“The Illusion of Protection”:
Two Travelers Speak of Home

by Danusha Goska



Dear Beata,

Your father, Black African, a scarified elder in the Chewa tribe, your mother, a Pole, one of those Kim Novak white blondes who, if she were not packed in parasols, gloves, and an icy aristocratic manner free of such adulterants as kindness, curiosity, or humor, would spontaneously combust; you, conceived in Paris, raised in Cameroon, schooled in Krakow, now—what else—a Canadian refugee, you now allow this word "home" to vex you. You who have beauty, sophistication, and family are now mindful of what others have that you do not: the passion to die for a place that we saw in those pierced Polish punks gouging up and hurling cobblestones during the riots that helped bring down Communism. You lack the glue that thickens this time of year, of shorter and shorter days and more and more holidays drawing people in, holding them together, when from late November to New Year's Day your contacts are as random and casual as at any other season, as on a summer beach. You lack even a ready answer when they ask, "What are you?"

And so you ask, me, of all people, "What is home?"

Smart, Beata; ask the person who has never possessed the thing to define it.

When I smell the tannin of moldering oak leaves, sprinkled with sugar maple, a dose of sassafras, and pizza parlor fumes; when respiratory mechanics choke around factory effluvia; when I can name every plant I pass, as I never could, in spite of study, in Africa or Asia—they come to me so easily, with and under every step: queen Anne's lace; wormwood; day lily; speedwell, gill-over-the-ground; when slack and comfortably upholstered figures lounging on stoops call out, "How long ya gonna be around this time?" when strange men in flannel shirts, pegging me by my nose or eyes or walk, in spite of my years of absence, (I've been told they can tell Goskas by our walks in this town), grab me, sudden and declare, "I knew your brother and it was a damn shame. Only the good die young. Just wanted you to know," then I know that I am where I belong. When someone I've known since she was born uses the word "nigger," when the library keeps Danielle Steel on the shelf and sells Emma Bovary in the lobby for a quarter, I know that there will always be a thorn in this flesh, home.

My mother often threw me out when I was a kid. As I left, I would hastily gather my kit: a Swiss Army knife, a sleeping bag, and a battery-operated radio. Pencil, paper, goes without saying. Huddled in my bag, writing whatever came to mind, Dvorak in the background, camped in the woods or my boyfriend's car, I felt temporarily but marvelously perched on the intersection of all I could need or desire.

I find home in the slant of light that falls into my room at sunset. My room might be anywhere; that shaft of sun always finds it. In the sounds of children playing that come suddenly indoors when cobwebbed windows first crack open after long winter. In the throwaway allusion I didn't think anyone would get to that work of art that I saw and that you saw at different times in different places that touched us both the same way. We made the same promise to ourselves for it; we kissed as we kissed because of that book; we learned to look at haystacks and could never pass them again without silently saying to ourselves, "I see; no one else does," as the train clacks quickly past, and no other passenger deprives his sandwich of a second's concentrated focus.

I find home in leveling a cup, heaping a tablespoon, sifting, the crucial relation between wrist and whisk. My sister taught me this; our mother had taught her. I'll never forget baking a German chocolate cake over a mahogany wood fire in the middle of a rain forest. In, no matter where my feet fall, coming round to the same date on the calendar as time flies; that cake marked a birthday. In washing out my underwear at the end of the day in a hotel where you sleep for six rupees a night, or for the trade of two Marlboro cigarettes. In dogs—anybody's dogs—who respond to me with wagging tails. I find home in the need I am invited to meet. It's nice when my single mom friend clears her schedule to take in a movie with me and then later says, "Had a great time; we gotta do it again." But when an emergency sideswipes her and I have to report over there to wash the dishes, feed the kids, as they dance around me, the pressure of their need drives me home. In never regretting where I've been that I'm not now, in acknowledging that there is no destination without the path that got me there.

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera talks about "poetic memory." It's a precious commodity. Poetic memory is made up of the memories that touch us—and—here's the essence of it, its gift, its challenge—these memories must be shared. My home is built of poetic memory; physically homeless, I am hostage to its fate. I'm more careful, certainly more anxious, about with whom I build up stores of poetic memory than with whom I share bodily fluids. You can get the divorce, take the Twelve Steps, never call again, throw away the reject's letters, but no matter how thorough the split, the closure, the final decree, if you are human, someday you'll find yourself laughing over a joke that only he would understand, or crying over something that she once shared with you. No lawyer nor daytime talk show shrink can rescue you from poetic memory.

