Monday, April 06, 2009


Recently one late night when sweats woke me in the wee hours of the morning, I turned on the television and was fortunate to catch this interesting repeat of a lecture in which Jefferson Medical College professor Salman Akhtar discussed "The Trauma of Geophysical Dislocation".

In his lecture, Akhtar proposed that psychoanalysts need to pay special attention to their immigrant patients, suggesting that "the immigration experience creates disruptions to the waking screen that are too often ignored in therapy and that the objects and landscapes that are left behind have a more significant impact on the immigrant's psychological well being than has generally been recognized..."

Listening to the lecture, I realized that travel and/or immigration is the fine edge of a double edged sword. Part of the thrill is the adventure and opportunites of a new place, but that is also the challenge. I was quite used to thinking of the immigration experience as one with the difficulties of a new language (or as in my case, a language spoken in a different accent), new culture, new bureaucratic mazes to navigate, but had not really paid any heed to the way a new environment impacts one in the body, physically, through our senses.

Immediately, as Oprah would say, I had an "ah-Ha!" reaction. Memories of various experiences came to mind...

I am in a fine bookstore in Uxbridge, Blue Heron Books. Browsing in bookstores being a passion of mine that I simply cannot indulge in as often as I would actually like, I was having a wonderful time.

Among a gorgeous collection of coffee table books, I happened upon a book about the south of France. Flipping through its pages, drinking in the pictures of sun-baked old houses, narrow cobble-stone streets, clay pots of bright ivy-geraniums sitting on quirky, crooked steps, I turned to a photo of a small sunlit square and suddenly felt an overwhelming physical sensation of recognition wash over me, a delicious shiver that ran through my whole body!

I knew this place in my body-memory because of the light. Not that I had ever actually been to that particular village in the south of France. But my body recognized the way sunlight looks and feels in that part of the world and I could feel the memory of it through my whole body as it was awakened by that photo.

I am in an airplane circling Pearson Airport. I am coming home from a trip to Europe. It is a sunny day. The sky is blue. The sky is a particular shade of blue, a big shade of blue, very different from the sky the way I experience it in Europe. Big, spacious. An "aaaaah" shade of blue, an opening-up shade of blue.

It is raining. It is cold, the ground underfoot is muddy, sticky and the smell of it is wet mud mixed with the bitter-sweet tang of donkey and mule puckeys. The clouds are hanging low between the mountains of Ethiopia. The wind is lashing the rain down and I can see snow on the higher slopes that disappear into the clouds. I hear water running, gurgling everywhere. Veils of rain and cloud dance between the mountains.

Small houses huddle together in the rain, their interior gloom under their corrugated tin roofs a ragged shelter from the rain. The road is a wash of running mud. The high thin voices of children speaking Amharic or accented English rise into the thin mountain air and bring back swirling echoes from my memories. Thin vapours of breath mingle with currents of bitterly cold air and mist. My hands are freezing.

It is raining. The air is soft, wet, heavy and smells of green things. There's a white-ness too to the smell, like the metallic taste of snow. The clouds feel heavy, pressing against the mountains, and the mountains seem to press back. I feel small in Vancouver, pushed down by the rain, pushed down by the dark shadows of trees, the dark heavy hedges, the heavy rain, as if my feet will stick to the dark wet pavements, the spongy paths in the forests. Heavy green vines clamber up trees, pulling them downwards.

When the plane turns out over the ocean, eastward, taking me away from Vancouver, it feels like it takes a huge effort to lift ourselves out and above the arms of the mountains. Row after row of white-capped mountains reach even above the thick blanket of clouds into the blueness of the sky, reaching, reaching.

I wonder about all the fine mechanisms in our bodies that help to keep us in balance.

Closing our eyes, we still have a body-memory of the room we are sitting in, the spaces outside, the neighbor's house, the cars travelling by in the city streets, the train whistle in the dark, the returning birds announcing the arrival of spring in the lightening of dawn. Later there will be the smells of cut grass, the sound of lawnmowers, the smells of summer-time barbecues wafting on the mellow evening breezes.

How disconcerting it is to half-wake from a dream where we were in another place, in another room! It takes several moments for our bodies to find our balance again, to turn around, wobble back into alignment, aright ourselves right-side up when we drop into this place from wherever we were in our dreams.

I think gardeners remember rain in gardens most of all. An old song I heard long ago sung by Perry Como comes to mind. Just thinking about the song, I can smell roses, feel springtime rain on my eyelashes and see fat robins listening for worms in the soil! Somebody else, from another part of the world will surely have very different memories, won't they, if in fact, the song is able to speak to them at all.

No wonder being an immigrant is so unsettling!

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