The Sunday Rumpus Essay: The Weightless Nomad


I’ve always felt profoundly ambivalent about photographs. As an adolescent I refused to take them, consumed by the notion that whatever was being captured was patently fake. I barely have any photographs from high school or college either. I remember visiting friends’ homes and being obsessed by wedding photos and family albums out in the open for everyone to see. I felt shy peeling through these images, slightly embarrassed by the normality of every day life–how everyone had these same strange, awkward images of growing up, as opposed to the glossy, beautiful images found in magazines.

We live in a moment where images fill our lives in more obvious ways than words. Every day we scroll through Tumblrs, memes and gifs, a parade of images as completely absorbing as it is mind numbing. We spend less time looking closely at individual images than we do being catapulted into a constant sea of them–from bland advertisements to brazen pornography to family pictures.

Growing up, my home was filled with ghosts: family members I never met who died in the Holocaust and the ghostly relics of the physical items left in Cuba when my family emigrated to the U.S. in the late 60s. My mother talks about the past as if it were the present and always argued that this was normal for refugees, how you never let go of something that formative, that painful. I refused to believe her, and so while my mother saved and scrapbooked and routinely brought up stories from growing up in Havana, I got rid of everything I could. I like the feeling of lightness that comes from throwing out a bunch of unnecessary items, just like I liked the feeling of emptiness that came after not eating very much for a few days. You feel dizzy with possibility, light and unencumbered. You feel like you are moving forward in time, unbound to any temporal, physical thing. Of course to live like this is unsustainable–the anorexic lives in the shadows of her selfhood; the weightless nomad just coasts along the skin of the earth, looking for a place to call home.  These are the choices of youth, not adulthood. These are the love songs for children who are lost.

In yoga class, in preparation for the winter solstice, the instructor tells us to take some time to “clean house”. “ Not the physical house,” the yoga instructor says earnestly, as if none of us understood the insight she was getting at “but the metaphorical house. Your self. Your soul.” The metaphor is unsettling to me, mostly because I hate house metaphors, have always hated house and home metaphors since I was a little girl listening to my mother mooning over home magazines or baby pictures. Houses don’t feel safe and warm and fuzzy for me, the way I am sure they feel to some people. Houses are gutted, haunted things, heavy relics that I’d rather sell, than clean out and rebuild.

My grandparents were both packrats in the U.S., after losing everything from Cuba. Their apartment was cluttered and heavy, but there were large swaths of their life for which they literally had nothing to show for but their stories. On their gravestones in Maryland, you can see the trajectory their lives took, from Poland to Cuba to New York to DC, and this movement says a lot and also very little to an outside observer. What’s a life except in details? What’s an experience without someone to remember it? When I first started my MFA program in 2006 my entire family said I needed to write about my family’s experience as refugees, but I always resisted. I dealt with the gaps of history differently than my mother, who just never got rid of anything. Rather than recreate the past, I loved to pretend that I was free from any history, that every place I went to and experience I had was a reinvention so complete, I had no need for my past self. I grew nauseous when my mother brought up old stories and photos from my childhood. I wanted a life free of attachment. For me, photos were always about the weight of a world you were always on the brink of losing.

When my boyfriend and I first met, he showed me all these wonderful photos from his travels, and while I gently chided him for his sentimentality, I felt deeply sad that I didn’t have the breadth of photos from my life to show him. I’ve often traveled places and had experiences where I haven’t bothered to take a single photo–camel riding in Israel, sunbathing in Miami, watching the skyline in Lisbon. These images and memories are imbedded in me, but don’t have any physical proof that these are experiences I actually had.