The other day I was reading Vaclav Havel's letters from prison. There was a line that compelled me, after years of awkward silence, to call Eric, who had once been my closest American neighbor in Peace Corps Nepal. The village where I taught English and the one where he taught math were, on sunny days, visible to each other; we were only a day's walk, and about ten thousand feet, apart.

Eric and I had inhabited an exquisitely endangered ecosystem: a tiny bubble in the Himalaya, which we created because we were the only speakers of English. Not only was he not in his culture and I not in mine, we weren't of each other's. Puget Sound Eric was Nordic, majestic, blonde, a high school and college swim team star. I'd come from a coast much closer to Ellis Island, and had worked my way through school as a nurse's aid.

Quarantined by shared affliction, besieged by language, Eric and I frantically invented a new culture for our nation of two. We became zealots at using poetic memory with each other, to bind, to wound, to raise a laugh, to drive home a point; he could deploy it as other men, jealous, resort to physical strength. If a man were flirting with me, all Eric had to do was sidle behind and recite an excerpt from our canon of poetic memory and I was his, irrevocably; the flirt before me transformed into an interloper. Dinners, proposals, even another man's love poems, could not survive one strategic reference from Eric. "Goska, remember that time that you and..."

At our posts in Nepal, the only pens available to us had been Chinese ballpoint pens. Halfway through each of our letters to each other there was always a big blob of ink, or a disappearing line, an apology, and a curse. "Damn these Chinese pens!"

The other day, I was reading imprisoned Vaclav Havel pleading with his wife Olga to send him more Chinese ballpoint pens, so much better than the Soviet ones. I laughed out loud. No one in the room understood. Who would understand but Eric, terribly distant in space and class, terribly intimate in my poetic memory?

Beata. You mourn "always being on the outside, forever looking in." Are not your nation, your compatriots, and your home, then, those who are also? Outside isn't just an address; it isn't just the line you stood in to get your Canadian visa. It starts with the dictionary function, with definition. Too many grant acceptance only to others who are predictable representatives of a type, and can fit a prebored slot. People can become frightened, angry, and alien when they discover that I have an enthusiasm not part of the expected repertoire of a Polak from New Jersey. They suspect legerdemain, false advertising; they want to call the Chamber of Commerce.

The liberal who's pro-death penalty, the pro-choice Catholic, the African from Poland: all these definition transgressors risk home with their very identity. Find them. And find gay men, working class intellectuals, wheelchair athletes, women who are neither wives nor mothers, lone teen boys whose eyes light up when you say something true about the paperback peeking out of their pocket. Next, you must cherish them. Conventional etiquette will not referee here. You must heed your heart and honor invented holidays to build this home.

Do you know the title of the Czech national anthem? "Where Is My Home?" Slavs, and their perpetual Diaspora. I'm thinking of those exiles who carried fistfuls of Polish dirt with them in their wanderings to Siberia or California—all the same to them, both not Poland. Others had their corpses ransacked so that key body parts could be buried back home. It was marvelous, but just a tad flamboyant for Chopin to arrange to have his heart buried in Warsaw. Would it have cost so much more to send back the whole body?

Gifted people, too, have had to wander for no other reason than their gifts. Actors used to travel in troupes. One town couldn't make use of all of their peculiar talent but for a few days a year. Jesus, who lived something like the life of a traveling salesman, one night in Nazareth, the next in Capernaum, said: "The foxes of the earth have their lairs, but the son of man has no place to lay his head."

You ask: "Do we travel because we can't find a real home?"

