When You’re a Nobody

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When I was in Slovenia, one of the most important lessons I learned from the community of writers I spent time with had to do with the concept of anonymity. When you are anonymous, you can be whoever you want to be. When you are anonymous, you can create in your own way. You owe nothing to some image of yourself, nothing to the culture you’ve come from, nothing to your government. You are just you, self-created, free.

Recently, one of my students was asked at a college admissions interview, “If you could have one magic power, what would it be?” My student answered, “Invisibility.” When he told me about this exchange, he seemed annoyed by the question and by his on-the-spot answer. But I told him, “This is actually great. To be invisible means that the world has not laid claim to you. You are anonymous. You can become whatever you want to become. Look around at some of your classmates  who can’t be invisible. Their parents have laid their lives out for them. They have so many pressures to follow the prescribed path. But you, anonymously, invisibly, can follow your own true path.”

Coming back to the U.S. was not an easy transition for me. And it was due to this very thing. I had left a world where I was invisible, where I could walk my dog and work lines of my writing out in my head. No one would know me on the street. I didn’t hear the conversations being spoken around me because I didn’t know the language. I felt ageless. I was anonymous. I was free.

So I won’t lie. Being back in Vermont has been hard. Vermont is not my home. It’s life in the “in-between,” a place where I am not invisible anymore like I was in Slovenia, but not visible either because I have not stepped into a life that is truly my own yet. Since the illness and death of my husband, I’ve been in limbo. And I absolutely hate limbo.

I began thinking about my last week in Ljubljana and the Mourning Chapels of architect, Jože Plečnik, who lived and worked in the early part of the 20th century and is responsible for transforming the modern architectural face of Ljubljana. Sometimes the city is referred to as “Plečnik’s Ljubljana,” because he created so many of the beautiful structures and modern landscapes within the Slovenian capital.

I encountered the Mourning Chapels on a strange kind of a night. I’d convinced my friend to drive me to the apartment where my late husband had lived. I wanted to ring the bell. It was the same name on the buzzer as the family he’d lived with in 1978. But to be honest, the project felt a bit like something a person from four years ago was interested in doing. It wasn’t something I really wanted to do anymore, but I felt the pressure of my imminent departure from Slovenia and so I asked my friend.

“Ok,” he said.

We bought a bottle of wine on the way there, something to offer. The store didn’t have wine bags so we put it awkwardly in a child’s birthday bag. We realized we’d parked too far away from the apartment building and I ‘d bought groceries while in the store so we decided to bring the groceries to the car and drive closer to the building. Everything was off. Finally, my friend said,

“It’s too late to ring the bell now.”

The next afternoon we tried again. My friend showed up with a proper wine bag for the wine and we parked in the right location. We rang the bell. No answer. So we let ourselves into the building and wandered floor to floor, looking for the right door. There was no rhyme or reason to the layout. An apartment beginning with the number 6 was not on the 6th floor. Many doors had no numbers, no names. Finally, we went down to the lobby. My friend wrote a note in Slovene with his phone number on it and we put it in the mailbox of the family.

“What now?” I asked.

“I don’t think you’ve seen Plečnik’s Mourning Chapels.”

“No, I haven’t. What are those?”

“People gather in mourning chapels to honor someone who has died before he/she is buried. Some of Plečnik’s chapels are grand and some simple, depending on what suits the family. They’re little places of in-between.”

“I’d love to see them,” I said.

But when we got to the Mourning Chapels, the entrance was locked.

“These doors have always been open–to everyone, at all hours of the day!”

So we walked with my little dog in the cemetery instead. I wasn’t in the mood for a cemetery, but the night air of June was perfect.

Then we saw a guard walking furiously toward us, yelling something in Slovenian.

No dogs allowed!

He was a funny man. The type of man you’d expect to appear out of no where in a cemetery. It seemed to be aligned with our strange misaligned evening. At first he was rather intense, telling us (in Slovenian) that he was under obligation to call the policija for trespassing with a dog, but as my friend talked with him, he softened. My friend turned to me and said,

“He’s going to open the Mourning Chapels for us.”

It was hard to get to, but that’s how we entered the in-between.

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We have to let go of so much if we want to keep moving forward in life. I’ve had to let go of ideas about who I am in relation to my life. Creating something new is like going through the eye of the needle. It’s painful. I’m not in Plečnik’s Ljubljana anymore, but I’m in this place of in-between: not there, but not yet fully here yet either. It’s like floating really. Remembering that being a nobody is something to strive for has made all the difference. Thank you, Slovenia. Thank you, Ljubljana.

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