February 26, 2015 / Creative Writing
A man climbs buttes in western North Dakota, wondering if he’s a force of good or evil.
March 15, 2015
It begins with language—the sounds, the words, the songs I heard in my parents’ voices before I could imagine any place beyond my mother’s body, back when I was as untraveled as my own baby is now—before books, before maps, before any of the abstractions that have carried me to where I now sit, nursing my second born in Bar Beach, Australia. The euphoria and fatigue of these newborn days force me into the present. We move from meal to meal, sleep to sleep. Her head nestles between my shoulder and chin, her ear close to the resonators of my lungs, absorbing my sounds, the words that will come from my body to bring her through infancy into the wide world.
This a story of how I came to live in Australia—oceans away from my family of origin. I arrived here after years of geographical promiscuity, first for my father’s career in the Foreign Service, then my own wanderings, and now the global path of my husband’s academic work. September marked two years—the longest I’ve stayed in one country since 1995, when I was fourteen in my childhood home in Montana. This is the first place that I don’t know for certain I will leave.
The geographic center of my earliest memories lies in the hot spring–fed streams of the Yellowstone Caldera. I learned to float there, my water wings on, looking up at unpolluted starlight and into the level distance at herds of bison, dusted white by drifting snow. They came to the springs to graze on the winter grasses sustained by the heat of the pools. I watched them through mineral-scented steam—bobbing silently in the circle of my father’s arms—until the animals, with their wet black eyes, turned their heads and walked on. When the rustle and clump of rumination was no longer audible, I lay back in the water, submerged my ears, and listened to the crinkly champagne-bubble sound of rocks, clicking gently downstream on the floor of the river. This is the zero-mile marker from which all of my other experiences can be measured. Holding me lightly on the surface, my father showed me the inevitability of the movement of water, and if we played it right, the joy of our moving with it.
Not far from there, we visited a pond that rests on the Continental Divide. Over this water my father drew an invisible line, splitting liquid from liquid and sending it east or west, away into streams that flowed into rivers, across the prairies to the Mississippi and the Gulf or Mexico or through the mountains to the Pacific. He poured a handful of water from his old army canteen into my hands to toss into the pond, and as the water slipped through my fingers, some small part of me floated away with it. Years later, when I first saw the Colombia River pouring into the Pacific, it would feel familiar, a broad wet line leading back to the waters of Yellowstone, back to my father when he was young and capable of dividing water.
He was always hungry for elsewhere. What he gave us: The pleasure of driving through the flood-washed landscapes of the West. A love for maps. The thrill of tracing rivers with our eyes on paper, the thread-thin, ink-line veins of our earth, and the ability to go out and touch them, to find a bend in the line on paper, a curve in the coast of a lake, and then go there on a Sunday afternoon drive. We would feel for a moment that this place we had imagined over the map was ours, picking up stones that held the memories of ancient glacial events, skipping some of them into the waves, pocketing the beauties to take home.
When we lived briefly in Gillette, Wyoming, we began attending the Episcopal church across the street from our house. We would slip in during the opening hymn, my parents newly returned to faith after estrangement from the Catholicism of their childhoods. It was about that time that I began to be transported by language as I was by water, and in the tissue-paper rustle of Scripture I heard the echo of the pebbles in the river at Yellowstone where I had learned to float. I loved to touch my father’s Bible, sliding my fingers over the stick-on quick-find tabs with book titles, lingering over the color maps in the back. The World of the Patriarchs. Palestine and Sinai. Exodus and Conquest of Canaan. Kingdom of David and Solomon. Assyrian and Babylonian Empires. Jerusalem. The maps connected the Bible stories to the surface of the earth, to places we might one day go—thinking only of going, long before we could know the possibilities and impossibilities of returning home.
When Michael and I married, our wedding service included a reading from the book of Ruth: Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God my God. I didn’t know then that his people would turn out to be mathematicians. That in pursuit of his career we would move from Montana to Texas, to Budapest, to Vancouver, to Ontario, and to Australia. That I would spend the first decade of our marriage listening to math as a foreign language, one that would become familiar enough to be a comfort but too foreign to ever speak. The rational-transcendental dichotomy of Mahler functions. Residue class distribution. Paper-folding numbers. Lullaby.
