Wednesday, November 28, 2018

To Look for America

"Jo in Wyoming, Painting" Edward Hopper, 1946

[This is a repost of a personal essay that was first posted on February 6, 2013.]

In 1981, I had just moved to London from Scotland to take up my first job after graduating from university. One February day, I went to an Edward Hopper exhibition at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank and I found myself standing in front of the picture above. The image was like an electric shock to my hippocampus – suddenly I was once again looking through the eyes of my six-year-old self. For the first years of my life, I’d seen the world from the cave-like interior of a big old American-made car just like the one in Hopper’s painting. That steering wheel planted like a tree in that mahogany dashboard, the window cranks, the couch-like seatback separating me from my parents in front – it was all as familiar as if it were playing on a monitor in my brain instead on a canvas on a wall.
Of course this was before a great big ship, its hull rising sheer from the dockside as we boarded in New York harbor, took me away from everything I’d known. As the Queen Elizabeth I sailed slowly across the vast blank of the Atlantic, it could not have been clearer to me that my old life was gone for good. If the ocean was five whole days wide, how would I ever be able to find my own way home?
So it was not surprising that I took some time to adjust to my new country. The words “uprooted” and “transplanted” were exactly how it felt to be pulled up from the comfortable soil and exposed to a new earth and a new light, with no guarantee I would thrive. Never a particularly nervous child before, I became clingy and wouldn’t let my mother out of my sight. I started sleep-walking and, worst of all I had a recurring dream from which I’d wake screaming in terror.

In the dream, I was in the back seat of that car, my father at the wheel and my mother beside him, when suddenly with no warning at all, they both evaporated, leaving me utterly alone in the car as it continued on its relentless way through time and space.    

But the nightmares faded, and life in rural Scotland became the new reality. Glimpses of America on TV or in photographs would stir something primordial in me – a yellow school bus, a fire hydrant, a billboard along a highway. And then there was music. Simon and Garfunkel singing, “‘Kathy, I'm lost,’ I said, though I knew she was sleeping, ‘I'm empty and aching and I don't know why,’ Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, They've all gone to look for America.” And Joni Mitchell, the eternal traveller, singing, I pulled into the Cactus Tree Motel, To shower off the dust, And I slept on the strange pillows of my wanderlust, I dreamed of 747s, Over geometric farms, Dreams, Amelia, dreams and false alarms.”

And when I read John Updike’s story collection, Pigeon Feathers, yet more inchoate images surfaced like some deep water fish –

“The windshield wipers beat, and the wonderland lights of the Newark refineries were swollen and broken like bubbles by the raindrops on the side windows. For a dozen seconds a solemn cross of colored stars was suspended stiffly in the upper part of the windshield; an airplane above me was coming in to land.”
Even as I read the passage, I already knew how it felt to be inside that Hopper-like car with the wipers creaking as the rain lashed down on the New Jersey turnpike. I'd already been there.  

And then came the day when I stood in front of that Hopper painting and saw again with the eyes of my American childhood. By that time, I was in my early 20s, and the country had taken on the quality of a myth, rooted in early 1960s Technicolor. A Camelot of the brain, a conglomeration of other people’s visions and stories. I had been back to the US once – a month-long odyssey into my past in New Jersey and Pittsburgh and then onto pastures new in San Francisco – but an idea had seeded within me that I needed to go back for longer.

A few years later, I made it happen. I only planned to stay for a year, but as of last August 2, I have been here for a quarter of a century. Once more, my world was cut in half, and there are times when I think that my bifurcated life has left me permanently wounded, neither here nor there nor anywhere in between. Though I feel at home in both my countries, wherever I am, I’m always homesick for something or someone.

But then another memory surfaces, a very early one, of being with my parents in the parking lot of a roadside diner somewhere in America on a fresh sunny morning. I remember looking up at the diner’s roof and seeing the Stars and Stripes snapping against a blue, blue sky and knew beyond a doubt that there was nothing better in the world than that sense of possibility before you set off on a journey, even when you have no idea of what is ahead of you or when, if ever, you’ll arrive.   

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