delicately holding this beauty.

And the cold keeps everyone inside, the animals asleep, the woods open and dormant. I walked with a friend through some rural forest in Rhode Island on Sunday. It was deeply silent except for the surf-roar wind in the uppermost branches: no other people out, no cars, no birdsong, no squirrel chitter, no footsteps (all muffled in the snow), no leaf scuffing or stick cracking, no sound. This pure redemptive quiet was like balm to my overstimulated mind. I appreciate the cold for holding things still and private.

On a mundane level, I enjoy being in the cold because I like coats, hats, and jeans, and I get to wear them again. I enjoy feeling enveloped, bundled, held together, hidden. I enjoy succumbing and entrusting myself to a soft warm bed, burrowing down into cuddly folds of flannel, shivering with delight at the sudden relaxation of my body as it becomes warm. I enjoy the pore-opening brain-melting bliss of a steamy shower. I enjoy being enfolded in a long hug, reveling in the warmth of a friend. These are not things which one can enjoy in a hot climate. And these are all things that make me feel safe, relaxed, loved, and at home. So it seems that home must be someplace cold, at least part of the time.

Bonus slide show: the morning after aforementioned snowstorm, blue blue sky!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

palate of a Massachusetts February

I’m sitting looking out the window of the train on the Fitchburg/South Acton line, retracing in reverse the path of the famed Minutemen, the ride of Paul Revere, from Concord through Lincoln and Bedford in to Cambridge and then Boston.

Rolling by me are the colors of the landscape of my home at its most dormant: flat, muted, though not pastel. Predominately grey, though myriad greys. The flat grey sky, only blue in the imagination or when seen in the reflection of the unruffled, frigid water. The grey of tree trunks, not brown, but purples and ash and charcoal and slate, all the color of dead wood, faded weathered timber. The smooth kahki of mown fields with whorls of low hedgerows like tousled salty hair in sleep. Dried grasses the color of my skin. Frozen, bedraggled white pines not white in color but matte dark green. The white snow, grey now on some of its edges, grey from translucence or grime, the white snow marking out paths of footprints or whole slicing paths through the woods, only remaining where it was compressed, the rest now melted to leave these maps of travel. The shrivelled oak leaves, a strangely luminous peachy tan, still on some branches despite all the months of winter winds. Spindly maroon and violet shrub stalks. Tiny, unnoticeable red berries. Washed-out light sage green lichens and emerald mosses on impenetrably grey rock, mottled tan rock, unassuming sienna rock, dull pinkish rock. Through it all, the flat light of the invisible grey-white sun, and the invisible but ever-frigid wind. As it is now, a very restrained, understated, conservative, brittle landscape.

Later, as we come into the city, a new grey: the grim concrete, the faded pavement. And new colors, mostly muted pink brick, ferrous weeping rust, weakly putty-colored houses. Repetitive new construction making me want again and again to research new synonyms for “taupe”. Faded yellow caution and construction, sometimes old crayon blue instead. Lethargic blacks and browns of drooping fences and trash cans, pine green utility boxes supposed to fade into the landscape but the landscape is asphault and grey. Occasional glints of silvered metal. Even the graffitis and litter and cars stay within this palate.

A fitting and restful palate for my quietude, my hermitage, my exhaustion and fragility of cultural adjustment.

(P.S. I'm literally writing this while riding on the train. Thank you, MBTA, for your free commuter-rail wireless internet access! The wonders of modern technology never cease to amaze me.)

Monday, February 8, 2010

i heart Massachusetts

I am finally back home in Massachusetts.

Some of you have questioned our definition of home, our unfailing grasp on Massachusetts as our lode and goal. Those of you who have come to know us abroad know us as having our home in each new city: Melbourne, Bangkok, even New Orleans. It's true we're able to make a comfortable household, make friends, enjoy the surroundings, celebrate holidays, go about our lives everywhere we've been. We create all the trappings of a home wherever we go.

And each place has a claim on us: New Orleans as a place where we enjoyed purpose, great food and music, grew into our adults selves more fully, realized our talents more, made friendships grounded in sweat and ideals. Melbourne as the place of Petra's matrilineal ancestry, where she enjoyed being part of a vast and loving and very like-her extended family, where I enjoyed academic success and the beginnings of a promising career and met a deeply inspiring mentor, and where we both made good friends and explored the gorgeous bush and coast of the wilds of Australia. Bangkok as a place of priorities thrown into harsh contrast, of serving great needs and powerfully living out our ideals, as well as being socially appreciated in a way that has spoiled us.

So why return to the US? Three main reasons: our closest family and friends are here and we miss them. American grad schools are unparalleled, and we want to be able to advance our careers which requires further schooling for each of us. And we are thinking of starting a family, and would like to do so in the place we consider our home.

But why, out of the whole country, Massachusetts? Well, first of all, though it's a little-known fact, it is the state in which we were both born and spent our formative years (P in Eastern and E in Western MA). There's something to be said for returning to the lands of one's birth, and to the strength of early geographic imprinting.

Pragmatically, Massachusetts is the state where we have our bank accounts and drivers' licences, where we file taxes, where our infrastructure currently exists. And it's the state in which our possessions currently reside. It's also the state in which we have job networks, can easily step into work with former employers, and be aware enough of the community institutions to effectively navigate future job searches. As we return with empty pockets into a difficult economy, this is no small consideration.

Massachusetts is the state in which we were married, one of the few states in which our marriage is recognized, one of the few in which we could legally and practically create the family we hope for, one of the few in which we feel that our relationship and rights and selves are safe and supported. These are not matters which we are willing to concede.

It's also the state that loves us the most. While it's not as if "home is where thy blog-readers are", the map below is one example showing that the people who care about us, follow our lives, support us, overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) live in Massachusetts. We have a wealth of friends and networks here.

Perhaps most importantly, it's the place where we feel most at home. The places where I can feel most myself are almost all in Massachusetts; I do not need to explain myself here, I do not need to hold myself back here, I am understood here. The friends who are the family of our hearts who know us completely and love us without reservation and greet us by enveloping us and holding us and holding us and who are with us even when they let us go are here, where so much of our love abides and where our hearts can rest. I don't need a map or even to be awake to navigate here. I can cook the foods. I know the plants, the weather, I could survive in the wilderness here. I know the politics, the teams, the social cues, the context, the holidays, the ways it could be improved, the counterculture, the dangers. I can be confident here. The faith here resonates with me, the heroes inspire me, the history is relevant to me. It smells right. It is my default dreamscape. In all ways that matter, it is home.

It is quite likely that we will move to another state for Petra's grad school (she's applied in Boston, NYC, and DC), but our plan is to return to Massachusetts when we have the chance to put down our roots for good. This doesn't mean we won't live elsewhere at various times: We fully hope to live in Melbourne again at some point in the future, probably after we've had children, so they can know that part of their family and history. And if Petra's work takes us afield again, and/or if we adopt from abroad, we'll probably live in some other country for a time, so perhaps another place will also in part become home. Connecticut, as the state in which I was largely raised, will of course also always have a place in my heart, as will the the mountains of NH/ME and the homes of my family. Other places may provide us with challenges that would help us grow. But Massachusetts really feels like our very own home. And it's good to be home.