When you said to yourself, ‘I’m not going back’
Murray says it is possible to be homesick for a place even when you are there.”
― Don DeLillo, White Noise
I’ve saved a picture that was taken on a trip we took through New England in 2009 with French friends. I left for France long ago, and this was my first trip back to New England in the fall in more than 25 years. After that much time, the sequences and memories of similar autumns become fixed in time; brilliant, iconic brain burns. Certain scenes draw others to them like iron filings to magnets. They become a source, a wellspring.
This photo is that type of image: a river somewhere in Vermont, mirroring a trestle bridge of a long-abandoned railroad, hemmed in flaring birch and maple. An image you carry around when you uproot yourself. An image that resonates when you are faced with similar landscapes, to be renewed now and then when you return, but that takes on its own inner light and intensity.
Looking at this picture is like looking back. Its beauty is idealized, so one imagines a peace that never really existed, for if it did, there would have been no reason to leave. The memories accumulate in layers, a mille-feuille of scenes and experiences all associated with the water, the bridge, and the woods, as if one had repeated different variations of the same action over and over for years and would have continued to do so except that suddenly the scene changed to something so totally different there could be no relationship between the two.
There will always be a before and after, a fracture, making continuity impossible; two shores, two banks, two cultures, and a bridge to be built between them; a composite idiosyncratic structure of your own making. The bridge is yours alone; it is a personal story with very few echoes, because by cutting ties, you have also severed the roots that you must now plant elsewhere, making you hybrid, unique, solitary, unattached, and perhaps sterile.
You will always be asked the same question: Why did you leave? And to this question, often from the mouth of someone you barely know, a one-word answer is expected: “business” or “politics” or “love,” while to truly respond to that question would require exposing your most intimate secrets to a stranger, so you lie, or at best grossly simplify, then move on and talk about something else.
And even if that one word has an element of truth — even if you did go for business or politics or love — the real question should be: When did you say to yourself, “I’m not going back”? Because this was the real moment of reckoning. Until then you maintain your ties to both, you bridge the gulf with hope and plans, and you imagine yourself in two places at once, or nowhere, en attente, suspended, uprooted, but open.
Sometimes, that moment never comes, but if it does, you hoist your house on your back like a snail and move on.