Friday, March 27, 2009

Favorite Books: The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin:Solvitur Ambulando: It is Solved by Walking.

The summer after I graduated from college, I drove with five friends to Seattle. There were some good reasons to go there, including the five friends, but I mostly chose it because it felt like a leap into the unknown. I'd never been there, in fact I'd never been farther west than a week in Oklahoma, so this felt like uncharted territory. For maybe the first time I knew that my life was up to me. There was no obvious next step, no roadmap for where I needed to go. Other than a general sense that I needed to support myself in some way, I had no idea what I was supposed to do. It was terrifying and thrilling.

With a detour south to Boulder so one friend could pick stuff up at her mother’s place (resulting in a blissful four day stop-over while one of the cars was repaired), we drove west. U2's Joshua Tree is the music I remember from that trip; we never got out to the places that inspired the album, but the wonder and expansion I heard in the music fit perfectly with the scenery streaming past the windows: endless stars arching over the pitch black Nebraska cornfields, the Rocky mountains painted rose and gold by the rising sun, to this day I can never hear In God's Country without picturing the buttes of Utah and a sky that just seemed bigger somehow. The whole trip was filled with a sense of space and motion unlike anything I’d ever felt before.

Then there was this book. For our shared birthday that year my mom had given me Bruce Chatwin’s memoir* The Songlines. In it she wrote "thee is obligated to love this book, because I do!" She needn’t have worried. I was instantly hooked, and the book has become one of my touchstones. People who know the it might be surprised to learn that I’ve been thinking about it recently due to my musings on home and homemaking, but I have. The premise is this; Chatwin uses his first trip to Australia - where he’s hoping to learn more about the Aboriginal beliefs known as the Songlines - as a framing story to examine some ideas he’d been playing with over his many years of travel.

I felt, before the malaise of settlement crept over me, that I should reopen those notebooks, I should set down on paper a resume of the ideas, quotations and encounters which had amused and obsessed me; and which I hoped would shed light on what is, for me, the question of questions: the nature of human restlessness...My two most recent notebooks were crammed with jottings taken in South Africa, where I had examined, at first hand, certain evidence on the origin of our species. What I learned there - together with what I now knew about the Songlines - seemed to confirm the conjecture I had toyed with for so long; that Natural Selection has designed us - from the structure of our brain-cells to the structure of our big toe - for a career of seasonal journeys on foot, through a blistering land of thorn-scrub or desert.
If this were so; if the desert were ‘home’; if our instincts were forged in the desert; to survive the rigours of the desert - then it is easier to understand why greener pastures pall on us; why possessions exhaust us, and why Pascal’s imaginary man found his comfortable lodgings a prison.
(pp. 161-2)

Now don’t get me wrong; even back then I wasn't completely on board with this. Though I have yet to see a desert, and have been told its dry heat is much easier to handle than the swampy stuff I know and loathe, still, I do not think a life of wandering in one is for me. Nor am I sure I buy the idea of biological determination as he describes it. He chases his thoughts down some fascinating avenues, but I don't always agree with his conclusions. But Chatwin’s larger idea - that human beings are happiest and healthiest when nomadic - resonated deeply with me, articulating feelings that had been brewing in my brain for a while. I've returned to this book many times, and it always strikes some deep chords.

This wasn’t the Paul Gauguin move-to-paradise-and-have-lots-of-sex-with-beautiful-locals approach I was thinking about (though that fantasy had its own appeal). It wasn’t the Thoreau model of simplify-your-life-by-a-pond though it did involve sloughing off excess. It wasn’t the denunciation of the evils of civilization that many people indulge in, even if my fantasy did have me spending a lot of time in wild or rural places. I wasn’t even envisioning a true nomadic journey described by Chatwin as a consistent and traditional migration path - like the earth around the sun - where "time and space are ...dissolved around each other: a month and a stretch of road are synonymous"(p.184). (That has some appeal too, though, in a joining-the-circus sort of way). I think I was picturing something more like what Chatwin himself did, taking space and time to wander freely, physically and intellectually, as life, and his curiosity, took him where they may.

Yes, yes, I realize backpacking for a few years after college is hardly an original idea, and most of us occasionally have the fantasy of running away to see the world, my point is it was hitting me for the first time in a visceral way. I could do it if I wanted. What would stop me (certainly not Mom, I think it’s safe to say)? Maybe I would be running away from making decisions, or an adult lifestyle or some such, but Chatwin had made an interesting life from it, it wasn’t like I had any game plan right then anyway, why not give it a try for a little while? That ‘adult lifestyle’ would always be there to come back to, eventually.

