Leave-taking, 1981 (a poem, a story)

There was the airport in Warsaw,

my baby sister crying,

my grandmother, who did not understand why

anyone would cross an ocean,

saying goodbye.

There was the flight, with cigarette smoke and candy,

landing in Montreal,

driving some distance in the dark.

There was the townhouse my father had rented;

it was bigger than any home I had seen,

and I got lost in the basement, yelling

for my mother to find me.

My father had filled a shopping cart with

bananas for us, because

there were so many,

and in the world he knew,

we stood in line for everything

and everything could be bartered.

There was my first day at school,

crying at my desk, alone in the midst of

incomprehensible sounds,

my name changed,

harsh and unfamiliar.

A week later, a peculiar thing,

children knocking on our door,

asking for candy;

we hid inside with our lights off,

my mother tense with irritation

and worried about money for food.

There was the news

that my grandfather had died,

and there was no way for us to go back;

we knelt by our beds, I remember,

and prayed for him;

and I remember my fear of death then,

of being eaten by worms.

Slowly I started to understand and speak,

but words are only the surface of things,

and I had a new friend,

with darker hair and skin than

anyone I had known,

who told me that Jesus was a prophet

among many,

and not the son of God;

I was stunned then by her ignorance

and argued with her,

and only years later did it

become an amusing story,

of two children

and the totality of the world views

they had been taught.

Here, in this place, I shed the world-view,

I shed the skin that I had been born into,

I shed the certainty of anything.

There is an exile in being changed,

home doesn’t exist anymore;

there is no way to return.


My father often recites a nineteenth-century Polish poem, Smutno mi Boże (I am Sad, God), in which Romantic poet Juliusz Słowacki, in political exile from his home, speaks of his sorrow and his longing for the land that he has left behind. It made me wonder about the idea of exile, what it means in the twenty-first century, what it means to anyone who has left the land of their birth and their ancestors. And thirty-four years after emigrating, these childhood memories came flooding back.

What do you need to leave behind when you reshape your life, shed your world-view, undergo transformation?

(On a technical side note, I can’t figure out how to get any control over verse breaks in this particular WordPress theme. Double spacing doesn’t work.)

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