Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Going Home

It’s my last morning in Antarctica, and I’m trying to find some way to say my goodbyes to this place. I’ll be leaving on a C17 this afternoon, and will be seeing the night sky for the first time since the beginning of October. It feels like winter is coming; for the last week or so, the sun has almost been setting, and there’s a quality to the light that makes everything seem partially cloaked in fog. The temperature has dipped back down below zero, and for the last two and a half weeks, I’ve been hiking the Observation Hill loop almost every day to watch the sea ice change.

Some part of me has been craving the presence of a concrete point to measure myself against, and so I’ve taken on this little route as a sort of reflective pilgrimage. The solitary hour that it takes me to walk it each day has helped provide a sense of bearing in the middle of the chaos of leaving. I have been watching the ice turn to ocean, and back to ice again, observing the idiosyncrasies of its tides as it drifts by like strangely geometric clouds.

Once we finally started seeing open water, whales started appearing, and usually on my hikes I’ll see handfuls of them surface in the melt pools. Their spouting sounds like the hydraulics of some vastly echoing factory floor, and it’s hard to believe that the origin is organic rather than mechanical. There is something utterly surreal in the way the noise travels across the surface of the fractured ice.

For all my wry observations about the social dynamics down here, I have been hugely moved by the physical beauty of this place. It’s something I don’t write about very often because I imagine it’s implicit in everything I say. Last week I read Nicholas Johnson’s “Big Dead Place,” a book that talks about Antarctica with the frank and disenchanted cynicism of someone who has been driven half mad by the bureaucracy. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to know what it actually feels like to live in McMurdo. There’s a portion in the book where Johnson talks about the descriptions of Antarctica that actually make it to the outside world:

“Describing American journalists who cover presidential campaigns, Joan Didion wrote that ‘They are willing, in exchange for “access,” to transmit the images their sources wish transmitted.’ Similarly, we read in the paper that science in Antarctica is the end rather than the means, and because of this generous pursuit, everything, very soon, is going to be even better than it is now. When the NSF sponsored journalists step from the plane, Antarctica’s beauty speaks for itself, and the psychedelic vastness hobbles the critical faculties. Their stories recount the ‘howling wilderness’ and the ‘gale force winds’ on ‘the highest, driest, coldest’ and most ‘desolate’ continent, which is ‘pristine’ and ‘remote’ and ‘isolated.’
‘I just got back from Antarctica,’ they’re saying.
We are like a broken record still playing classic hits from the days of Captain Cook and Columbus. The reported particulars are not always untrue, but the consensus fellowship of professional journalism keeps things simple and catchy, so that Antarctica always brims with scientists and researchers just as wooded clumps next to the freeway brim with wildlife.”

I wanted to come down here because I was fascinated by the obsolescence of the untamed frontier. The romanticized myth of Antarctica exists only because there are so few of us who come down here to contradict it. And perhaps it’s a myth we prefer to maintain. Any information from this place leaves the continent in a protracted game of telephone, and by the time it reaches a venue for public consumption, it has all been distilled to science and penguins and glaciers. And it is hard to explain the reality of this place to people who have grown up believing in the myth. Sometimes it’s just easier to say, “Yup, there are penguins.”

The remarkable science and the extraordinary people are down here, but they are rare islands scattered against what is ultimately a backdrop of gross inefficiency and the utter breakdown of all communication, neatly wrapped up in a dominant culture of hard partying and mindless consumption.

And while that sounds like a scathing denunciation, I don’t mean it as one. In spite of the rant that I just went on, I love this place. And a huge part of why I love it is precisely because of its flaws and contradictions, the sheer impossibility of its existence. This is a place where everyone is still really excited about getting to take part in Black Friday holiday sales via internet shopping, where packages of new clothes and shiny electronic toys arrive from Amazon on military transport planes. Where stiletto heels rotate through skua, and TV’s are left on 24 hours a day. Where people are constantly passing through a haze of being actively drunk, or hungover before becoming drunk again. 

McMurdo is set up to encourage mindlessness, and the experience of being down here is certainly easier if you just allow yourself to check out and run with it. But my fascination is such that I have felt an obligation to try to document the stories of this place. So I stepped back and decided that my real job down here was to be McMurdo’s resident sociologist cartoonist.

