Monday, May 16, 2011

Wish You Were Here

Do I know where hell is, hell is in hell-o.
Heaven is good-bye forever it's time for me to go.
I was born under a wand'rin' star,
A wand'rin', wand'rin' star.

Alan J. Lerner, from the musical "Paint Your Wagon".

My father was a career soldier, so by the time he retired when I was ten, I had lived in Virginia, West Germany, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. In my first six years of school I attended five different schools. I never had a hometown, let alone the same home for more than a few years.

The difficulty of making friends, especially difficult for me, was compounded by the knowledge that I would probably have to say goodbye to every one of them. Places I got to know, the names of streets, a particular view from a window - they all passed by me as I grew up like so many stops on a bus route.

I have lived the same way since becoming an adult. Serving in the military made it easier. Or should I say it made serving in the military easier? Just after I joined the Navy, I went to see the Tom Hanks movie Big with a girl. She said it made her homesick. I said it made me homesick for places I've never been.

I have found many of those places in the twenty-two years since then. Places like the high desert in Nevada, or a quiet cove overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Okinawa. Hong Kong. A squalid resort in Thailand called Pattaya. The other city of angels, Angeles City. Sapporo. Seoul. Downtown Des Moines. Anchorage. And one small island connected by a bridge to a bigger island in the Philippine archipelago that I now tenuously call "home" - for want of another word.

I was there to take in all those places one by one. And, so far, all but one I let go. Like Elizabeth Bishop, I have learned the art of losing.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

("One Art")

In Des Moines I met a friend about my age at the time - 43 - who had lived there all his life. Wherever he went, people who'd known him since grade school would stop and greet him. I couldn't imagine it, since I hadn't seen any of the places I grew up in or the people I'd known there for decades. It seemed to me a kind of curse. My friend's life seemed hemmed in by the well-known dimensions of that town. And I shared with him the Cavafy poem, "The City".

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.

Cavafy's city was Alexandria, but as much as he loved it, he had probably grown weary of its familiarity, its stultifying sameness, year in and year out.

But the sense of belonging, of staying in one place and finding meaning for one's life there, is enticing to me now that I'm no longer young, and so far from my native country. I used to play a game with my friends in Japan or Korea. We would be standing on a street corner waiting for the light to change, and I would tell them to imagine they were living on that same street, had grown up there and gone to school close by, fallen in love for the first time there. Then the light would change and, laughing, we crossed the street.

Every Sunday after church, my mother would take my brother and I to visit open houses she had read about in the newspapers - big, beautiful empty houses where she could dream of another life, a new life. In the years since then, I have found myself distracted by the glimpse of a house somewhere, standing out among trees or at the top of a hill or the end of a long, tree-lined driveway. Robert Graves wrote of seeing such a place in "Here Live Your Life Out!"

Window-gazing, at one time or another
In the course of travel, you must have startled at
Some coign of true felicity. "Stay!" it beckoned.
"Here live your life out!" If you were simplehearted,
The village rose, perhaps, from a broad stream
Lined with alders and gold-flowering flags -
Hills, mills, hayfields, orchards - and, plain to see,
The very house behind its mulberry tree
Stood, by a miracle, untenanted!

Alas, you could not alight, found yourself jolted
Viciously on. Public conveyances
Are not amenable to casual halts
Except in sternly drawn emergencies -
Bandits, floods, landslides, earthquakes, or the like -
Nor could you muster resolution enough
To shout, "This is emergency. Let me out!,"
Rushing to grasp the brakes; so the whole scene
Withdrew forever. Once at the terminus
(As your internal mentor will have told you),
It would have been pure folly to engage
A private car, drive back, sue for possession.
Too far, too late -
Already bolder tenants were at the gate.

Here on my Philippine island for another birthday, already having lived in four different houses, I don't know where I will be next year. There is wonder in that speculation, but also some rue. I've stopped here, for the time being, but where I will be in a year I wish I could say, but can't.

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