Migrating is an experience that takes us years to understand. It takes a long time to learn to read the new words that describe who you were, who you are now and who you were in between both extremes.
Learning to decipher the experience is required. That experience is not touristic or anecdotal simply because, as the good William Blake knew: “it is sold in the desolate market where nobody goes to buy”, which is another way of saying that the experience is real because it is obtained in exchange for “blood, sweat and tears”.
In my case, literature has been one of those markets where one finds ways to describe and share one’s experience and others. That happened to me when I recently read Anne Boyer’s book, The Undying.
This book tells the story of a woman who sees an oncologist after doing X-rays and tests to confirm that she has cancer. At some point, she is left in front of the X-rays of her left breast, in which the appearance of a malignant tumour is clearly seen. The narrator is alone in front of the X-ray. She has cancer. Now she knows it and tries to assimilate how the word -Cancer- has changed her whole world. There is a before and after of what she has seen.
In her words:
“to take a set of objects and actions from one system and reclassify these as elements in another system is like fortune-telling. To a fortune-teller, birds flying north spell out tomorrow’s happiness, and tea leaves tell a story about two lovers and the third who will ruin them. After that, the flight of the birds has been freed from the meaning “migration”, and when it has become a tale about the future end of the lovers, the tea is no longer anything we want to drink” (2021, p. 14).
The story is real, Anne Boyer is still sick, and she wrote this book in which she tried to understand her experience, share it and make it accessible to others who also seek to understand theirs.
For me, it is about understanding the bridge. The bridge between the banks of that torrential river that runs between the past and the present of the patient in front of the X-rays; or those of the migrant who arrives at a beach of the Mediterranean Sea. The bridge between who you were and who you are, between the mother tongue and the new language you are forced to speak. The fresh certainty of illness or the language barrier are versions of the same thing: we must learn to live with the assurance that everything has changed and there is no possibility of going back. We must begin to forget without having learned to forget.
The past and the present -the healthy woman with an ambitious professional career, the migrant and his first life, far away-, have been connected by a fragile act of divination: The omen is based on the reading of a daily act, reading tea leaves, read Tarot cards or interpret the divine will. The world of experience that we undergo is captured, temporarily, by the act of divination.
What is happening to us; could this have occurred in another way? Why is this happening to us right now?
The past is brought into the present and is endowed with a meaning that it did not have before. We are again in front of the crossroads where we decided one direction instead of another. Again, the past is made new by being brought to the present; differently, this time loaded with connotations and relationships with other facts.
So, the writer tells us that birds’ flight is freed from the meaning of “migration” and is converted into an omen. A sequence of actions and memories have ceased to be held by a protective hand and have been thrown to the wind: endangered, they scatter in search of someone who will give them meaning, someone who will bring them to life through memory. They are no longer needed; there is nothing for them to maintain. At last, they are free.