The digital world we live in is all about carving a visible identity and the more immersed we are in the culture of visible memory the sadder I am that have spent years of my life not chronicling things. I have a single folder of cards and photos from high school and college, and I have a box of other mementos–ticket stubs, drawings, poems, letters, post-its, photographs and love notes that I’ve collected since then.  When my ex and I split up he told me to keep two little stuffed animals–a monkey and snow leopard cub–that we had bought for each other independently, but that we had always kept on the bed together. When I look at these little animals I am struck at how much they tell about our relationship and how little they ultimately tell also. It’s a sentimental thing, specific from my past, but it only contains a tiny glimpse of the time we spent together and our eventual decline. At first I hated gaining custody of these things, because it felt like a constant reminder of failure, but over time I started feeling more affectionately towards the gesture. At the end of a story, no matter how painfully it ends, what you want to be left with is kindness, a reminder that what ended needed to end, but a reminder that what ended somehow, in an essential way, mattered.

My mother still hasn’t sorted through her mother’s things, from when she died nearly three years ago. I don’t know what I will do when my mother dies. I don’t like to think about it, and the older I get the less I like to think about it. My mother deals by not disturbing the ghosts of things that are already gone and I deal with pain by throwing everything away, as if I have all this sentimental shit figured out or something, but in reality I’m the one who comes home over holidays and pours over the things my mother keeps. In reality I’m the one who always cries at the end of things–movies, relationships, family drama.  Often I even start to tear up in yoga class when we are instructed to put one hand on our heart and the other hand on that hand so that we can feel the way the body pulses, how much there is inside us, how much we feel, but never see.

A recent study suggested that trauma could be passed through generations. Researchers taught a first generation of mice to fear the scent of cherry blossoms by administering shocks to their tiny feet. The next generation of mice, having never been directly exposed to this same situation, was born instinctively manifesting fear when encountering this scent. When you are raised in a family of refugees everything that is gone reminds you of loss. Some of this is learned behavior I’m sure, but some of it feels instinctual, a sickness of the heart. I’m sure some people look at pictures and mementos from the past as evidence that the self persists through time, but that’s not what I see when I see a photograph. Every memory of joy is coupled with a strong sense of grief.

This is my most direct connection to my ancestors and my most vivid understanding of what it means to be a child of refugees–that at a primal level, I don’t feel safe. If throughout my life, I’ve been a risk taker, I have also been a bridge burner, and the reason for that has less to do with dispassion for my experiences than genuine heartbreak at the fact that the things we love are so easily destroyed and taken away. It can be unbearable for me to see them. It can be unbearable for me to turn the other way.

The older I get the more important I think chronicling our stories is, but the further I push into the digital age, the more this collection of images seems increasingly pointless and ephemeral. News articles are interspersed with ads and silly memes. We are taught to tear up at a touching story, and then quickly turn the page to something more amusing and fun. We live in an age when images fly by and nothing is supposed to haunt us. An Upworthy article is a distraction. I forget tons of things I’ve shared and things I’ve “liked.” The past is a soundbite. The future is a pulse I’m still trying to learn the rhythm to.

Before my grandfather died I stumbled upon a series of drawings from his youth, figures and landscapes under the clutter of a million other things. There were these beautiful drawings on yellowed paper–figures of men and women I’m not sure he remembered drawing. I’m glad I found them. My grandfather would pace the streets of whatever city he lived, collecting whatever he might find- pencils, buttons, a lost piece of jewelry found on the sidewalk- and bringing these items home, as if all these things would inevitably add up to something.

This past summer my boyfriend and I vacationed in Washington state. We found these meticulously crafted copper coin necklaces and he bought me my favorite-a tiny dollop of metal with a small robot gazing up into the twee horizon at two stars.

little robot necklace

It was everything I loved about the world captured on metal and I wore it proudly everywhere I went until one day, just a few weeks after we got back, I came home and found that it had fallen off. I ransacked my room, peeking under the bed and pillows and I spent hours walking downtown, trying to find this tiny glistening thing, all to no avail.

The loss seemed severe, profound and irretrievable and I didn’t want to tell my boyfriend. But eventually he asked and I had to confess that I had no idea where my jewelry went, that I had been careless with a thing that meant the world to me and now after retracing my steps I had come up empty all over again.

“Don’t worry,” he said gently, embracing me. “We’ll get a new necklace. We’ll make new memories.”

Arielle Bernstein's writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the Guardian, Salon, The Rumpus, and AV Club. She teaches writing at American University and is working on both a novel and memoir. More from this author →