Airports and luggage and jetlag. Halting, stilted conversations with family members. Presents for people – your siblings, nieces, nephews – you hardly know.
There will be rewards, too. The food, the smells – they are part of you, a part you had lost. Your mother’s light, frail embrace. The breakfasts she will make for you: greasy fried eggs, rye toast, as though you were not able to make breakfast yourself and she were not eighty-one years old. Your grand-niece, the tiniest member of the family, whom you will hold in your arms.
You have been in exile. You left them physically three decades ago or more, when you left for college, that incredible rupture, that train ride to Nova Scotia to the ends of the earth, or so it seemed at the time. You left them a little bit more as you grew into being an artist, though not the kind of artist your father had been. Conceptual, avant-garde, post-modern: you learnt a new language they’d never be able to speak.
And then, you, the naïve girl with long hair she sometimes wore in braids around her head, like a Ukrainian hippie girl – you met a species of woman you’d never known existed. Assertive, defiant, funny. Sensual, soft, and tough. You joined their collectives, went to their rituals and celebrations. More new words: patriarchy, sexism, empowerment. Your life changed, beyond recognition.
That was twenty-five years ago. The languages you’ve learnt have changed, adapted, become smarter and more ironic. You don’t make conceptual art anymore. You’ve had to figure out ways to make your words and images reach larger audiences. You had to change, too.
But they have changed very little, it seems, and so, you are still in exile. Your mother, for all that age and resignation and mourning have softened her, will never utter your lover’s name, even if she is sitting in the same room. Your siblings will rarely ask about your life, even though it has become almost as conventional as theirs. You will speak of some things – being a professor, the sales of your last book – and not of others. You will always be speaking out of turn, without being asked. The conversation will focus on tropical holidays, the children’s dance performances, the owning of homes, the selling of cars.
You have been in exile. Although you were never banished, not really.
You will give presents. You will kiss cheeks old and young. You will make a dish for Christmas dinner, The Guitar Player’s root vegetable puree. You will make do, and your mother’s tentative pleasure will be its own reward.
So many of us are dealing with exile at this time of year. Some will emerge, others not. Some will find that easier or more difficult than others.
Christmas. It’s a queer thing.
May its fleeting, beautiful moments (holding that baby, getting together with queer friends before or after, skating with your lover, being at home alone and enjoying it) shine bright.