When I decided to move to Korea, it was very hard to process the idea that the other part of the world would keep going without me. I’m not trying to sound remarkably self-absorbed, although that may be true, but it was difficult to conceive. Sure, people would get older, and taller, and gain a wrinkle or a grey hair or a tan in my absence. Hairstyles would change, weight would be gained or lost, coats of paint would be applied to walls. Time would obviously pass. But it was difficult to really believe that the lives of others I was so involved with would continue to forge ahead without me somehow involved in the mix.
From the day that I got onto the plane to South Korea, the world of Toronto mentally froze for me. I imagined the host of people from my life slowed down to a crawl: calmly in place, waiting genteelly for my return, like waifs on widow’s walks, staring out into the sea for their lost whaler husbands. My family, my friends, my coworkers–even the children I had previously taught: they would all be getting older, but surely, they wouldn’t do anything terribly interesting in the interim. They would save all the good stuff for when I was back.
On Skype, we would talk about all the things that were happening to us, and my brain douchebaggishly classified everything happening to me to be urgent, and amazing, and worthy of sharing, while everything happening to my loved ones became meandering B stories, cute little shaggy dog tales for the secondary characters to pursue when I wasn’t on screen. It wasn’t that strange or amazing or horrible things weren’t happening to everyone I knew, it was just hard for me to cast them as actually being serious while halfway around the world: surely we would deal with this sort of thing whenever I got back? Pregnancies and marriages and dogs and cats and jobs and drugs can wait, right?
It didn’t help that I spend gobs of time every week writing about my own life, and how interesting I perceive it to be. Moving somewhere completely new and meeting a host of new people also helps to infatuate you with yourself. It’s a fresh start, a chance to present a cooler, more debonair, more awesome version of yourself, and you begin to prune away those less appealing details. The goings-on of the homeland are backstory, not ongoing action.
There is no greater disruption to the idea that life goes on than when it doesn’t. I left Canada knowing my grandfather was ill, but somehow, cosmically, I felt confident that I would see him again. I knew his health was in decline, but the universe would not allow our last interaction to be over a shoddy VOIP connection? Life and death were serious matters, and surely they aren’t going to actually happen while I’m far away.
I remember rushing home, the plane rides, the drive from the airport. But from a difference in weather, it was hard not to imagine this as the Toronto I had left the previous August, just taken out of the deep freezer moments before my arrival for defrosting. Everywhere people seemed to be shaking off their husks of amber, preparing to go back to existing now that I was back. The only flaw in this was absence, the obvious and glaring missingness of someone I loved. I saw pictures of my grandfather, and heard fond recollections, but I couldn’t cognitively jive with the idea that he wasn’t there, waiting in the wings to be called. But he had left the scene permanently, and while I was halfway around the world.
Going back again under more joyous circumstances, it was hard to hold together my fragile, paused flashbulb of Toronto. I returned for a wedding: my family gathered to celebrate, as people had continued on living, even while I was away. I met up with friends who I hadn’t seen in months, and while I was content to prattle on about myself, I was just as happy to hear about the actual things that had happened to them: the places they had ventured, the people they had met, the jobs they had managed to acquire. No matter how much my brain tried to frame the life I had briefly abandoned as something I could simply pick back up unchanged, things were different, and they would continue to go on whether I chose to be there and play a part or not.
I think this is a natural framing device for people: everyone’s the hero of their own story. But I am super-duper especially the hero of my story, so why would that story continue when I’m not around? My story’s over here now! The background players can have a smoke, go to craft services, and rehearse for the next scenes. It’s hard to think of these people, no matter how important or awesome or special as they may be, as starring in their own simultaneous features in which I am playing a supporting role, or some low-budget extra. That they go on living their lives as wholly separate entities, despite the gaping hole left by my absence, seems absolutely shredding not only to my ego, but to the very nature of how I understand the universe.
As infants, we come to gain object permanence, the idea that things keep on existing even when we can no longer see them. As an adult, I think I’m reaching a similar epiphany, as I come to terms with not being the centre of the known universe. With the knowledge that other people go on living, go on working, go on growing and changing and dying and loving and eating and doing, whether I’m around to participate or spectate or not. Having never really left home before, having never picked up and moved to another place, I’ve never had to test how this worked. My absences have always previously been too short for anything serious to occur.
Growing out of adolescence is a time of expanding your world, of realizing that it doesn’t, in fact, completely revolve around you. That people aren’t watching your every move, that life or death do not depend on your petty dramas, that the planet continues to turn irrespective of what you do. Going further, you come to adjust to the idea that other people have their own worlds in which you play big and small roles, just as they do in yours. No matter how impossible it seems that their stories can continue on even when they’re not intersecting with your own, they have their own casts, their own plots, their own sets. You’re just one movie in a big multiplex.