Wolfe, Stegner, & Steinbeck: American nomadism and the elusive notion of home
Time seems to be standing still as I sit here day after day under the great dome of the sheltering sky. Minutes feel like an eternity and I am lost in them. I have started passing the stagnant crush of time by the movement of the clouds: the buildup of great billowy cumulus towers and then the subsequent dissipation of them, the choppy puffs of woolly looking cirrocumulous floccus arching in a trail from horizon to horizon, the shifting mood of light and shade as the monolithic clouds appear, move and then disappear. And then I feel as damn near ceasing to exist as I have ever felt under the blinding, deliberate, solitary march of the sun across a desolate, cloudless, celestial landscape. I am a nomad, adrift in endless days with no anchor.
It is not just the lack of action and it is not just boredom. It is a frightening stillness. Even the air is still. So still that it leaves an unsettling fear that I am not even here, that perhaps I am a figment of someone’s imagination – maybe my own. This is how I imagine death: Nothing. Nothing to remind you that you are alive. The only indicators being the up and down of my chest and the slow aging of my sun baked skin. There is no sensual arousal when life stands still. Nothing to excite even the mind holed up in a sedentary body because the mind still needs to be touched, thrilled, moved. And nothing but the clouds are moving. Everything is standing still; even me.
I am uprooted. Temporarily, but it’s enough to give me a notion of what feeling homeless must be like. And yet I made this choice. It was a calculated (if not a little romantic) decision for career, for experience, for my love of the land – and while I am enchanted by the land, it is the known lands of home that call in my solitude.
Like a good conversation with an old friend those lands emerge in my mind as more than sweet memories; they are companions in thought and action. They are the well-worn miles of dirt roads my car has driven, the rocky trails my feet have trod, the dust and air of familiar scents my lungs have breathed, the soothing backdrop to lifetimes of daydreams, and the inspiration upon which my words emerged. Yes, they are old and trusted friends. Time counted out in cadence with the tempo of my heart and the endurance of my body was an investment that has made those places an essential ingredient to what I call home. But this is not the home of my childhood, it is home by choice.
Thomas Wolfe famously said, “You can’t go home again.” Two great American writers had strikingly different views on home and both took opposing views on Wolfe’s assertion. Wallace Stegner disagreed with Wolfe while John Steinbeck agreed. Stegner believed that it was possible to go back home but that it’s getting harder due to lifestyle, and bemoaned our loss of roots. Steinbeck, on the other hand, believed that being on the go is in our blood, that we were born from a long line of restless peoples of Europe who left home for a new land and that being a nation of nomads is in our collective DNA.
I agree with the essence of what both had to say.
Americans are nostalgic people. We cling to lost time and by-gone eras like children who’ve lost a favorite toy. We never want to grow old, never want to change and yet we are the very agents of the change we so despise. Furthermore, we grow tired of old things and yearn for the new. Perhaps that is why our version of home is such a convoluted and paradoxical one: we are people of the past and future but rarely the present. We live in the tension between wanting to leave and wishing we had stayed, hating that there is loss attached to either choice.
But I believe there are two distinct versions of home: the one of our childhood in which we have no choice and the one as an adult in which we do. If we stay in the place of our childhood, home is like a yo-yo: we go out and come back, always having that familiar place to return to. To leave is to disconnect from the metaphorical umbilical cord and start anew. It can be a disorienting and lonely, but also exciting and new experience.
Both choices leave a longing that resembles sadness because to never leave is to wonder what else is out there, and to leave is to wonder why. And because we hate pain we fluctuate between the two trying to find happiness. We settle on what once was because nostalgia, which is neither happiness nor sadness, feels so good. It is a panacea for how disconnected we feel.
As my mind floats uneasily in this no man’s land of trickling time, the images of home are overshadowed by a new song that draws my attention. It is akin to nostalgia, but more solid. It is a call for change, but is not an alluring siren promising my heart’s desires. The melody is a sweet one that seems to dance with the rhythm of my life. And it is this that makes me think that perhaps home is an evolving idea, one that matches the eye of the beholder and one that can vary from a static to a dynamic idea, as changing as the person it resides in.
Perhaps home is more like the transient theater of the sky and the memories of our youth like twinkling stars. One is trajectory while the other is fixed. In other words, home moves with us through time.