Thanks in part to Mahler, for two years I’ve squinted into brilliant southern sunlight; slogged through finding a grocery store, parks, doctors, and friends; and made a home for our little girl: convincing her—convincing all of us—that home is where we are together. It wasn’t until her birth four years ago in Canada that I let myself call anything but Montana home. I would carefully skirt the term, referring instead to the apartment, the house, leaving work for the night. But we are home here, Australia, where our second baby joined the family. Cockroaches in the kitchen and bacon-snatching kookaburras be damned.
On the maps of my youth, the Pacific was always sliced in half and flattened, a mostly empty blue buffer around what really interested me: the puzzle pieces of continents, the colored shapes of countries, the letters of the names of the places I have been. I am trying to come to terms with the Pacific as a thing unto itself. Its water. Its curvature. The space it occupies on our round planet. The way its waves echo in my sleep. I am trying to unhinge it from the ache of distance.
My mental map of Australia is substantially blank. Without a stock of localized memories, it is slow work getting to know this inverted corner of the world. Invasive species that I am, I rely on my phone map to help me push my way through these places I didn’t originate. The labels here are mostly in English—Newcastle, New South Wales, Cook’s Hill, Hamilton, names given by people a long way from home, laying a grid of familiar names onto what seemed a raw landscape. Then there are the names I have to repeatedly ask how to pronounce. Parramatta, Waratah, Budgewoi—names that hint of the great map of Aboriginal songlines that has suffered so much damage since the arrival of the Europeans. We live here without full knowledge of the weight of the local history. We’re coming in at the half-way mark, and the references that our neighbors take for granted are like a second language to us.
In the book of Jeremiah, the prophet instructs the exiles from Jerusalem to build houses and plant gardens in Babylon, to have children—to carry on with a full life even as they are cut off from their homeland. This seems to be our way forward, even if we never make it back to where we began. There is no frost here, no urgent deadline to get the seeds in the soil.
The first planting, half of our seedlings were destroyed as night after night a fiendish neighbor cat came to scratch in the soil. The cucumbers my firstborn, Ingrid, begged to plant never fruited. The tomatoes dried on the stalk in a few baking-hot days of desert wind from the interior. But things we never expected thrived: the parsley seed packet explosion yielded a small forest, the pepper seeds from the kitchen scraps grew more peppers, the mint I thought I neglected to death has stretched to the furthest corner of the garden, where in our first days here we uncovered a portion of old sidewalk leading to nowhere.
By the time we left Montana in my teens, I had accumulated two laundry baskets and a utility bucket full of lake rocks. I couldn’t take them with me, and I couldn’t relinquish them entirely to the anonymity of the beach, so I placed them in the landscaping around a friend’s cabin, one stone at a time. I spent that summer a few miles up the shore at camp, where I continued scanning the gravel for appealing colors and shapes. I could not take my new specimens with me, so I dropped the ones I gathered directly into the fire.
If you pull the glacier-rounded rocks from the water and put them in the fire, after a few hours, the water inside the stones will swell so much with the heat that they explode into the night. If you can find the shards, the interior split lines opened by the fire will show the stone’s true fracture lines, exposing the minerals from which it is composed. Sometimes the pieces shoot back into the lake to be tumbled over and over again in the wave train that recycles this shore, hidden again in the rattling song of the beach gravel.
After campfire one night, a storm came howling up the thirty-odd miles of water, painting the sunset a living green and heaving irresistible waves onto the beach where we stood singing, and I needed to respond. I stepped into the lake to be baptized—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, nose pinched, sinking back-first into the waves in the arms of a friend—wanting to trust the storm, knowing I could be swept away, yet needing to be immersed in this landscape. I gave myself to Jesus, yearning for hope and meaning within and beyond the dislocations of my life. I gave myself to the lake, counting on it to still be there, still be mine, whenever I might return.
