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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Brew

When you write in space like this, it’s easy to repeat memories. I thought of this one today, and it’s likely I’ve said it here before. I was thinking of when around 10 years ago my friend Susie told me I sounded like I was ready to have a kid. I hadn’t been talking about kids, just about general place in life.

I guess that settled stage of life I was chatting about happens to us from time to time about different things. It kind of feels like you’re waiting in a long line for something you decided you needed. Maybe you’re leaning your weight at the hip and scrolling through your phone, spacing out with one thought leading to the other.  Then you look up a minute later and have somewhat forgotten that you were waiting in line, and it’s time to move up. It takes a couple seconds to tune back in to the subtle sounds around you and the reason you’re waiting there. By now, a gap has formed between you and the rest of the line.

Been thinking about that gap, about dutifully waiting somewhere, getting comfortable with other pleasures to make the time pass fine, and then finding yourself wondering about that space–the gap–that has been made between you and the destination.  I’ve been aware of that gap and tuning in to figure out what to do about it.  The last few months have had this interesting study behind it all, and behind this study is a sweet comforting world, which always inspires–even in the thick of daily grind ups and downs–a rekindling for reading, writing, and new.

The English teacher in me sometimes feels on this blog (ugh, what a terrible word) like a writing adulteress–teaching drafting and writing with precision in an AP class only to default personally on the lighter way here because its easier, more creative, more immediate. So I asked myself these two questions this morning : what are you trying to say? how do you plan on saying it?

But in a writing space like this, the answer tends to be murky: the space is a mixture of what my former student coined in her own writing once, a diary entry, a letter, and an essay.  I concede, and therefore, if the top of this little expression was some mental context, here is one for the diary-letter-essay meat of the post.

Dear Diary-Letter-Essay,

I’ve recently watched the intelligent, emotive film adaptation of André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name twice in whole and a few other times in sought-after gulps, then read his  novel once and then back at it again and again in sought-after gulps (you know when you’re searching for the feeling an author got just right and want to connect with again), and it has made me close my eyes and think back and back and back. That thinking makes me wonder about memories, and it challenges how much I can think back on details if I concentrate really hard.

I’ve been closing my eyes each night and welcoming a new memory, whichever one I can zoom in on. The look of remembering recently has two faces: I have to tilt my head and notice my ear (the way one looks when he hears something in the other room and can’t figure out what it is). Or I whisper inside to the memories excitedly, “go ahead and appear, honey; I’m ready” right before I close my eyes at night.

I thought about balmy days in Toronto and the scent of vanilla candles; I’ve thought about the way the stairs felt on the walk up to Kal’s old apartment and the chipped paint around the doorway; I thought about the quiet sound and cool air in the town home before anyone spent free time on phones. I called up the sound of stroller wheels on asphalt when everyone else was at work and felt my green terrycloth jacket on my skin. Stuff like that.

In this brew of tuning in to the gap and finding my safe haven, I’ve connected to a literary bubble I’ve crafted up. Between my writer-admiration crush on Andre Aciman, whose articles (try this or this or any) are thought-provoking, the vivid cinema of Luca Guadagnino’s Italy, teaching Adventure Writing, and coming up on my one year anniversary of looking up at the enormous Chilean sky, I am in a beautiful mental state, ripe for literary bad behavior.

Just because I write here and there doesn’t qualify me as a writer, yet Amy Tan’s line caught me a few days ago: “It’s a luxury being a writer because all you ever think about is life.” I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t thinking about life, coming up with mental one-liners about some notion of experience. The lazier approach to writing (or pre-writing), really, is to drench myself in others’ writing, and an even lazier approach to writing is to listen to their writing.

I’ve been listening to The New Yorker Podcast series where writers and artists read from The New Yorker archives. In around 40 minutes, you get to hear brilliant writing and forget you’re driving at all. Tessa Hadley’s reading and discussion of John Updike’s 1996 “The New York Girl” took me on a few rides, raising my craving to be a student in a graduate classroom again, reading and listening, thinking so hard about sentences that I’d give myself a headache well worth the Advil. There is a line I will remember in “The New York Girl” where Updike writes: “Early thirties is a time for fresh calculations.” Yes, yes, that’s right for me. That line confirms for me that writers sneak in their wisdoms any chance they can get.

We have our dreamy literary lands, and then maybe there can be parts of real world that match up, meeting each other like frayed strands at the edge of a sweater. I had to make a choice about something I’ve wanted a long time and an experience, an idea that came up in marital conversation. At the time, I was in the middle of the travel portion of our unit, mixed deep with Anthony Bourdain, Japan, and the spirit of adventure.

I thought about it for a few days, and I kept seeing this image of the kids on the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty. So the choice became taking the kids to New York. I could see their world becoming part of my world up there, an exciting notion of being able to experience something together that was once carved in my memory as a single woman, etched as a newlywed, repurposed as a student, but not experienced with a family.

I’m looking at the “the gap” like a woman in a rocking chair, and I’m enjoying feeling like a student twice a day on my ride to work. I’m eternally crushing on wordsmiths and stories that extract uncanny patience out of writers and create worlds where we can park and view and test our own senses. My world seems a little brighter with NYC on the horizon, and hasn’t that always been the case? Its promise for everlasting experience, a new book tucked away for the journey, and some hope or newness to reflect on; isn’t that the brew that should always tempt and color a September?