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Akvilina Cicėnaitė Charles (born in 1979 in Vilnius) is a writer and literary translator. She made her literary debut in 2009 and is the author of seven books, including the award-winning young adult novel New York Republic (Niujorko respublika, 2015). Cicėnaitė Charles also writes for media outlets and cultural press. Her latest translation is Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. She holds a PhD in Religious Studies from Victoria University (Wellington, New Zealand), a Master’s degree in Literary Theory, and a Bachelor’s degree in Lithuanian Philology from Vilnius University. She currently lives in Sydney.

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By Akvilina Cicėnaitė Charles

 

I recently read in an article that it is a myth that the Inuit have fifty words for describing snow. The author of that paper delved into the linguistic subtleties of the Inuit language, but I thought about snow. Lately, I’ve been dreaming of it too much: of windows pasted in white, of the silent mornings and persistent snow, of the slush floating down the river and the heaps of snow piled up by Vilnius’s yard-keepers. I dream of gloves that were tied to the sleeves of our coats so that we wouldn’t lose them as children. I dream of snow angels, but these are perhaps fake—my memory forges these recollections so that they are elegant and picturesque. I dream of the scent of fir on the snow and never-ending funerals, for back then it seemed that people must give birth to their children in summertime and die when it’s winter. Again I dream of the silence of the snow, and I fall into it as if it were a bottomless well. In my dream I think of fifty words to describe it, and yet I wake up having forgotten them all.

In Sydney, where I currently live, there is no snow. No real snow, anyhow. Sometimes it does snow but seemingly by accident—the snow mixes its latitudes up and melts from sheer confusion the very instant it touches the ground. However, it is a myth that there is no snow in Australia. If I wished to see it now, I could get in a car and head southwest until I reached a snowy summit that bears the (absolutely unintelligible in English) name of Kosciuszko.

The story of my departure is not different from the thousands of tales of others’ random migrations. The narrative is familiar—it is the emergence of boredom and the wish to witness new things, things that would surprise; it is the miracle of a new country; it is the longing for your own country; lastly, it is the settling into your own inner time zone. I left Vilnius more than ten years ago, right before winter, and since then I’ve been living according to a reverse calendar, where winter takes summer’s place, which fails to explain when a person should give birth and when they should die, and where it only snows by accident. I left just after publishing my first book, so I have no real notion of what it means to be and feel like a writer. I’m not a writer in Sydney—here I have other roles, here I am an immigrant who tries to assimilate and speaks with an indelible accent. It must be so hard to live so far away from your own readership, a colleague of mine once said, but I wouldn’t know of anything other than that.

For me, it is less about living in Sydney and more about living in my own head, in those five languages I have at some point either learned or forgotten. In Polish, which I began speaking at around the same time as I did Lithuanian, and which I forgot after my great-grandmother passed away. In Russian, my third language, and in English, which, even though is my fourth, has now become my main turf. In French, which is my partner’s  mother tongue, sometimes I overhear fragments of the French news he’s watching and regret forgetting the language just as I was beginning to learn a thing or two. And in Lithuanian, which I shall never forget. But if I were to rewrite myself, I would do so in English, the language in which I do not dare, or do not know how to, or simply cannot create.

I am writing this in late May, as the pandemic slowly becomes manageable, as the doors of homes and borders of nations slowly reopen, yet Australia remains separated from the rest of the world, and I, too, am separated from Lithuania not only by the distance of some ten-thousand-plus miles but also by the sheer impossibility of a return trip. The year 2020 will not go on forever; yet this pandemic again forces the questions of where we belong, where we wish to be, and in which language we would like to rewrite ourselves in. To me, the closed borders are becoming as irreversible as they were for those war refugees who had, in the twentieth century, fled by ship to Australia—theirs was a one-way trip. The right to move freely has become so intrinsic to us that its restriction becomes equal to imprisonment—and the return to the prisons of our homes as well as our bodies. The world is smaller now, and I can return home whenever I want to—such are the boasts of the citizens of the world, working from the comfort of a pool in Bali or a beach in Thailand. But this year, we all became the citizens of our homes, while the world turned into an immense and unconquerable expanse.