And as such, it has been a rewarding but lonely handful of months: I have been an observer of this community rather than a full-fledged participant. People talk about how it’s impossible to find time to be alone down here, but I have had entirely the opposite experience. I feel like I have engaged with this place, but with very few of the people in it. And again, that’s something I’m ultimately grateful for. Back home I tend to be a complete social butterfly. Down here, I have made very few friends, but I have a great deal of faith in those friendships that I have formed.

The loneliness has been good for me. This has been a year of isolation, and I have essentially spent it meditating. And the bulk of my meditation has focused on the notion of home.

My mom was born in China and came to the United States for college, and my dad grew up in England and eventually made his way to the US by way of Canada. I’m embarrassingly hazy on some of the details, and there’s a part of me that likes to keep it that way so that there is nothing to contradict my romanticized notions of flight and migration. I like to imagine that my parents left their homes following the vague call of some compelling wanderlust, and that they drifted gradually West until they reached the boundary of the Pacific ocean, and stopped.

In my imaginary recountings, I wonder if, in reaching the ocean, they found something large enough to hold them, that they were able to feel some sense of genuine home when faced with the vastness of the water. Or if it was that they had been traveling for so long that they were too tired to cross another unknown ocean. More likely still is that these narratives are just stories that I tell myself, and their settling happened in the natural way of most life decisions: it grew up around them, weaving them in with vines of circumstance until it simply became the reality of their lives. 

But the stories that I choose to invent are ultimately just the underpinnings of the same set of facts, and they do not change the sketch of my upbringing. I grew up in Northern California in a tiny town of 350 people, the daughter of two immigrants whose long journeys finally came to rest along a beautiful stretch of coastline peppered with miles of trails and quiet woodlands.

I always felt out of place in the town itself, and it has never been home to me. But I loved the hills, and I did find home in the sensation of walking. I spent my days out roaming with my reading material and sketchbook, idly trailing my hands against the bark of madrones and listening to the shingled clink of fields of dry grass. Home, to me, has always been the sensation of peaceful momentum.

But the flip side of feeling at home while in motion is that I have never been able to feel at home while still. Over the years, I often wondered if there was a part of me that was missing, if I was constitutionally incapable of feeling the sense of home that, for most everyone else I knew, was implicit. Home was not something I was ever given; it was an abstraction I needed to chase.

When I stop to look back on everything that has happened in the last 365 days, I sometimes can’t quite believe it. I left Seattle on March 1st, 2011, and now I am returning on March 1st, 2012.

In the past year, I biked alone across the United States, ended a relationship with someone I was engaged to, created a solo show’s work of new paintings in under a month, fell in love with someone who was only in my life for five weeks, and then promptly left to come to Antarctica.

And somewhere over the course of this year of insane forward momentum, something magical happened.

I found home.

I don’t know quite when or where it appeared. I think it started as a quiet place within myself, and I reinforced it with every step of this pilgrimage that I have thrown myself into. Down here in Antarctica, I have learned to be homesick. It is an entirely new feeling for me, because I have never had a sense of home concrete enough to tug at me. I have spent my whole life longing for home, and this is the first time I have ever felt like I know what it is. I’m solid and healthy enough in myself to recognize it, and wildly lucky enough to have found it, and I’m ready to go back to Seattle.

It’s funny to have discovered that I was already home, but just couldn’t see it. I first moved to Seattle because of an ex, and, quite frankly, I hated it there. I lived there for about two years and saw the city as a dull, pragmatic place—somewhere that lacked a sense of community, and whose culture was defined by the dull grey of Monday through Friday business casual. I’ve spent a good chunk of the last six months quietly apologizing to Seattle for ever having thought that. My bad, Seattle: it wasn’t you, it was me. 

When I got back from my bike trip, Seattle started smacking me in the face with everything I had complained that it lacked, and in the course of my two months back, I was completely won over. When it came time to go, I didn’t want to leave. My closest friends were out of town, and I didn’t really have anyone to talk to about how confused I was over leaving. So I did what I usually do and walked until things made some measure of sense. I ended up passing by a wall with buckets of chalk left out for people to draw with, and I said what I needed to say there. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the way that things come full circle, and how we don’t move through life in straight lines, but rather in looping curlicues. 

Our progress from point A to point B is hard earned and circuitous, and while I am going back to a set of circumstances that are remarkably similar to the ones I left, everything about this homecoming is different.

It feels like everything has been coming wonderfully full circle this year.

