I transferred at Westminster yesterday in the throngs of dark-suited commuters, my black heels clicking on the tiles. Around me were glassy-eyed travelers, glued to their phones or the occasional newspaper, each in his or her tiny bubble pressed together on the train. Above me, Westminster Abby, Westminster Bridge, the Houses of Parliament—a scent of Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Monet. I was under the space of such artistic richness, under the tombs of kings and queens, under the amassed history of western culture. I got off at the slick station to travel deeper underground to the Jubilee line. Under the Thames, snaking first on one side and then the other until I popped up in Canary Wharf for a meeting.
Living in London is filled with moments that are new to me. Walking past a building with a plaque that tells me King Henry the something was born in a castle near this spot; Oscar Wilde wrote in a flat in this building. Seeing chunks missing from the wall of the V&A—a tangible reminder of a world war that the world seems to be forgetting. Putting on a suit without getting on an airplane. Crossing through building security rather than boarder security. Passing through unremarkable landscapes to see remarkable buildings rather than the reverse. It is a series of opposites here on the opposite side of the world.
In New Zealand, my friends are freezing with the first cold snap of the winter. Here I have decided I have underestimated the warmth of the London summer and need to buy clothes for sticky, sweaty days. In New Zealand my dog frolics on the beach and then curls up in front of the fire with Danni and Lola. Here, I pet strangers’ dogs with an embarrassing delight and come home to a pet-free house for the first time in twenty years or more.
It’s my birthday today and some things feel so normal and some so bizarre. Naomi, Aidan, Michael and I are all under one roof, briefly (Naomi heads to NYC tomorrow to start her summer internship). Naomi has made me my current favorite cake (with my beautiful new mixer) and we have collaborated on the mocha buttercream. But we have baked it far from what has felt like home for more than a decade and she has iced it on our borrowed plates.
Tomorrow, Michael and I will go and celebrate my birthday in a lovely inn—in Bath, a place I have long wanted to go to soothe the Austentonian part of my soul. He has booked us the Elizabeth Bennett room overlooking some of the spaces Austen walked—and hated—during her short but important life. Once again, I will be surrounded by the beauties of living in London, and far far away from the joys of living in New Zealand. Where is Melissa for my birthday party? Where is Keith with a card and a sketch? Where is my walk through the hills and down along the beach?
We have so many decisions to make here. We are deciding whether to stay in this flat—comfortable and so convenient—or to find something a little bigger and a little farther out. Today we will walk the streets of potential new neighborhoods to help us decide. Could this place feel like home? How about this one? Then there is the question about whether we will bring a container of our furniture along with us into a new place. Will we stay in London long enough to make that a good idea? How will we know? When will we know? The future is, as always, murky.
On my birthday last year, I had a biopsy. It was clear from the moment the sample was taken that the lump was not cancer. Melissa and Ayla and Aidan and I went out to dinner afterwards; I was trembling with delight and relief and couldn’t eat anything. This year, no biopsies, no scans, no tests. But always always the reminder that each birthday is itself a gift. I do not hide from my age (I’m now 48, lovely round number) but delight in it. I made it to 48! When I was first diagnosed with cancer at 42, suddenly that didn’t seem quite so certain.
Today we will walk through parks past palaces. We will eat in cafes in neighbourhoods that might become familiar, that might be just around the corner from where my dog curls up on his couch. Or they might stay foreign, to be visited once and then forgotten. Our lives are like that always, I suppose, whether we cross under the Thames or over a highway. There are always invisible branches leading to futures we’ll never see, and the energy and history of a past we never had. And through it all, there is this one life, this one day, this one place. I give thanks for the odd set of accidents that led to my birth, and to the people who have molded and loved me, the ideas that have shaped me, and the places that have held me. Let’s see what happens next.
ps the picture today is of Hyde Park which has become my favourite place in the world with all the goslings and duckings and cygnets. Seemed a good thing for a birthday.