You could at least pretend that you’re sad to go, my sister said disapprovingly as I was packing my bags in early March for my trip back to Sydney. The looming pandemic moved my flights to an earlier schedule, but at that time we didn’t know what kind of confined and frozen life awaited us just a week later. On that evening, we sat around telling jokes and stories and eating chocolate candies. I had things to say, but I was not sure whether there will be enough time for them, whether a single evening is enough for the whole story of homecomings and departures. I wanted to tell how I’ve spent the past ten years trying to teach myself how to leave and to return—a form of art in itself. I am learning to skip between one life and the other and one identity and the other and, as I make that jump, not injure myself in the process. I avoid the feelings of departure for fear of losing myself in them and falling down and ever deeper into those sensations as if into a bottomless well. When I’m sitting onboard the plane, I close my eyes and with the bird of steel I break loose from the ground and fly back without getting accustomed to the difference in time; during my sleepless jet-lagged nights I think of the home I left behind and remind myself that home can exist wherever, that home is not singular, that the longing for one’s home is like snow: with enough time and warmth, it melts.

It is a myth that no two snowflakes are the same. In truth, scientists have already found two absolutely identical snow crystals. This discovery was made more than thirty years ago. As I try to comprehend this, I let that fact seep deep into my skin and think about all the years those scientists have spent looking for the two snow crystals that look completely alike, and thus my own decade, spent far away from the land of snow, my decade spent sitting on luggage and looking for home, appears less meaningless.

They began using the term nostalgia to express the longing for home back in the seventeenth century. Translated from Greek, nostos means the act of returning, and algos means pain. To long for home can be likened to feeling pain in an amputated leg. For a while, everything seems off. The clothes on the racks in shopping departments aren’t pretty, the bread tastes fake, and people’s shapes become blurry. But there’s always other clothes, other types of bread, and other people. Sometimes I take one step forward and two steps back. Sometimes the opposite is true. I’m not sure whether the same scientists who studied the shapes of snowflakes could also conduct a study on how much time a person needs to get accustomed to a new country’s weather, the scent of pavement after it rains, the taste of milk and apples, and the alien language of birds chirping behind your window, whether they could discover the number of years it takes for that person to feel as if there’s hundreds of invisible ties connecting them to the new country. Maybe using their complex machinery, designed to measure the diameter of snowflakes, they could compare whether the longing of all us the departed is at any time equal, whether we can speak the same language.

Svetlana Boyn states in her book The Future of Nostalgia that nostalgia is, for the contemporary human, a longing for a home that exists no more or might have never existed. The object of this longing is not the place which we refer to or have previously referred to as home, but the sensation of our intimacy with the world that we once shared and have now lost—not even the past per se, but that imaginary moment when we believed that we had all the time in the world. It is a feeling of loss and at once a flirtation with our imagination, because nostalgia is, first and foremost, a longing for something that lives only in our imagination. In the seventeenth century, Boyn notes, nostalgia was considered an illness and treated using leeches, opium, and a favorable climate. In the twentieth century, it became an incurable condition for every contemporary human.

Several years after my departure I read a lot on nostalgia and wrote a thing or two on the subject. I wished to explain it to others, but most of all to myself. I wished to frame my experiences, connect my contradictions, and understand why I wish for completely opposite things—I wish to return and I wish to stay. Lithuania is a country where I wish to die—I wrote this in an article just two years ago. I honestly felt what I wrote, but I perhaps imagined myself as an old, wise woman content with her mortality. I thought that it is easier to die in a place where the soil is native, where an individual may die without an accent. But when you’re middle-aged, the pragmatic drowns the romantic, and it is easier to be ill and contemplate death in a place where you have good medical insurance. Under extreme circumstances, like this pandemic, you must choose: to be here or there. To be on the right side of the wall. The desire to travel is as old as humanity itself, but mobility became as global as it is now only in the past few decades. Freedom opened our borders, but as we traveled and sought home in other places, we did not think through what we ought to do when those borders close. We did not think that we might have to make a choice or that there would be no choice at all.