I don't know. But I don't think travelers can ever again have a single home, except within themselves, if they allow travel to do what it can. In the language of the Central African Republic, "sengue" means "empty" or "naked." Where ninety per cent of the people have incurable VD or TB or schistosomiasis, where the slave trade has yet to end, people use "sengue" to communicate an absence of catastrophe, therefore something desirable. After I made my fire and cooked my manioc, after the next day's lessons were all planned, as I sat on my porch next to a smoking mosquito coil, watching the sun set—in the dry season into a sandpaper horizon of Sahara dust, in the wet, into the drunken pinks, purples, and oranges of towering iridescent clouds—content I had made it through another day without me or any of my students getting malarial or bitten by a black mamba or a green mamba or taken off by the cannibal king's machete-happy troops, I used to feel sengue. I've never felt it since. I would dearly like to.

Travel draws out of us a person who couldn't exist in any other environment. When we leave, we say farewell with no guarantee we'll ever meet again. The me I miss the most, I guess, is above 14,000 feet, even flea bitten; though I am also fond of the me in the middle of the riots in Krakow when I didn't run from the Milicja.

Material landmarks and the rhythms we dance around them in our daily ritual define an address and its inhabitant. I used to know I was close to home because my stomach was growling and I could smell the rice cooking and the fires to cook it. I could hear the roar of the Dudh Kosi's tributary streams. I could see, but only from this spot on the trail, Everest to the left, and the stacked sugar-cube-shaped shops of Asyalukharka Bazaar across the gorge. I had walked five days over ten-thousand-foot-passes, and there was one of my sixth grade students, Indra Kharki, plowing his father's terrace; there, he's downed the wooden plow and is greeting me, palm to palm, "Namaste!" as if coaxing sinuous sounds out of a jazz clarinet. Give that boy an "A." [Click image to see Indra.]

A traveler can never go home again. When you are feeling that special warmth in Nepal you will want to grab these villagers who are giving you so much and say, "I am put in mind of this one certain episode of 'I Love Lucy'..." and no one will understand freight cars' worth of your cultural baggage. I want my peasant relatives in Slovakia to understand American angst. Cousins who rejoice for sausage, who lived through W.W.II, or 1968, can't respect that I, who can eat sausage whenever I want, know grief. My current acquaintances in grad school may have mastered enough trendy theory to humiliate any unsuspecting seeker of knowledge, but their minds cannot accommodate Nepal, my Nepal, which they need to dismiss as a hallucination I had once while doing a drug unavailable to them. They understand Nepal as a footnote.

Maybe some find home easily because they are common, and home is the locus of common interests. Maybe we never find home not because we have traveled, but because we are uncommon, and the loci of our interests lay as scattered and as difficult to inhabit all at the same time as stars in the sky.

But, then, I'm caught up short by synchronicity, and its easy juggle of elements that are, to me, heartbreakingly irreconcilable. The other night I was whining, via long distance telephone, to my Rabbi, whom I met in Poland, about a Buddhist I had loved in Nepal. While we spoke strange sounds emanated from my radio. The deejay called it, "Shofar-Tibetan bell fusion." I felt at home.

Home is impermanent for everyone. The traveler notes this more sharply, and it can be an ache in the soul like some private arthritis, or it can be a surrendered smile. The traveler knows that not just earthquakes and typhoons knock down the walls we come to rely on. People die while you were away. Forget about loyalty; even the family dog dies while you were away. When we let them out of sight, even just for a moment, people become the persons they swore they'd never be. Changes concatenate—an unanswered letter, followed by a sudden move—wipe a person off the face of your life, more surely than an avalanche. Changes in income dictate changes in social circles. Or people just buy tickets.

Gaston Bachelard, a writer on architecture, once said that "...the imagination functions in this direction whenever the human being has found the slightest shelter: we shall see the imagination build walls of impalpable shadows, comfort itself with the illusion of protection." And so pavement dwellers as well as the inhabitants of Buckingham Palace can go home. I think of this today; my landlady has a whim to redecorate, and she needs me to find new digs. And so I pack my loves into cardboard boxes, the psychic tent that was this home collapses, and my palpable shadows dissolve. I find that in writing to you I feel more at home than I have in quite a while, or may for some while to come. With you, Beata, I don't need the sleeping bag, the radio, or the Swiss Army knife.

Trzymaj sie, Danusia

 

©Danusha Veronica Goska

Danusha V. Goska, PhD, is an experienced teacher, an award-winning writer,
and a published scholar. She can be reached at dgoska [at] yahoo [dot] com.
Her web page is http://www.codypublishing.com/goska/goska.html

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