If you know me at all you know I love winter. The cold, frigid air; Girl Scout cookies; puffy winter jackets; snooooooooooow! But do you know where this great affection originated?
I have lived in many places. 12, to be exact. 4 countries, 6 US states and the District of Columbia. Not all places have left equal impact. I only lived in Kansas very briefly and have but one memory of living in Japan as a young girl: singing the chorus to the then somewhat newly-released Footloose in my closet with my miniature clothes brushing the top of my head. Virginia has obviously left an indelible mark since I lived there for nine years—the longest I’ve lived anywhere—and it is the place I am “from” for the purposes of small talk.
But if you look at the aggregate of who I am—my likes and dislikes, my preferences for weather, my recycling habits, certain turns of phrase I use, wardrobe choices, nicknames, causes I champion, pet peeves, even my job—these are all born of places.
It’s a common thing to do when you visit a place to want to stamp it with some sign that you were there so others will know. This kind of tagging I’ve often seen carved into trees and bunk beds at camps or penned in permanent marker in school bathroom stalls. “X was here.” Let this be known. Beyoncé even wrote a song about abstract mark leaving.
My twitter handle, @aj_waso, for anyone who has ever wondered, is what I’d like to think of as a more sophisticated form of this tagging. AJ is a name that I was called for three years of my adult life (and am still called by some). “Waso” is what you say in Korean when something has arrived or come to a place. So it essentially means Alicia was (or is) here.
All fine and good, but I’ve been long fascinated by the opposite, or maybe complementary, idea: not that I go somewhere and leave my mark, but that that somewhere leaves its mark on me. A remnant, if you will, or a souvenir of time spent in a place.
After spending two years in China and having the time of my life I was overcome with fear. If I moved back to the States then and just picked up on life where I’d left off, it’d be like China never happened. If I forgot the language what else would be in me that I’d have to show? I would inevitably forget people and buildings, and details of what made life there so incredible might one day grow fuzzy, but the day that I could no longer speak, to me, was the day that China stopped living in me. So I stayed a little longer (Big Red flashback, anyone?).
Earlier this year, I had dinner with a new friend and brought up the topic of memory bearers or keepers in the context of why I’d felt it would have been nice to have had a partner go through the past ten years with me. Instead, as the sole consistent participant in all my great adventures, the onus of remembering falls to me. I’m like the Giver with no Jonas. Because I went those places alone, it’s become important to me that it be clear that those places happened to me and not just that I existed in them. That places have a legacy beyond photographs and relationships, both of which can fade or be lost with time.
Why all the paranoia about forgetting? Because it runs in my family to forget. And more generally, our memories cannot really be trusted.
I know some people find it weird, but there are things I’ve consciously decided to do to jog my memory of places. I don’t wear pants or eat pizza anymore thanks to Laos and went from hating the heat to loving summer and al fresco dining. I recycle and make a stink about composting thanks to Seattle and every time I swing dance I think of that place. I like crowded metros and buses because of Shanghai—shoot, I like cities period because of Shanghai. I play games and am occasionally called AJ because of living in the Gobi Dessert. I can also trace back my practice of eating shrimp shells to a friend I had there and a vacation we took to Qingdao, another place that I lived. I use the same kind of pen at work now that my former (and still favorite) boss used in Boston. And the list goes on.
Earlier this month I was at a retreat and as an ice breaker we listed our top five of something in any category of our choosing. Despite disliking sports, I chose to share about my (newly, but not randomly chosen) teams. To me, it’s not the quality of the team that matters, but that they link me to a place and to a community of people to help me remember and to connect. So as eager as I am to put down roots here (and I’ve chosen 2 DC sports teams to root for), I want to honor my memories and to retain and create residue of places I’ve left behind (but that have not left me).
Oh yeah, and if you’re dying to know about the love of winter, it’s from Michigan: the place I lived second longest after Newport News from pre-school through 3rd grade.