They recently said on the news that the aviation industry will most likely return to its previous status only in 2023. Imagination is quick to draw up scenarios where the temporarily landed planes never take off again and we are eternally stuck in the places we happened to choose to spend the quarantine in. If, for whatever reason, I happened to know that the planes are grounded forever, would I, in early March, have chosen to stay in Vilnius? Would I have not departed for Sydney? Would I have spent that whole night sitting with my sister, eating chocolate candies and telling stories? Would I, then, have told her about the art of staying and leaving, about the rituals that help the plane—and me—to avoid crashing? Would I have stayed on that side of the wall that I, as I had indicated earlier, would wish to die on? We never think of the worst scenarios, but they always seem to happen to us—unprepared, frozen and gasping in surprise, naïve without remedy, hopeful beyond retrieve.

***

It is a myth that snow is white. Just like the small elements that it consists of, it is actually colorless and translucent, while the light that bounces off of the snowflake’s surface creates the impression of white. When I returned to Vilnius this winter, I wished to see it with my own eyes and test whether I could see the translucent snow and find out what it smells like. But there was no snow throughout the whole of February and most of March. That season saw no winter. Some people shrugged and said they could not recall a winter such as this, while others were overcome with pragmatic joy, saying that their heating bills would be less expensive. Others yet sighed because they were robbed of the joy of skiing, sleighing, ice skating, and popping out of the hot sauna, naked and barefoot, and diving into an ice hole cut in a frozen lake. The winter that I saw that February in Vilnius could have been a winter anywhere—in Sydney, in London, in Buenos Aires. Wet, nipping and without snow, without a face or an identity—a season that is levelled and globalized.

The nostalgia that you experience when you’re at home was granted a new definition in the twenty-first century—that of solastalgia. Solastalgia is a longing for home when you are home but when that home of yours has irreversibly changed. This recent term is used to describe our new condition: a spiritual, emotional, and existential discomfort brought on by the circumstances we live in. This word is mostly used to explain the changes brought on by global climate change. The author of this definition, environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht, writes in his article “The Age of Solastalgia” that it is an existential melancholia experienced with the negative transformation of a loved home environment. Albrecht derives this term from the English words solace, desolation and the Greek algos (pain). The solace, the contentment in the face of desolation, the pain of loss—these truly make up a nostalgia, albeit a different type—a nostalgia while still at home.

Climate change acquires a face and a shape, its own terminology. It comes at us with thousands of images pouring from TV screens, and it lands on the surface of reality from articles and books. It becomes a part of reality, impossible to ignore, impossible to hide from in some ivory tower, impossible to shield yourself from with naivete and ignorance, qualities that have now become criminal. At the time when Vilnius was devoid of snow, the Australian summer saw the desolation of massive forest fires that devoured homes, ragefully changed the colors of nature, and extinguished a billion animal lives; we breathed the fumes of the fire for months—we breathed our own poisonous excretions—and we calmed ourselves believing that summer would not go on forever. We sought a million other disastrous causes for the fires. We identified the guilty and donated to charities, and we appeased our fear and despair by shopping, traveling, and drinking wine, but the fumes burned out a gaping cavity in our consciousness. There is never a shortage of voices stating that the climate crisis is a myth, and in some way there is a desire to believe them. We will rebuild our homes, we will replant our trees, but we will never resurrect lives and we will never heal that gaping cavity. Maybe this cavity has no name, or maybe it is the solastalgia—the feeling we all have but cannot put into words. Maybe we don’t need fifty words to describe it; maybe we simply shouldn’t forget this one.

Solastalgia is a winter without snow. It is a summer cancelled by forest fires. It consists of landscapes changed irreversibly. It denotes the species of animals and plants going extinct. It is a dying planet. It is a reality which I currently inhabit and which I do not wish to see. It contains my home, ravaged and razed. It is the future that has come and which the scientists, climatologists, and environmental activists have tried to warn us about for so long. Solastalgia is a feeling that we may fall into as if it were a bottomless well, a feeling which tastes like colorless snow, which smells of fir, a feeling we want to deny and not write about. We all became migrants, I think to myself within the confines of my own home, shielding myself from the black clouds of smoke hanging above Sydney for weeks. This is what I think when I walk the snowless winter streets of Vilnius: we all migrate toward nothingness. And within this context, my small nostalgias, my identity crises, my Lithuanian-ness or Australian-ness become blank and irrelevant.

