A meditation where I take myself way too seriously and ruminate on change, travel, and community. For information on my US travels see also my tips for digital nomads and NA travel log, along with my newsletter.
Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.
– Rainer Maria Rilke, “Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower,” Sonnets to Orpheus II, 29
Twenty-twenty-one was a dynamic year for me. New job, new apartment, new life. There was a mix of fortune and misfortune. Everything was in flux.
So in early September, I packed away my life and set off on a trip of indefinite length.1 I made no promises that I would return to New York - or anywhere, for that matter. My only promise was to myself: to let go of the past and step forward into a new phase of life.
A few days after I set off, I came upon a newsletter from Rachel of the School of Machines, Making, & Make-Believe asking:
How can we start to introduce some positive changes into our lives to have some semblance of control and satisfy [a] growing need for change? I have some ideas which I’ll explore in future newsletters but am also curious: How are you doing it?
It just so happened that I had been thinking about change a great deal. I wrote her back:
You don’t know me! And that’s okay. But I really identify with what you are talking about - for me, the feeling is that change is in the air.
In my case, change came to me and flipped everything upside down […] but since then, I’ve been trying to embrace it. I gave up my lease, went skydiving, learned to sail, changed (virtual) jobs, and I’ve recently embarked on a US cross-country trip of indefinite length.
At the core, I’m asking that same question: where do I go from here? I don’t know the answer yet. But as I’ve healed, I’ve also become really quite okay with that uncertainty. My embrace of change is not about taking “some semblance of control,” but rather letting go, and accepting life as it comes. As Octavia wrote: “everything you change, changes you.”[^emails]
Reading this now, in addition to the direct quote, I can hear further resonances from Octavia’s Parable of the Sower:
The Self must create
Its own reasons for being.
To shape God,2
– Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower
My responses to Rachel were full of contradictions, of course. Did I see myself as the one in control, or not? Did I just flow like a leaf in the wind, or fight against the currents of life?
I chose to sail and skydive.3 I chose to leave home. But not to defy change, or only to flow, but seeking, as Rachel said, “some semblance of control.” Not just to ride the rushing waters, moving back and forth, as Rilke wrote, but to shape them.
When I left home, then, I was filled with purpose. Rather than running from my past4 I ran toward my future. Sides of my personality I’d hidden away had a chance to breathe. Fragments of my past self (selves), uncovered by being with old friends, could be repurposed. New adventures, also, gestured toward a new chapter.
It was also just fun. The US trip I had wanted to take for years was warped beyond all recognition. A ten-day train trip became a five-month trek criss-crossing the country, using every conceivable travel method.
The first couple of months on the road were completely invigorating. I let my extroverted side truly bloom. Every night, I was with friends; there were many good times with some fantastic, generous individuals.5 I wasn’t even tired - until I finally took a break.
As the trip went on, and entered its third, fourth, fifth months, the tone and focus began to shift. Travel was no longer a novelty. It faded into the background and became a fact of life. The trip was no longer interested in itself. Instead, the feeling was one of placelessness. The feeling that I had no home, no community - that I was truly alone - began to dominate my thoughts.
It didn’t matter where I was anymore. One American mid-size city bled into the next, and the next. Sometimes, I felt lonely. At others, I was able to lean into the uncertainty and embrace a nomadic life, feeling only oneliness - that is, simply being alone.
The American modernist composer Harry Partch once had an Japanese inscription on his wall that read:
Though homeless, you make a shrine wherever you are.
For me, that aphorism speaks to both my generation’s periodic wanderlust and humanity’s nomadic history. If you zoom out far enough, no home lasts forever, and that’s been the case since long before the days of cars, planes, or “digital nomads.”6
There are, however, new and unique ingredients in the contemporary nomadic cocktail. The pandemic disrupted fundamental aspects of daily life, leading to endemic loneliness and depression. Labor is more virtual and abstracted than ever; for the educated classes, wholly dissociated from any communal experience of daily life. And while I’m glad that so many of my generation have escaped the (harmful) traditions and (convenient) fictions of Western society, we are left with a void, adrift.
I often feel placeless, landless, and untethered. I’m not the only one.
I’m a drifter. With no profound connection to my land, my ancestors, my culture my community, my gender, or my race.
– Robert Moor
What can we do? Although America was never “great,” or at least, not for everyone, I still wonder: are there any scraps we might be able to salvage from it - or that I can salvage from my own past - that can help usher in a better future?
the Old Way wasn’t good
you can’t go back to it
but you lost crucial things when you left it
and now you have to find them again
No matter where you go, or for how long, travel will change your perspective on life. It’s unavoidable. When you are away from “home,” you are forced see things just a little differently. With long-term travel, your perspective changes all the more, and with each nudge, you are farther and farther from where you began.
