Leaving (and almost leaving)

by Rishidev Chaudhuri


It's impossible for me Pents10to leave a place well. I used to think that I was merely bad at logistics and planning (and I am), but I manage to conspire against myself with such sinister competence that this explanation no longer seems viable. As the time to leave approaches my consciousness starts to fragment, and I become exhausted and flee into sleep. I wait too long to do things, unable to act unless I have killed my inertia with drink or other confusion, or distracted myself sufficiently that anything I do is useless. I spend hours on minutiae, reorganizing my book collection and cataloguing my kitchen equipment; they're happy hours, once I forget why I'm doing it.

Perhaps it's that leaving is quite obviously a rehearsal for death, disrupting even the faint illusions of permanence that spatial and environmental contiguity offer us. So is everything, if we have learned to listen to the philosophers and to live well, but of course we have not learned to listen and who has the time to rehearse for death these days?

I have trouble even with leaving hotel rooms and getting off of airplanes. I'm haunted by the sense that I've left traces of my self behind. Maybe in the shape of things: do I have my keys? has my wallet finalized the escape it has been plotting all these years? Perhaps these things I've left are important and their absence will make the self who leaves unviable. Eventually I get frustrated and resentful of the unreasonable claims of that future self but by then it is too late: I am nearly that future self and the instincts of self-preservation take over.


With leaving comes the return of beginner's mind, that flush of seeing things fresh as you did when you first arrived, of being once again surprised at the particularity of things, troubled by their contingency and delighted by the odd way the fragments of a world fit together (Louis Macneice's delightful “drunkeness of things being various”). As everyone knows by now, the only time it is truly possible to appreciate anything is when you are faced with its transience and, by then, it is too late and the moments are inextricably entangled with the melancholy of their endings. Sometimes, though, the melancholy parts to reveal intimations of an exuberant noonday joy, as when the sun stands still and makes the world bright and shimmering for a few moments before it begins to fall towards the horizon.


There's a particular tarot card I'm intrigued with, showing an old man on the sidelines of a domestic tableau. A couple stands at the entrance to what might be a house, talking. A child with them peers curiously at the old man, as do two slim dogs, one sitting and the other standing.

Like many tarot cards, this one almost successfully eludes the imagination and, each time the imagination catches up, it changes and means something else entirely. Many interpretations see wealth and riches here, and the old man as a patriarch, but this is certainly wrong. The old man is obviously peripheral, one of those marginalia that drift in and out of symbolic vocabularies (appearing in pictures and plays like the jottings of distracted academics on the edges of books), having already left or just about to leave, sitting and thinking, watched by children and dogs while everyone else is transacting business.


Being new here I am free, finally. I am looking in through windows, because I do not have other places to be and I do not have a window of my own to look out of. I walk past a series of urban reproductions, people carefully arranged in the business of living, organized so as to educate me in how to be in this new place. The city is long and low and the sky is bigger than usual. It is green, it is not dry but the plants of the desert are here (they must like the heat) and I try to feel the world as they do, to bask in the sunshine that threatens to split my spine, to be secretive with my water. I look around and notice the things that I will not notice soon (the angles at which people approach the street, early morning sounds); I try to list them in my head and run out of room, and as I list them I stop noticing them and feel a brief moment of relief. I am starting to adapt. By now I imagine that the cacti don't notice the heat either.


The memories are already beginning to fade. I remember only vaguely the last place I lived, mostly facts rather than emotional textures or spiritual resonances. And, the facts themselves are elusive; when pinned down they emerge as false or inconsistent or, worse, meaningless without the substrate necessary to render them intelligible. And meanwhile the world around becomes ever more solid, losing the fingerprints of transience and history so that I barely remember what it was like to be new here, for things to not have always been the case, for me to have lived elsewhere or to have seen things differently. The self gets stretched to breaking point, creature of the pure present, unified with past experiences by the accidents of continuous space and time that seem ever more like metafictional constructs. Those experiences must have happened to someone else. I read about them in my journals, curious, sometimes excitedly waiting for a resolution, sometimes with detached academic interest. I'm still afraid of dying though, and even of leaving again, despite the fact that it will be someone else who leaves and, hopefully, someone else who dies.