Gertrude Stein is the source of a number of quotable quotes. Her best-known line may be the phrase that, by the time her self-hagiographic reputation-sealing memoir “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” came out in 1933 was well known enough that it is embossed on the cover of the first edition: Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose—usually used to mean that things are as they are—that’s just the way it is; nowadays we say “it is what it is” and make a grimace of acceptance. This line comes from “Sacred Emily,” in 1913, but later iterations and echoes in others of her works dropped what seems to be an initial proper name, and in fact the line is usually quoted as “A rose is a rose is a rose,” which makes it more amenable to interpretation as a rueful if clever shrug.
In fact, Stein was right—assuming this is what she meant. Life is as it is. Things are the way they are. In fact this is the most startling thing about life: that while startling exists as an exception, as do exciting, harrowing, pulse-racing and exotic, all of them are exceptions with fairly short half-lives that damp down to the flatness of the everyday. All are exceptions to the norm, which is simply the non-exceptional. Exceptional is the exception.
It’s as if all of us float on different bodies of water. The size and depth can vary but not the fact of floating on the surface: that feels the same wherever we are. If more water is added under is we feel a swell, and a sense of drop of water is removed. But then it’s back to floating on the surface.
Those who live in Timbuktu take Timbuktu for granted—though in 2012-2013 Tumbuktu was subjected to many changes as Tuareg separatists, Islamic militants, and then French and African Union forces took control. As I write the town is reportedly all but deserted, bereft of the Western tourists who were a major source of income as well as of the Tuareg from the north, the Sahel sand being blown along the streets like tumbleweed in a Texas ghost town where the doors with ripped panes of screening clatter and flap. Each of these changes required a change of water level but eventually things will find their equilibrium: if the tourists do not return, the people will stop looking for them and establish a new normal.
For the Western tourists, of course, it is all different. No Western tourists stayed in Timbuktu, but enough stay in other out-of-the-way places: the New York Times the week I am writing profiled the small expatriate community in an also-ran town in Morocco: their reality is different than that of the Moroccans, but it too has its own rhythm—rather similar, it seems, to my life for the two years I lived in the heart of central Africa. For the French in Morocco, news travels by “arab telephone”—for us it was “bush telegraph.” Expats invite expats, and the rare educated/Westernized local; we can descend into the market but let our houseboy do the bargaining, and live the life expected of us (American backpackers in India never “get” that as Westerners they aren’t supposed to want to live like sadhus or peasants but rather like Westerners, eat in restaurants and stay in hotels).
Those who live in New York get used to it; those who live in Washington get used to it; those who live in Moscow or Mogadischu, Mauritius or Madagascar or Monaco, get used to it. Ultimately it “feels like home.” New Yorkers are not stunned by the looming tall buildings, take the rattling subway for granted, and think the width of a building between two streets that is planted as a park with benches is raw nature itself—right next to the over-populated predictable greenness of Central Park. In Washington I complain about the traffic lights and the tourists rather than being stunned by the welter of world-class museums (I am not stunned, but grateful, and I visit them frequently and intensively), just the way foodies are out of sorts of a single dish in the hot new restaurant fails to please their palates rather than being glad they aren’t starving. Everything returns to normal and we notice only the exceptional: the one time there are difficulties with the washing machine, not the countless times it works correctly. The internet problems, not their normal speed. We can’t imagine going back to dialup and are furious at airlines charging for checked baggage, but don’t say a prayer of gratitude for email with far-off friends or the possibility of getting on a flight to Paris. Youth, they say, is wasted on the young: of course it is, because they are young.
Numerous thinkers have pointed out that we take ourselves wherever we go—as if to say that we can’t ever have a vacation. But this is turned around. Of course we can have a vacation, a place where we are not in the same ruts as always—usually in places where we pay to have others fulfill our whims, for which we pay with money we’ve budgeted in advance and so which we don’t miss. But sooner or later the place will begin to have its own monotony, as we no longer notice every little thing there any more than we do at home, are used to the things that once seemed so devastatingly charming when we arrived. To be in a strange place that is no longer strange, and without the comfort of what we are used to, is scary.
We can get used to anything, it seems. Life in New York or Venice is certainly strange by most people’s standards—but New Yorkers or Venetians (all there are of them any more, at any rate) think those who don’t know how to hail a cab or which subway line to take, where the vaporetto stop is or how to cope with the aqua alta, are backwards: if you ask nicely they are glad to share, but it’s knowledge that for the most part they think is standard. Even life under the Blitz had its normalcy: when the sirens sounded, people headed for the shelters. Life undergoing chemo has its normalcy. Life in a concentration camp had its pattern of regularity, and its outliers.
Of course we can remember another life, another place, or another set of givens, so that we look up and wonder, What am I doing here? Or How can people allow this to be? Or How does God allow this? Or even How did I get so lucky? The everyday of running kids and going to the grocery store can be punctuated by moments of felicity where we think, It really is worth it. We see our child, the sun shining on his hair, in a loping gate across the soccer field who pauses to wave: we are stabbed with perfect felicity. There is a moment of quiet with the whole family in bed on Sunday morning; momentarily the kids are not fighting, we reach over and kiss our partner’s shoulder. The rest of the time is the logistical jungle of homework, traffic jams, sports, dinners, cleanups and laundry—and arguments.