I started this blog four years ago. At the time, I was living in Northern Ireland and preparing to move back to the U.S. to start a PhD in History. Before entering the golden cage of academia (perhaps more reminiscent of fool’s gold then anything else), I had lofty ideas about the wonderful things I could do once I had moved back to the states—learn how to play the mandolin, make jam and start a community co-op (I still think In a Jam is a good idea), and write for pleasure. The reality of course work and the general stress of life didn’t factor strongly into that equation.
Four years later, I’m finally writing again. It’s not a coincidence that this correlates with the end of my coursework in both History and Cultural Anthropology, and the beginning of my dissertation fieldwork in Colombia. Looking back at where I was four years ago and what I was thinking about, I’m aware of the themes that emerge—the making and remaking of home, the value of community, the oft-illusive but nonetheless essential struggle for justice, to name a few. These are the issues that frame my dissertation research on the process of remaking home after conflict. These are the topics that form the foundation of my life, they are the wells I draw upon and seek to fill.
It is tempting to see a sort of symmetry in these stages of my career and life. When I started this blog I was processing what it meant to come home and make home. Now, I am struggling with leaving and remaking home while also studying how those facing hardships I can barely imagine turn the immediacy of emergency into the slower struggle of recovery and reconstruction.
Perhaps it is instinctual to search for symmetry. The measurement of facial perfection, if one believes in such a thing, lies largely upon the spectrum of symmetry on which features fall. So many narratives of continuity and wholeness—yin and yang, the wheel, the circle of life—revolve around the perfect symmetry of the circle. For St. Augustine, the geometry of god encompassed a circle whose center was everywhere and circumference nowhere.
The symmetry of the circle, full or otherwise, might best be relegated to the realm of the divine. In the past few months, I’ve found myself often repeating one of my favorite last lines in a book. Alexandra Fuller ends her memoir about growing up in Rhodesia, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dog’s Tonight, with a staunch rejection of symmetrical thinking. “This is not full circle,” she offers. “It’s Life carrying on. It’s the next breath we all take. It’s the choice we make to get on with it.”
This line means something different to me now then it did four years ago when I first moved to Durham and was living alone in a strange new place. Yet I find myself on similar terrain, alone in my apartment in Medellín ruminating on how to make meaning out of my choices and forge connections in this next phase of my life.
Perhaps my life, every life, folds back upon itself–not in the perfect symmetry of a circle but instead in spirals, scribbles, and scrawls. Getting on with the business of life generates patterns and themes we continually repeat out of habit, interest, desire, and compulsion that at times offer the illusion of return to places, emotions, events, and ways of being that no longer exist.
There’s a difference, however, between revisiting and returning, especially if return is seen as an act of restoration. Revisiting who I was four years ago is to temporarily alight upon past moments, a past person. Life carries on, though, and has landed me back at a computer, struggling with desires for perfection and profundity that are both unnecessary and unachievable. Life carries on, in oblong and asymmetrical meanderings through mistakes and pain and triumph and joy that we struggle to understand and contain within patterns that offer the illusion of closure. I’ve always turned to T.S. Eliot to help me begin or end papers, a sort of go-to cure for writers block. I began my personal statement for graduate school with his well-trod quote on the the symmetry of travel and return—“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.”
This used to inspire me. I used to think this was possible. Now I see it as part of my desire to place my wandering into a pattern that offered the wholeness of a beginning and an end, especially one that promised a pot of golden knowledge at the destination.
And now I see it as part of the useful mythmaking that both provides order and constrains our lives. It would be comforting to believe that the end is the beginning, to believe in the victorious homecoming of a knowledge-filled return. It would also be a big spoiler to a story whose ending has not yet been written. Now, I see the place that I’m in as neither beginning nor end but simply where I’m at, my temporary habitat. Which is actually how Mos Def defines home—“It ain’t where ya from, it’s where ya at.”
And it’s good to be home.