Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Talisman

This is a St. Christopher medal, very similar to the one I've had since 1990. The translation from the Greek is "Christ-bearer"...

Yesterday, I was watching the great Mira Nair film "The Namesake", adapted from Jhumpa Lahiri's excellent 2004 novel. There's a scene in which the widowed mother announces that she's returning to India, and her daughter-in-law says,"Oh, like your name," and then explains that Ashima means 'free spirit'. I got up to go to the kitchen and said aloud to myself, "Eh, like Christopher means 'Christ-bearer'," and I froze.

My mind flashed to the small gold medallion sitting in a ring tray on my bureau, and to the exact timeframe in which I obtained it...right after my big undergraduate flameout, just before my parents put me on a plane to London.

Recently, my sister told me she felt that I didn't trust anyone. It's not a hundred percent accurate, but it's close. I trust a very, very few people- somewhere around the same number that I actually, as one of my friends once said, let in enough to really know me (she's someone who spent high school mildly disliking me for that reason, and then got closer to me as an adult).

As I was drifting through the house last night, it struck me that there was a deeply buried reason that I'd worn that little medal for ten straight years. It was my talisman, it was my trust, and it was the thing that made me feel safe for reasons that I couldn't admit to anyone, least of all myself.

I went to the United Kingdom and visited all the deeply nerdy shrines: the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert, Stonehenge, Cambridge, the End of the World, the Houses of Parliament, the Inns of Court, and, oddly, Torquay...home of Agatha Christie. I was only close to one person who might have found any or all of that interesting, like my weekly visits to look at the Domesday Book, Magna Carta, and the Lindisfarne Gospels- but I was the proverbial stranger in a strange land. I knew a couple of the people in the group and made three or four friends after I got there, but I was a little lost- except for St. Chris. He was always with me.

Strangely enough, I went through another series of dramatic changes before I landed in my current job, ten and a half years ago. I'd largely stopped wearing the medal during the first year, although my return to the U.K. caused me to put it back on. By then, it felt a little incongruent, as if I'd let go of a certain level of fear in my life. When I got back, I consigned it to the ring tray- and there it is, even today.

We create our own heroes, our own safety blankets; we cling to things when we should've let them drift into the past long ago. Often we don't realize that we're doing it, and in this case, the second layer of meaning took me quite by surprise. I went to the bureau and dusted the St. Christopher off, turning it over to look at the tiny dent left by a friend's overly curious Cockatiel, and recognized, at last, that it had quieted my mind and spirit over the many years that have intervened.

I don't know what it really means. It tires me to even think about it. I'm angry with myself for not seeing it before now, not that it makes much difference...but be careful who you make your saints, for men have feet of clay.

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