Lost in Translation by Eva Hoffman

“All immigrants and exiles know the peculiar restlessness of an imagination that can never again have faith in its own absoluteness.”

I have a lot to say about this book so I’m not going to say very much.

Hoffman immigrated from Poland to America in 1959. She was 13 years old.

If it is presumptuous and arrogant to compare my own life experiences with hers, too bad. That’s what we do when we read. We learn to see ourselves in other people, to understand our emotions in their experiences. It makes us better. We become more self-aware, and more aware that the gap between ‘me’ and ‘you’ or ‘us’ and ‘them’ is a very, very tiny gap.

I grew up feeling like an exile from the larger culture around me, and it was okay in a lot of ways, but also not okay in a lot of ways.

“It is shameful to admit that sometimes things can go very wrong; it’s shameful to confess that sometimes we have no control.”

Then I voluntarily exiled myself from the smaller culture that had been mine, and it was traumatizing. It was important, it was necessary, and I am much, much better for it. But it was traumatizing.

“No, there’s no returning to the point of origin, no regaining of childhood unity. Experience creates style, and style, in turn, creates a new woman. …The wholeness of childhood truths is intermingled with the divisiveness of adult doubt.”

More recently, I find myself exiled from marriage, dumped out of partnership, adrift, alone, uncertain, wearing this new identity like clothes that don’t fit. What are the rules? What is the language? How does it work? How do I find my own edges? Who do I look at across the room? What does intimacy require, and how long can I live without it?

I also find myself exiled from a community that means so much to me I still don’t know how to talk about it. Puerto Rico gave me a place to emerge as my adult-self without having to continually brush off the burden of my child-self. Even when that community was threatened—some of it ruptured by personal shit, and some of it halted by pandemic—it was still a larger kind of home, a deeper sense of belonging than I’ve felt in a long time. Imperfect and messy, as homes are. No less meaningful.

And the ocean, oh the ocean. The ocean feels like something I’ve been missing my whole life, and finally, finally found. Important but long-dormant parts of me started to move and grow in the waves—and now, as I stare out my window at the car lot, the road, the busy people doing busy things, I am afraid. Will I lose those parts of myself again? It feels like they are shriveling up, drying out, retreating.

I try to trust. I try to accept. I try to let it be. I try to breathe in, breathe out. I try not to panic. I try not to weep. I try not to scream.

“I can’t afford to look back, and I can’t figure out how to look forward.

Time used to open out, serene, shimmering with promise… Now, time has no dimension, no extension backward or forward. I arrest the past, and I hold myself stiffly against the future; I want to stop the flow.”

I lied about not saying very much.

What life requires from me now is strength, and I have it. But I am afraid that the strength will become hardness. I was becoming someone softer, wilder, lush, expansive. I liked her. I don’t know if I can keep her alive.

But I will try. I am trying.