Thursday, August 27, 2009

On Longing

Sometimes you fall in love with a person. Sometimes with a book or a film. So why can't you fall in love with a place? Why can't you want to go back to a place as much as you want to return to, say, a lover you met on spring break, a casual encounter you had in some funky beach town.

Certainly when I was younger, I had those kinds of longings, but now what I am really wanting, desiring, missing is that little fishing village where we spent a couple weeks this summer in Spain. What is it about a place? What is it about a person? Love, someone once said, is a minor form of madness. Obsession, after all (and this is just me talking), is a kind of repetition compulsion like washing your hands all the time.

I recall that once I was in a very dysfunctional relationship and all I could do was think of that person with every waking breath. I recall that at some point I began to be able to say to myself I haven't thought of him in twenty minutes, in half an hour. And so on. It was how I cured myself of smoking as well. Well, now I can't stop thinking about San Sebastian. The physical beauty, the liveliness, the sea, the families lingering in their walks, the ice cream that dripped down everyone's wrists, the pinxtos (tapas) bars everywhere, walks along the river, the tankers bound for Kazakstan that sailed past the window of the house where we were staying.

How could I not fall in love and then into a state of longing? But then a couple weeks ago a strange thing occurred. We had been back from Spain for, oh a week or so, and we flew to Chicago where I am from. As we drove into the city and up to the lake, I realized that it looked just like San Sebastian, another city that borders the sea. In fact the similarity nearly floored me.

I read somewhere that we tend to live in places that remind us of where we felt safe as children. So somehow something about San Sebastian brought me home. Goethe once wrote that writers are homesick people. That we are searching for a place where we are home in the world. I never went back to Chicago, not to live anyway, but to visit. But I found a piece of it this summer in Spain. Perhaps writers are just nomads, finding stories, like small oases, wherever we land. Hold on to your hunger, a fellow writer once said to me. It is your greatest asset. And longing is a hunger too.

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