I have been home, or at least to the places of my youth, and I can’t go back. To go back would be to turn back time to a period when the world was bigger and I was smaller, to a place of ignorance and wonder, to a place that no longer exists. I have lived a lifetime between then and now and I have changed, as have those places. I don’t recognize them now; I don’t recognize myself in them. As Steinbeck said, “You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.” When I go back I am the ghost of a past that no longer exists except in my mind; which is why home is such an elusive idea, the meaning of which is held suspended in one’s mind.
But the idea is real. I have lived in places that were not home, they were where I resided for a time and are like bus stops in my memory. But they also helped me identify what home is to me.
Steinbeck said when contemplating roots, “The pioneers, the immigrants who peopled the continent, were the restless ones in Europe. The steady rooted ones stayed home and are still there. Wouldn’t it be unusual if we had not inherited this tendency?” But as all things sweet need their opposite to be experienced Stegner said, “Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend.”
Which is why, perhaps, we cling so desperately to the idea. Because we are a restless nation, we know only so well the peace that comes with permanence and so we are always longing for it – the comforting permanent idea.
As Tom Wolfe said, “Perhaps this is our strange and haunting paradox here in America — that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement…that we never have the sense of home so much as when we feel we are going there.”
The song of home I hear and will likely follow, I suspect, leads to the autumn and winter of my life. I am not the same person I was at 10, or 20, or even 30. I am the person I was in all those years combined with a lifetime of experiences of joy, pain and sorrow, ignorance, futility, wisdom, as well as years. To stay forever in one place is to ignore the beating and changing of my own heart. I have grown older and have no desire to return to a by-gone past. As beautiful as the shining stars in the night sky are, they are a distant beauty. I want to remain in the ever changing, yet recurring burst of a rising sun over a mountain in the morning and the golden rays of a sleepy sunset at the end of a long day. It is not so different now as it was when I was young – I have the same eyes, but my old eyes describe a different world than my young eyes.
In seeming anguish Stegner queried, “I wonder if ever again Americans can have that experience of returning to a home place so intimately known, profoundly felt, deeply loved, and absolutely submitted to?”
His question seems to ask if it is possible to return to a home place that one has loved deeply. I’m not sure. To leave a place “intimately known, profoundly felt, deeply loved, and absolutely submitted to” with no intention to return is to end a relationship; it is a sort of betrayal – which may be why one can never go home again afterward. The loss is too great, the return too painful, the memories only sweet through the lens of nostalgia.
Then again, if it’s all in our heads then the hurtle is self-imposed and returning just takes an act of forgiveness, some humility, and the ability to accept ourselves as we are in the present; prodigal sons if you will. You can always return.
Wolfe said, “The mountains are my masters. They are rimmed with life. They are the cup of reality, beyond growth, beyond struggle and death. They are my absolute unity in the midst of eternal change.”
And that is the heart of it, is it not? That home is the abiding idea in the midst of a changing reality. It is the constant, the ever-present within us. What is outside must match what is inside. Even as I sit here writing, my spirits lift as my mind returns to an old image, the diffused nebula of which makes up the essence of a place I call home. Amidst the seemingly frozen time of endless days I find peace in an airy landscape that mimics what I see in my mind: the clouds roll in on a colossal canvas before my eyes, undulate and erupt into cloudy mountain ranges slowly navigating the sky until the invisible stroke of the painter’s brush washes them away with a furious stroke of angry ocean waves that cool, dissipate, and dissolve from a foamy froth to wispy nothingness.
And when the day has passed and the clouds are gone I feel as though I have traveled through time over countless landscapes and lived a thousand days in one still afternoon. When I come out of my reverie time begins ticking again. Home recedes from my mind as the hum of activity propels me into evening, supper, and then twilight; blinking stars, and then finally, sleep. And in the morning it starts all over again, until one morning when it will end and I will go home again, for this absence is only temporary.
While not the home base of my youth, my return home is to “a place so intimately known, profoundly felt, deeply loved, and absolutely submitted to” that I count clouds to pass the time in my longing. The familiar landscape where I invest my time and upon which my idea has settled is the place where well-known faces can be found, the sound of their voices can be heard, where a warm embrace can be had, where laughter is the music, soft sand is the path, and joy is the welcome mat.
Posted on July 31, 2015, in Health & Wellbeing and tagged American restlessness, avoiding the past, betrayal, clouds, cloudscapes, growing up, hating change, John Steinbeck and going home, leaving home, nomads, restless nation, returning home, the prodigal son, Thomas Wolfe, vagabonds, Vale Oregon, Wallace Stegner and home, wildland firefighting, you can never go home again. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.