Last week I had an email exchange with my friend Jessica about the five years I spent living in London (ages 12 to 17). It was a rich, irreplaceable interval of time, full of the number 9 bus and Fruit Pastilles and Doc Marten boots and weekends riding in the Cotswolds and signing our names on the Berlin Wall. I still have dear friends from those years.
But there’s no question that the five years that I lived in London, the fifth of which I spent at boarding school in New Hampshire, were bracketed by deep discomfort. I can close my eyes and stand in the doorway of my Upper Fourth classroom on a cold January day, when my future friend Stephanie threw open the doors and announced, “this is the new girl” before disappearing into the mass of foreign girls speaking in rapid, accented English. I have rarely wanted to disappear more keenly (and trust me, that’s an emotion I experience a lot).
My childhood was as full of farewells as it was of blindingly bright experiences. I saw countries and cathedrals and I also cried my eyes out, missing friends in Cambridge, in Paris, in London. I went back and forth across the ocean so many times I wasn’t really sure, for several years, where home was. I would never trade my childhood, and the unique terroir in which I grew (shared only by my sister). But it was certainly full of dislocation, threaded through with a fundamental sense of discomfort. I was always new somewhere, or about to leave. The fabric of my life was woven through with departures.
I don’t know why this has been on my mind lately. Maybe it is because I am particularly cognizant of how comfortable my adult life is, how different Grace and Whit’s childhoods are from mine. After our trip to Jerusalem last year, I reflected that my sister and I had had seemingly opposite responses to our shared childhood. I am the unadventurous one. I have always chosen safety and comfort.
And yet. The thing is, I still feel uncomfortable a lot of the time. It’s not the same uneasiness that comes with being in an unfamiliar country: different coins (oh, how many times have I offered a palm full of foreign money to a bus driver and asked them to take what they need?), different names of dish soap, different kinds of foods. But it is a vague sense of discomfort in my own life. There are not that many people who feel like native speakers of my language. There are not many places that I feel entirely accepted. I long to belong.
I used to think that it was my childhood of constant goodbyes that created this feeling of fundamental otherness. Years ago I described the way all those “departures remain within me, hard little kernels of sadness that the rest of my experience flows around, but not undisturbed.” But maybe that’s not it. Maybe it is actually the other way around.
Perhaps for too long I’ve incorrectly ascribed responsibility for the way I am to my peripatetic childhood. Maybe this is my essential self, this nose-pressed-against-the-window sensation simply my way of being in the world. It’s the reason I take the pictures. It’s the reason I am often misconstrued as aloof and chilly. I guess it is just part of who I am, for better or for worse.
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