The Uncertainty Principle
Sometimes we feel random or overblown emotions in response to the tiniest of events, but then we realize that these responses are really about something bigger; at times the most seemingly meaningless of reactions parallels our feelings over much larger, more significant themes such as fear over the lack of control we have over our lives or the inevitability of death.
This weekend the smallest of things connected to larger and then larger themes, highlighting a fragility in me right now, a strange craving for comfort in the face of uncertainty.
When you live in a foreign country, and you haven’t totally mastered the language yet, you first become an expert in body language. You struggle to understand what a person has said without the use of the words they have used to say it. This is when you realize how much information people show in their faces, in their hand movements, in the way they carry their bodies, and in the lilt, tone, and changes made in their voice as they speak. However there is a nervousness in this, an overly eager readiness to respond, assume people are speaking to you.
At least I feel like that. It’s a funny parallel to times in college when I would accidentally leave my dorm without glasses or contacts and find myself smiling in a vaguely knowing way at most people walking toward me, just in case they turned out to be people I knew who I hadn’t been able to see properly from far off. Just so they wouldn’t think I was avoiding or ignoring them.
I was on a stationary bike at the gym Friday afternoon, when I heard two guys enter the room directly to my left. They were speaking very loudly but I didn’t catch what they were saying. Suddenly my heart started pounding. I felt a small, vague panic.
Before I could reason through the moment, the motion of their coming toward me with loud, projecting voices made me feel vulnerable, momentarily alarmed. After a few seconds of this feeling, I realized that it came on because I had felt a sudden, irrational fear that they would make me to get off my bicycle.
This reaction didn’t make any sense for any reason. No one in our gym can tell you to get off a machine unless you’ve been using it more than 30 minutes, and I’d only been on mine for 10, and people would never do that anyway because there are always empty machines available. And most importantly – let’s say they WERE coming over to ask me to get of my stationary bike – WHAT would be the big deal? It’s certainly not a situation that should change my blood pressure – I could just go to another machine.
I recognized that my response didn’t really have anything to do with the bike or the gym or exercise, but more to do with something that had happened earlier that day. And my reaction to the thing that had happened earlier that day had more to do with other larger concerns, questions and anxieties.
On Friday morning I opened our front door to two men – one in his 50’s with longish grey hair and bright eyes, and the other in his 30’s wearing glasses – a nerdy sort in a suit holding a large briefcase. I shook their hands and they stepped inside my home. The man with the briefcase said he was from the agency that rented us our apartment. He explained that they would take a look around and then, with my permission, he would take some photographs. Puzzled, I said that was fine. The older man admired the view and paced around the living room and the agent started talking about the apartment a little, explaining something about the layout. And the older man asked me if the apartment came with a parking space and a “cave” (a storage unit in the basement of the apartment building).
I said yes, there’s a parking space. Yes we have a “cave.” And gulped. My heart started beating too fast. I realized the older man was looking around my apartment, my HOME, quasi-proprietarily – imagining living in it, imagining his own furniture in it. I felt suddenly vulnerable and dislodged, uprooted, panicked. Why was he looking at my apartment? We just moved in! This is OUR apartment. Who were these people? What did they want? Why were they here, in my home, thinking about it like it was a place THEY could have? Why were they looking past me like I was just another piece of furniture, inconsequential?
Panic. Heart-racing. Slight, prickling nausea. Suddenly I felt so tiny and vulnerable. Suddenly I saw how illusory was the thin, filamented web of home I was trying to craft, the delicate ideas and the fragile, new trust in the comfort of a place I could call my own. It was not my own. I was suddenly reminded of that. It was only borrowed.
Why did it matter so much in that moment? Why did something inside me break? Why did I wish desperately that these men would leave before I started to tear up. I needed them to leave so I could think. So I could call David.
The older man left after looking in all our rooms, and the other man went from room to room measuring everything and taking pictures. He left after half an hour, all the while I’d been thinking furiously, slowly realizing that this meant the owner must want to sell it, and unless we could find a way to buy it, we would have to leave.
