September 11th, 2014
I long for the smell of hot asphalt in the rain.
The buzz of cicadas on a stifling summer afternoon. The sound of a squirrel darting up a tree, the way his claws sound on bark and his weight makes the leaves above shimmer. I miss the mountains, their gradations of blue. The way they appear on the horizon, gradually, and they fade in colour the further away they are. So the closest one is green, and then behind a dark blue, and then lightening shades of blue as they blend into the sky.
I have been missing Virginia since returning back to Sydney, a longing that has only just begun to dampen with the arrival of the southern hemisphere spring.
Thinking about the nature of longing I have been reading Rebecca Solnit, a memoir/essay and environmental writer. She writes in her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost about how she has always been moved by the “blue at the far edge of what can be seen”. She calls it the “color where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains”.
From this distance I miss the fecundity. How in summer, in Virginia, everything grows. It is hot and wet and the soil is black humus. Beside the highway and the grocery store grow blackberries, wineberries, wild blueberries, huckleberries. The red berries stain your fingers and the corners of your mouth. The way rhododendrons grow dense and thick around creeks and the sound of water against tree root and rocks.
I miss the flash of red when a cardinal flies past. The way after it rains all the worms become stranded on sidewalks and shrivel up and die when the puddles disappear.
The turtle in the middle of the road, how when you pick him up his tough claws and long wrinkled neck eventually emerge. The hooded eye, black, and blinking: oblivious to how narrowly he escaped death.
The longing sits like a child on my chest as I leave. It is the green beyond the rain streaking the car window as we drive to the airport. The smell of Tide still on my clothes long after I’ve left. The way my mother’s house smells – of detergent and onions and rooms that need to be aired. Of damp wool that has dried in closets, mothballs when you open the lid of a chest. It is her standing at the stove, making pancakes for her grandchildren or heaving baskets of folded laundry up from the basement.
It is the laughter of old friends, when you can say anything that comes into your head and silence is as comfortable as conversation. A friend’s face as familiar as my own yet with new lines beside her eyes when she smiles.
It is years of absence bridged with words, with laughter and the touch of a hand. Not knowing when but that I must come back, that I hold the place close, like a grasshopper cupped in my palms. I feel its vitality and don’t wish to let it go. Yet there is some joy in opening my hands – in watching the grasshopper leap.
Solnit writes: “We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire, though it often is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing.”
I know that my memories are condensed by distance. They become steeped with longing, tannic and thick. Would I take these things for granted if not for my absence? Would I merely replace my longing with that of a different place?
Solnit again: “For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged by acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond. Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take a huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories. Something is always far away.”
Now, I’m not suggesting that – like the mountains – my family and friends in the US look lovelier from a distance. But that the time spent among them is more precious perhaps because of it’s rarity, because it is not of the everyday. Thank goodness for writers like Solnit, and books like A Field Guide to Getting Lost.