lost time

Earlier this afternoon I wrote two paragraphs reflecting on my memories from these last several days in The Netherlands, my flight here, and the strange, enclosed feeling of being both far away from home and physically unable to go back. The completely different content of this actual blog post is a surprise to me, but the initial paragraphs I wrote remain true. I’m going to include them here:

I do not remember the first thing I said when my second of two planes, the one that took me from Paris to Amsterdam, touched Dutch soil. I do remember several notable airport occurrences: a mildly awkward conversation with my soon-to-be peers over Facebook Messenger, my brief period of panic when I thought I had lost my debit card (which I soon found in a pocket I infrequently use), my smile at a cheerful Dutch child and her mother while in a Starbucks line. I admit that I’m already having trouble remembering the details of that Monday afternoon. I remember seeing fields of sheep and geese, which were certainly comforting travel partners to have on the bus ride to our hostel. I remember choosing the hostel room that would hold three people instead of four; I remember my loud shock at the sheer adequacy of our hostel* and the panic that set in as I rested my head against the wall and realized I would be here for three and a half months.

The time duration of my stay here is something that still weighs on me. I suspect it’ll make me anxious for the next several weeks; maybe even for the entire duration of my program. There is something about trapped-ness in spacetime –– not necessarily in a small room or elevator, but rather inside a certain spot in my universe –– that panics me more quickly than almost anything else. I have a great fear of being buried alive, stuck in time, unable not only to get out of the dirt above me, but also to tell the world I am here and living.

*I had never previously stayed in a hostel, but I was expecting something far worse than we got. This one felt more like a hotel without some of the usual conveniences.

Now that that’s out of the way, I’d like to talk about the events that transpired following the moment I saved those paragraphs and closed my laptop, ready to exit the overpriced café a short walk down the street from my apartment (I always work best in a café). I turned on my phone and messaged a friend, asking them if they wanted to visit a nearby vintage store (which was, as I would find out later, also overpriced: a situation undoubtedly aided by gentrification) with me. I quickly decided to visit an ATM prior to my friend’s projected time of arrival and continued down the same street on which I began, making my way to a grocery store with an ATM inside. Not long after I exited the store with my money did I realize I was lost and unable to find my way back to the café from which I came.

Getting lost is not unusual for me. It’s happened at almost every place I’ve ever visited, including, notably, Mount Holyoke’s campus (I somehow lost my way while walking to the library, spending at least fifteen minutes looking for the large, unmistakable building directly in front of me). But there is something so deeply frustrating about getting lost in one’s new home, especially the kind of lost which requires outside assistance. Hands freezing, phone battery rapidly draining and backpack laying headily on my back, I trekked up and down identical-looking stretches of road for over an hour. The “far-flung” place I ended up was not some obscure space on the other side of Amsterdam, but rather a Subway restaurant a mere ten-minute walk from the apartment.

Much to my chagrin, I had to text (and even once try to call) my host parent, velvet, to help me get home. Sitting by the drafty Subway doorway, I waited twenty minutes for velvet to arrive while staring intently at my water bottle and avoiding the eyes of confused (perhaps suspicious) patrons. I felt like a child, especially once velvet told me that the reason I had gotten lost was, most likely, simply because I left the grocery store through a different doorway than the one I had entered. Appropriately, it rained on the way home.

I had gathered some pride in myself over these past few days because I have navigated (literally and figuratively) travel to a new city in a relatively independent manner (although true “independence” is a fiction in our ever-interdependent world). At the moment velvet arrived to get me, it felt like my bubble of maturity had burst and given way to a childishness I had hoped to leave in America.

(I never ended up meeting my friend at the vintage store; they understood my desire to go home and get warm after having wandered around my neighborhood in the cold. Perhaps my situation was even for the best, given that I did not have the opportunity to waste Euros on used clothing priced highly for socioeconomically-privileged students like myself.)

There is no particular moral to this story, no larger philosophical meaning to be derived from “getting lost” in a new place; no lesson to extract. I am writing this down because I think I would like to remember it, and because I know that in the short term, it will heavily impact the way I move through the city and the way I plan my daily activities. Tomorrow, velvet is going to show me around the neighborhood; perhaps a tour by them will  assuage some of my fears around getting to class on time and in one piece on Monday. At this moment, I am glad to be inside the apartment, warm, and writing; a combination of activities during which I can’t stray too far afield. Although my initial post was going to center around the crushing, enclosed feeling of being “stuck” in a new place, I am going to be grateful for tonight’s relative stasis.

homebody

Content note: this post contains direct references to needles and blood (in the context of tattooing).

It is the day before I leave for Amsterdam and my newest little tattoo has healed very well. There was no need to wrap it in plastic; no need to sop up the inky fluids that drip from my wound. I simply moisturized the raised letters and tried hopelessly to extricate meaning from them. The tattoo is small enough that it will likely be hidden by a sock for the majority of my time in Amsterdam. Even when it isn’t hidden, an ankle is a very inconspicuous placement for a tattoo, hard to see unless you’re looking for it.  My initial plan for this tattoo had been to spice up the word homebody by accompanying it with a small doodle. I had even asked Spencer, who tattooed me, to draw up a few ideas, of which I struggled to choose just one favorite. Fortunately, that turned out to be a non-issue when I ultimately decided (with the help of Spencer’s own advice) to forgo an accompanying image altogether.

homebody
My “homebody” ankle tattoo.