In mid-May, when I didn’t know yet that I would be writing this piece, it suddenly snowed in Lithuania. It covered the blooming plants and, as if it had its latitudes mixed up, it melted from sheer confusion the very second it appeared. I saw that snow through a screen, like billions of other citizens of their own homes through their own screens. Climate change will not become a topic as interesting and relevant as snow in mid-May; we don’t wish to think of it, just like we don’t wish to think of our mortality when we’re living the best years of our life. This essay should be about belonging, about belonging to a country, but for me belonging now has several dimensions, and I don’t want to simplify this concept any further. However, I can’t say that I don’t miss the simplicity of the concept of home. I miss the lyricism of nostalgia. I miss being before the pandemic—it was so very easy that it seemed almost unnoticeable. I miss the ability to board a plane and return home, and I miss the feeling that the world is small, that it is borderless, that the earth is a never-ending resource and the perfect background for selfies. I miss the condition of innocence, the criminal naivete, when I flew across the world without any remorse and without thinking about my carbon footprint, without any thought that the desire to be a citizen of the world bears two sides. I miss the time when I could just allow myself to be carried by melancholy and yearn for Lithuania. The longing for snow, which I could appease after spending thirty hours on planes and in airports, became a longing for the world which cannot be brought back to life. This feeling shall stay with me—not (only) for the country that I have left behind but also the world which is irreversibly changing. We are all becoming migrants. We are all returning home and don’t recognize our own homes, for our homes are snowless winters, summers with never-ending heatwaves, shores flooded by the rising sea level, thousands of plant and animal species going extinct, and the tent cities inhabited by climate change refugees. We are bound to be eternal migrants unable to recognize the earth we live in. And it is just the beginning. We never think of the worst scenarios, but they always seem to happen to us—unprepared, frozen and gasping in surprise, naïve without remedy, hopeful beyond retrieve.

On the other hand, nostalgia and solastalgia, in spite of being passive and melancholic conditions, may also become the foundation for developing other, active forms of belonging and resistance. Longing may incite us to not give up, it may provoke us to save that which may still be saved. There is no planet B, the Extinction Rebellion posters recite, How dare you? asks the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, What is wrong with us? What is really preventing us from putting out the fire that is threatening to burn down our collective house? Naomi Klein wonders in her book This Changes Everything, while Jonathan Safran Foer assures us in his book We Are the Weather that [p]erhaps we don’t need to abandon home to save ourselves: our second Earth could be a transformed version of the one we currently inhabit. I listen to their voices echoing my own anger and despair. It is a myth that somebody will save us, but maybe we can save ourselves. I think of a small planet that I belong to along with eight billion other people. We all revolve only around our own axis; all of our years are numbered. I think, maybe when we are no more, the little planet will still turn around its own axis, only without us. I think about those who stop turning around their own axis and abandon the world of illusions wherein we still have some time left for us and instead strive to maintain that which we still have left. I think that there’s more and more of these people. I think about my personal responsibility, about the responsibility of the writer in the face of the world that is falling apart.

I was once referred to in the media as a writer of Lithuanian descent currently living in Australia. But I am not of Lithuanian descent. I am Lithuanian. This is no patriotism on my part, but merely the truth, my wish that we give truthful titles to concepts and people. Several years spent in Australia do not provide me with the quality of being an Australian. They do not grant me the right to call myself an émigré or an exodus writer or use any other similarly exotic titles. Yet I am not just a Lithuanian. I am a woman that dreams of fires in English and of snow in Lithuanian; an individual who is afraid to one day return to a home they cannot recognize; a human who is part of the problem; a human that has no solution yet who also does not wish to revolve only around their own axis; a human who believes that even the smallest positive act is better than none at all, and that each and every one of us are responsible, and that the struggle for the preservation of this planet begins in each of our homes; a person who lives in a twenty-first century world that is going to hell, where people still stubbornly fight for borders and land, as if ignorant to the fact that we are all one, we are all stuck, we have all messed up, and that when a fire rages on one side of the planet, it snows ash on the other. Our home and our belonging are much wider definitions that implore us to rethink, productively recreate, and utilize. To believe anew in the myth that we may rewrite the world, that we may rewrite that which pertains to being a citizen of the world, that we may rewrite ourselves. We are all on the trajectory of the same migration.

 

 

Translated by Markas Aurelijus Piesinas

 

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