The Nomadic Life

What is home, exactly? I never used to question it, until we began traveling.

Traveling the world is like falling in love, only with places instead of people. That’s a good thing, but I’ve been feeling off-center since we returned to Seattle. Do you want to travel for months at a time? Begin by taking your concept of home and shattering it with a hammer. Now sprinkle those shards all over the globe. When you feel yourself being pulled in a dozen directions at once, that’s the nomadic life.

I remember the sun shining through the curtains at our rented flat in Torremolinos, and the broad sidewalks of the quiet neighborhood we stayed at in Dublin. I think about the colorful tumult of Athens, and the old men flicking prayer beads in one hand while they smoked and talked and drank bitter coffee as thick as mud. Also, the shiny black cobblestones of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, down below Arthur’s Seat. The sweet scent of pistachio groves high on a hill on the island of Aegina. And the upbeat bustle of the Puerta del Sol in central Madrid.

Our first two months back in Seattle were especially hard. I’d roll out of bed feeling ready to head out to Arena Resto & Bar, where I could drink a cafe con leche by the sea. But then I’d remember that I was five thousand miles away from the place I was thinking of! For a long time, I dreamed softly in Spanish, even as my vocabulary eroded during waking hours. Those dreams have stopped and I miss them.

My definition of home has splintered. When I think of that word, I don’t get an image of my condo or even my hometown. Instead I get a slideshow of all the places I’m missing. I was so eager to come home, to experience a Seattle summer, and yet I’m restless.

If I miss Spain when I’m in Seattle, and I miss Seattle when I’m in Spain, am I ever truly present with where I am?

The Sweetness of Standing Still

When wanderlust hits me, as it does every week or so, I feel a need to flee that is as much physical as it is mental. It happens often enough that I’ve begun thinking about renting our condo out so we can afford to travel full time. And why not? Without the expense of a home base, we could hit the road in a more permanent fashion.

At the same time, I don’t want to lose my home base. Here in beautiful Seattle we can enjoy the trees and sunshine and the company of the people we care about. In fact, the longer we stay the better it feels, and I want to put down deeper roots. Perhaps I could sign up for a volunteer gig, or get a pet, or re-launch my business, or take up a sport, or join a book club, or teach a class or two? Perhaps even trade the little condo for a cabin with a garden where I can grow carrots and write my novels in a proper office.

I suspect that my wanderlust is a character flaw, one that will erode my relationships. How am I supposed to maintain connections with others when I blink in and out of their lives for months at a time? And If I’m zipping from country to country, always seeking novelty, am I missing out on the sweetness of standing still?

The Excitement of Taking Flight

As soon as I decide to stay put, my spirit rebels.

Why stay put, when I can be free to roam? When I think about the perils of settling down, my thoughts turn to my Irish ancestor, John Cotter. Here’s a fragment of what he wrote in his journal about his arrival in America, 149 years ago:

Left Ireland on the 26th of August in the ship Colorado was 12 days coming. Landed in New York on the 7th of September 1868. Met Frank Bulman & Pat Ahern at Castle Gardens. Came to 158 East 42nd Street where Frank Bulman lived all the friends came that night and had a spree.

John (and his friend Frank) were laborers, and in their early twenties. John wrote colorfully about his arrival and settlement in America, but as he got older, he wrote less about his adventures, and his journal became a simple ledger of how much coal he had mined each day, like a spreadsheet.

I suppose that’s what I’m afraid of. If I settle down and stop moving, will my life fall into a quiet monotony? Perhaps settling down isn’t in the cards for someone like me. I’ve always been annoyingly independent, and I’ve never wanted children. I don’t want to live in the same place forever, or to have the kind of job that has you arrive at the same day and do the same thing with the same people. And don’t I feel the most alive when I’m roaming around with P, changing my life up whenever things get too easy, and letting my itchy feet tug us towards something new?

The Nomadic Life

Admitting that you’re anything less than thrilled about being able to travel-the-world seems pretty selfish, doesn’t it? And while I am thrilled, at least most of the time, the nomadic life has created a tug-of-war in my heart that I hadn’t anticipated.

I want to stay, and I want to go.
Home is here, and it’s other places too.

In my search for answers, I turned to the stories of another American nomad, Gloria Steinem. In some ways she is my opposite, because she traveled her entire life while idealizing stability. Whereas I spent much of my life standing still, and wishing I could travel.

In her book My Life on The Road she had this to say:

“After months of nesting – and shopping for such things as sheets and candles with a pleasure that bordered on orgasmic— an odd thing happened: I found myself enjoying travel even more. Now that being on the road was my choice, not my fate, I lost the melancholy feeling of Everybody has a home but me. I could leave—because I could return. I could return— because I knew adventure lay just beyond an open door. Instead of either/or, I discovered a whole world of and.”

She’s got me thinking: Perhaps this tug-of-war I’m feeling can end, if I stop viewing home and away as incompatible? There’s a part of me that likes to be home, among friendly faces, where I can drink coffee in my blue chair next to the bookcase. And there’s a part of me, just as strong, that loves to get lost for months at a time, wandering unfamiliar streets, to answer the call of adventure.

If Gloria and I are opposites (and yet so much the same) perhaps her answer would be a roadmap to mine? I took her quote and I flipped it, curious to see if it might hold my answer.

“After months of travel – and wandering through foreign cities with a pleasure that bordered on orgasmic – an odd thing happened: I found myself enjoying home even more. Now that being home was my choice, not my fate, I lost the melancholy feeling of Everyone is having adventures but me. I could stay— because I could leave. I could leave — because I knew home was only a flight (or two) away. Instead of either/or, I discovered a whole world of and.”

Home and travel.
Stability and adventure.
Friends and strangers.
Familiarity and novelty.

Why did I believe that I needed to pick one or the other? No matter. Moving forward, I’m embracing all of it. Roots and wings: I’ll find a way!

PS: Thanks Gloria.