Much of my life has been spent in fleeing uncomfortable situations, relationships, and places. The idea of flight, moving, traveling is a theme that girds my years. I traveled to survive, to escape, to see different horizons, to keep a promise.
The first type of flight was paper and printed word bound together in pages stitched together with glue. In short, a book. I was an early reader or so I thought. At five I was reading on my own and English words that seemed a bit odd went unchecked in pronunciation as I wasn’t reading them aloud. This led to an embarrassing moment when I pointed to a photograph of an island and told my mother that it was a beautiful ees-land. The book was easy to carry, always within reach and filled with people, places, things that carried me far away. Reading was valued in my family. No one checked my books and they all admired how reassuringly quiet and obedient I was while chaos, sometimes thunderous, surrounded me. My parents arguing or my father raging at somebody was relieved that I showed little emotion except to tiptoe around the battlefield, so to speak.
In my late teens, I went away from home in Kolkata, India, to join the university in the capital, New Delhi. There I found a form of flight that was both escape from and also toward something. Toward ideas. Entering an air-conditioned darkened auditorium, often when the noonday sun was at its brightest, and easing myself into a padded movie-theater seat. I didn’t need surround-sound or 70-mm projections. Black and white, 35-mm, with people speaking languages I didn’t understand but read in translated captions, were invitations to universes that told stories about people. The book was where words worked hard to conjure up, in my mind, what a place, person, or situation looked and felt like while the medium — -the structure of the book — -was linear, in a straight line, top to bottom of page and then repeat and repeat. In the films, my mind became elastic as scenes were not explicit and I had to make up my own version of what the filmmaker was conveying to me. On film, in the movies, the storytelling often rested on how the author wanted the audience to experience “ the words” — — here called scenes. The language of movies was not just words spoken by actors only but also through the way the author, the director, wanted us, the audience, to experience it. The screen went black, the screen was split in two, words and sounds scrolled across the screen, the camera jumped, speeded up, crept behind you or in front of you, turned a sharp corner and scenes sent you dizzyingly into the future or the past. These were called “flashbacks” or “fast forwards.” The lighting was bright and airy, dark and brooding, signaling joy or impending doom. The language of film had established a grammar, rules that worked within the medium. I discovered the French New Wave, the Czech animators, the Polish realists, the German existentialists, the Italian Neorealists, the British noir films, Indian lyricists, anything that didn’t follow the blockbuster Hollywood format was a revelation. Films such as Ray’s Apu trilogy, so atmospheric, otherworldly, yet also earthy and Rohmer’s exhaustingly argued My Night at Maud’s were markers for expansive horizons. I found another highway to traverse.
When I was in my thirties, both my parents died within a span of five years. They’d remained in my hometown. I had left home when I was seventeen and gone away to college and then upon graduation went even farther away from home, to the U.S. which is approximately 8,000 miles from where my parents lived. Their deaths made inescapable what had been a profound impact on my life and thinking. Memory, never linear but glances and peeks into crevices and corners, filtered through guilt, shame, tears, love and pride. Often that flight is not planned; it oozes into my consciousness, sometimes warmly and invitingly and sometimes as chilly as a dip in a sparkling but near-frozen stream in the western Maine woods.
Not all flights are escapes from somewhere. Some are toward something . . . in the future.
The lanes of cars are uniformly, methodically moving upstream alongside the Hudson River. It’s still light and the air is fall-brisk, the clouds tinged with the showy colors of the setting sun. It’s Friday evening. A weekend on the horizon. I’m headed out of New York City, aiming north toward Connecticut and then Massachusetts, finally Boston. In the seat behind me is my son, age two and a half, in a car seat, with a board book about dinosaurs and a couple of hard-plastic figures, the rage of the under six crowd at that time — -The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. My son’s favorites are clutched in both his hands, Donatello, the tech nerd with a purple mask and a staff and Michelangelo, the party dude with orange mask and nunchucks (kids aged 2 knew about nunchucks?!). A sippy-cup with orange juice rests next to his left thigh on the car seat. He’s content. I glance at him often in the rearview mirror. “We’ll be at Danbury for dinner in one hour” I say enthusiastically, hoping that the Friday night commuters won’t prove me wrong. I turn on the evening news. Always NPR. I roll down my window, rest my arm on the window and say “I love you!” “Love you”, he replies. He starts dreaming, I bet, of French fries, and Big Macs at Danbury and then frozen yogurt at the rest stop just as we enter the Mass Pike. We’ll reach Boston by nine and I’ll carry him from the car, where he’s fallen asleep in his car seat, to his bed with bottom drawers, three floors walk-up in a triple-decker on the “Line,” Beacon Street dividing Cambridge and Somerville.
I’d done the five-hour drive that morning, so I could pick him up from his playgroup and then drive the five to six hours back that same day. I’ll repeat that on Sunday, Every other weekend. For nine years. We came to know our favorite exits and the food we’d get and the many routes in and out of the enormous city on the East Coast and the significance of Framingham on the Mass Pike when I was gunning to get home to Boston.