We woke up that morning with a certain bittersweet lightness that always follows our new year’s holiday. Yesterday’s fullness, Christmas cake with cream and champagne, dissolved into emptiness as sunlight streamed through our curtains. We felt nostalgic not simply for the holidays gone by, not just for the year that ended, but for all the years before that, because what could be a more evocative retrospective than a restful few days with the family spent reminiscing. But we also felt terribly alive. As if anything would be possible in this brand new year.
I have always loved resolutions. Simple promises to oneself that can be turned into a neat list that fits on the back of a bookmark. Or written into a calendar where you can give yourself gold stars in exchange for a 45 minute brisk walk, or 20 minutes of yoga, or a balanced, nutritious breakfast. Mine always start out a bit grandiose. I feel the way I do when I go grocery shopping on an empty stomach, as if nothing will ever be enough. But, little by little, as the year unfolds, they wear at the edges, like a book that’s been read, they fray, like a pair of pajamas, and they become mine.
On that morning, our first day of routine in the new year, bright big resolutions still undiminished, we sprang lightly around our apartment, chatting, eating, dressing. As we clicked the door of our apartment shut behind us, stomachs full of that good breakfast that would turn into a gold star, we felt wonderfully bright and shiny.
Stepping into the lift, we smiled at a neighbor who was already inside and wished her a happy new year. She smiled back, wishing us too. She was holding her small daughter in her arms. A school bag and water bottle dangled from the little girl’s back. Only when her mother turned a little, we saw her tear streaked small face. She doesn’t want to go back to school, her mother explained. But even without that explanation, I felt a sudden throbbing empathy. I felt a lump in my own throat. I reached out to stroke the little girl’s back knowing it would bring her little comfort.
As a baby, I had a lot of separation anxiety. My parents say I waited a whole week longer in my mother’s womb than they expected and that even once I was born I always wanted to be held close to their hearts. When they went back to work they left me with my grandparents, comfortably curled up on whose laps, sofas, and beds, I spent my childhood. I cried a lot the first time they put me into play school. My grandmother said I needed more time. When they tried again the next year, I was ready. My grandmother was right. I still cried, of course, but much less.
As a small child, I was always uncertain about the passage of time in moments of separation. Each time my mother would go out she would tell me exactly when she would return. But I remember being unable to stop myself from asking whomever I was with “When will Mama come back?” I knew what they would answer. I knew that my anxiety would worry them. I knew my mother would return exactly as promised. Still I would hear myself asking the same question over and over again. At my first pajama party, after everyone else had fallen asleep I sat in a bay window looking out at the night sky lit up by streetlights and waited for the sun to rise so I could go home. I still remember how painfully slowly those hours went by.
At eighteen, I left for college all the way across the world from home. A poem of Sylvia Plath’s that I fell in love with led me to her journals that led to me Smith College. A place where Plath had felt the world was splitting open at her feet like a ripe, juicy watermelon. It was the kind of place that Virginia Woolf wished for in A Room of One’s Own, with bright green lawns, great big libraries, poetry, theory, all for the benefit of young women, eighteen to twenty-two. It was where Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique began. Where Gloria Steinem once sat and read. And Smith was, indeed, all that and so much more. I can’t imagine having been happier anyplace else. Still, every single time I left home, I was tearful.
Hungry to hear more poets read, hungry to read more, to write more, to study more literary theory, I decided I had to go to graduate school in New York. I set my heart on Columbia University’s School of the Arts’ MFA program and when they said yes I was ecstatic. But after graduation, after my summer at home, I cried and said I couldn’t start over. I couldn’t leave another home behind and move to a new place. I was tired after four years of flying back and forth. But, again, once I landed in New York, as the taxi cruised across the bridge and I could see the skyline of Manhattan, as I walked down W 112th Street noticing John Dewey had lived only a few buildings away from where I would, looking up my street at the beautiful cathedral of St. John the Divine, I knew I wouldn’t have it any other way. New York is like a language, once you learn it, it will always be yours, a dear professor of mine at Smith promised.
Two and a half years ago, I moved back home only to discover that home itself had become a curious amalgam. On Sunday mornings I craved a spinach, sundried tomato, and goat cheese omelette with a strawberry and banana milkshake and a piece of baklava from a Moroccan café in downtown Northampton. I missed the salad bar with hearts of palm, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, and cheap sushi from Morningside Heights. I missed those great big libraries, all that bright green grass, and those campuses that were each a different kind of wonderland.
Home, at last, with all the people I love most in the whole wide world, I discovered I had grown to love even more people in those six years I spent away, who were now (especially since a good number of my best friends at Smith were made at International Student Pre-orientation) literally scattered all over the world once again. Be still my heart, I said to myself in my thesis advisor’s voice. Love is many things but it is not easy. More homes to love means there are more to miss. More people too.
Looking at the small girl’s tear streaked face, my heart knotted once again. I felt a sharp anxiousness as I thought about how love inevitably brings both happiness and the fear of somehow losing it. As the lift opened at the ground floor, our neighbor and her daughter stepped out and we waved goodbye before the doors closed. I turned to look at Sameer. He was smiling reassuringly at them. He was unperturbed by the small girl’s sorrow because he knew she would be home again in the evening. As the lift doors opened once again in the basement and we stepped out together, I slipped my fingers between his. Glad, once again, to have married the kind of man who glides through life with an ease I both admire and envy.
Gone were my grandiose resolutions. Replaced by a simple wish for grace.