Distance has been the longest-running theme in my life. I don’t look for it, but, somehow, distance manages to find me. Long-distance marriage, long-distance relationships with my extended family across continents, long-distance connection with my first language of expression and culture, and now, like many of us, socially-distant relationships with our geographically not-so distant, local friends and co-workers. It’s ironic, this necessary distance, when you elected to live an ocean away from your original place of belonging to be part of a social fabric somewhere else, somewhere far away.
But then, as August 1st chimed my 20th anniversary as a first-generation immigrant to this country, I realize how much immigration has prepared me for a socially-distant life. Immigration – even a privileged immigration like mine, from a first-world nation to another – teaches you distance. You care for a sick relative from a distance, you mourn your parents, kin, and friends from a distance, you celebrate and cheer from a distance, you love from a distance, make love from a distance, in short, you live a life defined by distance. Distance becomes one of your places of belonging, it becomes a part of your own self-expression. The perks? You can become more intentional, more generous with words and actions, a superficial relationship either goes away or turns into a more fulfilling bond. Embrace distance and it might reward you with new and renewed ties, new and old ways of being socially connected – a flower left on a door-step, an old-fashioned letter, colorful window messaging. Sure, it is not ideal, it can be frustrating as hell, it is damaging at times, traumatic even, it is messy, time consuming, yet beautifully gratifying. I would choose presence and physical interaction over distance any day, but not in times like these.
And let’s be honest, if you live at least a few miles, if not a state away from your birth place or your extended family, you’ve been living with distance all along too. As a whole, our nation has valued distance as a form of affirmation, self-fulfillment and independence, from our immigrant forefathers, the young men going West, to our college-seeking youth. Perhaps, it’s time to tally the costs and the benefits of living with the distance in our lives. Perhaps it’s time to let distance move in. And wait until virtual reality becomes part of our daily routine: Homeschooling under the ocean? Therapy on the beach? The possibilities will be tantalizingly endless.
A few months ago, before COVID-19 started spreading on our shores, my daughter was waiting for her father to come home. She woke up at dawn with a pressing question. She had heard of the Coronavirus since it was already a grim reality where her father was working. As I tucked her back into bed, she asked: “If the house caught on fire, what would you take?” Predictably, I answered: “You. I would take you. I’d make sure you’re safe. The rest… we can always re-build.” Her fingers played with Ocho, her mammoth stuffed octopus, but her demeanor was serious. She stated: “I would take the house and I would leave the fire.” I was struck by the whimsical wisdom of her five-year old perspective. I simply repeated: “You would take the house and live the fire.” “No, maman,” she insisted, as if not accustomed to the many instances of slippage caused by my accent: “I would l-e-a-v-e the fire. And I may ask a giant to carry the house, because… I’m strong but maybe not strong enough to carry the whole house by myself.” “Yes, silly me, long English “-ea:” leave. You would take the house and leave the fire. And the kind giant is a genius idea. They’re very handy movers.” I sat down next to her and started to sing her a lullaby. Smart, uncompromising little girl of mine, insisting that her world must remain whole and safe, despite the evidence of the flames. I thought to myself: that’s right, little one, go on, focus on removing yourself from danger, move on knowing that the fire exists but that you secured what will continue to shelter and sustain you as well as your loved ones. Yes, the fire got in, but you managed to move out by taking your home with you. Leaving the fire, removing what feeds the fire, means containing the fire. Keep believing in compassionate, sensible gargantuan friends. Little do you know that you are already your own giant. One day soon, you’ll be someone else’s, many times over.
As she fell asleep, I thought of the lives, the jobs, and the homes that had already been lost overseas, and the lives, the jobs, and the homes that may – and would be -- lost here and around the globe. I thought of what home would mean to my daughter in the months to come. I thought of what engineered economic, racial, and cultural distancing – estranging, really – had created in this country, and what it would mean to take the house and leave the fire as a nation. I whispered to the stuffed Octopus, believing for a moment in the magic my daughter conferred to it: “Get ready, Ocho. I’m afraid the giants around here are not thinking straight right now. Tell everyone we’re taking our home and leaving the fire.
Anne is a literary translator who teaches English and French at Indiana University South Bend. This commentary is dedicated to her mother, Geneviève Magnan, who passed away 8 years ago this week. Like the grand-daughter she never met, Geneviève was a force of nature, and an adept fire-tamer.
Music: “The Ghost of Tom Joad” by Bruce Springsteen