About a month ago I received an email from Hannah Stephenson, a poet who runs a project called The Storialist in which she writes poems based off of visual images. She contacted me to tell me that she had written a poem based off one of my pieces. This was an instance of delightful synchronicity, as I had based that particular painting on a line from a poem by Jim Dodge, one of my favorite authors. I’d first contacted Jim a handful of years ago to ask for permission to use a line from one of his books as the title of a mural I was working on, and had been in touch with him again to send him a print of the painting his poem had inspired. We talked about the interaction of artist/writer and audience, and about the magical way that inspiration crosses different creative disciplines. And so it seemed perfect that his poem had returned to its original form. Poem, painting, poem.

Jim's poem: 

Palms to the Moon
Jim Dodge

We were fifteen. Summertime.

We walked through the moonlit village

the cliffs above the beach.
We made love at that trembling pitch

where sensations become emotions,

none of which we'd ever felt before.

Our hearts like torches hurled into the sea.

A magnificence

that cannot survive

that makes it possible.


No beauty without perishing.

No love without that first desolate moment of heartbreak,

when you know something is wrong,

but you don't know what it is,

or how to stop it.


Midnight, the mountains,

we make a bed of our clothes

on the granite slab.

Naked beyond skin,

we lift our palms to the moon,

our bodies trembling like the limb of a tree

 My painting: "a magnificence/ that cannot survive/the innocence/ that makes it possible"

Hannah's poem:

Hannah Stephenson
Iceland is not only ice, nor is Greenland
very green. The only way to know

about a place is to see it, to go

there. Keep your days unplanned

so you can discover the cafe

in which you will eat one meal,

alone. Later, you will recall the feel

of the warm cup in your hand, the stray

mint leaf in your mouth that swam

upshore from the teapot. A trip

levels every place, makes you rip

apart the truth of where every damn

person is. Chiefly, you. You know

we can only have one experience

at a time, must not shift verb tense

in the same line. But when you go

home, you will miss the place

you just came from, and when you

travel elsewhere, you will want to,

eventually, go home, to your trophy case

of lustrous cities you almost fled

to, that you loved but only got to first

or second base with. Homesickness hurts

because it will always be unrequited.

Hannah’s poem is something that has stuck with me of late, because it touches upon so many of the questions I have always asked myself about home and motion and solitude. And it somehow seems perfect for right now, for the impossibility of leaving this place.

But all of this is to say that I am thoroughly ready to go back. I have come full circle on myself, and am ready to go HOME. 

I am not done with Antarctica. There are so many stories that I want to explore down here, points of fascination that I want to pursue. But for now I am ready to be stationary and explore this strange new contentment with a rooted sense of place. I plan on coming back. Maybe not next season, but at some point… I’m going to hibernate and go radio silent on blogging for a bit. Don’t really know how long, but I just need a bit of a break.

So Seattle, I’ll see you in just over two weeks. And Antarctica, I’ll see you again at some point. Hopefully when I’m down here on the artists and writers grant… And for whoever is actually still reading after this ridiculously long post, I’d like to leave you with a book passage that has been on my mind throughout the course of this year:

God made mud.
God got lonesome.

So God said to some of the mud, "Sit up!"

"See all I've made," said God, "the hills, the sea, the

sky, the stars."

And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look


Lucky me, lucky mud.

I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.

Nice going, God.

Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly

couldn't have.

I feel very unimportant compared to You.

The only way I can feel the least bit important is to

think of all the mud that didn't even get to sit up and

look around.

I got so much, and most mud got so little.

Thank you for the honor!

Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.

What memories for mud to have!

What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!

I loved everything I saw!

Good night.
--Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

Goodnight, everyone. 

I’m some damn grateful mud.


  1. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for this.
    -pablo (spole summer 10-11, hope to go back some day)

  2. You always say what I'm thinking so well, Tessa. I love that about you. Can't wait to drink bourbon and read Roald Dahl in Seattle with you...Safe travels on your journey home.

  3. really enjoyed reading this. i had to go through all your old posts - wish i'd'a been following your blog through your season. makes me want to head back down there.

    -rickey (dishpit polie summer 10-11)

  4. This post is wonderful! I can relate to a lot of it, so maybe that makes it seem extra wonderful to me, but even besides that it's just lovely to read your reflections on all of this. After having tagged along, blog-wise, on your journeys this past year, I'd like to send you all my best wishes for your new homecoming! Good, good luck!

  5. Great blog you people have maintained there, I totally appreciate the work.
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