“How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand, there is no going back?”
-LOTR The Return of the King, filmscript.
How do you weave together the threads a life? Consider the warp and the weft, our world condensed to lines of longitude and latitude intersecting, interlocking, interacting. Life caught in the cross hairs, and our tangential paths are running at odds. In any moment we are walking along silk veins, a spider’s web emanating from ourselves to all of the options that we could choose, but we do not. Direction has already been determined by the past, intention has been decided. In the moment we are easily swayed, our perceptions become mistaken, they become paranoid. But it is a long game that we are playing, and a long tapestry we are weaving.
And what of the loom we would use? I used to think mine was red, with four wheels and an engine, but now I see that keychain as a temptation, as an offer of escape.
“Do you never want to just drive away? Leave it all behind, even if only for a weekend?”
He looked at me in confusion, some clear disconnect fueling the basic misunderstandings that eventually would lead to us walking away from each other. But this was a long time ago, a lifetime ago, so why do I feel the same again?
Where does the feeling stem from this time? My personal brand of anxiety leaves me weak, and my stomach tortured. My chest aches and I stare at walls and I lose myself in my mind. I breathe shallower, think slower, spinning and whirring as if constantly caught in the fixated mentality of a THC high. But this is a high that doesn’t have a definite end, one that you cannot reassure yourself with the thought that it will eventually fade and you will return to yourself once more, one that you do not choose to take on, no. This is one that you know will ebb and flow, will come and go, and can be overcome in the moment only with the full understanding that it will be back.
It will always come back.
The world collapsed in the night. Darkness poured in, twisting concentrics spun all around me and I held on to the sheets as if they could anchor me to something real. Searching for perspective in the shadows, tumbling into chaos. Pulled against my will into the mouth of the maelstrom, wide white eyes and eyebrows scrunched, a silent scream building as the crushing crashing realisation smothered me and I knew, with crystal clarity, that my life is useless.
Turn on the light.
Fragile pages of wood, beaten and flogged, bleached and printed, and I force myself to focus on the words. It takes concentration to follow the story, to see the meaning, to read. I am scared, in the bright yellow light of this bedroom, filled with others’ belongings that mine are scattered over like a transient patina, waiting to be swept into a pan and discarded with the rest of the trash. I cannot look away. Beyond my window is nothing. The world is this room, all that exists in reality is this room and this room is centered around this book, this one thing I hold in my hands. If I look away now I fall spinning, wildly, madly, lost.
I am lost.
I know that much. It’s pretty clear, to anyone who sees me. To a friend, who wonders how I am dealing with having no job, no home, no plan. To a passing stranger, skating by on the boardwalk, who takes the time to pause, to turn to me and say “don’t worry. It will all be okay”. And to the new acquaintance who turns to me at my brother’s celebration of his completed PhD dissertation and asks, “So, when are you going to do a PhD?” A PhD. Grad school. The hanging inevitability that slinks below the horizon like a recalcitrant sun, too much to look at and too big to avoid. I have had some time to process his comment now—I could punch him.
That Barcelona is impossibly beautiful is undeniable, but still I am waiting for it to sweep me off my feet.
“I think I’ll just walk around” he said. “This city mesmerizes me.”
“That’s a good way to be,” I replied, and wished that I felt it too.
The longer I spend here though, the more unsteady my feet and I am rapidly falling head over them. The impossibility of the beauty in this city I can see now, it is built on the money of tourism–streets are washed in the night and swept in the day–and I don’t even mind. It shimmers, shines, sparkles, like some precious jewel worn in the sun. But at the end of the day my mind isn’t always here, it’s reaching back to the southwest, it’s wandering the desert. With a project I’m working on about the Canyon I have in part brought this on myself, then again, the end of days is coming for my traveling time, and I have to begin thinking about my working world again.
India and Nepal are like a dream now. I blinked, landed in Barcelona, and they’re a memory.
A conspicuous absence, perhaps unnoticed, but my last statement stands. Delhi is relentless, and so was everywhere else in India I saw. But too short, too short, ever the time was too short.
I am leaving Kathmandu now, with a bittersweet sadness and a promise to return… a promise I made leaving India as well, but one that I now recognise as being potentially a long time in the keeping. An unforeseen problem of traveling is the increasing number of places I want to return to, but I think that Nepal stole my heart as a child and has not let it go since.
It’s like these are places you have to leave before you can write about them. There is too much in an instant, a barrage of the senses, to ever put into ink. With time to process on my flights to Barcelona, I will see what I can come up with.
I can hardly figure what to say.
Delhi… is relentless.
Prague’s Old Town is drowning.
When the city was founded it was much lower. The river threatened the streets and so that old Prague is now below the streets of today, rooms and wells, streets and windows. Boarded up, bricked off, roofed by a city.
