Almost a month has passed since arriving to Chicago. I am wrestling with the fact that numerous realities can exist at the same time and that I cannot live in both. While I am here, my puffy, black-gloved fingers rifling through my bag for my CTA bus transfer card, the Wayuu women in La Guajira continue crocheting multicolored bags; the unforgiving desert sun baking their skin. Choosing one reality does not cancel out the existence nor the option of another. What do I have by being here? What do I not have? By eating an apple, I am choosing to not eat an orange. By the same token, by living somewhere different, I am agreeing to this unspoken contract of memory: in learning street names in Chicago I am forgetting the best route to the fish market in Bogotá. Brains make executive decisions every day to replace old memories with new, more pertinent ones. In particular, this is how my brain works and it tends to happen quickly: is this a learned, survival tactic? To adapt to a fault? By being present in a new space and learning new things, I am consequently letting other things go. I am the snake constantly shedding its old skin, unable to let it go; trying to make a nest of the dead fibers.
When I open my mouth to speak and feel the instinctual Spanish somersaulting up my throat and across my tongue, I know the past three years were real; that they are still part of my present-day reality. But for how long? How long still I stop thinking in Spanish altogether? How long til I forget what the woman at the bakery looks like? Or the smell of the rose garden in my apartment complex? In my brain, when memories become fuzzy, they often seem more and more dream-like and I begin to wonder if the experience ever happened at all. Was I really in the Amazon a month ago; in a place where my skin was not dry and cracking, where my glasses fogged up just walking outside?
The thought of these memories slipping away from me makes me sick. I still have so many experiences I haven´t yet made sense of. I wake up in the morning and Colombia feels like that dream that becomes more and more difficult to recall as reality sets in; yet, I feel so convinced that there is truth there; that I need to submerge my head back into my pillow, into the dissipating smoke; that I need to remember.
How do I not only hold onto these memories, to continue learning from them and feeling warmth from them, without walking around like I am still in the desert? I am trying to exist on two planes at the same time; trying to be present and make plans in Chicago while cuddling up to the warmth and revelations I found while in Colombia. How does one make room for it all? I´ve been sketching out the framework for a fictional story in my mind for the past three years: it´s about someone who becomes so consumed by his dreams and the answers he believes they have for him that he loses his grasp on reality. Isn´t it ironic that this figment of my imagination would now become my own warning?
There is a scene in the Colombian movie, ¨El Abrazo de La Serpiente,¨ in which a German ethnographer travels through the Amazon in search of a cure for a disease he has. He spends the majority of the movie hauling around these suitcases of field notes as his health and strength wanes. I am fearful that by losing these memories of Colombia—or, in turn, by not clinging to them—I will not only lose what I´ve seen, but reminders of what I´ve done; of who I´ve become and all the evidence to validate that. However, I am also fearful that by holding on to all this luggage, I will only become weighed down and gradually lose the ability to move forward.
The choice of holding on to the past may not even be mine, here, in this land that demands attention. Right now, the United States is a rickety boat, collecting water: it can barely bear its own baggage let alone mine. Some days, instead of focusing on the advantages of both countries, I can only see their heaviness; focus on all the ways I feel powerless to help; all the planes of existence I have seen and not made a difference in.
Arms, heart, mind, tears: all full. I recognize that I cannot collect more until I release something. Which? Perhaps by letting go the guilt of not being able to do it all, I might gain the permission to do the best I can. Maybe. For now, I pin my dead skin to my bulletin board; wonder if I can knit it into a sweater; wonder if cloaking myself in the past will someday keep me warm.