When I first picked up the violin again after months without practice, it was painful and awkward, my fingers unfamiliar with their erstwhile places on the strings. Now, after a few practice sessions, I fly through pages and pages of music in a frenzy, my eyes darting down the lines of black-marked notes, mapping them with my fingers. It feels like reading a map of a familiar place, like coming home. I drink up the black-dotted lines and long for more, more. More music to sight-read, to return to that place, my black chair in the middle of the orchestra sailing through sheets of transcribed dream, a stage full of bows dancing like flags.
Yesterday I climbed a nearby peak, my first summit of a mountain in two years of living by this coastal range. I sat on top of that high rocky spire, looking down over the ocean and land that I see every day. The islands I have circumnavigated, the bays where I have kayaked and fished, the hills whose silhouettes I know like the curves of my body.
There, behind that small island mountain, that is where I spent a cold dark night steeped in wonder and silence, watching swirls of bioluminescent plankton streaming in the black waters. It seemed so far from the crowded harbor that night, though city lights glowed embers beyond the tallest shadow. And since arriving home, that snug anchorage has always been so far away, safely hidden from sight by the silhouette that reminds me of longing. But now from up here, there it is, spread open what should not be seen. A map of the place where I live, the places where I have lived.
Every few years, I return to visit the city in China where I was born. It is a perverse kind of homecoming. I hate the crowded, noisy streets full of sweaty strangers; the smog that clogs my nostrils with sooty mucus. But when I hear the dialect that is only spoken in that city, I think: these are my people; this is my city.
Once as I flew in for a visit, the plane skimmed the lonely landscape for miles, a prolonged landing. Below were scrawny treetops and avenues of dust, the rural desert just outside the metropolis. A few empty highways. The only person I saw was a man bicycling down a dirt lane, white shirttails flying behind him, pedaling as if to escape our 757. It was a lonely, personal scene. I like to imagine that I was that bicyclist, my mind superimposing that image against my own solitary daily rides along a deserted coastal road in Alaska, a series of curves mapped out from my perch on that rocky peak. In my mind I am that solitary bicyclist, and I think, this is a personal moment. But I was a passenger on an airplane filled with passengers, and in each window was a face, intruding, with a mind behind it thinking this is lovely or this is not. To me, the bicycling man and the dirt road and the emaciated trees were the first signal of approaching; a glimpse of home, from a distance.
In that bay over there, I skewered squid on hooks for bait with my bare hands. The smell lingered on my skin for days, no matter how much soap I used. I grew to love the offending scent and missed it when it was gone. Now sometimes when I catch a whiff of something stinky, sweet and rounded, I think of those squids’ smooth spotted bodies, punctured by my hooks. And the halibut they caught, whose white flesh still fills my freezer. When it sizzles in a pan and fills my kitchen with the aroma housewives loathe to harbor, I breathe deeply and revel in the scent of ripened memory.
The notes on the page fly by like lines painted on a highway, and my fingers fly with them. I am approaching home, and for a moment I see the entire landscape laid before me, the trail I have followed from page to eye to hand to string. In my ear are the sweet ringing overtones, and my fingertips are etched with the black footprints of their places. How could I have been gone so long? It is so good to be home again.
What is belonging, but familiarity? There are homes I have lost that I cannot even remember, but their absence sits in my mind like the glare of a map on my retinas, taunting me: you have known belonging.
[In the absence of writing new things suitable for public consumption, I’m going through old writings that never made it onto my blog.]