July 14, 2020

For Those that Feel Imprisoned By the Travel Bans

         I was born clutching a globe as I exited my mother’s womb. I yearned to cross borders as soon as I learned they existed. When I studied the history of my globe, I dreamed of tracing ancient Persian culture without the Ayatollah’s dogmatism, and strolling the literary streets of St. Petersburg without an iron curtain in the way. I was skeptical of American exceptionalism by the time I reached my teens, so I left home to see what my globe could teach me, eventually landing in both Iran and Russia. When people asked where I was from, I said enigmatically: “I’m a citizen of the world,” tucking my tell-tale blue passport inside a book of French poems. I lived as if I were the subject of Baudelaire’s poem “The Stranger,” for when they tried confining me to one country, I said, “I’m an anti-nationalist.” I moved across the globe as if its entirety was my homeland from Kyoto to Ushuaia until mid-2019.

We all have our pre-COVID 19 narratives. Mine involved a baby in an altruistic gestational carrier’s womb. When I was living in Geneva, Switzerland last year—where surrogacy is illegal—I prepared to nest in the United States with my newborn. Little did I know that the term nesting would transform into less comforting verbs like quarantining and locking down, but I tried to appease my wanderlust first, since nesting did not come instinctually.

To bid Europe what I thought was a temporary farewell, I ran through the Italian Alps on a solo hiking trip in the sublime Dolomites. I bade adieu to my adopted family in Southwest France before a final farewell in Paris, where I had lived for several years in my youth. I lunched with old friends in restaurants where waiters poured fennel froth on my roasted sea bass, and sprinkled it with lavender. In the library of the Ritz, looking upon Proust’s portrait, I finished the last draft of a memoir I was writing about my recovery from Lyme in Siberia. Finally, I returned to the United States never leaving our nest, months before Corona erased our cherished quotidian lives.

By late February, after many months of bonding with my tiny family member, I choreographed short flights from the nest. The blank pages of my day timer filled with writing conferences in Geneva, a birthday dinner in Gramercy Park, and a series of weddings in Europe that would take me to Ireland, Italy, and beyond until the last days of 2020. But by the end of my first adventure—a module for teaching advanced meditation that I attended at Kripalu Center for Yoga in Stockbridge, Massachusetts—I was catapulted into a new world on March 15th that robbed me of the globe I had clutched since birth. 

 “But I have been in lockdown for months already,” I cried out to friends over Zoom. By May, all weddings were cancelled, and my novel writing retreat went two-dimensional; my fellow writers squeezed into tiny boxes on my laptop screen. There was no exit in sight. 

By late June, when Europe closed its borders to the United States indefinitely, I realized that my pre-lockdown of 2019 had become a meta-lockdown, that I would be imprisoned in the one country where I did not want to be. The one country where the virus had gone viral. Where people protested the wearing of masks when they should have been joining the great protest against racial injustice. Where people licked toilets in ignorant defiance only to contract the virus that claimed victims on an increasingly arbitrary basis. Where the purported leader proclaimed that the United States had the best testing system in the world, but that more testing produced more cases. “American Exceptionalism Exposed,” I whispered to my old globe, nostalgic for its three-dimensionality. 

When the virus ran as rampantly in the United States as California wildfires do in August, with 60,000 daily cases becoming normative, I realized I could still travel through the world of poetry. I turned to Baudelaire. Reciting the lines of “The Swan” in French with my eyes closed, I sought refuge. “Paris changes, but my melancholy hasn’t moved…My cherished memories are heavier than stones…I think of whoever has lost that which can never be found.” Although Baudelaire was writing about missing old Parisian landmarks as the city gentrified, his mourning that produced a Freudian melancholia mirrored the state of my heart. I had lost my New York, my Paris, my Europe. I had a useless passport, as if during quarantine, the United States had lost its privileges. I became an unhuggable two-dimensional frame on my laptop to commiserate with friends, family, and fellow writers. I lay awake worrying what would happen: to the children and teachers if they were forced to attend school in precarious conditions, to all those that had lost their livelihoods and homes, to the families that lost their beloved to COVID-19, and to those being killed for the color of their skin. I futilely yearned to be elsewhere. But they couldn’t take my Baudelaire away.

Caged as I feel, the elusive voyage lives in the imagination. Thanks to the words of my old friends like Baudelaire, Akhmatova, and Hafiz, and thanks to the words I am clumsily writing today, in the midst of a maelstrom. Collectively grounded, there are gifts for us to receive in spite of the incertitude. I hear the muse clearly when it speaks to me now; it helped me micro-edit an entire novel during the initial months of quarantine. I hear the poetic silence in a sky without jets, a sky that has cleared as we reduce our carbon footprints, and I hear whispers of hope. I imagine a future where we weave parts of our pre-COVID selves into our new identities shaped by resilience, fortitude, and a sense of global accountability that we carry on our travels.