All contents © 2008 Philip Semanchuk.
Our social solar system diminishes by a count of one. After a year in Stockholm, our dear friend Philippe moves back to France tomorrow. It has been eleven years since I've had such close friends and might be eleven more before I am similarly blessed. So raise a glass, everyone! Moments like this don't come along too often.
And raise a glass we did. There were eighteen of us at last night's going-away party, and eight nationalities among us. With all those foreigners, the inevitability of separation is obvious. Sooner or later, somebody's gotta go.
Philippe and I had a long walk together last week, just he and I. In the looming shadow of his departure our conversation was subsumed by cautious references to The Big Picture. In some ways, I told him, I am envious of him, the one who is leaving. Why? He has been here for a year, unemployed for half of it. Economic ennui is what forces him home. He must leave a city which he likes very much, lots of friends and a broken-hearted girlfriend. So of what am I envious? Well, he and I agreed that, all other things being equal, it is better to leave than to be left. Even under the worst of circumstances is leaving unmistakably progress. Under the best conditions it is a cause for celebration. Being left, on the other hand, can feel like being cast into a deep, black pit.
We agreed that it is possible to avoid being left by ensuring that you always leave first. Pull up stakes at the first sign of trouble, keep a bag packed, sleep with your boots on and never look back. Your life partner must be someone much younger than you and you must consume nothing but coffee, whiskey, cigarettes and marbled red meat to ensure that even in death you will be the first out the door. So to speak. We also agreed that this is no way to live life.
Yet I have left jobs, people, bad habits, my country and a surprising number of memorable cats. Why have I found it so easy so often?
Imagine yourself looking out across a dashboard, America's common altar. You feel in control of your destiny. For the sake of creating dramatic tension, we will ignore the fact that you are actually at the mercy of fan belts and spark plugs. We will ignore the fact that you and all your possessions -- the complete sum of your physical existence -- fit snugly within the confines of a ragged Oldsmobile.
Ignore all of this and buckle your seat belt because when you turn that ignition key, fan belts and spark plugs willing, a world of possibilities will erupt before you. Each will tempt and dazzle in different ways. Two roads will diverge in a wood and you will feel carbonated with the possibilities. Deliver yourself into the benevolent hands of chance; point your great gleaming white Shark into the foaming surf and surge forward to a new life.
My first car was a white 1973 Oldsmobile Toronado which I christened The Sharkmobile (long before I read Hunter S. Thompson's Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas in which a similar apellation appears). The car and I were a good match. We were both close to twenty years old, and conceived in a time of automotive excess, before Arab Oil Embargoes, before the advent of common sense. It was nineteen feet long and probably still is, still poisoning the soil of some North Carolina junkyard with toxins leaking from rusty internal organs. I recall a photograph of it from its better days. It was parked beneath a palm tree in front of my sister's house in Folly Beach, South Carolina with the Atlantic Ocean sparkling in the background. During Hurricane Hugo in 1989 that same ocean strode ashore and claimed the photo, the tree, and very nearly the house.
In that marvelous car I passed dangerous moments on interstate highways with my mind clouded by the carbonation of possibility and my eyes clouded by tears (for it is not only those left behind who ache). I have had moments of quick epiphany at 75 MPH, the gray concrete interstate rushing beneath me transformed into a road up a mountain with a guru on top. I have turned I-95 into a church, something which it is definitely not. For Philippe, it will be the E4 and the Øresund Bridge instead of I-95, but the opportunity is the same.
The experience is grand but it is possible to get too much of a good thing: rootless and jumpy is no way to live. I know this is on Philippe's mind. Moving is not without cost. A cost payable on departure of broken hearts, both the one you take with you and the ones you leave behind. Some species of sharks must move constantly in order to breathe. My voice dictation software, perhaps somehow conscious of my efforts to shy away from a destiny of restlessness, transcribes Philip Semanchuk as Philip A Man Shark. Thus am I doomed to roam the seas, tail thrashing in angry frustration as I look for a means to rest. I sleep with my boots on; my destiny ends up in control of me.
One can count one's leavings and being lefts like dried peas distributed on a balance beam scale. But life is a continuous series of leavings, peas spilling over the edges, of comings and goings that are sometimes expected, sometimes significant, and sometimes not. The sudden death of a loved one, a casual acquaintance whose path never crosses yours again, the stranger you brush by on the Tunnelbana, she's getting off and you're getting on. I take the Tunnelbana every day and I can tell you that there's no better place than the subway to sit still and watch the coming and the going and the leavers taking leave of the leavees. Someday, inevitably, we all take a turn.
I salute you, Philippe, and all of our foreign friends for having the courage to pack their bags in the first place. After all, it was moving that got us together. Hearts broken, eyes clouded, glasses raised, singing out of tune, we come and we go. And we would not trade it for anything.