Nightwalk and Terra Incognita

Late in the evening on New Year’s Day I was angling to go out and look at the moon. We used to be able to see the sky more clearly before huge chunks of our neighborhood were annexed by the city and summarily saddled with streetlights. But there is still one little stretch at the end of our street that has escaped this fate, at least thus far.

Mom proposed that we go out for a nightwalk. Nightwalk. All one word, and when it stands alone, it requires no article, no determination of its definite or indefinite status. I was a bit resistant at first- a quick peep was more what I had in mind, since it was so fiercely cold (by which I mean about 30 degrees. Cold for this city). Mom was undeterred and proffered some huge coats we have hiding in the closet under the stairs. I went along.

One of those coats was mine. I hadn’t worn it in years- it was my Russia coat. I pulled it off the hanger and dragged it (it’s at least as long as I am) into Mom’s room to put it on. I laid my hands on it to turn it over and just stood there, staring at my fingertips resting lightly on its silky surface, feeling the thickness of its memories, instantaneously transmitted to my body.

I remember so sharply that winter before I left for Russia. How we pored over boots and guidebooks, scarves and socks. But choosing my coat was the most important mission. We finally found it in a Land’s End catalog: a long quilted down sleeping bag of a coat, full of pockets on the outside and inside (perfect for stashing your leather gloves and your tram fare), with a hood that zipped off (for those magical days when the sky might deign to hover somewhere above +10 degrees Celsius), and, most importantly, black as midnight, so as not to announce me as some kind of naïve rainbow bright foreigner.

I remember the day it came in the mail, how I skipped back into the house to open the box. I threw the coat on over some little dress I was wearing and ran out into the January cold. Духовка. The Oven. That’s what I called that coat, it was so deliciously warm. I wore it almost every single day I was in Russia, the few exceptions being a handful of days in May when I could get away with wearing its younger cousin, a down vest I lovingly referred to as Микровальновка, The Microwave.

Touching it, running my fingers over my coat that night transformed me, even if just for a moment, into the woman that I was then, exactly seven years ago. I remembered the elation of exploring St. Petersburg in that coat, the only light for its winter darkness the tiny sugar grains of snow caught in the yellow glow of the streetlights, preserved in perfect silence. It might have been the first time I ever fell in love, and it was certainly the first and only time I have ever fallen in love with a city. It’s a different kind of love, that, one that doesn’t leave any room for insecurities or rejection- you are simply there, you love, and the city itself is tangible evidence of its love in return, always surprising you with exquisite tokens of undying affection: the bells at Alexander Nevsky Monastery, translucent curtains on the windows of the trams (lovingly installed by the ticket-collectors who make it their home), the bustle and vibrant colors of the Kuznechny Market, where you’d never know you were in the grip of a Russian winter, and where blood-stained butchers never fail to call you over to choose from among their pink and marbled wares: “Hey beautiful, don’t walk away!”

This is the woman I held in my hands when I pulled my coat out of the closet that night. I’ve wondered sometimes, as I’ve grown older and my heart has turned more toward home, where she has gone. Is it that my delusions of invincibility have slowly faded away? I’d still like to think of myself as a fairly adventurous person, but I don’t feel the same tug east (or north, or south, or west, for that matter) that I used to. I’ve not been to Russia in almost six years, have not left this country in four, and I think that’s something this earlier self of mine would have had some trouble with.

It’s not that the prospect of exploring terra incognita doesn’t still make my heart skip a beat, or that I wouldn’t love to return to the place that literally made me weep for joy for weeks after I’d arrived (every night: my journal and my tears), and then made me weep weeks in advance over the prospect of leaving it. It’s just, I suppose, that my terra incognita finds itself here now; it’s something that I explore, that I see with fresh eyes, every day, and something that fills my heart so completely.

It’s not so much the space itself, but the fact that everything is new when I see it with Eric. What makes me weep for joy now is not the memory of those first euphoric days in Russia, when I’d periodically pause to consult a map and recall with glee that I was literally on the other side of the earth, but instead the life that we have built together, the adventures we’ve crafted together, the conversations that we share, the myriad of fascinating things that we are constantly learning from and about each other, the hours we’ve spent laughing and loving one another: these are my Nevsky Prospect, my Dostoevsky Museum, my tram tickets shoved into the pockets of my coat–my terra incognita.

A Non-Ironic Zone

I suppose it is an expected thing, insofar as it is a trope inherent to the genre, to provide some kind of programmatic statement in the first official post of a blog. Some intrepid writers may place it in the “about” section, to be sure, but as you can see, I prefer to eschew this practice in favor of long literary quotes instead.

However, reader with whom I am forging a contract, I shan’t let you down.

I have been thinking that it’s time I create some kind of non-ironic personal zone. It’s not that I find myself so pervasively ridden by irony, and it’s not that my relationships, both personal and professional, are founded upon it. In fact, it’s a bit hard for me to think of someone with whom that is the case.

This has more to do with irony and writing: namely, that I need a space in which I am not afraid to be wholly non-ironic, not afraid to feel what I feel, to fear what I fear, to examine freely all of the different selves in me with complete emotional generosity. The idea, then, is to write honestly about the things and the people that I love, about the experiences and the history that make me who I am.

You can’t help but notice, attentive reader, that this blog is beginning just as the year is ending. Is this some kind of ambitious New Years’s resolution? No. In the first place, I like to think that time is more fluid than that sort of institution implies, and that you can make a new year begin whenever you’d like it to. But aside from my own temporal proclivities, the truth of the matter is that the issue at hand is quite tangibly upon me. I am at home, in the place where I did some pretty substantial growing up, with the only people who knew me when I was as I was, who knew me before I knew myself, and who know me still. This experience, combined with some spatial distance from the life I have built for myself elsewhere and the work that usually keeps me occupied, has left me feeling closer to the person I believe I am.

What exactly is that supposed to mean? It means, at least at this moment, that I can perceive some synthesis of my selves- they are circling me like translucent slips of paper in muted tones, which, when they inevitably intersect, create rich slivers of color. Look: there is the me that is a writer and a photographer, there is the me that is a girlfriend (now a wife!) and a daughter and a sister, there is the me that is writing a dissertation on something that even I will admit is at least moderately esoteric, but which is nonetheless very important to me.

I’m aware more than ever these days of the amalgamations that make up each one of us- we are all shaped by the books we’ve read, the ideas we’ve birthed, the places we’ve lived, the friends who have given us comfort and company. By my calculation, each one of us becomes more markedly unique with every moment that passes, with every breath of air that moves through our lungs. We forge and chisel our identities with every decision that we make, with every thought that we harbor. We clear a discrete and wholly individual path for ourselves with every beat of our hearts. So here are some stones I’ve gathered, some tree bark patterns I’ve traced, some leaves I’ve brushed up against as I’ve made my way.

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