The word homebody is etched into my ankle, sitting just above bone. It is the first stick & poke tattoo I have ever gotten; my first ever tattoo done by a non-professional; the first tattoo whose meaning I remained unsure of until almost a week after its completion. On its surface, the word homebody itself applies to me in a simple way: Arriving home after a day of work or class and being swallowed whole by my bed with a book in my hands is a quiet joy I look forward to. Arriving home after weeks or months elsewhere is a pleasure even greater than that. But inevitably I remember the too-familiar tightness of my own room, my own double bed, my towering bookcase, the mustard-yellow kitchen with its red drapes; the drafty, cavernous sunroom with three bookcases (two large, one small) inside of it; the front garden whose wild contents we are unsure of until they bloom ––  and I feel I am choking on a wad of comfort food too big to swallow, too hot to really taste. This tattoo might be a compromise, then: a piece of home stuck (and poked) into my skin, something to carry with me on an airplane even as I leave my loved ones behind. I could be simultaneously home and not-home. I quickly realized I could make its meaning even more cheesy if I acted as though it was a play on words to reference my recent mastectomy; I could riff on the way my body had since become a home. Everyone would love it. It would make sense to both my close friends and loved ones and to compassionate strangers. It would be a handy response to the what does it mean questions I am so frequently faced with. Homebody is an identity one could pull out of me upon looking at that ankle, one that that handy reply would confirm.

There is nothing particularly sentimental about being a canvas, but the release that comes with being one nevertheless feels like a prayer.

I realize that those cheesy, simple meanings are fictional when I place myself back in the position of the tattooed object. It is only when I again become that object that I remember why I’m in the chair and paying for pain in the first place. There is a certain grammar to tattooing that I have come to love and anticipate, albeit not always consciously. To be tattooed is to be acted upon in a very distinct and predictable manner: there is the small talk, the stenciling, the cleaning, the opening, the laying, the opening, the pain, the opening, the wiping, (the opening), the cleanup. There is nothing particularly sentimental about being a canvas, but the release that comes with being one nevertheless feels like a prayer. Getting a stick & poke in someone’s room feels even more like a prayer because it is quiet: there is no buzzing needle, no metal music blaring and no consultations going on outside. The particular and repetitive stings of the stick & poke come silently and only a question, “you good?” reminds me that I am a person.  There are moments under the needle when I wish more than anything for the process to be complete and the moment it is done I am hit with a craving to continue. Afterward I always feel a sense of lightness. The pain I hate has been done to me and I have confronted it out of necessity. I can see that it has marked me although my memory can’t properly replicate the experience.

It was last night, alone with my racing thoughts, that I realized that my tattoo itself had little meaning, and that that was okay. The true significance of that tattoo was bound up in the ritual release of anxiety I hadn’t fully known I was holding and not in the aesthetics left in its wake. I had previously found it difficult to fully acknowledge the reality of my trip and the length of time for which I’d be abroad: that, after all, would make it too real. I bottled the feeling until I finally attached it to the outside of my body, visible to myself and to whoever bothered to look. Permanently. I matched my pain and fear with its physical counterpart, finding a kind of synthesis in their acquaintance.

Some people write to redirect their pain. For me that is not the case: writing simply narrows and amplifies it (I’m feeling a great amount of residual fear as I write this). Tattooing, a mindless, effortless, excruciating exercise, one in which I have no choice but to passively face a wave of physical pain, is a true act of sublimation. My body is already vulnerable in a way I rarely allow my mind to be. It will sting and I feel terror inside me for the half-second before the needle first hits my skin. Those weaknesses inside me that I need to face are brought to the surface like leaking blood and cast into the garbage with reddish cotton pads, damp with blood and astringent. My body does what it is intended to do: it becomes a surrogate for the things inside my mind.

The meaning of my tattooed ankle isn’t located in the lines and shapes that form its letters. There is no drawn symbol there that I can pass off as some precious decoration. The tattoo’s meaning is made of and resides in pain itself. It isn’t a symbol of home or body, nor is it a symbol of identity and nostalgia. Its significance lies in the process that made it. Tattoos are physically and psychically transformative: they are fresh bodily adornments that alter one’s skin forever, but they also turn emotional energy, concentration, hurt, creativity, terror, pain, and pleasure into something tangible. I did not know last Sunday that I so desperately needed to hold and rub my anxieties with the moisturizer on my desk. I didn’t know how much I needed to feel them burning tenderly into me in the hours following the stick & poke session. I needed a ritual through which I could assimilate these soon-to-be-realized fears into my life without being governed entirely by them. In and on my ankle sit the outlines of fears that have been realized in their fullness.

