31 May 2017: Taming A Transatlantic Trauma
The Look of Things: a Cultural Readjustment
“When you don’t hear others, you don’t imagine them, they become unreal, and you are left in the wasteland of a world with only yourself in it, and that surely makes you starving, though you know not for what, if you have ceased to imagine others exist in any true deep way that matters.”
–Rebecca Solnit, May 30, 2017
The acute heat in Arizona in May makes it too hot to even type. The screen of my laptop is hot to the touch in the shade. I put ice packs in the insulated bag with my lunch, but even those are turning to lukewarm liquid inside their plastic shells. It’s 103 degrees, or in Celsius for the readers outside of America, somewhere around 40 degrees. I thought I’d stack the cold packs underneath the laptop bottom to make sure it didn’t overheat, but they had no chance against the intensity.
There are oleander bushes lined along the footpath and in the landscaping across the retirement community, where my parents live in a quiet area outside of Phoenix. I came here unplanned, on a last-minute escape from New York for the Memorial Day weekend, because the city proved to be too much too soon after returning from Rome, to say nothing of Lampedusa.
The oleanders are the same kind I see in Lampedusa, and across Sicily, when I’m there on the mainland too. It’s just that there is no sea beside them to breath away any of the heat; here, the sun just keeps bearing down. They are hemmed in by silence. It is quiet here. Sometimes a golf cart comes by, a popular mode of transit around the planned community. They skim by barely audible, a little whiz from their engine and then cartoon rubber wheels melting into the street. Any sound they make seems to just get absorbed into the ambient grip of the heat.
A couple in matching turquoise tee shirts walked out of their way to say hi to me at the table I was occupying on the community center terrace the other night. No one was around on account of it being closed for the holiday. So I sat by the little man-made lake at a cafe table twice the size and in better shape than any I’d ever find in Italy, while programmed ‘70s classic rock and sporadic doo-wop hits piped through the outdoor speaker system. The matching couple took to the chairs at the lake’s edge for a pause so short it seemed out of obligation of what they had access to, a musical chair; and I haven’t heard or seen a soul since.
There is a familiar site, another bit of shrubbery like those oleanders, a bush with deep green, waxy, crawling leaves that looks like a more vital version of eucalyptus. I know this plant, too, because it is all over Lampedusa.
Where the Estrella mountain range sits off in silhouette of the sunset is where I’d expect to see the sea. There’s an olive tree over there though, and like Lampedusa, the sky is so wide that the sunset seems to stretch all the way to sunrise. Some string of light is always there connecting it to the other end: tomorrow, dawn, l’alba.
There are those plate-shaped cacti, also like I’d find on the island, but they are obviously a different species, a little smaller. And they’re manicured here, not wild, and no one’s carved their initials into the gummy body between the thorns.
My dad wondered how different the pizza could possibly be in Italy compared to the slices we lunched on after they picked me up from the airport. These slices had uniform edges that, in the great words of grandpa Simpson, you could have set your watch to. My mom bought a bottle of Sicilian lemon soda in an effort to reorient me. Even if I don’t drink the stuff, I like the illustration of the lady on a Vespa on the label, and my mother even more for trying to bring me back to Sicily in the best and only way she knows how. It’s the perfect accompaniment to the quiet.
At the desert’s edge, where all of those iconic three-armed cacti reach up from the dusty ground like you’re in a cowboy movie, it is quiet in a way that not even Lampedusa is: there, there is always the rushing ambience of the sea; here, there are just ghosts that haven’t risen yet.
. . .
That is not to be said of New York. The stereos there are designed to wake the dead. I have a neighbor who lives below me, who’s lived below me for at least the six years I’ve been in the building, and who, in the hours before I booked my ticket in a panic from New York Kennedy to Phoenix Sky Harbor last Friday, had his music coming in to my own living room so clear, it occurred to me this might actually be an evacuation drill.
I left and met a friend and her dog for a walk in the park. It helped organize my thoughts and made it obvious I am not going crazy, but am indeed facing the stark kind of cultural readjustment that might mean it is altogether time to go. It feels a bit like a point of no return. I came from a place that besides being the space from which the work of MotM is possible, also revers a quality of life designed not to antagonize you. I mean, to be more direct about it, it’s just that if you can’t afford sound-proofed real estate in New York City, you’re always going to be connected to a person or a sound or some intrusion in a jarring way that sends, I think, a lot of people into therapy, or at least out for a refill of their anti-anxiety meds.
But who on earth wants to be medicated. We encourage that synthetic culture of coping, but it is not cool if you can help it; it seemed obvious all of the sudden, as the baseline of my neighbor’s music vibrated through my feet flat on the floor, that I can definitely help it. So I left Brooklyn almost as soon as I arrived.
. . .
“Brooklyn in the house!” my taxi driver burst out when I told him my address after we loaded the suitcases into the car. I had just arrived at Kennedy from Rome. We talked about life in New York City, and hustling to make our money then stepping away to pursue the things we wanted. For him, it was traveling at stretches of a week or more with his young son. For me, it was getting back to Lampedusa and Italy to keep confronting this unthinkable thing that keeps approaching its shores. When we pulled up to my building the conversation had bumped into the phrase “buggin’ out.” He said it, and it was in this closed moment that the thing I missed the most about my life here crystalized: slang.
American street slang. Even if I knew how to translate it, there is no real equivalent to “hustling,” “in the house,” or “buggin’ out” in Italian. They were each so precisely developed to describe what he and I meant to convey. I find myself plunging into the elements of the culture that I love here, and staring past the ones I do not. It’s the same thing I do in Lampedusa or Rome; you can’t accept it all, you can’t become everything. Identities aren’t completely alterable, are they?