Soon after setting in Seattle I heard another variation on this choice; my first boyfriend told me about friends of his who would pick apples all fall in Washington State or British Columbia, save their money, travel until it ran out, then stop wherever they were to earn more, often by selling their hand-knit sweaters. The idea of doing something like this with another person became a very appealing modification. This seemed like an experience that should be shared.

I didn’t do it though. I got to Seattle, and immediately began building a settled existence, albeit one with no long range plan. Nor do I regret that choice now, though there were times in the past I felt like I wimped out. Only recently have I begun to think that Chatwin's book was shaping my choices more than I realized. No, I didn’t want to wander the desert; green places have never "palled on" me; but the fact is, quite often, I have felt exhausted by possessions.

Probably most of us, when starting out on our adult lives, have furnished our homes in what I call the "Ya Done with That?" style. You know, the hand-me-downs, the dumpster finds, the gifts from friends upgrading their own possessions, that stuff. Well, I never stopped decorating that way. When I moved out of my first home in Seattle, I was a bit distressed to realize I now had possessions I could not move by myself (bed, couch). I lived in the same place for four years before finally getting around to painting the walls and putting up artwork. This came in handy when I decided to move to New York; two weeks after deciding to move I had tied up all strings and left Seattle for good. Lack of possessions also served me well when I arrived in New York, and moved ten times in the first three years. Once again I could carry all my possessions alone, though eventually I could no longer carry them all at once. Essentially I’ve been camping out at some level (insert gay joke here, I got nothin') my whole adult life. It’s just a little weird to realize I’ve been doing it in a single location now for ten years.

Now there are some good reasons that has happened, and many ways little decisions along the way turned into ten years of an improvised yet sedentary life in this apartment. Nor is it entirely a lack of action that has gotten me here; as I mentioned before, I’d rather look at open spaces and clean white walls then at artwork or knick-knacks I don’t like. The screaming visual and aural mayhem of city living means I like a little peace and quiet when I get home.

That said though, I have to admit my camping out (anything? I still got nothin’) might indicate a refusal to commit to this place, whether I mean this apartment, or New York in general. With the exception of the TV, bed, and computer, every other big possession is someone else’s cast-off. I’m grateful for it all, some of it is quite nice actually, but I would miss very little of it if it disappeared. And yes, there are times when it feels like some possessions own me. I have a seven foot tall oak bookcase that occasionally feels like an anchor chaining me here. Even the lease on my apartment has that effect sometimes. You have to understand, by local standards, this place is a prize. The amount I pay for the amount of space I get is a bargain, relatively speaking, and best of all, I got it without using a broker. Someone with my employment history and amount of savings would not luck out like this twice, not here. No, without a sudden windfall, new job or, I don’t know, a rich boyfriend, if I move in New York, I’m likely to be paying much more for much less, while still having roommates. So here I am, camping out in my apartment. For ten years, and counting.

So, I’m thinking about home. There’s home as state of mind (or heart, if you prefer). There’s home as location. Right now though, I’m thinking a lot about home as journey. I think it’s possible to be in motion and feel grounded. I’ve even experienced it at times. Maybe my home is relationships and life experiences more than roots. Certainly the older I get, my network of loved ones spreads farther and wider. Just visiting all of them would be pretty fantastic. I don’t think I’d want to be on permanent vacation; I like working too much, even when I’m not really sure what that work is. But motion and the bare necessities, that holds a lot of appeal.

I don’t think I’m likely to hit the open road any time soon, if ever. I’m feeling my age, for one thing. I once spent three months sleeping, and sleeping well, on a cement floor, but I’m pretty sure those days are over. Regardless though of whether I choose to make this place my home, move someplace else and make that home, or hit the open road, I know two things that can happen now, and will help. First, I need to purge some possessions, possibly even cutting a bit into the meat to be sure I've cut all the fat. Fortunately I love purging possessions. I don't even mind receiving spam email most of the time because that gives me a reason to use the delete button and the recycle bin and I love the delete button and the recycle bin.

The second step is to get moving again. My body and I are barely speaking to each other, and it's all my fault. Well, mostly my fault. I mean in a relationship there's always some give and take, right? Anyway, I'm overdue for a good long walk, and I've finally made an appointment for acupuncture, in the hopes that decades of chronic pain might finally find a solution. Movement, space and health: maybe that's where I find home.

