When I began telling my classmates in New Jersey that I was moving to Arkansas, the general sentiment was that I was moving a very long distance away. This was certainly true, and probably on more levels than our junior high hearts realized. However, after being asked a few times just how cold it got in the winter, it became apparent that idea of distance was distorted by mistaking Arkansas for Alaska (when you live just a few hours from four of the biggest cities in the country, it's easy to confine everyone else to the geographical periphery...just ask Texans and Californians).
This specter of distance has haunted me since the day I stepped off a plane in Little Rock, Arkansas and had to call it home. As time has gone on and I've grown from a clueless adolescent to an equally clueless young adult, distance has intruded upon every aspect of life and left me just as bewildered as in those first dizzying days of reconciling myself to leaving a home, a life, behind. It has seemingly made everything tangential and derivative. Distance has become the measure of things.
I live in Portland, Oregon. Most days, it is absolutely glorious. The people, the landscape, the energy - they sometimes intertwine in harmony so breathtaking that it reeks of contrivance. But it's just Portland.
Other days, I am reminded of just how far are the places from which I've come. Memories of New Jersey have been rewritten so elaborately that the seams between fact and fiction are impossible to detect. On a spring break roadtrip during my senior year of college, I drove back to visit friends in Princeton. Driving around one day while they were in class, I found myself at a vaguely familiar intersection. I began turning, half from memory and half from instinct, until I found myself in my old neighborhood. At my old school. In front of my old house.
It was bizarre. Everything was smaller and dingier than I remembered it. Yet, I knew those streets. I grew up with those streets, those playgrounds, those comic book stores. I've never felt so distant from reality as I did parked in front of my old house, peering wistfully at the screened porch, waiting for young Ramón to bang out the door to the sidewalk and turn up the corner at Homan toward George's house. I wanted to ask him, "What happened to you?"
I was a stranger in front of the very places where my memories are staged. My self. My history. How can I be a stranger to my own history? A stranger to myself? These are the types of questions that have driven me to write self-absorbed pseudophilosophy or check into an unreflective stimulus response life driven by appetite. Once in those places, I often despair of ever getting out.
I think about the distance between people too. I grew up around my dad's family in New York, and while the roots of familial love are thick, there is no denying the distance between me and my cousins. Our lives have gone on without each other for 15 years now, with sporadic appearances at weddings and funerals. They all have memories together - watching the new generation of cousins growing up and watching the titis and tíos growing older. Each time we see each other again, the love is deeper but the relationship is thinner. I don't understand it.
Most of my dearest friends, those whose history with me is gritty and unpolished, live far away. Because my rootlessness has attracted me to other wanderers, some of them have begun what seems to be a mass migration to the far flung corners of the globe. As I find my life switching tracks from that international train, the geography between us becomes reflective of deeper estrangements.
Don't even get me started on graduate degrees, careers, houses, marriage, and kids. In my less rational moments, it seems that they have been building their dream lives while I have been caught snoring in the bleachers. A weary, uninspired spectator.
But this is no game. A good friend and coworker at Starbucks would sometimes playfully ask, "Ramón, what are we doing here?!" It was funny in the way that only those piercing truths can be funny - two educated men nearing thirty, pouring lattes and eating shit with a smile for any asshole customer who can pay 50 cents for a coffee refill. In that interaction, the distance between a person and an object can be measured in the negligent toss of a credit card toward a stained green apron behind an infinitely wide counter. He and I can't even joke about it anymore. It's not funny anymore.
Something is at stake in bridging the distance between people. By indulging in my little outburst of profanity above, I have succumbed to the same vampire detachment that bit me at work. Now I am objectifying a living, breathing person. Now I am the one biting.
There are two people in my life with whom I'd like to be closer, but it feels like they are pulling me in with one arm and pushing me away with the other. I only know this feeling because I am quite adept at the maneuver. Even recently, there are people I have invited into my life only to become emotionally withdrawn.
What a mess! I feel hurt and rejected by the ones pushing me away so I withdraw from the others and feel detached and lonely. What gives? Why am I letting myself become controlled by pain and the fear of pain? I know these lessons, we've been over this before. What are we doing here?!
I remember the feeling of utter isolation I had when I discovered that we don't actually see or touch anything. "It's all electrons," I was told. What I "see" is the brain's reception of light particles bouncing off of objects. Of people. What I "feel" is the force of electrons repelling each other as they grow nearer. I almost cried thinking that I had neither seen nor touched any of the people I loved most. They had neither seen nor touched me.
I cursed electrons. After all, these were ludicrously tiny particles standing between me and the reality of my loved ones. But, ah, the paradox! It was my electron-laden neurons that carried the signal to my brain that I was seeing and feeling. What good is getting to the reality of things if I am trapped inside my body? If I am only electrons?
There is some thing between us that is both much smaller and much more vast than negative particles. Distance seems too limiting a description, and yet it fails to convey the mind-boggling expanse. I am trying to wrestle with this paradox and I am losing. I'm not sure I would want to win if I could.
I often struggle to find meaning in a holiday season so entangled with consumerism, and so it is almost by surprise that tomorrow is Christmas Eve. This year I think meaning has found me.
In my faith tradition, the accompanying story is one of displacement, hardship, and labor. An impoverished Jewish peasant couple scandalized by premarital pregnancy scour the periphery of the Roman Empire for a resting place, any place, to begin the hard work of bringing forth new life.
Babies are born every day, and it is never easy. But according to the story, something more was born in Judea that night. Wrapped in swaddling cloth was the wailing confession of the measurable and the ineffable.
We are not self-contained objects, isolated from one another. We are not far removed from reality. What has seemed so far has been revealed to have always been near. Love is born in that revelation, and love beckons to us who are far off -- we who feel hurt, rejected, withdrawn, and afraid.
To us love whispers, "Draw near."