“Everyone has deep in their heart the old town or community where they first went barefooted, got their first licking, traded the first pocket knife, grew up and finally went away thinking they were too big for that Burg. But that’s where your heart is.” — Will Rogers
Because I’m leaving New Zealand, this quote got me thinking about every other burg I’ve ever came upon then left. Houston, Texas; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Dallas, Texas; Lubbock, Texas; Dallas again and most recently, Perugia: the Italian burg where I spent my twenties living, loving and eating.
There is a tendency to think or feel, after you spend a good chunk of time in one place, that you’ve outgrown it. Familiarity can sometimes breed that kind of stale boredom. But Rogers is right; wherever there are firsts, you’ll inevitably leave your heart.
While I have been naiive to this before, I am not unwise to this now. I’m fully conscious of it, keeping it in the forefront of my mind for the next fifteen days as I conclude my eleven-month stint of life in New Zealand. For however ready I am to finally leave this lush, sheep and bird filled island, I know there will be a lot I will long for. Now that I know it so well, I see with clarity how it used to be, before it was known to me. What it was to me when I first arrived, in its unknown state.
When I first came here I thought I was going to start my REAL life. You know, get a REAL job, settle down and just do my best to fit into that REALity everyone else seems to be doing just fine in. But by January, I REALized that whatever plans existed in my head weren’t going to happen. Something else happened instead.
I woke up, accepted my life for what it is and stopped trying to make it into something it isn’t.
Ever since I gave up the pipe dream of being like everyone else, it has changed me in a profound way. When I resigned to comparing myself and my successes (or lack thereof) to everyone else and finally accepted that who I am and where I’ve gone and what I’ve done in my life isn’t lesser than what anyone else has accomplished but just different, I started to feel lighter. I do not think I would have ever gotten here, to this lighter place of self-acceptance, had I not spent the last ten to eleven months wrestling it out way over here in quiet, beautiful New Zealand.
In a lot of ways I was fully conscious of the reasons why I came here:
To seek a new adventure
To put as much distance possible between myself and the geographical location of where I experienced pain.
But there’s what we set out to do and what we actually end up doing. There’s living happily ever after and then there’s getting a divorce. There’s intention and then there’s actuality. Fill in the blanks however you see fit.
Back before I started grape picking and still had time to play Scrabble on Facebook, I learned a new word. Eloign. The first definition is “to remove or carry away to a distance. Especially so as to conceal.” The second definition is “to take (oneself) to a distance.”
Let’s see if I can use that word correctly in a sentence:
I’ve eloigned myself to New Zealand.
While that’s maybe what I did, I certainly didn’t know I was doing that at the time, much less realize there’s an archaic English term for it.
What I came here to do was start over. Or, rather, what I thought I came here to do was start over. But there was a whole lot more to it than that. Starting over was a given, an understood. A built-in component of the general process. It wasn’t really necessary to even bring it into the discussion. It’s like taking a step and telling your knee it’s going to have to bend if it’s going to enable you to walk. It’s just an integral part of the motion.
What I ended up doing was learning how to tell my story.
But to learn how to tell my story, I first had to learn how to accept my story, and all its comprised of as just a mere smidgeon part of me–not who I am as a whole. I had to learn how to be myself without carrying around my shame. I had to learn how to not wear “divorce” around as if it were a label attached to the lapel on the coat of my identity. And before I could learn how to do all that I had to realize, first, that I was actually doing that. I had no clue that’s what I’d been doing until one day, I found myself sitting in an American expat’s living room, staring at her dead dog’s altar above the mantel of her fireplace.
The first time I went over to her house she closed the front door behind me and said, “Hey, want a Dr. Pepper?” as if it were a spliff. “They just started selling it here in the local supermarket.”
This woman, who I’ll affectionately call Wanda, dragged me aside, away from the other locals when she first time met me. In a low, hushed voice she said, “This is not America, kid. They might look like us, they might speak English, but you’re not in the States.”
First I wanted to laugh in her face then I wanted to cry on her shoulder.
That I wasn’t in Kansas anymore was not shocking to me. What shocked me were the intricacies of newness. What shocked me was to be somewhere outside of Europe, far far away from Italy, from everyone I knew and from anyone who knew me at all.
Wanda was telling me all she knew about being an expat in New Zealand. She was trying to clue me in, do me a favor. But she didn’t know me. Nor did I know her. Some of the stuff she was telling me was stuff I already knew. I felt like a stomping my foot — a petulant teenager — and saying, “You don’t know what I’ve been through.” But what I’d been through, as in my past experiences, mistakes, decisions–for better or for worse–newsflash to me, didn’t really matter to Wanda. Not that she didn’t care. It’s just that she didn’t to know those things to help her decide whether or not she would be my friend. I was sorta blind to that because, well, I’d just arrived on this planet. There I was, telling her about my past and there she was telling me about her past, too–her dead dog and the dead dog’s ancient brother, barely getting by, blind, deaf and on doggy dialysis. We were showing each other our pieces. Divorce, death, dogs. (I’m pretty sure the dog represented far more than what the surface suggested). Yet still, none of that really mattered. What mattered, was that she was nice enough to offer me a Dr. Pepper. A gesture of familiarity. A kind offering of common ground.
Back then sipping Wanda’s DP made me feel as though this world was weirder than I ever thought it could get. And I was in it. Swimming, treading in its deep waters, gulping it up by mistake, trying to make sense of where I was, why I was and how I’d get a grip amid all this newness. Like a child dropped off at a new daycare, I must have missed my mom because I thought of what she’d say. My mother, who knows more clichés than anyone I’ve ever known, would say, “Where ever you go, there you are.”
But this is different. This is not wherever. This is eloignment. (Yes, I just made that word up.) If you’ve ever experienced being eloigned, you’ll know how liberating anonymity can be. You’ll know how it feels not to have your identity associated with anyone else–not as their sister, their daughter, their wife or ex-wife. You can just be you. You’ll know just how liberating and just how terrifying that can be. There’s quite the learning curve involved.
When I first came here to the far-flung corner of the Earth, I assumed it would all be new to me and as usual, my assumptions were way off. Even in far-flung unfamiliarity you find obscure connections. One day I think I’m signing up to go pick grapes with local pensioners and the next day I’m picking grapes with Austin from Oklahoma and Alice from Italy.
What ended up being new to me was, well, me.
If anything, good ol’ En Zed has provided me with a new way of seeing myself. The people I’ve encountered have not been strangers at all but more like companions along my journey, people on their own similar excursion. They’ve hailed from familiar places of my past, here in the now to hold up a larger mirror in front of me, allowing me to see a less fragmented version of myself and what’s around me. They have given me sight to an added dimension of what’s been there all along but just hadn’t been able to see.
New Zealand, if it were a burg, would be where I first learned not to let my past define me. Thanks to its distant geographical location, it’s the first and only place that’s managed to force me to sit still for eleven whole months. I’m grateful to have had that time here in this isolated burg, a place I’ll forever associate with process and healing. A place of eloignment, to be removed or carried away to a distance. A place so far removed and disconnected it allowed me to come full circle and reconnect. Reconnect, accept and start over. Not as someone else but as me. All of me.
Surely, there must be a word for that.