I felt heart-broken. I love our place so much – it has turned out to be exactly what I wanted and needed in an apartment in little Pau – a place that I love to be inside, but a place that also inspires me (with the fresh cross-draft, the view of the mountains, the sound of the rain on the slanted rooftop windows, the immense amount of light) to leave – to get outside and enjoy what’s happening beyond my four walls too.
But of all the tragedies in life, having to move out of an apartment we really love is pretty low on the scale of awful. It would suck and be sad and stressful, but it wouldn’t be a TRAGEDY. Was my response really about the actual apartment or about something larger and more complex?
It seems I have been traveling, nomadic, most of my life. Maybe all of it – because even in my earliest years we journeyed back and forth between Alaska and the West Coast, like birds with seasonal flight patterns.
As a child, I would play out a nomadic lifestyle within the four walls of our California home, moving my camp from place to place, a gypsy indoors. For a few weeks I would set up my bedding in the hallway, and then pack up and move underneath the dining room table, pretending all the legs of the table and chairs were thick trunks of trees and I was living deep in the forest. Eventually I’d slept in every corner of every room of the house, even in bathtubs and closets and on top of the washing machine. On summer I even moved to the backyard and constructed myself a “duplex” – the lawn table surrounded by a blanket wall that I’d safety pinned around the overhanging giant umbrella; the top of the table was my sleeping chamber, and down below was my kitchen/dining room where I kept a cooler full of food supplies, dishes, water and cat food (in case I had any feline visitors).
In the 11 years since I graduated high school, I have lived in more than 2-dozen different rooms, dorms, apartments, houses, and even a trailer. I am used to packing up and moving on. So what’s the big deal? Why does the thought of having to move just one more time feel so horrible? After all, I know that in less than three years we will most likely be in another city, in another country once again…so any security I am seeking will be short-lived in any case. And what security is there in life at all? What control?
I have always let myself grow fond of the places I have lived in – all of them. I can look back on all 25, or whatever the exact number is, and feel nostalgic for each, remember special moments in all of them, and the amazingly unique way it felt to be living there, like each place were an evocative song. But when have I really fallen in love? I kind of feel like the more places I have moved, and the more times I have packed and unpacked, the less prone to attachment I have become. Fondness yes, but love, not quite.
I lived in an apartment in Parque Central of Caracas, Venezuela, for 1 year and 8 or 9 months, yet in all that time I never invested in a bureau for my clothing. Instead I kept all my clothes folded neatly (well sometimes neatly, other times piled in one teeming, chaotic mass) in two open suitcases. I quite literally lived out of my suitcase – because it came down to the fact that I did not actually want to invest in my life there.
What makes it different now? Why did I let myself fall in love, get attached? In some ways I feel like I let myself get tricked into getting comfortable and opening my heart too wide to a place. But that’s not it at all. It wasn’t wrong to love this place so much and be so happy here, but perhaps it was foolish to let myself equate that love with the amount of time I believed I could have in it.
On the other hand, I suppose it’s not so strange to want just a bit of stability for a while, a place to stay until you are ready to leave.
Why do people reach a point in their lives where they suddenly want to buy homes? I always thought it was because it’s a sound investment, and because they have ideas about how they want to have their home look and it’s easier to make these decisions if the place is theirs and not someone else’s. But maybe part of it is also a response to all the uncertainty in life and a kind of vain effort to forget that and feel comfortable in “owning” something, in controlling it.
This winter I will have to finally face packing up my old room in my family home in California – the place we’ve had for more than 26 years, the place I grew up in, and have always considered home. Home. The word ‘home’ sounds like car wheels scraping over the bump in our driveway as the car comes to a halt. Home is that sound – a car stopping, turning off, the engine cooling, and doors opening. Home.
I have put this off for so many years because I didn’t HAVE to deal with it. The situation has changed and I finally do now. And suddenly I find myself clinging in an utterly new and confusing way to a raft of any sense of comfort and safety I can create around me.
But it’s not just a confused or desperate feeling. It’s really something more grown up. I finally realize I can’t get by feeling like home is ONLY some place far away that I visit occasionally, but also must be the place that I am in, the actual space I inhabit every day.