I was confused by the look of the sidewalk and the facade of the brownstones lining the street. I was alarmed at the temperature shift and low, dragging clouds. I expected to look up and see stone streets in Rome and the high sun. I was surprised there were no cafe tables and chairs anywhere on the streets. I was surprised by the agitation in the air. I was shocked by the echo of shouts, by loud talking on the stoops that was spoken, it seemed, for no other reason than to call attention to itself. I was and remain absolutely shocked by the lingering antagonism in the air. I expected to hear that certain sound of European emergency vehicle sirens. I almost collapsed into myself when I realized they were different here. Everything I expected to see, everything I expected to hear, was not there.
I walked into my apartment after being away from it for almost two months. I expected those first minutes of newness would soften into familiarity and the feeling of home. Instead, I fell to my knees and broke down on my kitchen floor at the sight of the objects on my own walls; I called my sister to get out. It was two things. It was that everything looked like relics of a past life, like how things might look stepping into a childhood bedroom: I had learned to live perfectly fine without them, and the comfort they provided turned out to be conditioned not innate. And then equally, it was the sheer volume of things screaming at me. Why were there so many tea cups? Why had I saved so many notes and cards pinned to my board? Why did I actually own a potato masher? All of these things were saying to me in a present tense voice that this was who I am but I could not find myself in it anymore.
It was all coated with the dust of a coma. A little bug had crawled into the cap of a pot of lip balm and died. There was a water stain on the wall where a leak occurred while I was gone. I broke through a cobweb that was strung across my living room. There was a layer of grit that settled out of the New York air on my floors and window sills.
But the roses are in bloom in Brooklyn.
It was the next day. I appreciated Lawrence, who let me sneak past his wrought-iron gate to admire the rose and iris bushes he’s been manicuring there for years, “umpteen years,” he said, in honor of his mother. I did not understand a $3.50 espresso at the cafe. I did not understand the guy at the cafe counter after me who ordered a “sukiyaki rice burger” then initiated an interrogation of the ingredient list and preparation techniques meant to validate his own lunch choice; I was surprised by the winded reaction of his own request and then his confidence at holding someone else accountable for it. If you are going to order something called a “sukiyaki rice burger” you must have the courage of your convictions. At the store, I was surprised to see shriveling mounds of imported lemons and pale tomatoes. I did not identify with the eight-dollar jar of hickory smoked Brussel sprouts.
. . .
I tore down most of the ephemera from the board in my kitchen. I kept the picture of my grandmother, me and my sister. It was the last time I saw her. She was upset earlier in the day and the nursing home attendants wheeled her into a private room so she wouldn’t disturb the others. She was sitting alone facing the wall crying when we walked in. She had dementia so had forgotten by then the precise trigger that made her upset. But the feeling was always the same, she felt forgotten about; when we arrived and rushed to her for a hug she expressed as much.
She was holding a plastic baby doll and was tethered to an oxygen tank. She was looking for a sign of life but was too alone in this room to find it. She was too isolated from the people she loved to find her way out of her own head. She needed to be engaged, so I remember peppering her with questions, in the direct, exhausting way my family has always sighed at my habit of doing.
My grandmother liked to dress up. I combed her hair and put a little pink on her cheeks from the compact I had in my purse. The three of us, my grandmother, my sister and I, posed for the picture that my mom took, and it’s the one that I’ve kept there pinned to the board.
With it, there is attached a small collection of beaded bracelets I received from West African refugees who I met on the streets of Rome. Another from a Nigerian migrant in Milan is tied to my wrist. The refugees in Rome selling bracelets are by and large Senegalese. They speak Italian now, or at least enough to communicate a sale with locals. I met them because I asked where they were from when they approached and if they had come through Lampedusa; most had. All of them insisted I take the bracelet as a gift. Pazi, our friend from The Gambia, was with me on a walk through the city on one of my last afternoons in Rome. To him, they spoke tribal dialect, and he told me they said they must greet one another as a sign of brotherhood and solidarity. It was obvious why, most everyone else on the street sneered at them for the sale of their wares, surveilled them like foreign attractions, or worse, didn’t see them at all.
One of the refugees we passed was a friend he already knew, and he took our picture as we walked away into the mix of the metropolis.
. . .
It’s Ramadan and I was raised Catholic so I don’t know much about it. A troll on Twitter demanded to know one, single positive thing that ever came of diversity after I posted something about how we ought to celebrate it during our Memorial Day; something about how diversity was the real thing that made America great. It’s a whole country founded on freedom of difference, the practice of your religion included.
I thought of our friend Wally from The Gambia, who texted me to say he missed his mother during the holiday, not Memorial Day, but Ramadan. He has difficult days in any case, being immersed in a culture that is new to him and that does not share the religious tradition of his own. But on holidays it’s harder: he’s supposed to be with family then, and he missed her. His mom, he said, is especially sweet, “whenever you cry she [is] always there.”
So I told him I understood and sent a few more words of friendship, with corresponding emojis to clarify any breaks in translation for good measure. And I think he felt less lonely. He’s really the only one who could tell you that for sure, but his cheerful responses that followed suggested to me he no longer felt as isolated, such an easy thing to suffer at that rather daunting distance. And that’s how I actually celebrated my Memorial Day, being embraced in return by a friend across the ocean who knew that I felt far away too: our friendship, the definition of diversity, and that we have the freedom to pursue.
Not that you would try in one-hundred-and-forty characters to justify that to a Twitter troll, anyway.