“Isn’t this fun?” I asked. If this were a novel I’d say my eyes were glittering, but this is not fiction: I have no idea how wild-eyed I was.
“I just think it’s a little weird to leave school for no reason,” my six-year-old said.
It wasn’t for no reason. The responsibilities of adult life were weighing heavily on me, and I felt stuck with mortgage payments and email responses and writing deadlines and the feeling that every person in our small town was watching me. At the same time, my body was remembering another spring, the spring when I felt most free.
Karis and I took a gently rocking train from Budapest to Prague, clutching paper cups of coffee, steam fogging the green view outside the window. It was May 2002, and I was twenty years old, wearing my hair in greasy braids, mostly unaware of my privilege, and taking myself and my freedom very seriously.
We’d left the USA and our loving families months before and spent the early spring studying outside Florence. At the beginning of May, we shipped boxes home and kissed our friends goodbye. We carried only backpacks. We made no promises to keep in touch. We sent no one our itinerary.
It’s hard to imagine, now, the kind of disconnected floating that was possible then. As we backpacked, we had no smartphones—no cell phones at all—no tablets, no laptops. I carried a paper journal and unwieldy folding maps and purchased train tickets and hostel beds in person, not online. I think I called my parents once, on my twenty-first birthday, which I spent alone in rural France.
It was in Prague that I read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I read a lot of books in high school and college that I was too young to understand. (Literary pretension and delusions of grandeur and a homeschooled childhood will do that to you.) As I backpacked, I visited English bookstores and picked up paperbacks by the authors of each European country I visited. For the Czech Republic, I chose Kundera.
I remember only one thing about the novel. Tomas, a womanizer, never spends the night with any of his lovers until he meets Tereza, who falls asleep holding his hand after they make love. When Tomas wakes, he feels unexpectedly happy. Tereza, on the other hand, has been expecting this love:
Even at the age of eight she would fall asleep by pressing one hand into the other and making believe she was holding the hand of the man whom she loved, the man of her life. So if in her sleep she pressed Tomas’ hand with such tenacity, we can understand why: she had been training for it since childhood.
The only thing I remember about this novel, more than a decade after reading it, is my revulsion at this description. What a weak, womanly character. Her neediness disgusted me.
Tereza is one of the heavier characters in the novel—she believes in commitment and has romantic ideals. She is kind and selfless.
I identified more with Tomas and his mistress Sabina, the light characters in the novel. Tomas is an intellectual and an independent thinker who doesn’t want to be put in anyone’s box, refusing to align with a political party or to commit to monogamy. Sabina, scarred by a repressive childhood in a patriarchal home, pursues beauty and the unconventional. Going off into the unknown is what she does best, leading her eventually to freedom—and isolation—in America.
Back then, I saw myself as a freethinker who despised kitsch, like Tomas and Sabina. Tereza chose the weightiness of the world, of love and commitment, of being bound to earthly things, and I’d read about her at exactly the moment of my life when I was chasing lightness, literally shedding possessions and getting farther away from my people every week.
I needed no handholding, and was embarrassed for Tereza that she did.
But now, I’m a married, home-owning mother of two in a small town in the Midwest, and I’ve been rethinking my opinion of Tereza. Maybe I was wrong in my judgment. Maybe weightiness isn’t bad.
Yet even as I begin to believe in the goodness of commitment and a weighty life, I am still wary of relationships that might tie me down; I still chase that unencumbered lightness I had at twenty. I was chasing it when I checked my kids out of school, needing to feel free and insignificant and splendidly half-real, not bound by my obligations and responsibilities, not bound to this small, earthen life, wanting mortality to be again an “ignorable wilderness,” as poet Carl Phillips calls it.
They—my children—are small weights; sometimes I believe I can carry them with me and still be free to live a life of lightness.
But in my better moments, I know that such lightness is ultimately unbearable; I know that in the burdens of love and friendship, I’ve been given something better. I choose to believe it, even when my feet start tapping at the sound of the distant train whistle.
I believe it best at bedtime. After we read stories and chat, my four-year-old begs me to fall asleep with him, and sometimes I give in. We curl under the blue comforter, facing each other, our bodies shaping a lopsided heart, and his hand wraps around mine. Within minutes, we fall asleep, holding hands.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Amy Peterson
Amy Peterson teaches ESL and works with the Honors program at Taylor University. With a B.A. in English Literature from Texas A&M and an M.A. in Intercultural Studies from Wheaton College, Amy taught ESL for two years in Southeast Asia before returning stateside to teach. Amy has written for Books & Culture, her.meneutics, Comment Magazine, and The Living Church, among other places. At work on her first book, she is represented by Heidi Mitchell of D.C. Jacobson. You can visit her website here.