I waited until André Aciman’s Find Me came out; then several days later, I placed it in my travel backpack for my trip last week. What better place to read this long-awaited sequel, I planned, than thousands of feet in the air on the way to Italy, a setting intrinsic to both books. Italy, a place that allows you to see time especially at night when the cobblestone streets and the iron window grilles are slick from rain. I wanted to see what ever came of Elio and Oliver, how Elio’s father’s voice would begin the tale, and what “an acute grammarian of desire” would weave for readers holding their breath. And then, instinctually, the book became mine, as the journey became mine; the artists’ vision became mine; and then my home, like the book in its simplest state sitting under a lamp on my bedroom console, became mine.
I suppose the trip was always about my return. My thirteenth year of teaching felt lonely. Last year I observed myself looking like the teacher I’ve always been, making connections and working on new things, and yet I felt odd, like I was in a shadow a few steps behind my former self on some strange auto-pilot, a place where life’s dopamine is deflected. Enough was enough, so meetings and momentum later,
a seed was planted. I planted a seed. I signed up to take students abroad in June 2020. To learn how to do that well and to experience the company who will be taking us, I would go to Rome with other educators I don’t know from places I don’t know to a place I don’t know, all because we were doing something similar.
That’s how I found myself on a plane to Italy in the middle of the work week some time around Zade’s soccer practice.
Leaving home by choice is absolutely strange. Whenever I do, I ask myself, why are you leaving a place you spend most of your time committed to? Any time I do, I focus on ensuring everyone is content, that a balance is there for when I’m not there. Then, came my new focus: any experience or thought that develops when I’m not the decision-maker in my life or the mother in my family but rather the visitor, the observer. That luxurious role of observer.
I look at my journal notes now and wonder, is travel about the place, or about you in that place? Was this trip about new trips, about Rome, or about you in Rome? But aren’t stories just words until they move us, music just there until it resonates with us?
Feeling the Sistine Chapel relies on an absorption of all your senses, which is attached to the most subjective lens of all. When our tour guide, whose voice and passion felt like more of a cultural ambassador’s than one of a man with a mic, told us stories about the Pope’s demand that Michelangelo paint the ceiling of The Sistine Chapel or when I heard the stories of St. Peter’s Basilica, I got emotional not really for the history but for the kernel: that even the most enlightened, powerful humans in history knew that art was the only way to speak grandeur into the everyday soul.
One of my students recently debated that travel is in some forms selfish, which reminds me of one of our training sessions. We were asked to follow signs about why we encourage students to travel. Instead of picking groups like, “learn new things about a culture,” I stood firmly in, “finding out more about themselves.” Self-discovery is inherently subjective or selfish, and yet likely one of the most powerful seeds of change in one’s identity. That type of discovery is not about being disrespectful or taking relentless selfies in beautiful places, a sad truth of tourism; rather, travel can be about how you sought to let a place leave its self on you.
My return flight got closer and closer home, and as frost grew on the windows, so did this peace about my life and where it sits now. I suppose I fear quietly that experiences I have away from my family could sweep me away, indulgent in the ways that strength shapes me anew. I flew away only to want so deeply to return to it, to find the living room just as I’d left it, to hug the children whose faces I saw in kids walking by me, and to find the husband who– in his own living room–steadily awaits as I find, and find.
My friend adventured away from her town to hear Aciman speak a few hours away while I was away. She shared some notes with me while I, now back home but a little jet lagged, sat in the car while I waited on Layla to finish her violin lesson. Of many, one note caught her attention about Aciman’s comment regarding home: that home isn’t found in a place, it’s in a person, people. How increasingly resonant was this idea of home since I was thinking about home so much.
I listened to her while sitting in my worn leather seat facing the old music studio. Eager to talk about his work, I read to her about nuances regarding music that he explores: “Perhaps, says the genius [Bach], music doesn’t change us that much, nor does great art change us. Instead, it reminds us of who, despite all our claims or denials, we’ve aways known we were are are destined to remain…Music is the unlived life.”
Inspired by how these characters live their lives, I re-read parts of Find Me on the way back just as I re-read this trip, both of which I’ve barely captured here. I turned over ideas and adjusted my legs; took a nap and counted my lucky stars. I’ve since relished in the nuances of both the short trip and the powerful book. Early this morning when I sat down to write on my home desk, stacked with old flyers and faded October dates, I had to be okay with falling short, incapable of capturing the total experience. I’ll have to settle with the one that is most surprising: I sense the chance that I’m catching this present better than when I was living it. This trip, at its core, was really always about coming home.