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Dear Becca P.,
Two weeks ago I retold the story of you and Emelio in (I believe) Hong Kong, buying clothes at Uniqlo for what you thought would be a fancy dinner, and then showing up in your new duds and being way more dressed up than anyone else in the room. I told the story to my friend Molly (whom you know) in the kitchen of a house in Tivoli, NY, next door to a mansion I'd rented a room in for a few months until the owner turned it into a hotel. I was recounting it because Molly and I had been fretting for several days about what to wear to this dinner we were going to at Bard in celebration of our friend Greg, who won the Bard Fiction Prize this year—various people had said to us that it was “very formal”; “not at all a big deal”; “just don't wear jeans” and so on—but, besides the topical appropriateness (and the comforting moral of your story, if it can be said to have one), I think I just really like that anecdote of yours. What struck me about it when you guys told it to me and Andrew—and I thought of this again as I told it to Molly—is that there is something about it that speaks to the experience of being not transitory but often-in-transit: not in your settled place with all the things you could possibly need, and not always sure what the expectations of your current context might be. One of the affinities I've felt with you and Emelio as we get to know each other is that, like me, and like Andrew, you two have lived for a short while in many places, and thus have both been frequent travelers and have had many a for-a-while homes. The Uniqlo story, with your attempts to guess at and adapt to a scenario on short notice, and with the ending in which you are perhaps a bit out of step but not surprised or discontented (at least not in the retelling)—all that is familiar to me, though the setting and specifics are not my own.
This style of living has been on my mind recently (though it is sort of always on my mind) because of our recent move. Sometimes I fear that the stage I'm in—the first few months in a new place—is actually the stage of being a place that feels most like “home” to me. I've moved around a lot, and I think a part of me has started to see that moving as my state of being. And, as you and Emelio described in talking about how you made your decision to move to Seattle, a part of me has both always craved the end of that moving and fears not having that restless, curious, temporary relationship to place. So many people in the various settings I've lived in have really known the area in which they live, the kind of knowing that requires comparing instance against instance against instance. So that Mikee, the baker for whom I worked in Tivoli just after graduating from Bard, can tell me stories that make it clear that the towns around there are in truth palimpsests, maps on which each building's successions of purposes and people are traced and overwritten; or so that Sam, who, along with his wife Noy, who was my graduate adviser, owns the house in which we stayed in Montana, could point out little histories in the landscape and the quality of the roads around the house, and could tell us, too, where the sun would set over the Rockies depending on the time of year. I've always envied that kind of intimacy, or longed for it when I've seen it; it's a kind of knowledge that appears not scrapped for but just acquired, and it seems like a sign that a place is indeed “home.”
And yet part of me feels like I'll never have that, and has even acclimated to the idea of not having it. It occurred to me one day in Montana, driving back from town or walking along the endless-seeming gravel roads around Noy and Sam's house, that maybe there's a way in which I've foreclosed the possibility of permanent relation to a place in my own mind, because besides the kind of knowledge that I've just mentioned, the other thing that I believe can make somewhere feel like home is people. I experienced this at Bard: that feeling that you are entirely at ease, or in the right place, despite the inevitable daily adversities, because of the company you're in. But Bard was temporary, and I always knew it would be, even if I'd stayed forever in the Hudson Valley. I remember the day I left there to go on my bike trip with Anneka—I believed that was the day I was moving away from that region forever, though true to my historically very poor prediction of my own future, I was living there again a mere six months later—anyway, I remember getting up early to be driven to the Albany airport by three or four friends, all of us crammed into the derelict shared BMW that we'd driven around in constantly that summer, and as we drove to the airport I thought to myself, we'll never all live in the same place again. So many people had already left and most of the rest were leaving. In a way I think I accepted that as an edict that home, as I understood it, had come and gone—or rather that the components of home for me would as of that moment be spread out and scattered across the country. This felt like a tragedy to me then, and for a long time after, and sometimes it still does. But I think over time that resignation took on a cheerful side (and this is what I thought about in Montana, walking or driving—memories within memories in this paragraph!): if I don't feel like home is any one possible place, everywhere I go has a feeling of novelty and possibility that's not tied to that rootedness but instead to the joy that comes from something fleeting.
