on the surrender of symbols


I’m coming around.

This has been hard. Harder on me than I’d expected, honestly. I expected to bounce back relatively quickly: I enjoy hotels, and after all the travel I’ve done I’m very comfortable in them. I’ve also been homeless (although not in many, many years), and I’ve traveled a great deal, so I’ve learned not to get too connected to my things. So why, I kept wondering, was I so upset over this? Why did every trip back into our house send me into a funk of hopelessness? I am not the kind of girl to surrender in a crisis.

It has taken me some time to clarify this.

I was looking over what I’d been able to take with me and trying to figure out if I needed anything else- conditioner, socks, or shirts, things like that. We all ended up needing to buy some things just to get by, and I was doing my inventory. I shouldn’t need much, I thought. I know how to get by on a very limited amount of belongings. Of course I do, because when I lived in Afghanistan I could only have what I could fit into a 10×10 plywood room.

And that’s when it hit me.

This house was really just a house until I went to Afghanistan- nothing more than an investment up to that point. Once I got to Afghanistan the house and everything surrounding it started to become a symbol of anything that wasn’t the negativity of Afghanistan. Being in Afghanistan was not a wholly negative experience, but there was so much there that was awful, and I spent so much of my time holding on to the memory of home, which over time became an increasingly abstract concept.

My house- which my family was restoring- and even Baltimore itself became symbols of any place that wasn’t being rocketed, that wasn’t a detainee internment facility, which wasn’t full of bullshit swaggering Blackwater ops who tried to impress anyone with a pair of tits by telling them about This one time, see, we were chasing a coupla hajis outside of Maidan Wardak- you know where that is, sugar? Hey, I said- what? Okay, anyway, whatever, you listening to me? So I lean outta my truck and I fire a coupla shots over this towelhead just to get his attention and hey, where the fuck are you going? I’m talking to you, bitch. Come back over here, I’m not done yet.

I would sleep in my 10×10 plywood hut with a stick next to my bunk and a map of Baltimore tacked next to my head, with pins marking all the places that mattered most: Kiddo’s school, Spinster Yarn & Fibers, my tiny old house. When A10s woke me in the night, I’d snake an arm out of the covers and up the wall to trail my fingers across the pins before I went back to sleep. When some colonel tried to bully me or my crew into something unethical, I’d calculate the time difference and imagine what the sky looked like from my bedroom window at that moment before I planted by heels and hoped for the best.

This isn’t about the house itself, or about the things inside the house. I only care deeply about roughly a suitcase- worth of objects in the house; everything else is just a matter of inconvenience. This is about the house as a symbol of safety and safe harbor. It’s about all the emotional baggage I laid on and into the house before I came home.

This about how every moment in my home since I came back has been like a prayer of gratitude.

Looking at the damage, I can see that this is something that can be fixed. The ceilings and floors of the ground level will need to be replaced, the ground floor windows will need to be replaced, the bathroom will be gutted, we will probably lose the last of the original plaster, but the house will still stand. More, the house will be improved in some ways: new paint throughout, wall repair in the kitchen. Those cracked tiles I’d been meaning to pop out in the bathroom floor? Not so much of a problem anymore.

But me- I’m stuck. There is this web of very complicated emotions that I built during a very stressful time that now only works to hold me firmly in place. There was a time when that web was all that kept me from picking up and leaving Afghanistan, from abandoning friends and my team and just giving up on this enormous thing I’d decided I needed to do: it was all that kept me together in some of the worst moments I’ve had. This thing that saved me years ago keeps me in an emotional stasis point and I’ve been numb, distant, incomplete, since the fire.

(The house is also the symbol of my shame, that I had the option to do that, to pack up and leave. The people who lived in Afghanistan, the detainees, and the military there didn’t have that choice, and that helped keep me rooted, too. There is a shame to having privilege and using it. That’s a different story, and I’ll probably never write it.)

The things that I’m holding on to are ideas that are without meaning here, that have so little application to my life here, in Baltimore, in 2011. Like so much that comes to me from that time, these feelings have no real application in my current life but they are so integral to the animal that I am now. I have idea where to put them, no easy space for them in my life, in my heart or in my head: where do they fit?

In the end, I do what I can with this one piece of it all: I release this thing. I let this go, all the built- up pressure I’ve placed on an object: no one structure could ever hold all the weight I’ve laid on my house. These things are lost, and I let them go. The work we put into restoring our home is gone. Learning to detach false emotional constructs from that work- all this baggage, all these symbols and just… just crap. It’s all too much. I had no concept how firmly I’d rooted to this idea of our home. The dreams I’ve had since the fire- reminders of my time in Afghanistan, all reminders of how I’d seen this house as an inviolable refuge- affirm my need to release this.

So this fire: awfully timed, damned inconvenient, deeply unsettling, and in the end, possibly good for me. I’m trying to look at this as one long, three- to- four month lesson in non- attachment. Perhaps I’m learning to be a girl who is good at surrender.

  One thought on “on the surrender of symbols

  1. CJ
    December 4, 2011 at 9:31 pm

    So much love for you on this journey. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from you and I’m so glad you keep sharing with us. xoxo

    • December 4, 2011 at 9:48 pm

      CJ, thank you. ❤

  2. Sarah
    December 4, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    It turns out surrender might be one of those life skills they never mention, the part where you sometimes have to let your soul be open to things passing through it, and by things I mean stuff, and people, and feelings and… that it is all so much harder than it sounds. But that surrender isn’t the same as giving up. Thinking of you at this incredibly crazy upsidedown time. I hope the processing through writing is as cathartic as it is to read.

  3. Susan
    December 4, 2011 at 11:07 pm

    I cannot imagine my world being jolted as yours has been. I am in awe watching you walk through the changes and self-discovery. I know from the depths of my soul that change is not an easy journey.

    Give yourself a long hug. ((((((Sarah))))))

  4. December 5, 2011 at 1:40 am

    This was a very powerful post. I wish you the best of luck in feeling and dealing with these complex emotions.

  5. December 5, 2011 at 9:19 am

    Sarah, you blow me away. You are an amazing woman, and i thank you for sharing this journey with us. i may be a stronger woman because of you:) Many hugs, and some dog licks and cat hair!

  6. December 8, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    Thank you.

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