The following is one of my favorite quotations that Chatwin shares from his notebooks.

Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it... but by sitting still, and the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill... Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.
Soren Kierkegaard, letter to Jette (1847).

*I starred the word memoir only because a few years ago, evidence arose that Chatwin may have fictionalized parts of the Australia narrative, that is, the framing story. Since this in no way affects the deeper themes I value in the book, it doesn't bother me if it is true. I do find it funny that this was one of the two books I gave my British Columbian friend, before I learned his true story. The other book I gave him, The Last Unicorn, explores questions of seeming, reality, and how they affect each other. Life is funny.


Java said...

I have a strong sense of wanderlust. I chafe at the binds I have built for myself. It is good to have a home, but I prefer for my home to be a base to which I can return after some good wandering. Right now it feels more like a prison, and much of the problem is all the possessions that possess me. Perhaps I need some good de-possession therapy.

I had to laugh at the "Ya done with that?" method of furnishing a home. After 26 years of marriage and 4 kids, we're still doing that.

This is a thought provoking post. I'm glad you shared your thoughts about this.

Greg said...

Wonderful post, Patrick. I like the way all these seemingly random thoughts from different directions start settling out into patterns, suggestions, ideas.

So much of this resonates. I felt that wanderlust, but not soon enough. I love the Joshua Tree album - it does have that "big country" feeling to it. And of course you know I subscribe to that style of decor.

Think of you often when I'm walking to the bay and look forward to hearing about a nice long ramble for you soon (Actually, I was inspired to check in here tonight after hearing a story on NPR about a tree killer at Inwood. Have you heard of this sadness?).

Ultra Dave said...

Very nice. I can certainly relate. The book sounds interesting. I may have to add that to my must read list.

Birdie said...

My wanderlust is driven by innate curiosity: what's around the next bend? Even so, having that "home" to return to is vital to my well-being, "home" being people more than place. My sense of home is established by the people I love, so I find home wherever I find them. Touching on the familiar while expanding into the unfamiliar is the best of both worlds. And we can do that in our own locations, too; we don't have to leave to find something new.

I get a sense in a lot of your writings of restlessness. May you find the peace you seek wherever you go.

(I laughed out loud at your camping jokes. Better than anything I could have offered!)

tornwordo said...

This made me miss my saw-blade coffee table. I found a big saw blade and some bricks. Spouse won't let me bring anything home from the alley anymore.

I hope we get to meet when we're in NYC for those two hours in June.

Ben said...

Lovely post. It reminded me of this poem, for some reason:

[Over a cup of coffee]
by Stephen Dobyns

Over a cup of coffee or sitting on a park bench or
walking the dog, he would recall some incident
from his youth—nothing significant—climbing a tree
in his backyard, waiting in left field for a batter's
swing, sitting in a parked car with a girl whose face
he no longer remembered, his hand on her breast
and his body electric; memories to look at with
curiosity, the harmless behavior of a stranger, with
nothing to regret or elicit particular joy. And
although he had no sense of being on a journey,
such memories made him realize how far he had
traveled, which, in turn, made him ask how he
would look back on the person he was now, this
person who seemed so substantial. These images, it
was like looking at a book of old photographs,
recognizing a forehead, the narrow chin, and
perhaps recalling the story of an older second
cousin, how he had left long ago to try his luck in
Argentina or Australia. And he saw that he was
becoming like such a person, that the day might
arrive when he would look back on his present self
as on a distant relative who had drifted off into
uncharted lands.

Anonymous said...

Damn! Wow! What an amazingly introspective and perceptive post--I finished reading and felt stunned (in a good way)--wish I could meet you.


Marta said...

wow, beautiful patrick. i'm getting so eager to hear even more about home and homemaking from you.

i have to admit that i am feeling moved by the spirit to share something i have felt in a fairly urgent and overwhelming way on several recent occasions, but have resisted because it seems so silly, given all the circumstances, but here it is: maybe you should move to philadelphia? the reasons are many, and i won't list them here, but do you want to come for a visit over easter? it will be a lot of liturgy for a quaker like you, but you might like it in an anthropological sort of way, if nothing else! if not then, let's figure something out soon.

xoxo marta

David said...

I don't "own" a stick of furniture in my apartment. Fortunately all of it is quite portable, as I've moved three times in the last five years. I long for a place - and a place in my life - where I could feel stable enough to purchase furniture that would anchor me. I've wandered long enough already.

TED said...

You should, someday, make the trip to Joshua Tree. It is a profoundly rewarding experience.