Monday, November 29, 2010

A letter home: 29 November 2010

My dearest Emma,

I miss you.

I suppose that's an odd thing to say to a figment of my imagination. You exist only in my head, Emma, and so you could not be any closer. But, strangely, the part of my brain that builds your narrative places you in the United States. Strange because I sometimes imagine you have an Irish accent. My picture of you is less than complete. You have a surname that simply comes from a town in Scotland. I have yet to solidly decide on your middle name -- Jayne, perhaps. Emma Jayne Carrbridge, breaker of men's hearts. You are a brunette. You smell wonderful. You wear long wool coats in winter. Why you would be in America, though, I'm not sure. Maybe the free cheese in Ireland just wasn't enough.

I'm not sure exactly where in America you are, either. In St. Paul, living in an old house on Cathedral Hill, maybe. Or perhaps you are living in the Sierra Nevada mountains, or the stunning great space of Utah. The exact where is unknown, but I'm relatively sure you're in America. And lately I have been missing all the real friends and family of my home country, so, by extension, I'm missing you, too.

As you know, Emma, Thanksgiving was last Thursday. I'm happy to say that although thousands of miles away from the life-affirming cold of Minnesota, I celebrated the day with an old friend who understood what it means to miss that chilly, flat place. Jen and I went to high school together, back when she was known as Jeni. We were in marching band. As cool as cool can be. Sixteen years later, we have somehow both landed on this island of rain -- she in London with her husband, Dave, and I in Cardiff with my endless thoughts.

I travelled out to London on Thursday and stayed to Sunday, so it felt like the true Thanksgiving experience of bundling and trundling to be with loved ones. In Britain, Thanksgiving is simply known as "a Thursday" and so the trains and buses were no more full than usual. But it felt authentic. I'll admit to suffering one short bout of terrible sadness and ache during the trip, walking through Camden markets, but I suppose I am fortunate to have been raised by parents for whom tradition is not all that important.

My parents went to a seafood restaurant for Thanksgiving. While millions upon millions of Americans carved up turkeys and passed around heaping plates of mashed potatoes and green beans and so on, my mother was eating haddock. I know I've told you before, Emma, of how Thanksgiving dinners of my teenage years were always prepared by myself. Rather than turkey I would make barbecue ribs. It would often be snowing as I stood outside by the grill, heaping more sauce onto the meat. Then I would run back inside to make sure the macaroni and cheese wasn't boiling over.

So, my heart didn't ache this Thanksgiving with the pain that broken traditions can bring. There was no terrible disconnect between what "always" was and what now is. And in the company of Jen and Dave I often feel more at peace than at any other time on this island of rain. My head is so full of stories, Emma, that I have actually been known to once or twice lose track of that which is real and that which is created by myself. I fear this affliction will only intensify as I age. So, for the record, Jen and I are not related. I am certain that with time, however, I will claim otherwise. Jen and Dave are family.

This letter was written to you in carriage H of the 10:37 First Great Western service from London Paddington to Swansea -- the distance between myself and my London family growing ever wider with each word. Though the feelings of hiraeth were already upon me before.

I think they have been since 21 October, when I turned in my masters degree project. It was almost 10 years to the day after I first discovered Welsh lessons on the BBC's website. Rarely does life tie itself into such neat little bows. I turned in the project at 11:57. Four minutes later, I was standing outside the Humanities building trying to absorb the sense of completion. The universe had not shifted. My Winnie the Pooh wristwatch -- the one that's outlasted at least a dozen girlfriends, a marriage and a journalism career -- kept ticking away. A bleached-blonde girl in expensive clothing designed to make her look poor almost bumped into me. I was not great; I was not unique; I was another of thousands; my name is writ on water.

What I felt more than anything was the incredible sense of being wholly un-incredible. As if I had stuck my head into that machine in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy that shows people their place in the universe. I suppose it's natural, then, for a little voice in one's soul to whimper: "I want to go home." Even if one doesn't know where or what "home" is.

In the academic department that was my home for four years, in a stall in the men's toilet, tucked behind the toilet roll holder and as such invisible to any cleaner, is a small bit of graffiti that has been there through the full of my Cardiff years: "Life is what you love, not what loves you."