But the city’s charms are now drowning again beneath tourism’s tsunami. ” Tourism is destroying the city” declaims our Brazilian night walk guide. “And down this you street you will find everywhere that you cannot buy your happiness. There you can get your traditional Starf*s. There traditional American destroyed cow meat. Here is Thai massage, very traditional Czech.” And I couldn’t help but agree. The city’s charms were engulfed by neon, swallowed by advertising. The beauty overshadowed by the endless designer shops. The square flooded by a torrent of tourists in our thousands. The astronomical clock’s tower crammed with people taking photos of the view, selfies, preening in front of their camera phones in the barely one-person-wide path around the top. I could feel the frustration rise, irritation boil, a twisting in my gut like I was ready to push through them all and run away fast, claustrophobia.
Then, across the river, I found a freedom, a revelation. I had cake and coffee for lunch because I’m an adult and I can (in other words, I got anxious as soon as I walked in and sat down and they were cheaper). I put my headphones in and walked across the bridge, made my way towards the castle, ran up every stairway I came across until I grew tired and decided I really didn’t care to go inside of the castle anyways.
But now none of that really matters. The advertising, the endless crowds, the designer stores. I don’t mind any of it, now.
In the Old Town there is a room, in a tower, in an old Jesuit college. It’s longer than it is wide, and very tall, but it isn’t all that big. You can’t go in–a rope holds back visitors at the entrance–you can’t take pictures, and you can’t get there without taking a tour of the tower itself. Since the tower is an old observatory, with the original meridian line and camera obscura, sextants and quadrants, all on display, that was no hardship.
I have heard that a part of traveling is finding what each place has to offer you, that it differs for each person. In a too-short trip to a city that was not what I expected, that was in fact almost disappointing, I think I have still found it. On my last morning, I found my corner of Prague.
I just can’t actually go in it.
I walked through the Holocaust Memorial in the middle of Berlin and felt its impact, but I took photos. Here I walked in the footprints of a terrible history, and I did not want to record it.
Most of the buildings are gone. The infirmary remains, site of medical “experiments”. A barracks building, with its three-high bunks that held nine. The foundations of “Station Z”. Administrative buildings. A watchtower. There is a tall pillar in memoriam, erected by the Soviets in 1961. There are rectangles in the ground where the many barracks once stood. It was raining, and the dirt paths filled with puddles reflecting the grey sky, leafless trees.
There was a section of fence, a part only of what once ran around the entire perimeter, electrified, and those with guns were given the order to shoot without warning anyone who approached it. Suicide, it would be called, but those who ran at the wire probably saw it more as an escape.
At the end our guide closed his tour with a statement on the importance of humanising the people involved. The victims, dehumanised for so long before the camps began their slaughter, labeled inferior. The soldiers, dehumanised by the observers of history ever since, labeled monsters.
“People ask how I can come here so much. I’m here at least once a week with tours. I guess I do become a bit desensitised, but not fully. I think it’s important to humanise the people involved… Nowadays everyone knows that you can make ordinary people do terrible things.”
You can make ordinary people do terrible things. It is hard to judge, he says, you cannot judge, these people. He made the point of their world, so different to what we are used to in many places now, though certainly not all. A place of endless and terrible war, of extreme politics, poverty, fear. It is important to remember, he says. This is why these places have so many visitors, tens of thousands here every year, hundreds of thousands, millions, to Auschwitz, every year.
And he made me think of every time I have walked past a beggar in the street and not given money. Of every time I have ungraciously thought to myself that I would never let myself end up there, I would not lower myself, demean myself, to be there in the squalor and filth of the street… These are terrible thoughts. Unkind thoughts. And I questioned them then, standing between the two long buildings of the old infirmary, and wondered: in a way I am no better, if I have dehumanised these people in order to not feel guilt or shame at not helping.
Why do we visit these places? “You can make ordinary people do terrible things.” Not only because these events should be remembered. “Because then we remember that terrible aspect of human nature.”
Because every person involved in these camps, on every side, was human.
“So where do you live?”
“I don’t really have a place.”
“But, like, in the summer when you’re in the states, where do you live?”
“Well, I’ve been renting a room in a house but I can’t do that anymore. And besides, it was their home not mine.”
“So you never stored anything there?”
“Nah. I have a storage unit, and stuff in other places. And there’s my brother’s place, I sleep on the couch there but it’s about as close as I have right now. Or my uncle has a great spare room.”
“But that doesn’t really count.”
“Oh, I don’t know, it kind of feels like home. And I’ve moved a lot over the last six years so I’m pretty used to it.”
“But you’re sleeping on a couch, you don’t have your own space… don’t you get sick of it?”
“I, well, yeah.”
Yeah, I do. But how do you have a place and pay for it, and not be there for most of the year? People laugh at the premise of Doctor Who, but think about it. The ability to travel wherever you want, and take your home with you.