The hard part is the moving, but maybe staying can be harder.
(Constance Woolson to Henry James, In The Master, by Colm Toíbín)
For the past week, I’ve been consulting dictionaries, thesauruses, poetry and books in hopes of finding the single word that serve as a guide for my writing and daily life. It’s a practice I have written about for the past four or five years, originally introduced to me by two writing buddies and one I embraced wholeheartedly. It’s an annual practice that has stuck. There’s something elegant and honest about finding that single, meaningful word to frame my intentions for a new year than the lists of resolutions I’ve made in earlier years—ones often vanishing by February in a cloud of good, but diminishing intentions.
It’s not something one does easily, as I re-discover each year. I agonize, make lists of possible candidates for my single word, and consult the dictionary, thesaurus, books and favorite poems, hoping “the” word is suddenly illuminated, virtually leaping off the page and tugging at my pen: “Choose me. Choose me.” But it never happens that way.
It’s more than simply finding that “right” word. The search leads me into deeper territory, forcing me to articulate the reason behind the word and how it relates to the way in which I want to live or what I hope to accomplish in the New Year. Over the past week, my notebook not only has several words listed on different pages, but quotes from poets and writers, musings on life and the past, and as much as one can, thoughts of what is ahead.
2017 is already shaping into an important and significant year of change for this country, but personally, for my husband and me. We will be moving across the country, then north, to return to a place that we still love—Toronto–the place we met and married, a place that became “home” for myself and my daughters in the wake of their father’s sudden and tragic death.
I began the process by temporarily choosing “return,” but it lacked the meaning I was searching for, remembering instead Tom Wolfe’s famous dictum, “you can’t go home again.” I lived the reality of those words when my husband and I returned to California twenty-six years ago. The home I dreamt about and longed for in the first lonely years I lived as an expatriate nearly 4000 miles away from my family no longer existed. I was a stranger in the very place I once had considered “home.” Worse, I couldn’t find the intimacy, the sense of place that I sought. My restlessness returned as the years passed, whether living in Northern or Southern California.
I decided to dispense with “return,” and tried out “moving,” which seemed more accurate. But “moving” felt, well, boring. I turned to my bookshelves; scanning titles about place and home, thinking I might find enlightenment between the pages of several volumes. Then I spotted Louise DeSalvo’s On Moving: A Writer’s Meditation on New Houses, Old Haunts, and Finding Home Again (Bloomsbury, 2009). I eagerly pulled it from the shelf and began reading, underlining passages, dog-earring pages, realizing I was “on” to something in the first few pages. In the introduction, DeSalvo writes:
Perhaps many of us living the in the United States are so transient because we are descended from those who’ve come from afar, hoping for a better life. But whether our restlessness is part of our psychic makeup…or learned behavior, who can say. Perhaps we repeat family history… For those of us choosing to move, the idea that somewhere there is “a domestic Eden”—D.H. Lawrence’s term for a place where you’ll finally feel at home, where your spirit will find peace and your life will blossom—seems to be deeply ingrained in our collective imagination.(p. 6)
My ancestors were transient: pioneers, homesteaders, and people in search of that better life. I once joked, as I was moving across the country in the late sixties, that I was repeating my grandmother’s journey. She went west, met my grandfather and remained in Northern California. I was her modern day version, heading in the opposite direction with similar hopes and dreams.
Yet, “home is where the heart is,” as the Roman philosopher Gaius Plinius Secundus said nearly 2000 years ago. It’s a sentiment I’ve experienced and one written about by many writers since. Barry Lopez, in a 1997 essay, “The Literature of Place” explores how you can occupy a place and also have it occupy you—a reciprocity that, in many respects, echoes the necessity of home being an intertwining of heart with place. His answer hit home for me:
The key, I think, is to become vulnerable to a place. If you open yourself up, you can build intimacy. Out of such intimacy may come a sense of belonging, a sense of not being isolated in the universe.
Perhaps it is that in the wake of a profound period of loss and heartache, I was most open to our new life in Toronto. I felt embraced by the city to which we now plan to return. I healed and flourished. I loved the city, the access to the arts, the endless places to explore and experience. By the time I returned to California, I was no longer a “Californian.” I was the product of blending—half my life in California, but the other half in Canada—and I discovered that one foot remained firmly planted there.
If we…become conscious about why we want to move, and understand what we need rather than what we want, our moves will satisfy us deeply (DeSalvo, p. 183).
In the past many months, I’ve worked to define and articulate what I need in deciding where to move. I need a place I love, but there’s more. I need to be closer to my daughters and grandchildren after so many years of living far apart. One daughter and her family live in Toronto; the other, recently returned from five years in Okinawa, is currently in Florida—easier to get to from Toronto, but not a place that satisfies other needs. Still, my daughters are Canuck through and through. Canada, for them both, is home.
But moving is a significant change for us at any time in our lives, no matter how many times we do it. It’s the conundrum Mark Doty described (in DeSalvo, p. 144) as “a fierce internal debate, between staying moored and drifting away, between holding on and letting go…” “The effects of moving,” are experienced in the body, in the imagination, in the realm of desire,” DeSalvo writes. I already know that a cross country move is not easy, and at times, I admit I have awakened feeling slightly unnerved by our decision.
There is work to do before we move, and for the next few months, I’ll be deep in the act of letting go—downsizing belongings, lingering over a lifetime of mementos, deciding what to take, what to leave, and bidding good-bye to the life we’ve had in over ten years in San Diego. It’s why, inspired by DeSalvo’s book, I awakened at 5 a.m. this morning with my 2017 word clearly in mind. Not “return” nor “moving,” but “step-by-step.”
“That’s three words,” my husband teased.
“I’m using it as one;” I replied. “ it’s hyphenated.”
It hardly matters. What does matter is the “step-by-step” reminds me that change cannot be rushed. I need to honor the letting go, the emotions that will be aroused as I sift through belongings and the memories attached to them, that preparing to leave isn’t the only challenge ahead of us. There’s the settling in at the other end, and that, too, will take time and patience.
Now I’ll do what I do each year. Type out my 2017 word and put it in a small frame that sits on my desk, my word for the year in full view, serving as a daily reminder to take this next change in life one day, one step at a time.
- This week, why not try the “one word” exercise yourself? What one word can serve to guide your intentions for the year ahead? It may take successive attempts, cozying up to the dictionary or a thesaurus, but search for a single word that resonates and has meaning for you.
- Once you’ve chosen your word, then write for 20 or 30 minutes and explore the “why” behind your word.
- What meaning does it hold? What memories or images spring to mind? I invite you to share your word choice and a few sentences about it in reply to this week’s blog.
- Or, do as my friends and I do. Frame or post your word where you can see it on a daily basis.
The Way It Is
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
By William Stafford, from The Way It Is, 1998
I wish you all a year of peace, healing, love, and new discoveries.
Happy New Year, 2017!