What is the point, I wonder, at which you can say you truly know a place?
I was born in turn-of-the-20th-century-California, where kids rode horses and climbed trees, where roosters woke families in darkest dawn, where rains washed the road away each winter and we set up school in a Victorian mansion. Then I crossed the country in one sweeping motion; 21st-century-Boston, all WiFi cafés and gleaming ultramodern skyscrapers. If you looked at the ground, you’d realize that people had been walking on the same bricks for four hundred years; or close to. But I didn’t know what old meant until I crossed the ocean, another sweeping motion, and walked down the High Street in Medieval Oxford.
“If you keep moving east,” my mother jokes, “eventually, you’ll end up right back where you started.” Isn’t that what Eliot says? “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.“
I start to feel a bit like that about university. Did I not know precisely what I wanted, from the moment I set foot in these hallowed halls (metaphorical hallowed halls, in my case, for the Emerson campus is as un-ceremonial as can be, as unlike a campus as the food court in a shopping mall)? I was going to be a writer, and spend my four years here filling my head with books–until a few weeks in, when I decided to explore, and my exploration led me somewhere entirely new, and exciting, and now here I am, and all I want is what I wanted in the first place, except that, as Eliot says, I have an utterly new sense of it.
There were points in my youth when I hated the ranch–and if you’d seen it, and hadn’t lived there, you’d have to wonder why. But I had a thousand reasons: I hated its distance, its ruggedness, the way everything was full of hills; I hated how dark it got at night, how early the morning light came shooting into my bedroom, how coyotes and cows kept me up at night with their incessant howling and mewling, how I had to harbor a vague worry, everywhere I went, of mountain lions; I hated how dry the hills got each summer, how muddy and wet everything was by the light of winter; I hated going out in the dank darkness of a cloudy evening to turn the generator on; crawling up the driveway laden with grocery bags and heavy bookbags; and more, and more. I was a petulant teenager, yes; but when you know someplace, really truly well, do you not also gain a right to rail at it sometimes?
I certainly don’t hate it now (though neither to I flatter myself that I could live there again, not yet)–going there is a respite, a holiday from the ugliness of a city, a feast for the senses. Never before did I appreciate a simple walk through the hills so much; never before did I delight so well in donning muddy wellies and tromping through the mud; never before did I lie awake by moonlight and marvel at how rare the sound of a coyote seems, or awake bathed in hot sunlight to think how special it is for one’s rhythms of sleep to be marked not by the sounds of college kids yelping their way through a party, but by the rise and fall of the moon.
I find myself spread across many places: and I wonder, am I divided and split, or am I, in fact, more whole because of it? –and I think, because I am in essence the optimist (though some of you may not always believe it) that it is most assuredly the latter.
I have dreams now of Oxford; which seems, in my memory, to be the place I have been happiest, though surely there have been, and will be, minor unhappinesses there. It is not easy to feel this way: am I, I wonder, abandoning my family, my childhood home, the country that birthed me? But I am not doing these things, for to do so would be to renounce where I come from, and though it may be harder to visit the ranch, to spend time with my parents, I embrace wholeheartedly my origins, and know them as such, and know also that distance alone cannot keep me from them.
I straddle longitudes and latitudes—and know that I am more whole for it.
* Pico Iyer, from Sun After Dark (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004). Iyer, a travel writer (I might like to argue he is much more), was born in Oxford, raised in Santa Barbara, CA; then educated at Eton, Oxford, and Harvard. At the time of writing Sun After Dark he was living in suburban Japan. Straddling…