As world-in-my-pocket as the Internet can make me feel, as much as we video chat with the little cousins in Montana, we are at the other end of the earth from most of our families and history, in a land where I never imagined being. The possibility of permanence here, of citizenship, of raising our family in Australia, is full of abstract hope and a lot of longing backward to the familiar. I’m at the stage of settling where the to doesn’t yet outweigh the from, where the emotional weight of the people and places we’ve left behind are greater than our brief history here. The grief of leaving and the beginnings of belonging someplace new muddle our mostly sweet days of young familyhood. It is from Michael and me that the girls will learn about home, how to leave and how to stay. At least once a day I reel: how did we get here?
Walking uphill in the company of small children, I slowly build a catalog of physical experiences in our new town to augment my mental life elsewhere. I narrate each journey for Ingrid, drawing connections between what we see here and what we used to see, repeating the occasional word to keep her accent sounding like mine for a little while longer, reminding her that she was born in Canada. At each intersection, I remind myself to look right and keep left. And then I point out that the Norfolk pines on Parkway mean we are almost home.
The Holy Land
This baby so recently inside me will experience this landscape before she gains language, before she can identify my American accent. The eucalyptus-tinged air and the frenzied cackle of the kookaburras that I’m only beginning to habituate to belong to her native land. Her father and sister and I will give her words for the rooms we live in, names for the small paths we have learned to follow here. Past the Nesca Park palms to Darby Street to the library. To the museum, where we gaze up at a giant glowing earth globe and pause to watch it rotate. The edge of South America disappears, and then the vast blue bulk of the Pacific entirely fills the visible hemisphere. My stomach drops a little every time. It’s a long wait to see New Zealand. Finally Australia comes into view, and with it the narrow green coastal strip where we now live on this wide brown continent wrapped in thousands of miles of salt water.
When we walk to the ocean, I am preoccupied with the safety of the children, the reach of the tide, sand in our food. The sun and waves and the light on the tide pools at dusk saturate my vision with the present moment. It is only when I glance up at the horizon, punctuated by coal ships waiting to come into port, that I think about the distance across the Pacific. How one day thirteen years ago, camping on the Oregon coast, I chose to move through life with a boy from Montana.
The disenfranchised inertia of so many moves has left us with few loyalties and quiet traditions. Since becoming parents four years ago, we’ve begun observing some Jewish holidays from Michael’s childhood along with the Christian ones from mine. The handful of times we’ve celebrated Passover, we’ve concluded our meal with the exiles’ perpetual wish, “Next year in the Holy Land. Next year in Jerusalem!” But we make no plans to go there.
We worship at a place Ingrid calls surfer church, a small fellowship we were invited to by a friend of a friend from Budapest when grasping at the familiar in our first days here. The people are friendly, earnest, and occasionally barefoot. A battered red rescue surfboard hangs more prominently than the cross. We meet in a previously Catholic chapel, renting the space for a pittance through a civic scheme to keep empty or abandoned buildings in the city center occupied. The interior is finished in orange brick and a dark wood ceiling. Beside us, three glass-doored confessionals sit vacant, their signal lights long unlit. A vent of steam rises from the tea urn at the back. The praise choruses remind me of campfire songs. One night I stopped in for a meeting, and the man who sometimes makes his home in the landscaping around the church sang multiple haunting parts of what sounded like a Bach chorale from his camp beneath the poinsettia. It was the holiest moment I’ve had in months.
Our new baby bears an old Norwegian name, a name I love despite the fact that it breaks my naming principles of easy spelling and international functionality. A few weeks after giving birth to Solveig, it occurred to me why. While I want her to feel at home here as an Australian, I also want her to be foreign, like the rest of us. Ingrid has now spent half her life in Australia. She loves to float in water wings in her father’s arms at the edge of the Pacific. Nine months pregnant, I towed her around the ocean baths every afternoon for weeks, willing the baby inside me to align for a smooth birth. The weight of both of them, of all of us, lightened, even as I slowed in the water.
Alissa Herbaly Coons
Alissa Herbaly Coons holds an MFA from Seattle Pacific University, library cards from three countries, and hands when crossing the street. She blogs about her immigrant experience at startingoverdownunder.wordpress.com.