On February 1, an article about Nabokov and his scientific work on butterflies appeared in the New York Times. “Nabokov inherited his passion for butterflies from his parents,” it said. “When his father was imprisoned by the Russian authorities for his political activities, the 8-year-old Vladimir brought a butterfly to his cell as a gift.” This image is powerfully moving to me. It sums up everything I feel about living overseas. Or is it everything I feel about life in general? I’m not sure which.
There’s an expression in English: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Being an ex-patriot reveals the truth of this declaration. But is this a statement about limitation or liberation? I think both.
Initially, jumping boundaries and beating the bureaucratic odds (i.e. gaining permission to stay) seems a way of exercising the freedom you feel you were born with. I’m talking about the freedom that has nothing to do with being of any nationality in particular, but which flows in your human, you-can’t-help-it veins. Why should you be contained? Why should the world not be your oyster? Why shouldn’t you use your limited time on this earth to find out what it’s like to leave your mess in different corners of it? Or, as was my case: Why shouldn’t you be able to follow love wherever it leads? Doesn’t love write its own permission slip?
At first, you feel frighteningly free. Too free. You fly away from yourself, like the Village of Cream Puffs in Carl Sandburg’s story “How They Bring Back the Village of Cream Puffs When the Wind Blows It Away” from Rootabaga Stories (1922). When the wind plays rough, it blows this little village off the prairie into the sky. The village would be completely lost, if not for a thread that keeps it tethered, even when it’s been blown past the sunset, to its prairie home. This thread is wound around a spool in the town square, and when the wind stops blowing, the people of the village wind the thread back around the spool, bringing themselves and their town back down to earth.
This is how being an ex-patriot has been for me. The wind is the experience of living a far-flung life. My self is the prairie with its infinite number of roots pulling down and just as many growing things reaching up. And the work that’s required to become myself no matter where I am is that arduous task of re-winding my thread. The whole lot is attached to a world spinning in space. So anything is possible.
Some people don’t want to re-wind their threads. They keep moving around the globe from one exotic spot to another. When they inevitably bump into the truth that they haven’t changed one bit in Bali or Uganda or Tierra del Fuego, they look for another place to go and be.
To put it all another way, being yourself is a sort of prison. There’s no escaping it. No door. No window. No key. But learning who you are, letting your geographical location (be it your birthplace or the other side of the moon) shed light on who you are, and allowing yourself to be that person, must be the greatest freedom on earth. So geography becomes a tool. Your prison becomes your amazing flying machine. Your swaddling clothes become your wings. And you become you.
At least this is what I believe. And hope.
NOTES: The original illustrations for “How They Bring Back the Village of Cream Puffs When the Wind Blows It Away” are by Maud and Miska Petersham. My thanks to Ann Moore for copy-editing this post.