Existential Split

On feeling the pull of home

Linh Nguyen/Flickr
Linh Nguyen/Flickr

By the time I arrived this week on the campus of Bard College in upstate New York, where I’ll be teaching through October, I’d spent several soothingly familiar and yet deeply disorienting days crashing at a friend’s apartment in Long Island City, Queens (not far from the Brooklyn neighborhood where I once lived and made of my most formative memories), as well as one night at my parents’ house in New Jersey. I don’t know if I will ever acclimate to the incessant pull of home, the almost physical need to return sometimes, or to the even more powerful ache of parting from my wife and children when I do leave Paris. I’ve come to accept that a certain unavoidable duality is now a permanent aspect of my condition—an existential split that I imagine any immigrant must experience. But the realization alone doesn’t make it easier.

As Milton warned us, “The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” Life is what one makes of it, and most of the time I feel all the richer for possessing two continents, two countries, two families, two homes. Sometimes, though, when I consider the lives of others—of friends and acquaintances and, most of all, of the hordes of seemingly unperturbed strangers who, having never left home, have never been forced to choose one—I wonder what I am missing.

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Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. He lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.


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