I grew up in New Hampshire, and about the age (3rd grade) that I realized what New Hampshire was, and that there were places that were not New Hampshire, I wanted out. Everything around me seemed very unalive. Stoic granite. Frozen soil. Leafless trees naked for months on end. Small, quiet knots of people who all looked the same and recycled the same contentment with not doing anything that I deemed the least bit interesting. Whispers. Snug houses. Unbending firs. The muted world after a snowfall.
I wanted life. I moved to Spain for its bloody bull slaughter, drunken beaches, stadium rivalries, cackling grandmothers, reggatoning teenagers, and Doppler heels puncturing Flamenco fury into centuries of Arabian gypsies and lisping kings. I found aliveness. I stood in the shower of ash fluttering from towering crepe paper effigies set on fire. I existed in sunbaked hilltop castles, throbbing seasurf, slabs of canary rice, speeding traincars, flashing gold, crumbling dialects, throngs of Argentines and Moroccans, and doused myself in the chlorine of the intoxicating language that tumbled out of the mouths around me; fluid sound that cleansed me of any lingering unaliveness I felt might still linger on my skin from so many years living locked in a place that felt to me as animated as a morgue.
I moved to New York for anonymous neon and droves and shouting and honking and stubborn flocks of pigeons, for winking skyscraper windows and corner musicians and 24 hour bagels and street fairs, street carts, scrawls of street art, herds of trolling taxis, shuddering subways, and life pouring out of concrete and metal orifices. I found aliveness. Block after block of noise and motion and stench.
When I first arrived in rural Costa Rica I was shocked at how much it reminded me of New Hampshire. I was half expecting off-shoots of Iberian “Olé!” and all its textured theater, but what I got was the color and shape of my hometown. The rolling green hills spotted with white cattle looked like Switzerland, but they also somehow looked like New Hampshire in the summertime. The effect was that a new place thousands of miles from anywhere I’d ever been felt like a bizarre echo of something deeply familiar, yet at the same time the tropical countryside was trembling with an entirely new kind of aliveness that was far from anything I had ever experienced in the endless green of my childhood.
This was not the aliveness of Avenues and marquees; it was aliveness in the kind of place I didn’t associate with aliveness. I was on a cow farm at the end of a road to nowhere. There was an even more marked void of people than I’d experienced in my small town in New Hampshire (that had been a town of 3,000; this was a village of 30). But the waving sugarcane murmured incessantly, dried banana leaves scratched against themselves, fruit bats clicked like winding time bombs, and crickets, beetles, cicadas, and genera unseen carried on through the day and night.
Houses were not snug and rain kickboxed the metal roof, drooled down walls, and mud pulled at puckering footsteps. The flora all looked like it was made of painted etched wax and sucked moisture from the soil and rays from the sun at such an alarming rate that I swore I could watch the malanga grow.
From a distance the green forested hills might have looked like New Hampshire, but on the inside, the tropical jungle was more alive than any place I had ever been. The product of so much rapid insect vibration, frantic bird trilling, and eager flora extending its roots down, shoots up, and fluorescent flowers in all directions gave the rural tropics an electric current that frizzled through my spine.
If I stood completely still, I was the calmest point in this collision of aliveness. I had never been the stillest part of any environment ever. In New Hampshire my harriedness was met with impassive granite stares; in Spain my aerobic pace was attributed to the inherent oddity of foreigners; in New York all freneticness goes unobserved. But here, I was so caught off guard by the amount of aliveness issuing from the green and tendriled forms, which I typically associated with rural death, that I paused to make sure that the aliveness wasn’t just a dimpled sensory mirage. As soon as I paused to confirm the aliveness’s veracity, I also discovered a particular beauty that stillness can only possess in contrast.
I had never considered myself in a role of stillness, but the overwhelming aliveness of the tropical forest somehow absolved me of the need to be the one generating constant motion. Here I neither felt the pressing responsibility to animate granite nor to keep pace with a stewing cauldron of human activity. I could just be and the aliveness would unfold around me. New York is amped through secondary caffeination. The tropical jungle is the source of that caffeination and is more jazzed than any human will ever be.
After weaving my way around the tropics for close to a year, I came back to New York. Things look different through the overgrown beard of return. Odyssian wanderers get one precious moment of inhalation—a fleeting century of suspended observation in which we have the chance to see things as an outsider might see them—before being compelled to peel off the disguising layer travel invariably creates and reinsert ourselves back into whenever mess we left behind.
From that momentary panoramic perspective of an outsider, New York hit me like an anvil to the face. In that blink of outsiderness, when one’s homeland feels strange enough to relegate one to the perspective of foreigner, I was no longer in charge of the pace of hammer stokes with which the city and I made contact. I couldn’t match stride with the city’s tumult. Either the anvil slammed up into me or I was dropped face first onto it; whatever the direction of the blow, my nose met unforgiving iron and the city didn’t feel like the medley of aliveness I remembered; it felt like a soulless slab of merciless force, a uniform alloy smelt from liquor, salt, exhaust, plastic, and electrons.
The sensation was brief, and New York soon dissolved into its familiar maze of expectations and incongruities. About a month later, I returned to New Hampshire, to the lifeless ruralness I had been avoiding for over a decade. I again arrived dressed in the robes of a prodigal outsider, and I again had a fleeting century in which to see the land where I was raised through the eyes of one seeing it for the first time.
I steeled myself against the rigid unaliveness I expected to find, but I was bracing myself for a blow that never fell. Instead, I heard a whispering breath. The maples exhaled audibly and the short, orderly lawn grass let out languid, airy sighs as it stretched toward morning light. The dew quivered, the frogs burped, and the pine boughs chuckled quietly to themselves.
I could hear New Hampshire’s aliveness. Like a droning hum you don’t notice until it’s been switched off and back on again, the low hymn of New England’s ruralscape clicked into audio focus. This was not the electric buzz of the tropics. This aliveness was more subtle, more patient and deliberate, but it was no less evident. In learning to hear the aliveness of other places I had learned to hear the aliveness of my home.
Tropical coffee farmers would often ask me what people grow where I come from, and I would answer, “apples, panela that drips from blazing trees, and snow drifts that will swallow a man.” To them the description sounded violent and hostile, and, while in the tropics—land that gives life to some crop or other every day of the year—I would often imagine what it would have been like to be a Puritan and arrive on the harshest of shores, coming upon the gateway to a land of deep winters and summers that flee faster than centuries.
New England’s aliveness is a quiet riddle that doesn’t crackle with the obviousness of life at the equator. Not all heartbeats thump the same, but every place has a pulse. Sometimes you have to race fast enough to catch it and sometimes you have to be still long enough to hear the hushed rhythm, to feel the slowest evidences proving that suffocating walls of tombs spring up only where we haven’t learned how to listen with the right resolve.