“The earth never tires,
The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first, Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first,
Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well envelop’d,
I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.”
-Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road, Part 9
I flew home on Monday, just a quick trip, less than 48 hours. I say “home” even though I haven’t lived in Memphis for nearly two decades. I say “home” even though I am about to live further west of the Mississippi River than I ever have in my entire life.
It’s funny—Houston is the city I am about to leave behind, but driving around Memphis in my rented Mitsubishi Outlander I felt as if I were saying goodbye to my hometown instead. Perhaps this is due to the distance required to see something fully; I know, intellectually, that I will miss Houston, the city where I’ve spent the majority of my adult life, but without separation from it, I am unable to predict the shape that missing will take.
Memphis is different. The whole city is animated for me by memory, brimming with nostalgia and obscenely full of feeling. Driving around alone in my hometown is a cinematic experience, which I alternately delight in and mock myself for; listening to Nina Simone’s “Memphis in June” while visiting Memphis in June, Nishta? Isn’t that a little too on the nose? Add to that the fact that I showed up just a few days in advance of Father’s Day, one of the most emotionally loaded days of my personal calendar year.
Believe it or not, the timing wasn’t intentional. I booked my flight so that I might attend a few meetings for Just City, the Memphis-based nonprofit on whose board I am privileged to sit. (More about them in a future post.) And I had planned the trip long before I knew I’d be moving to Phoenix. But if I’ve learned something in these nearly twelve years of being tenderized by grief, it’s that you’ve got to make time to let yourself feel. Though it would have seemed unfathomable to me in the beginning that I would ever need to schedule time to grieve, the truth is that we human beings are rather adaptable, and we are good at building our lives like brick walls around the inner sanctum that is our vulnerability. I am as guilty as anyone of busy-ing myself into an artificial sense of being “fine.”
As is almost always the case, I find myself needing the exact advice I just finished giving my students. “Try not to fight off the feelings! Stay present in this very special moment of your life.” Ummmm….hi.
Since my very first day of teaching, my guiding principle has been: don’t be a hypocrite. (This may seem like a low bar, but given the hypocrisy of many adults, particularly those in positions of authority and power, it still feels like the right place to start.) And so, while I was in Memphis, I resisted the urge to schedule a million things for myself. I didn’t fill my free time. I didn’t make a bunch of appointments. Instead, I spent time alone, mostly with my phone in airplane mode, and let myself feel whatever I felt.
I drove around my old neighborhood and got out to smell the magnolia blossoms in the yard of a stranger. I went to my old coffee shop haunt, got my usual order (a cup of Earl Grey & sourdough toast), and did some writing. I drove down to the river, to where we scattered my father’s ashes, and wrote him a letter. I didn’t cry then, but I did cry later, when I spotted fireflies in my friend’s driveway; we don’t get them in Houston. I think I had forgotten they existed, and the sight of them was like a revelation.