Friday, October 26, 2012

"BETWIXT AND BETWEEN":THE EXPAT'S "HOME AWAY FROM HOME" ?



The Dean of my residential college is a man of many parts--adviser, psychologist, teacher, wordsmith, disciplinarian, but mostly philosopher. During any given year, four hundred students look to him for whatever they are missing from home. Every Sunday night, he sends something he modestly calls "Notes and News," whose ostensible purpose is to forecast events and opportunities. But the highlight is always a thoughtful essay about how to live.

On the cusp of returning to my academic home, I am thinking about an idea he brought up in last week's message:the concept of the liminal zone--the place where both expats and college students dwell, perhaps without even realizing it.

"Liminal zone" is a fancy term for being poised on a threshold--neither here, nor there. As someone who has given her heart to more than one country, I like to think I know something about that.

France started off as the love of my life. I teach her language and literature, and when I first lived there during my junior year abroad, I felt sure I had found my spiritual home.

Flash foreword some forty years. Approaching retirement and having brought back to life a ruin, I have found a new home in Italy.

When I started this blog, the blurb after the title started out like this :"I feel like a traitor to France." Although that felt like a true statement, my husband suggested I not use it, so it has just remained in the back of my mind.

Since unexpectedly finding expat friends in the local community, (who knew they were here?), I see that these are brave people who seized the chance for a fresh start. I am trying to do the same.

How many times have I said some version of "if I only knew then what I know now..."?

What would the end of that sentence be?

To be an expat in Italy is giving me a chance to find out.
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MORE ABOUT LIMINAL ZONES

At the risk of being confusing by including someone else’s words in this posting, I am going to quote an excerpt from the Dean’s Notes that inspired what I wrote above.

NOTES FROM THE DEAN

At this time of year, I note several kinds of light.  It seems to me the slant of the midday light gets harder as the days shorten. The early morning light seems a thin diaphanous light that barely disguises the coming of cooler days.  The sunsets we can see as we descend science hill are fall's translucent clouds that reveal an indirect light.  Less apparent is that slant of light occasionally reflected onto our upper courtyard from the golden skyscraper behind our residential college -- a light both in and out of place.  Such varieties of natural light limn our daily selves and our comings and our goings.

Yesterday I felt the sun on my face and the slightly cooler air, too.  I felt a hint, alas, of the approaching cool of fall in the air.  This time is a transitional time, a between-time of the remembered and the anticipated.  The coming and the going are simultaneous.  Maybe all times are between-times, transitional.  We may have that sense as we pass from task to task, from day to night and back again. We need our marks of beginnings and endings, no doubt, but I like to think we also sense our place in nature's time passing, this season marked by the cool air and the warm sun on our faces.  Things are not quite what they used to be and yet not quite what they will become.  Now well into our term, almost half way, some of us, perhaps, may also feel we have begun before we feel we are quite ready. 

October can be a wonderful month once we accept its mix of the past and the future.  That mix can be as comfortable and uncomfortable as the rise and fall of our own lives can be sometimes.  As a reminder, you may look up to see the October sunsets of bright yellows and smooth washy blues….  And soon there will be the frost's beauty, all the more so because it is ephemeral.  It comes and it goes, but it is pleasing while it lasts.  It is pleasing like that ephemeral pleasure of the warm sun and cool air on our faces.  Transitions are all about the ephemeral.
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OF COURSE I HAD TO WRITE BACK…

Dear Best Dean,
I recognize that I often have occasion to say this to you, but this one REALLY "speaks" to me, poised as I am between two cultures, and about to set one aside for another. Liminal zones: my son once talked about what a great topic that would be for study. I think he was thinking art historically, perhaps about spaces like porches and thresholds that are neither here nor there. 

I grew up in a place like that, the fittingly named, "Middletown," of which there are so many listings in the Atlas. And now I continue to grow up in middle-of-nowhere Italy, which I like a whole lot better.

You are making me think about how our academic calendar and college life are full of opportunities to reflect on liminality. Yet with its predictable deadlines and reassuring regularity, college life (regardless of which side of the desk one is on) gives a good name to the liminal zone. That may not be readily apparent to our anxious students who jump from one crisis to another, rarely taking the long view. But your weekly Notes give us all a way to see the patterns--a thread that is there for the taking as we wind our way through the labyrinth.

See you around the courtyard, beginning November 1.--best, d
PS: Poet Emily Dickinson, who knew a thing or two about liminal zones would surely have liked the way you made that "certain slant of light" your own.

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AND NOW, HERE COMES A LITTLE CODA TO WHAT HAS PRECEDED. ALTHOUGH  ACTUALLY WRITTEN BEFORE ANY OF THE REST OF THIS POST, IT HAS BEEN LOOKING FOR A HOME:

Umbria is about to change her clothes, and for the first time, I am being allowed to watch. It is only fitting, since we are now on intimate terms.

I THOUGHT THOSE LINES WOULD HAVE BEEN THE BEGINNING OF SOMETHING, RATHER THAN AN ADDENDUM, BUT SINCE WE HAVE BEEN TALKING ABOUT FEELING BETWIXT AND BETWEEN, MAYBE THE ORDER DOESN’T MATTER. THE DEAN WROTE BACK TO SAY HE LIKED MY EXTENDED CONCEPT OF “MIDDLETOWN—WHERE EACH OF US IS FROM, PERHAPS.”
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SPOKEN LIKE A TRUE EXPAT?










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