Displacement

by Kiko Matsing

The Global Soul, Pico Iyer Kyoto Lantern Festival
(Source: Ty Johnson’s Flickr Photostream)

December 2004: I picked up the other day another book by Pico Iyer called The Global Soul–Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home, which begins with an account of the burning of their house in California. In the last chapter, “The Alien Home,” he writes:

The homes we choose in short, deserve a tolerance we might not extend to the homes we inherit, and in a world where we have to work hard to gain a sense of home, we have to exert ourselves just as much as to sustain a sense of Other. I choose, therefore, to live some distance from the eastern hills of Kyoto, which move me like memories of a life I know I had… Thus Kyoto is unclouded for me by the routines of paying bills and cleaning clothes.

Strangely, I find this my very attitude towards writing–that I have to live some distance apart from it, that is, to work other than as “writer,” so that its enchantment is continually renewed, and that every act of writing, like Pico Iyer’s trips to Kyoto, are always a pilgrimage (“to see the lanterns in the autumn temples, leading up into the bamboo forests, as into another life, or hear the temple bells ringing…”). Bernardo Soares, one of Pessoa’s many selves wrote similarly of Rua dos Douradores, the nondescript street in Lisbon where he lived and worked as a clerk in a trading company:

And if the office on the Rua dos Douradores represents life for me, the fifth-floor room where I live, on the same Rua dos Douradores represents Art for me. Yes, Art, residing on the very street as Life, but in a very different place. Art, which gives me relief from life without relieving me of living…

I still have “to work hard to gain a sense of home” here in Houston, but have, meanwhile, found two steadying qualities in Pico Iyer’s travel writings: an honest voice and an eye of compassion.

Rua dos Douradores The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa
(Source: viagem nunca feita)

November 2006, Flight CO 3037 from Houston, TX to Jacksonville, FL: The plane is beginning to taxi from gate 71A at Terminal B of Bush International. It is still raining outside. The sky is already black but there is a golden sheen on the wet tarmac from the fog lights. Not as dreary as the drive to the airport from the city university: everywhere silver-grey, dissolved and ambiguous. Even the sharp edges of skyscrapers downtown are rubbed out and smeared by dripping fog.

Fogged. That’s how I feel right now despite striving for some sort of closure by returning to Houston for Thanksgiving, despite seeing for myself what I was in any case expecting to see: how this world, which until a few months ago I seem to be irrevocably enmeshed with, persists, abides, thrives. There is both familiarity and strangeness. For while I perceive the same objects, the same forms, I have begun to regard them with the spectacles of one who no longer belongs to this place.

There is a sense of detachment and displacement, as one who regards past feelings and sensations in the tranquility of the present. It is the regard of the passerby, the non-participant and uncommitted, the foreigner and outsider. Then, there is a sense of irrevocable loss, as when a bull charges into the china shop setting off infinite bifurcations of infinitesimal events. There is no redeeming lost time, for meanwhile the Universe has further expanded into nothing, further cooled down on its way to a slow heat death.

Orpheus and Eurydice, Rodin And then without warning
the god stopped her and with pain
     in his voice
uttered the words: He has turned
     around
–,
she didn’t understand,
     and answered softly: Who?


          ~R.M. Rilke (trans. E. Snow)

Orpheus and Eurydice, Rodin, 1893 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

At dinner with Imee and Chaitanya, with Faith and Chris, I noticed that I have begun to regard them as part of the past, or at least as not belonging to my present. They have begun to seem like those ghostly figures that memory magnifies and distorts, a shell of their former substance. Rilke’s Eurydice, startled and bewildered by the living Orpheus, receded rather into shadow. This however is not a final “death,” for surely, even as my plane races through this dark stratosphere, we may still meet, the circuit of our lives converge even as it splits, our disjointed presents synchronize. I believe this will not happen, but it is my hope.

As the night sky becomes clearer around me, and as the patches of sparkling lights below ceases to be Texas and becomes Louisiana or Mississippi, as we leave the fog of Houston for fair-weather Florida, I contemplate what manner of closure I achieved in returning one last time to Houston (for it is probably a while before I go back). Although it is not a clean break (can closures be such?), I have been afforded one last look, and, unlike Lot’s wife, allowed safe passage out.

That backward gaze is for the place I felt most at home in all America. Somewhere there is a house at the end of a tree-lined road. There, a magnolia tree stands in the front yard. Inside, the house is almost empty, except for essential furniture. Housepainter’s tools are strewn everywhere. At the backyard, there is a green pool with autumn leaves. The house seems deserted, but it is not.

There my gaze stretches furthest back. There my tears turn to salt.

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