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Elan Vitae


  • Shena Driscoll Salvato


Somehow it’s the little things, the seemingly inconsequential, that highlight the differences in a starkly profound way, like a single spot searching for the actor on stage left when she waits, with hopeful patience and assurance, on stage right. Day after day, we holler a greeting, open a door, scoop out some sugar, hear the tone in our ear after we dial the phone, reach in our pocket for a handful of coins. But do we really, or are we simply actors in the world of our own routines, our muscles reacting from their own memory?

In retrospect, maybe it isn’t the actions or objects themselves that seem so altered and new, but they way we viscerally react to them, the way our human experience interprets them. Somehow the way they feel, taste, smell, sound, look, is what brings us to attention, makes us feel surprisingly unfamiliar with the otherwise familiar. How can such mundane objects and actions awaken our humanity, snap us out of our unconscious patterns?

The texture of the yogurt, the bitterness in the salad greens, the tone that sounded so different while waiting for someone on the other end to answer the phone, the simple ingenuity of the air freshener on the back of the bathroom door that sprayed each time the door opened and closed. These are the things my spotlight found when I studied abroad in college. Now, twenty-five years later, more than the famous landmarks, the stunning architecture, the timeless paintings and sculptures, the streets whose names I could speak but not read, these are the things that hold a place in my memory, these are the things that take me back to that life-altering experience in Central Europe. Perhaps it’s because all of those things that make a place famous, or sought after, or notable, are seen in the shiny pages of travel magazines, read about in the descriptions of history books. What holds a place in my memory are the discoveries that were mine alone. My muscles and senses, with no memory of them, had to wake up, become alert. I, in turn, did the same.

Upon moving to Central America several years later, different things captured my attention, but in an eerily similar way as they had before, in a different region of the world, surrounded by a different language. Living somewhere new for an extended period of time has a way of rewiring us, making us do things that don’t make sense in our previous location, especially upon our return to what we once called home. Things like instinctively throwing the toilet paper in the trashcan, checking for scorpions before donning our shoes, our clothes, or crawling in between the sheets. Looking up in response to a rustle in the trees above and expecting to see a white-faced monkey, a sloth. Telling no with a wag of the index finger. Gesturing for someone to come here by waving downward, as the other misinterprets it as a sign to go away. All of these things have grown their own muscle memory, become instinct and habit without us really noticing. But when did the shift occur? How long will it remain? Will it ever really leave us? How can it feel so natural but be so out of place at a different latitude? Perhaps it is this change in location that gives us, as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines, our freedom of action or choice.

Then there are the things that seem novel, feel fresh and new, and become the new norm. We return to our formative world and forget about them. Years later, we go back to that once-new environment, and rather than it being a shocking change, certain things greet us, like an old friend we forgot we once knew: the door lacking a knob to turn; the solid, granular, round, dark brick of sugar, tapa dulce, its weight familiar and its size just right to fit in the palms of upturned hands; hearing upe as someone approaches the door, not knocking, but singing those two joyful syllables, the stress falling on the second. Walking, walking, walking: up, down, muddy, then dry, dusty, with diesel fumes followed by a waft of strong cologne. In my life before motherhood, not knowing the word for puddle, then returning with my children, leaping over the charco in the middle of the winding road, now having a need for the word, effortlessly internalizing it through repetition, still hearing the squeak of my daughter’s shiny raincoat, feeling her tiny hand in mine and the weight of my son on my back, his baby breath on my neck. Always moving but never leaving a ten kilometer radius. How can we move so little, yet so much?

Even if the objects and ways of being aren’t so different from what we are used to, stepping away from our own space and routine for even a week has a mysterious way of stretching time, doing away with our need for as much sleep or food, creating sudden space for the things we don’t prioritize at home, but always tell ourselves we should: practicing yoga before breakfast, reading for pleasure, napping in the sun. It allows us to reexamine our our ways of being, try out things we thought we might want to change or acquire, and realize we’re quite content with the choices we’ve made, with the life we’ve created.

So what about the reentry? Why is it that the return to our previously familiar place and routine can feel more unsettling to us than the new place felt when we first arrived? Perhaps it is because we are the ones who have changed during our absence, becoming more present to our surroundings, finally paying attention to the texture of the round metal edge, the thickness of the textured surface, the sound as they strike one another in our pocket, and whether singularly or in a shiny pile, the weight of coins in our hand.


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