Home Alone . . . at Last

Home Alone . . . at Last

Homecomings can be bittersweet, since they inevitably involve leavetakings.  And leaving the MV Explorer in San Diego left me a bit weak in the knees:  coming down that gangway and stairs for the last time, looking up at the ship that had been home for nearly four months, and plunging into a sea of luggage and boxes looking for those with my name on them—it was overwhelming in every way.  So I had little time for tears or nostalgia:  I had to find those boxes, get them to UPS, pick up my bags, and head to the airport. 

     As the taxi drove away, I took a last look at our ship, waving wildly to those still on board (about 20 people were staying on for an “enrichment voyage” to the Galapagos), and trying to get one last photograph.  Time to pull myself together and think “I’m  home.”  And soon enough, I was home, just a short plane ride from San Diego to San Francisco and then a 40 minute drive to my condominium on the Stanford campus.  So I was home.  But I was not home alone. 

     Rather, I was greeted by house guests who had been staying in my place.  So I caught up with them while trying to unpack my two suitcases stuffed to bursting with things I had bought for my grand nieces Audrey and Lila (think dresses from the Bahamas and Brazil and Ghana, pajamas from Japan and China, skirts from India . . . and more, much, much more).  I threw in a load of laundry and looked at my schedule for the next day:  meetings with eight graduate students starting at 8:00 a.m. and then two meetings in the late afternoon.  And, whoops, I’d forgotten that I had two other guests arriving the next morning, coming to work with me on a writing project for three days.  And oh yes, I would be flying to Vancouver, Canada the morning after they left to give some talks at Kwantlen Polytechnic.  And that was just for starters. 

     My first ten or twelve days off the ship, then, brought a whirlwind of meetings, conferences, shuffling through mountains of mail, and travel:  the day after I returned from Canada I set off for North Carolina . . .though by this time I was working pretty much on adrenalin and will power alone.

     But then . . . ahhhhhhh.  I returned from North Carolina on May 15 . . . and I was . . . home ALONE.  My first chance to sit quietly and reflect, to revisit my favorite spots in Ghana and India and Hong Kong, to call up the faces of the students in my seminar, of the Chinese Writing Center students, and of the Kids’ Writing Club.  Finally, I had time to do the kind of leavetaking I was hoping for, savoring every memory.  I got up and put on the “Thank You Mom” shirt that the students in my “extended family” had given me, the one that many of the kids  had carefully printed their names on, along with some illustrations.  When I came to Betty’s name, I smiled all over.  Betty is almost six and has perfected printing her name, so she had written it out for me:  BETTY WILDE (but with the D backwards).  She showed it to me with pride and then said, “and can I write dotcom after it?  I LOVE to write dotcom.  So her name is there, BETTY WILDE.COM, along with Rufus and Aibek and Sam and Josh and Charlie and Maeve and lots more.   They are all back at school now, have all slipped into their new selves into their old lives as the end of the school year approaches.  And what a year it has been!

     So I’m home, and alone for a bit in the peace and quiet of my condo.  But I am not alone in the most important ways, for all those students, all those kids, are still with me.  They always will be.

What Is Love and What Is LIfe

May 1, 2012 ~~ What is love and what is life

My two roller bags are packed and in the hallway outside my cabin, along with three boxes I plan to mail through UPS when I get off the ship tomorrow.  One hundred and five days, eleven countries, countless moments of insight, joy, sadness, even despair.  I am almost home now, but the “I” that will be home is not the same “I” that left Fort Lauderdale on January 17, 2012. 

I now carry the memories, the images, the sounds of so many places, carry the faces of babies and children and mothers and fathers and old people, all of them alive with the hope that tomorrow may yet be better than today.  That longing is universal, as is the joy of human connection, the love of family, and a thirst for knowledge.  But oh the differences among us, the rich and deep differences that make cultures unique.  I learned about the deeply animistic spirituality of a mother and father in Brazil, of the role of music in almost every aspect of life in Ghana, of the way daily ritual infuses the lives of so many in India, of the uneasy tensions between state and those governed in Singapore, of different values, different senses of time, different ways of being in the world.  I feel infinitely small, my little concerns and worries inconsequential not only against the backdrop of history but also the daily suffering of so many millions. 

So I have been sobered by this adventure—but also exhilarated.  Late in life, I agree with Aristotle that learning is the greatest human pleasure.  And I am grateful to those I have learned with and from.  I have spent quite a bit of time with the Chinese students on board, learning so much from them about what it is like to be a young person in China today, about their concerns and grievances with the government, about their aspirations and hopes and dreams.  Their language abilities amaze me—and it has been a special pleasure to watch them “getting the joke” just a beat or two after the native English speakers.  Last night one of the young Chinese women was saying that her father tells her she must not have a boyfriend and must not get married—in one breath—and in the next tells her she must give him grandchildren.  “Why, why, can I do that?” she asked.  When I said, “Well, HOW is the big question. How can you do that?” she paused for several seconds and then burst out in laughter, “getting it,” and blushing.  This moment of shared laughter, of “getting it” together, characterizes so many of the happy moments I’ve had getting to know these Chinese students.

            Two of these young women have been in my class all term, both working to immerse themselves in English since they have been accepted to graduate school in the United States this coming fall (one to Johns Hopkins, one to Penn).  To my surprise and delight, they came by my cabin to say a special goodbye and we hugged and cried a little together.  They know they are in for some major changes and are anxious about what it will mean to be living so far away from home and family during their graduate careers.  After a bit, we just sat quietly, holding hands and soaking in a feeling of togetherness.  When I got up this morning, I found a note from one of them:

Thank you for letting me be one of your students, for giving me support and advice, for helping create something I am proud of, for teaching me what is love and what is life.  I will keep the memory of this voyage forever.  I will miss you, but there is an old Chinese saying that “good friend never part in mind.”

As I leave this voyage, I take Yunshu’s words with me:  good friend never part in mind.