This has also been coming up in my reading as of late: a bit in The Mushroom at the End of the World, which I really should be farther along in reading in order to be fully prepared for book club, but mostly in Henry James, whose work I was reading earlier this winter. Have you ever read him? I was very briefly introduced to his short stories as a college student, but I've gotten very excited about his fiction post-academia, at least since reading The Portrait of a Lady last year. James was himself someone who blurred boundaries of home—he was born in New York but spent much of his adult life in Europe—and it also sometimes feels like all his characters are grappling with a sense of rootlessness, in part because he writes about a very particular class and milieu that is constantly moving around from place to place in Europe: from England to Italy to France, from city to city. The Golden Bowl, which is the novel I'm in the middle of, opens with one of the characters, Prince Amerigo, walking through London and considering “his London,” which both overlaps with and supersedes the city as an objective place. Later he also talks about “his Rome”; other characters, too, have their subjective places, their understandings of a country or town. This phrasing made intrinsic sense to me—I feel like I have my own Hudson Valley, my Wyoming, my Portland and Northampton and Montana. But I think part of its meaning—the connotation of a possessive understanding a la Amerigo's London—has to do with a limitedness, a finitude of experience. People who really do know a place, like my old boss Mikee, certainly have their own relationship with it, their favorite haunts and memories, but they've also seen enough change that whatever ownership or belonging they feel is also paired with a broader sense of what the place is now, how it's been altered and is always altering. I think of the Simone Weil quote about rootedness that I showed you at Broadcast the day you and Emelio skied over (and which I quoted in my last Ear Mountain to Joe), and her description of community as “a living shape.” Like a tree, places grow, are pruned or weathered, become unrecognizable to those who haven't seen then in a long time, and rootedness invites one to witness those changes so incrementally that they may not seem like change at all. Whereas the unrooted, myself included, see everything in abrupt zoetrope flashes: how it was next to how it is now, with no cushion of gradual transformation between. Hence the ownership of one particular way—you can only own something if it's well-defined, and maybe a real home never really is.
I was reminded of my own lack of continuity going back to Bard two weeks ago, both in terms of the stark visibility of change and in terms of “my Bard.” Molly and I toured around our favorite places: the bakery, of course, and the diner we frequented weekly with friends in college, our old grocery store (which I described to someone recently as my “first grocery store,” which feels true, despite all the other childhood ones I knew—this was where I learned to shop for myself). And perhaps even more in the spirit of “my Bard,” we saw tons of old professors, both in individual outings and at this wild dinner that we went to. To the extent that things didn't feel changed, I was a student again in relationship to these teachers, which is something I always sort of desire but also feel wary of (only because of the intensity of my own love of being in that role). And yet I knew I'd come back to Seattle and abruptly I wouldn't be that student anymore. And meanwhile the Hudson Valley changes and will keep changing: there is a crystal store across the street from Molly's old house now, and Germantown, which used to be a sleepy place with one cafe, has transformed into a kind of radically compressed Brooklyn in the middle of nowhere, and on Bard's campus there is not one student's face that feels familiar.
I'm circling around something in this Ear Mountain—which feels more mysterious or elliptical to me than most—and am having trouble actually saying it. Are the concepts of “home” and “rootedness” too abstract and relative? The Hudson Valley confuses me on these points: I do feel at home there in a lot of ways, and in some sense I'm also obviously still rooted there, as evidenced by the fact that I return to a flurry of friends and places to go see even after not having lived there for nearly 10 years. But I think it's also always felt like a place I was bound to leave, almost as if it were less real than symbolic, a setting for some fairy tale or myth, somewhere beautiful that I could only be fleetingly. There was, and probably still is, a beautiful quilt hanging in the house I mentioned at the start of this letter, the one that got turned into a hotel; the quilt showed the house in charming patchwork, and above it fabric letters said “COME BACK, STAY FOREVER.” My Bard—and so many other places of mine—has felt defined by a kind of constant longing to listen to this edict, sweetened and also bittered by the knowledge that I will in fact come back again and again—but I'll also never stay.
I'm a particularly nostalgic and ambivalent sort, so this might all just be me. But I wonder if you and Emelio have ever felt some of this, moving around as you have. Are there places you wished you could have stayed even as you planned to leave them? Did you, too, begin to have the sense of being “from” so many different states and cities that it was complicated and impossible to answer a question about home when others asked it, or even to answer it in yourself?
One thing I'll say, though—strangely, happily—is that Seattle, this city we never really thought we'd end up in, has felt to me like the most promising start of “home” that I've had in a long while (and maybe ever). Part of that, as I believe I've said to you, is a product of really liking the city and the landscape—but the lion's share, I think, has to do with the way that you, Emelio, Anneka, Clay, Paul, and the many other people we know here have immediately opened up a community—and thus a sense of placedness—for us here. What I thought about as I left the Hudson Valley, and in Montana, still holds true for me: if home is anywhere, it's in other people. And though I'm still getting to know you and so many other folks here, I've been feeling that potential, which is a product of warmth and of commitment to community. So thanks for that, as well as, by way of your housing “connection,” drawing us to Seattle specifically, which now we're not sure we want to leave.
I can't wait to discuss the matsutake mushroom, speaking of rootedness and diaspora, with you at book club—but I hope we might hang even sooner than that! In the meantime, I'm sending a wave from our once and your future house a mile south. And more soon!
I accidentally took an extra week off from writing Ear Mountain! Travels and other things conspired to make it so. The next one will come out two weeks from yesterday, which I think is March 17th.