Early Saturday afternoon I got an urgent email from my father telling me and my sister that our Uncle had just been put into the hospital. He was bleeding internally. It had just been discovered that he had a tumor the size of a grapefruit attached to his kidney. They would have to remove the kidney right away. He would be operated on at 8 AM California time. There was concern that another tumor might be growing in his bladder as well. The doctors wouldn’t be able to say how serious the situation really was until after the operation had been completed and they were able to make a proper analysis.
My uncle lives a peaceful, healthy life on his communal farm in the small, lovely town of Ojai, CA. It’s hard to understand how someone who radiates so much peace, strength and wisdom and who eats more kale and avocado than anything else could have a massive tumor growing inside of him.
I called my father as soon as he was awake in Alaska and we talked about the situation. I learned during the course of this conversation that my Aunt, this uncle’s ex-wife, the mother of my Uncle’s son, just learned she has pancreatic cancer. She is a vibrant, spiritual, passionate, beautiful woman of 54. She doesn’t smoke or drink, and is one of the healthiest people I know. Her mother is alive and well at 91.
I also learned that Saturday was the 20th anniversary of my boyfriend’s mother’s hometown being swallowed by a volcano, and the death of more than two-thirds of the inhabitants. My “suegra” (the equivalent of mother-in-law but without the in-law part) had a town she was from, like we all do, a place that was home. A place where she grew up, where she knew all the streets and buildings and so many of the people. And a volcano erased all but the memories of this place.
Uncertainty connects all my experiences this weekend, from the smallest to the most profound: the possible disruption of an exercise routine, not knowing whether the sweet space that today I am calling home will be mine tomorrow, sudden surgery with an unknown outcome, the shock of the discovery of terminal cancer, a volcano that woke up after a long sleep, and ate someone’s childhood town, killing 20,000 people in the process.
How can we look life honestly in the face, accept that everything we have loved and will ever love will someday disappear, as will we? How can we face that ultimate stark truth and not close down somehow? How do we keep ourselves from a life of mere tepid fondness and let ourselves love, despite our fear of loss, and even because of the inevitability of this loss?
Maybe as we recognize more fully the fragility of all that we love and its transience, the more we crave to hold on to something, if even just for a little while, and try and make it ours, fill it with ourselves, imbue it with something personal, something that helps reflect ourselves back to us in the difficult moments, and remind us of who we are or who we’d like to be, what we care about and why. A corner that feels safe, the eye of the storm, a little place where everything seems quiet and under control. So we can face the growing up, the changes, the responsibilities, and the choices, the hellos and goodbyes.
There was a lot in my mind and heart this weekend – a quiet dread about the future of both the place I am living and the place I am from; confusion and fear over the unknowns of my uncle’s condition; shock, grief, heartache, over my aunt’s condition; sorrow for my cousin who found out in the same week that both his parents are sick; gratitude for such an amazing family, and a bit of perspective thrown in the mix.
I don’t have control over what happens to my old family home, and whether we will be able to keep it or will have to sell it. I do not have control over the health of the people in my family and how long they will live. I do not have control over where David will be sent for work when his time in Pau is over, and therefore (if I prioritize our relationship above my geographical location), I do not have control over where I will go. Right now, I do not have control over much – when do we ever? But I think deep inside me somewhere I have begun to feel that if I could just have one little place somewhere that I could really think of as my place, even if it’s only mine for a few years, that I would be able to face all the rest of it more gracefully, with more poise and forbearance and perspective. A place where I can pretend I have just the littlest bit of control over something. But perhaps that place can only be found inside.
~ by zoetropic on November 15, 2010.
Posted in Personal Essays
Tags: Anxiety, Apartment, Aquitaine, blog, Body language, Buying an apartment, Cancer, commentary, Community, Death, Emotion, Expat, Family, France, Friends, Home, Homes, Houses, Insecurity, Life, Living, Love, miscellaneous, Moments, Moving, musings, Opinion, Pau, People, Personal, Pyrenees, Random Thoughts, Relationships, Rent, Rental, Security, thoughts, time, Uncertainty, Volcano, Writing