Writing this from the comfort of my very own living room in the quiet and unassuming village of Union Grove, Wisconsin, I am a long way from where I was before. I have left behind Ireland and the shores of Europe, traded it in for my familiar Wisconsin tundra, although one that is not oh so cold this year around.
I am an American returned to America, and for the past 16 days I've been trying to deduce exactly what that means. For so long I anticipated what coming home would mean. What kind of culture shock would I experience? What kind of things that had been safe and familiar would now look ghastly and otherworldly?
And yet, as it turns out, things have pretty much returned to the way they always were. My parents pressed and stressed from the shenanigans of the holiday season. My sister endearing, but grumpy as ever. My high school friends set off to do their own work in the world, though still all well-equipped with their various traits and quirks. Even the weather has been uncooperative, with nothing more than a mere dusting of snow falling since I've arrived and even that melted since.
No, one of the only true moments of culture shock I've born witness to since touching down in the Dairyland again has been a simple walk I took to the bank the day after I arrived. Strolling down Union Grove's small-town street, lined by wide open yards and familial two-story houses, I was hit with a feeling of inverse claustrophobia, if one can even begin to lay claim to such a thing. The absence of the tall, narrow, old-brick buildings of Dublin instilled within me an astonished feeling, like the world was suddenly all too big for myself alone. I passed no one as I walked.
Even that one, instant feeling has faded. Even that one instance, the only moment wherein I've clearly spelled out for myself, "oh boy, this is culture shock" proved far from permanent. And so here I sit, on my own living room floor, a blanket across my lap, a laptop across my knees, and all the time wondering after the point of it all.
Don't get me wrong. I didn't seek out Ireland to permanently discombobulate myself. I didn't seek out the rest of Europe to free myself from the wild and virulent unorthodoxy of America. But I had hoped (perhaps even in that rests too strong a word) that there would be a feeling of sticking, all the same. That the people, the place, the experience would adhere to me and make me…well, I don't rightfully know what exactly, but make me into the being that I would be.
With all that, I now sit here hoping a different thing entirely: I pray that I don't lose it all. Ask anyone who knows me well and they'll tell you that I can be a rather forgetful fellow. I mean well, and do try all so very hard, perhaps up there with the best of them. But forgetting birthdays, names, faces, and even simple facts like the makeup of a meal are all well within my range. Now, if it's the odd fact you want, then I make the greatest of trivia comrades, but I digress.
The truth of the matter is that I can be forgetful, and I simply don't want to forget Ireland. The pictures I snapped, the transportation I rode, the drinks I sipped, and most of all the friends I made. I don't want to cast the whole of the country and my time in it down the deep dark well of memory, never to resurface.
Of course, perhaps I am reactionary. Foolhardy. Quick to conclude that the absence of a feeling that I only think I should be feeling is anything more than happenstance or perhaps even serendipity. I can hear my steadfast Ireland friend, Jeroen, even now cautioning me to enjoy life more and fret less. All of which is fair.
Even so, I think I can hold both thoughts in my mind at the same time. I can enjoy the fruits of my time in a place so like and so unlike mine own, all the while remaining vigilant that I never forget the power of what that place taught me. Vigilance over worry is perhaps the best way to consider matters such as these.
Which is to say, as the final days of the year draw to a close, and I surround myself with family, friends, and those I love most, counting on their light to guard out the darkness of the long night, I think it is this consideration that I must keep close to my breast on the Wisconsin tundra: cherishing memory, the pain and love in kind that it hands, is vital to our existence, so long as it does not rob us of the possibility of existing at all.