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Saturday, October 31, 2009
Last month I went to Australia, but if you have even the remotest connection to me you already know this. I happened to mention it to everyone I know at every conceivable opportunity, and posted lots of pictures on Facebook (still there, just in case you missed them). You see, I was a little excited about this trip. I had been there once before twenty years earlier and felt an extraordinary sense of connection with the land, and I wondered if I would still feel the same thing when I went this time.
Australia has always been a special place for me for reasons I can’t quite understand. Sometime in my early twenties I developed a strong desire to go there, even though I had never been and didn’t know a soul over there. For some reason, it just felt like home to me. So I began planning a little trip there. Except that it turned out to be not such a little trip. I ended up dropping out of college, giving away most of my possessions, moving the rest into my mom’s house on the opposite coast and leaving the country for what turned out to be six months. I would have stayed longer if my Visa hadn’t expired.
I was enchanted with the beauty of Sydney, the friendliness of the Aussies and the myriad little cultural differences that are always charming the first few months of immersion in a new country (and taxing thereafter), but all that was just your typical vacation abroad excitement. It wasn’t until I got into the outback that my world began to slide open.
I was driving across the country with some friends. We had driven up the coast from Sydney to Brisbane and turned inland, across the mountains and toward the interior desert. In an effort to make good time, we were driving day and night, in eight-hour shifts, doing our best to avoid cattle and kangaroo and other night-time road hazards. I was driving during the wee hours of the morning as we descended the Great Dividing Range and entered the vast interior desert. I could see nothing other than what was lit up by the headlights -- rocks and weeds and the occasional glint of a small pair of eyes. As dawn broke, however, the sun gradually illuminated the landscape and I could see that it had been transformed. I felt a shiver go up my spine. We had left the scrubby forests of the low ranges and were surrounded now by a brilliant, red desert dotted with low brush and knobby, leafless trees. Something deep within me, acute and visceral, responded to this landscape. Something long dormant was awakening inside me. It’s as if I heard the distant cry of some primordial horn, an ancient reveille, calling me to attention. I thought: I am home. I actually cried then, in the car, looking out at this very ordinary yet beautiful desert. The other passengers in the car were asleep but I was wide awake, gliding quietly and attentively through this otherworld, drinking in this landscape that was foreign and so familiar all at once.
We spent three weeks in the Australian interior driving from small town to small town, Mt. Isa and Daly Waters and Tennant Creek, visiting Uluru and Kata Tjuta, Mataranka Hot Springs and Kakadu. I never once grew tired of looking at the desert. I never lost my sense of amazement at its beauty nor my gratitude for its very existence. And I never lost the sense that this place at the opposite end of the world from my home was my real home. When I left Australia, I left it as one leaves a lover. I felt the loss acutely, like a shock to my system. All the places in me that had come alive began to wilt again and I mourned my separation from a home I hadn’t known I had and began a lifelong exercise of longing for something I couldn’t quite define.
So I wondered, twenty years hence, what would it be like to return? Had I romanticized my previous experience (as twenty-somethings do)? What would I feel when I stood again on Terra Australis, now that I was a more mature forty-something?
As the plane descended into Sydney I felt a sense of anticipation, as if I were returning to a long-lost friend. And exploring Sydney again was indeed exciting. There was so much new (it had a pronounced international flair that it didn’t have when I was there before) and so much exactly the same (glorious Circular Quay and all the familiar landmarks). Yet it wasn’t until I left the city and ventured into the surrounding countryside that I felt, once again, that same strong visceral connection to the land. This time I didn’t even have to go into the outback.
We had taken a train into the Blue Mountains and were setting out on a hike through the heavily treed, rugged tablelands. It was morning and the crowds were thin, the weather was clear and crisp. As we walked deeper into the forest the air was heavy with the scent of eucalyptus and other than the occasional bird call, we were closeted by silence. The smooth trunks of the gum trees seemed to ask to be touched and I slowed so I could run my hand down their length. The air, the trees, the dirt beneath me, everything felt suddenly electric. So very alive. Again, I felt that sense of close familiarity with the land. Something within my body remembered this place. Something inside was standing at full attention, rooted to the ground, not wanting to move, not wanting to leave this exceptional place. That entire hike seemed to happen in slow motion. My senses felt heightened. I remember the smells and sounds and just the feel of that path. When I did leave, I cried. As the train wound its way down the rocky cliffs toward the coast, I stared out the window and watched the trees disappear behind me and tried to hide my tears because I didn’t know how to begin to explain to my friend why I was heartbroken.
I felt this sensation just about everywhere I went in Australia. On the rural footpaths of Kangaroo Island and in the hills of South Australia and, of course, in the outback. Uluru and Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon and all the nameless dirt roads that splinter off and go nowhere. I spent a lot of time driving around and looking out the window and crying (are you tired of me crying? – I am). Oddly, I felt nothing in Cairns and the tropical north. It was pretty there, in a picture-postcard kind of way, but if I never go back to Cairns I won’t miss it.
So I know that Australia still feels like home and I know that I want to go back. Again and again. I don’t know why it feels like home and perhaps I don’t have to. Life needs its mysteries. I know that home is not merely a place but is defined by the people who fill our lives with love and meaning. None of these people, for me, live in Australia. They are here in Kansas, living and breathing and swelling my life with love. And yet.
I’m no closer to defining what home means to me. I know it as a sensation deep within my body, but when I try to lift it up to my mind and give it form through words, I’m at a loss. Maybe someday I’ll succeed. Deep in my soul I still hear that ancient reveille and I can’t ignore it. I don’t know what else to do but to keep returning and experiencing the land and wondering at the mystery of it all. Life is something else.
Friday, October 30, 2009
Tonight I was reading an article in O Magazine about Julianna Margulies "Aha! Moment". She wrote about a time when she felt frustrated because her crying baby had kept her up all night, despite the fact that she had to get up early the next morning to do a shoot. Her annoyance melted, however, when she remembered her own mother’s word’s: This is only a moment. She realized that while she might lose sleep for one night, this moment would pass. One day her child would grow up, would no longer want to be held or perhaps (in the dreaded teenage years) avoid her presence altogether. In that one moment, she got it. She relaxed and settled into a night with her restless baby.
I admired Julianna’s ability to stop and reshuffle her priorities in the midst of a stressful situation. Or, at least, I was trying to admire it. But I was having difficulty focusing on the article because my 7-year-old daughter Anna, on a candy-fueled high after a school party, was doing her best to divert my attention from magazine reading. She was demonstrating how a helium balloon, when placed beneath a skirt, will not rise to the ceiling. She also knew four Halloween riddles and what rhymed with Mr. Dimmitt (speed limit).
I know, you’re way ahead of me here. You’re already appreciating the irony of me savoring Julianna’s aha moment while missing my own. But as you can see from the occupation listed in my profile, I’m still a student of life and thus slow to learn at times. Fortunately for me, Anna is a persistent teacher. She showed me how her Cinderella underwear did not match her Supergirl costume. I finally got it and closed my magazine and gave her my full attention. I settled into some really bad Halloween riddles and the careful construction of a Tinkerbelle puzzle. Don’t crown my Supermom just yet. Anna eventually discovered some reruns of Scooby-Doo on the Cartoon Network and I made my way back to my magazine. But until then, we shared a moment.