 

the best of intentions

When I am left unchecked with my thoughts, my tendency to reason my way out of new, potentially frightening situations reveals itself naturally. When I’ve finished my studying and scroll mindlessly through Facebook until I will myself to carry on with my night, I open all of the events happening “near me,” and take brief pleasure in the idea of being a part of them. Despite it’s relatively small size, the Pioneer Valley holds a far greater number of convenient social opportunities than does my hometown. As a first-year, and even last semester, I daydreamt about what I might do, knowing full well I would back out: today I might go to that concert, that meeting; today I might check out that café, today will be the day I visit that store I went to once and promised myself I’d return to.

I’m a solitary person. I am also a person who invents myriad excuses as to why I can’t or shouldn’t go to a particular place. I choose to stay in instead of going to a reading or talk, I tell myself, it’s too hot, too cold, too rainy, too sunny, the stars haven’t properly aligned, I’m wearing blue today, etc. It’s hard to take myself seriously with some of these excuses, so they feel more like semi-comfortable lies. These lies are thrown into focus on those rare occasions that I do keep to my word and venture to some off-campus event I planned to go to. In September I went to get a tattoo; I spent time with my friends; I walked around Northampton while it was still relatively warm. I felt the kind of fear usually coupled with freedom, and it was a refreshing change from the knowing shame that comes with inaction. It was scary to see and be seen. It was frightening to know that those evening strangers in Northampton saw me and knew I saw them. In public I feel that I am especially on display; in the dark I feel on display for some unknown figure on the opposite side of a one-way mirror.

My tattoo looks lovely. It was the product not of plan but instead of intention. Booked and partially paid for, it was a part of the narrative that could not be swapped; it was a final draft past any point of revision. Fears can’t easily cancel these intentions as they do tentative plans.

My ambivalence toward going out is, paradoxically, tied to my fear of confinement. I spent my first year at Mount Holyoke afraid to ride the public bus because I knew that its schedule would never be entirely, truly reliable without discrepancies or inconveniences. Relying on others to make my plans realities, I reasoned, was foolish; it was better to avoid such interference entirely and make no plans at all. Although I’m no longer afraid, per se, of public transportation, when I am away from home or “home” there is always a fear nestled in my heart. If I shut down; if I’m drained of energy and I’m somewhere alien to me, what do I do? Of course, I can take the bus home, but that bus’s schedule is not under my control, that bus is shared with people who might disturb me, that bus might even not come, I might be waiting at the wrong bus stop, I might be on the wrong side of the road, I might –––

Enchanting as such autonomy may be, the idea I can ruminate my way out of the confines of my own brain is just as ridiculous as refusing the bus for fear that it might be a minute late.

Discussions around changing wholesale my thought patterns (whether one calls them symptoms or behaviors or neuroses or quirks) tend to reveal their futility pretty quickly. Enchanting as such autonomy may be, the idea I can ruminate my way out of the confines of my own brain is just as ridiculous as refusing the bus for fear that it might be a minute late. And anyway, the prospect of overcoming something so bound up in my own personal character feels distant. Distant things are to be taken less seriously than things that are close; they are to be dawdled around and pushed aside until they are soon.

This trip to Amsterdam has been soon since I first learned it was an option. I began the research and internal application process at the very end of 2017’s spring semester, frantically scheduling informational meetings around classes and finals and telling almost no one of my plans for fear of bad luck. I walked into the office dealing with students studying abroad and was unwavering in my decision to do so as a sophomore, in Amsterdam. Meetings like these taught me to shift my language surrounding my plans: it is not that I might go abroad, it is that I intend to go abroad. My proclivity toward canceling plans out of fear and inconvenience had to be buried as I performed worldly, mature studenthood. It even temporarily vanished as no one was there to interrogate or ruminate on it.

Since the day I received Laurel funding from Mount Holyoke, I have not entertained the idea that I might back out of my decision to go abroad. I have not seriously questioned myself: Are you ready for this? I know already that the answer would be a resounding no. I’m afraid and I’m never going to feel ready. There is no plan that will be executed precisely the way I want it to be. I fear the mistakes that, inevitably, I’m going to make. I fear the vulnerabilities I will no doubt show. In the past several months, people have asked me, are you excited? And I say, I’m nervous. Several people close to me once replied: you know, you don’t have to go. And I will say I do.

Thinking seriously about this still leaves me breathless with fear –– which, I should note, my body’s compensatory anxiety already does, even when I am not actively thinking about it. Knowing this, I place my soon-to-be reality in a specific mental container: one for things I factually know are real but have not gestated long enough to have consequences. I received an email an hour ago, which contained details regarding our spring break excursion from Amsterdam to Morocco. This is a planned experience that I do not waste my time convincing myself to partake in; rather, it is the inevitable experience that will be, and thus, in some ways, already is.

going, growing

My present and future life as a traveller will always sit beneath the shadow of my disastrous first trip abroad; at the same time, that very shadow is a reminder of my ability to cope with (the pain of) drastic lifestyle changes. I will neither reduce my experiences to a #inspirational narrative of overcoming, nor will I reduce my experiences to a woeful grab at sympathy.

Continue reading “going, growing”