Monday, January 12, 2009

Traveling Ashes

I've been preoccupied by a thought lately. It's about place and belonging. I went walking in the woods on Sunday and was reminded of the woods of my childhood. There was a time when I knew every woodlot in a 5-mile radius of my parent's house. I knew where to find the best blackberry bushes, where had the neatest streams for damming, where to find arrowheads, where to find pop bottles for cashing in, and where to build the best club houses. Now, I can't remember the name of the streets two streets over. I couldn't find the house my best friend lived in although I bet I spent the night there 50 times. I get turned around while driving when I'm in for the holidays. I feel no sense of belonging there. I am an outsider. My hometown is not my home any longer.

I am homeless.

There's Chicago. Sometimes, some memory will spark a colossal case of the warm fuzzies over Chicago. It adopted me. It didn't care where I came from, it just said, "Come in out of the cold. There's good people here." It took a while, but I could name the streets from the Field Museum to Wrigley Field and from Lake Shore Drive to Damen Avenue. I felt like I belonged. Now, it's all gone. The street names. My favorite haunts. The people I called friends. Not one person I knew in 12 years remains in touch. No phone calls. No Christmas cards. No, Chicago is not home.

Southern Illinois is not home either. Sure, I own a house here, but I am only passing through. I don't know my neighbors. I am a ship with no port. I am a pirate. A gypsy. A Bedouin. An Mbuti. I am not bothered by this. I am not like those Army brats who spend the whole of their adult lives trying to lay down roots in every vacant field. Perhaps it was because I was tethered to one place as a kid--but no, that's not it. I have always had wanderlust. Always had an eye on the horizon. Never had the dream of meeting Prince Charming and having the Cinderella wedding. No fantasy of the husband and 2.3 kids, the house, the picket fence, bbqs with neighbors, and going on vacation to the same place with the same people year after year. I don't want to grow old and sip tea on the porch with the ladies that I have known the whole of my adult life. In fact, just thinking about that life stifles me. The way marriage stifled me. The thought of that is enough to kill my spirit.

They say you get the life you choose, for better or for worse. I like my life. It suits me. But I certainly find facets of it curious. I find it curious that I can't settle down and settle in. The longer I sit, the more I eye the door. I can't imagine moving back to a town where I have already lived. Ok, maybe Chicago. There was a line I recall from a B movie I once saw. The character ripped off his rear view and said in a terribly thick, fake Italian accent: "What'sa behind me is-a not important." The future, ladies and gentlemen, is where adventure lies--and the future is Out There. Like Bonnie Raitt says, the road is my middle name. I'm never so alive as I am when I am on the road. That's why I thought this botany gig would be so nice. I'd get to get it out of my system once a year. But a year between adventures is a very long time. And adventure is never so much fun as when it is shared.

When I think about the times I was happiest over the past year, and where those times happened, I think of Demming, New Mexico, drinking beer with Liv on the Continental Divide and learning about stars. It was dinner with Terry Griswald and David Moeller at Lake Isabella. It was meeting Linds and Joe and camping in that remarkable red valley. It was watching the whitewater on the Kern River. It was seeing my first wild burrowing owls in Winnemucca, Nevada. It was even the excitment of being that close to a Mojave green rattlesnake in the shadow of the Whitney Pockets. And so I have to ask myself. Where do I belong? Where is my home? Is it possible that the road is home? Is it possible that my home is in the mountains I've yet to climb? In the friends whose faces I haven't yet imagined? Is it possible that home is wherever I rest my head at night?

You know, maybe it wasn't so different when I was a kid. I wasn't exactly an indoor kid. I wasn't one to play dolls or dress up. The woods were my playground. And every day, between my companions and my imagination, between dawn and dusk, I ran free. But I have been here 5 years. I am getting itchy feet. I long for the road. My compromise is to reinvent this house. To make it feel new through some massive project. I like my house. It is small and meets my needs. But I am not attached to it.

Bek left this past semester. I realized that of all the people who I started with, I'm the only one left. I am a cohort of 1. Every year a new group comes in, but they are not my group. My phone sometimes goes a week without ringing. My life has become stagnant, uneventful, and predictable. It is, in a word, tedium. Worst of all, it lacks adventure. Donne said, "No man is an island." And yet there are times when I am sure I am so utterly alone that I wonder if any ship will ever pass my way again. Although I'm not sure it is lonliness that has me feeling off-kilter so much as the feeling of being stranded here.

The Lone Ranger had Tonto. Tom Hanks had Wilson. D has Jake the Wonder Dog. I am torn between this need for novelty and this desire for something permanent. I would rather my companions be permanent and my surroundings transient. Unfortunately, I am at a place right now where the opposite is true. My colleagues are transient. Jake is transient. Soon he will leave me as Nevada did. Those old dogs of mine have taught me a valuable lesson. They never cared where we lived as long as we were together. And so, I haven't buried them. I can't leave them behind. I carry their ashes with me. And when I die, their ashes will be buried with mine. Unless, of course, I can find someone willing to cart around our traveling ashes. I'm betting on the latter.

We are a tribe of nomads. Our home is with each other.


  1. You miss one little detail: Tom Hanks had Wilson, but Wilson was just as transient as Jake and Nevada (as I recall he floated off to another island without so much as a 'see ya'). The L.R. had Tonto, but I bet as soon as they went off air Tonto found him a Tanta, flipped L.R. the bird, and settled in upstate New York. The innate 'transience' of life is lost in a story with a Once Upon a Time beginning and a Happily Ever After ending, and if you compare your own running commentary of a life to those stories you're bound to be disappointed.
    You're not an island. You're not a lone ship. You're the lead dog who looks left and right and sees nothing. Look back once in awhile and you'll find the rest of us trying to catch up!

  2. Meh. You know I wasn't happy with this post. It wasn't getting the point across and you just pointed that out quite clearly. It wasn't intended to be quite so melancholy. So I worked on it a little. It's getting there. The problem is, no doubt, that I'm not thinking clearly about this subject just now. But, I must say, I think your dog analogy rocks. =)

  3. Excellent update. I love the last paragraph (and last sentence). What a new idea for me, this idea of transience in people and places. Thanks for that!