A small dose of digital nomadism was a healthy for me. But it also reminded me of what had been missing from my life, that can never be manufactured or replaced. Something that, perhaps, can be salvaged from the past - at least in my own life. Community.
Growing up, my life was centered around religious community. As a pastor’s kid, family and church life were intertwined. Friends were like family. We cooked together, ate together, played together, grew up together. We faced great tragedies, and experienced great joy.
– Joseph Mosconi, Occupational Elegies
I also experienced a tight, high-functioning community when I did college radio for three years. It was a non-judgmental space of humility, education, and experimentation, where everyone contributed to the maintenance of shared resources. I treasure many of those relationships to this day.
When I departed New York six months ago, it was with those sorts of relationships in mind. At all but one of the twenty-eight places I visited,7 I visited with an old friend. With each, I had a shared history, a repository of memories, where could be found discarded fragments of who I used to be.8
The trip was a whirlwind of hellos and goodbyes. It was beautiful; it was hard. As a long-term traveler described via Kleroteria in November 2021:
The beautiful curse of living around the world is that you’re always missing someone.
Perpetuating an endless symphony of high tide hellos and ebbing goodbyes. Sea salt tears spray your face and then the sun burns off the fog and you’re free again.
Never standing still for too long.
I’m lucky to have so many amazing humans in my life. But time has passed. Life has pulled us apart. No collection of discrete individual relationships can replicate the belonging (and frustration) found in community. Now that my travel’s “endless symphony” has ended, I need to find community where I am.
The reason I had to come back to New York is simple: the people.9 I’m starting there; mix in some music, a weekly euchre meetup, a weekly game night, and a weekly community dinner, and we might just be getting somewhere. In the end, I hope to arrive at a place where, in the words of adrienne maree brown:
of the things I can change, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Onward, with love.
Here’s a short rundown of my trip, for those who want it: Brevard and Asheville, NC, for A+P’s wedding and kayaking and a sunrise in early September; NYC to pack everything up; Chicago to see M+B and the Cubbies and Pitchfork; SF for a night; Castro Valley, ramen+sake, and mini golf w/ S+A; Pacific vibes in Monterey w/ M+D; cali burritos and a SF show w/ D while in Oakland for a week; beaches + Thundercat/Herbie in Sonoma/Napa with C; #vanlife for a week; summiting Half Dome at Yosemite; more wine w/ C in Sonoma; liveaboard on Lumpy in Berkeley Marina; train to Portland, to see some fam, G+M, and D; train to Seattle to chill and see A+R and K; home for my dad’s bday and to see S; Cinci to see C; Lexington to see everyone, staying w/ M and S+K; Halloween in Salem thanks to A+N and M+T; partying in NYC w/ T+J; Evergreen and Denver w/ E+M, second fav doggo Trubbie, B, and my fav doggo Rudy; exploring TX and Austin; Thanksgiving back home; Grand Rapids w/ K; skiing and hiking in Traverse City, and Mackinac Island (lol) w/ B; the sky bridges and M in Twin Cities; holidays back home; a few days in NYC; hiking, hot air balloon, seeing M, and hiking in Albuquerque; train to LA to see fam, M, and B; and finally my return to NYC in late January. ↩︎
Elsewhere: “God is Change.” ↩︎
I had fun with this one: “The wind in my sails was not by chance; neither was my seven-second free fall. I had my hand on the tiller; I jumped from the plane.”" ↩︎
Random notes: seeing the interior lives of others, like hearing someone play “here comes the sun” when they take a shower in the morning; multiple hole-in-ones in mini golf (East Bay), awakening via both a doggo squeaking a rooster toy (Lexington) and an actual rooster (Grand Rapids), sleeping on a sailboat named Lumpy, partying hard in NYC, Lyft driver inviting me to a backyard rock festival (Austin), hiking Half Dome, and braving a blizzard to visit an empty Mackinac Island. By the way, I only lost a single sock. ↩︎
Even “owning” the land you live on is no solution. It will outlive you, and all the systems of capital that have commoditized it. Eventually, those of your blood will leave your little plot, for good. ↩︎
Austin was the exception. ↩︎
Well, that and the fact that on the very first night I was briefly back in November a car was blasting “All Star” by Smashmouth outside my window. ↩︎