On my last day in Guatemala seven years ago, I bought myself a ring.
I had never worn rings prior to this. I was not looking for a ring. But as I wandered the streets in a farewell nod to a place I had called home that year, this small jade ring felt welcome in my life. I had just completed the first year of work in a new field for me. It has turned out to be my life’s work. I had just begun living in the questions I now call home. The most gratifying part was that I knew it then–I had the inklings of a person who had just stumbled into a question in which she had wanted to live.
The ring looked like an eye and I have worn it on my right hand every day for the past seven years.
There was the day it fell behind a radiator in Kentucky and I turned a whole house upside down looking for it, fearing the dog had eaten it. There was the night I thought I left it behind in a guesthouse in Sudan and turned the car around, at risk of missing my flight, so I could find it. The ring was a grounding presence. It held a side of me–a beginning, a promise to myself of a life I wished to live.
From Sudan to Mexico and from Colombia to Greece, it has been mistaken for my wedding ring. I noted the way in which ring fingers provide an intelligible system of classification: single or euphemistically ‘spoken for’. I registered the anxiety around disorienting classifications, the “do Greeks wear wedding rings on that finger? Is that a wedding ring?” Still, this is a perception I have not always corrected. It has saved me from harassment and has unwittingly told stories I would not tell. It represented a commitment to myself that I made before other vows, and through them, and after them.
I grew up in a family that frowned on self-indulgence. I wish I had learned the difference between self-care and self-indulgence earlier. I wish self-care had been modeled to me. I wish that space had been made for wine and popcorn and endless walks around the block until something shifts in your heart. I wish I had grown up speaking the language of hearts.
But languages are learned, and so is care. I remember thinking at the very moment of purchasing the ring that my mother would frown at the thought of my having bought something non-essential, something for myself. It was an act of quiet defiance.
In the words of Nayyirah Waheed in her poetry collection Salt:
“i love myself.”
2015, Iceland. I kept the ring in my coat pocket, so the dips in and out of thermal springs would not erode the jade. We circumnavigated a whole country to the sound of the same 7 tracks by Olafur Arnalds on the CD player of a Jimney. In the north, near Akyureri, we noticed hearts hanging on every window. We were on our honeymoon. We could not help but notice hearts.
Iceland had been a wishful site of my imagination ever since I started to understand wanderlust. When my father got me a subscription to National Geographic in Greece, I would tear out the Iceland pages. They still live in my childhood bedroom in Thessaloniki, next to the posters of Leonardo DiCaprio (I know) and stacks of Nancy Drew and Babysitters Club books that taught me English. As soon as my father got me a subscription to our dial-up internet–with the modem connecting being the sound that defined my teenage years–the images of Iceland online made me want to be a photographer. It was an almost Orientalist gaze, except displaced to tend to harsh landscapes near the Arctic. Canyons and waterfalls and volcanoes and black lava and moss were not the images of my childhood, but they quickly populated the landscape of my imagination.
There was a wish fulfillment quality to this trip. I do not believe in the disappointment of the proximity to fulfilling a dream and the fear that it will not live up to the hype. I still recall standing in front of the floating icebergs in Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon and experiencing an inarticulable, mindfully present sense of awe.
I was prepared for that, and surprised by it at once — a twinned fortune. I was not prepared for the hearts everywhere. When we got to our guesthouse near Akyureri, I googled their significance. (My teenage self would have been in awe at the idea of demystifying hearts through an internet search. My current self is too). The internet told me the hearts became a fixture during the financial crisis, “when there was a need for some positive thinking and to put emphasis on what really matters.“
I thought I was fluent in the language of crisis. In my lexicon, it did not come with red traffic lights in the shape of hearts. When we first noticed this phenomenon, we deliberately missed our turn at the light, just to make sure we had not imagined it. (There are that few cars in the north of Iceland during the off season.) When we confirmed that the lights, too, blinked like hearts, we deliberately slowed down when we approached them, hoping for a red one.
I came home from that trip with a heart that is hanging on the window. When the wind blew, you could hear its wooden shell bang against everything around it. I refused to let this reminder of its existence bother me.
A week ago, during an unusually blustery early September evening in the outskirts of Boston, the window heart crashed against the sill and broke.
At dinner tonight, the ring snapped off my finger. I was not forcing it. My hand was not swollen. It was a night like any other night.
In a conversation this morning, with my ring still on my finger then, and with reference to an unrelated topic, my friend E in Greece wrote: “There is no hidden meaning. There is no ambiguity. The sea, and people, just exist.”
It is tempting to enumerate the losses. It is as though listing them out, shouting them even, will make the grief legible. In a poem I have carried with me for years, Elizabeth Bishop writes, “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.” An incomplete list of what I have lost this year: sleep, Greek words, a red bookshelf, Spanish words, a tea kettle, a window heart, a ring. Even losses are marked by their silences and erasures.
I keep running my thumb over my naked ring finger. I have worn the ring for so long, under so many suns, that it has tanned itself on my finger. A presence still there, even after the ring itself has snapped.