Sunday, June 6, 2010

Poor, huddled, and longing to be free, but never tired

Sydney to Halifax to Boston to Dallas to Houston.  Believe it or not, that used to be the best way to get here from there (these days we get to Halifax via one stop in Newark).  And twenty-four years ago today, I did it for the first time, as one of thirteen students chosen world-wide for the Lunar and Planetary Institute Summer Intern Program.

 My first impression of America was made ten minutes after stepping foot onto her soil, and it remains my overriding summation to this day.  Nervous and disoriented, I had stumbled into a restroom in an old section of Logan International Airport.  I was amazed to see REAL MARBLE surrounding the sinks.  I had never seen anything so expensive in a public john before.  Yet at the same time, the place was filthy and reeked of urine.  How could these conditions exist simultaneously?!  Such wealth yet such squalor??  "My God," I said to myself.  "America is the land of extremes."

Speaking of extremes, this next part may sound extremely flakey coming from someone who was once considered to be among the cream of the up-and-coming rocket science crop, but here it is:  the instant that Hobby Airport's double doors slid open to reveal the world that is Houston, I physically recognized it, and a years-long mystery was solved with one breath.  Nova Scotia would sometimes become very still and atypically warm in the month of August, and the air would carry a scent that resonated with me, even though I knew it wasn't originating locally.  I remember long intervals sitting on the beach staring at bizarre pink sunsets (not the usual orange ones), and wondering why this scent seemed as familiar to me as the inside of my own head.  When the doors opened at Hobby, I knew instantly that I'd found both the source and my second home.  I later came to understand how this happens:  sometimes the late-summer jet stream will develop a mid-continent paunch and the coastal rebound sends air from the Gulf of Mexico directly up the eastern seaboard. 

I really WAS smelling Houston during those contemplative times in Nova Scotia.  Why I became entangled with it before I'd ever experienced it in context will remain a mystery, but I've never found life to be quite as linear as simplistic mechanical models suggest that it should be.

Every year on this date, on which I journeyed through the biggest life-trajectory shift I ever had, I mentally retrace my entire coming-to-America story step by step.  It doesn't feel like 24 years.  It all feels like right now.

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