There are better dispensers of wisdom than toilets stalls. But, as needs must, Emma.

My father says that home for him is wherever my mother is. He loves her, and all those things one describes in explaining "home" he feels in his love her. Whatever he feels for my mother beyond those domestic attachments, I prefer not to consider; he is, after all, my father. I used to feel the same toward Rachel. But then home moved to the desert and stopped replying to my e-mails.

So, I have been thinking a lot about the wise toilet stall of Cardiff University's School of Welsh: Life is what you love, not what loves you. I have been trying to think, Emma, about what I truly love. The Spanish refer to loved ones as mi vida -- "my life." What is it that I love so rudimentarily that it is my life?

I love writing, of course. I should hope that in my final years I will be as Papa was. The nurses will wake me from my confused sleep and ask me questions that I find difficult to answer, but when they ask: "And what do you do, Mr. Cope?" I will always reply: "I write. I'm a writer."

I love creeks and rivers and lakes, and all the scenery one would expect to see in connection with those things. I prefer to live in the city, Emma, where art, groceries and medical care are within easy reach. But if I go too long without wading into fresh water, or breathing in the smell of trees, I start to come undone. The city and everything in it start to feel like all the stories in my head. "Real" becomes blurred, and it's difficult to find interest in living in a world I'm not sure exists. In the outdoors I feel reconnected.

And I love women. That sounds superficial, perhaps. But it is a confession to the fact that I do not want to live forever on my own and without the feeling of being deeply, romantically loved. I am very lucky, Emma, to have friends on multiple continents who care about me. But few of them -- save Eric, perhaps -- want to have sex with me. I love being loved; I love having a "home" in my father's sense of the word.

Having spent a ridiculous amount of time working that out, Emma, I am now mired in the challenge of trying to figure out what it means. OK, I love these things; how do I apply that to my existence? How do I live a life that speaks to my loves?

Obviously, the first one is the easiest. I should be writing. Annie recently told me she feels I'm not pursuing that love with enough diligence: I should not just be writing, but writing professionally. She is right. My fear stands in the way. I get locked up attempting to do anything other than throw several thousand words down the bloggery memory hole.

"You have a talent, Chris," she said. "And you're not putting it to its best use."

I agree with her, Emma. But I am uncertain; I don't know where to begin. How does one get work writing articles for newspapers and magazines and so on? How does one come up with ideas for such articles? And what if one is no good? What if one loves being a writer so dearly that he is afraid of having reality negate his claims?

But the universe doesn't wait for people to get their shit together. Do or do not, says the universe, there is no sit and drink tea until someone shows up at the door with a book deal. With the masters work completed, the universe has put me into a situation where Action Must Be Taken. If I don't have a job by 21 January I will have no choice but to leave Wales. I need to be able to sustain myself. If I am unable to do so, I won't be able to renew my visa. I don't know what I would do back in the United States; I have no prospects or opportunities there. I would only be returning because I know they won't kick me out.

It's a possibility that fills me with sick panic. I miss you, Emma Jayne Carrbridge, but something in my heart says I should be here. I get angry and frustrated with its every facet, but I want to stay on this island of rain. I am applying for jobs all over, but there is not a great deal available. I'm worried. I have put so much into being here -- given up or missed out on more than I had ever imagined -- and it would break me to have it all come to a sudden, inglorious end.

So, that is life at the moment, Emma. I feel directionless and fear I am a failure, I miss the United States but am trying desperately not to return. Some time this week I will set up a Christmas tree and begin my annual tradition of intensely wondering where I'll be next next year. Your guess is as good as mine.

I hope you are well. Say hello to your family for me. Please send nude photos.

I remain your humble servant,
~ Chris ~


Peggi Rodgers said...

I think we're basically in the same boat. Sadly, by the time I graduate they will have changed the visa options and I'll be out whether I have a job or not. That knowledge is making it very hard to do the hard work I have to do to finish this.

Geneen said...

I really enjoyed your letter, how can little black squiggles on a page affect how you feel?
I think you are luckier than your father, his love/home can be affected if another person leaves or doesn't return his love. Your love, your ability to write, is with you always so home is where you are, how lucky is that?