The hardest thing, those first days back, was trying to silence the voice in my head. No, not those voices – my voice. I’d spent the entire summer at Pole finding ways to explain what I’d seen, what I’d felt, that the narration had become a heartbeat for me. Stories, as Barbara Fittipaldi says, are things we tell ourselves to make sense of the facts we see, and I’d been making sense of my frozen, otherworldly world by telling the stories to myself, and to anyone who happened to stumble across the blog.
But then, there I was, standing in the Christchurch botanical gardens my first day. The gardens are a ritual in sensory overload for folks coming off the ice – the overwhelming, buzzing roar of cicadas, the green, the green and the verdant green above, below and around me, mind-blowingly vivid, reaching out impossibly and engulfing, like overdone special effects on a bad 3D movie during an acid trip.
The sensation was, in short, everything I’d been told to expect from the exercise. But in the middle of it all, I heard the voice. It was my voice, calmly turning over phrases, trying out metaphors for the cicadas – “a roaring coliseum” perhaps? – cutting and pasting sensations, searching for how to best capture the sensations and turn it into a narrative I would use to explain to my friends, to myself, what I was experiencing here.
No. Stop. This didn’t need to be a story. I’d poured myself out on the page for four months, and I’d said I was done, at least for a little while. For now, there was no story – there was just “now”. I had promised I would just be in the moment, let the sensations pour over me, immerse me, and wash away like the rain. Yes – that’s a good way of putting it… no, I was narrating again!
It was insidious, and maddening. Everywhere I went – swirling in midnight noise and bustle off Litchfield Alley, up on a cloud-crashing windblown sea of wildgrass above Akaroa, or in the hallowed dewdrop stillness of the rose garden in a morning drizzle – the voice came at me, whispering in my ear the words that I should use to capture this moment, to encircle it and pin it to the page for others to see.
But I’d promised myself: no more stories for now, the world, and all it showed me, was catch-and-release – I wasn’t taking any trophies home to put on my literary mantle. And day by day, it did get a little easier. The voice was there, but less insistent. I scarcely had to turn on it and it would back off, chastened: “Yes, I know, I know – sorry.”
Of course, then came the earthquake, and everyone wanted to know where we were. As we ducked our way southbound out of the damage area I posted those little updates from my phone – “Yeah, we’re fine. Heading to Queenstown”, and the like, but that wasn’t really “writing” in my mind. And bit by bit, herding family, catching planes, and diving back into the craziness of my so-called day job, I managed to lose that voice in the roar of traffic, the chatter of down-the-hall co-workers and general hum of daily life.
It’s now been a month since that last post. In some ways, nothing has happened. I got home, sat down at my desk, and went back to work. In other ways, though, it’s been a crazy swirl of time. The re-entry was harder than I’d expected. No, not the warmth, and trees and cars and bugs thing – that was entertaining for a day or so, but passed quickly.
The real challenge was people. All of a sudden I was hypersensitive to people. People I didn’t know talking to/at me always seemed to be standing too close, too loud. And they were everywhere. And when I tried to talk to them – I was either too loud, or too brusque; I either talked too much or not nearly enough. It was as though I’d forgotten how it was supposed to be done.
I suppose some of it could be explained in terms of habituation. I’d spent the past three months in the close company of about two hundred people. We each saw each other almost every day. I got to know what each of them looked like, sounded like and what they were up to. After a few weeks, there wasn’t much mental overhead needed to keep track of it all. I guess your brain gets lazy quickly under circumstances like this – starts reallocating resources to other stuff (“sniff…. Is that bacon?!?”).
Then, getting dumped back into a world where you see thousands of people each day, most of whom you don’t know, and half of whom want to ask “So, how was the North Pole?” takes whatever part of your brain that has gotten flabby and kicks it upstairs like the drill sergeant in “Full Metal Jacket”.
So – some quick summary bits:
Our Stuff in CHCH. No, we still have no idea whether the stuff we lost in CHCH will be recovered, and we have no idea when we will have an idea. It’s all still perched on the 20th floor of the Grand Chancellor, which continues to lean ominously over the central business district. They’re trying to decide whether to implode the building in one big “boom” (not good for our stuff), or to try disassembling it piece by piece (perhaps hopeful for our stuff).
We’ve replaced the computers and lots of the daily necessities already. It’s the little irreplaceable things that still tickle at the back of my mind: all my photos, a little baggie of keepsake souvenirs from the Pole. My passport – a mere 7 days after finally stamping out the 7th continent.
But now? Eh – it’s a little Buddhist lesson on impermanence, nothing more.
Work. Yeah, I’m back at Google, spending my days talking with heads of different projects, still trying to figure out what to work on next. Getting a lot of flattering courtship and attention. Think I’ve settled on one project, a short one with DotOrg, to help me get my head in the game and figure out how I can contribute longer term.
Loose ends. Gave a tech talk at Google last week on my Pole experiences; I think it went pretty well. Managed to put all the short films from SPIFF 2011 up on the web (except for Nate Hendler’s – he thought it would be a little too context sensitive, and asked that it not go up. Yeah, my directorial debut – filmed mine in about four hours and spent two nights editing it. Was more fun than I expected.
Anything else? Sure, undoubtedly. But later. For now, I just wanted to say “hi” and let you know I was still around.