I grew up in a cold, flat place. A place where summer explodes into three-month orgies of insects, humidity, and sweat, where winter descends as a cage. A place that prides itself on survival—of weather and of its own obscurity—and on treasures that appear dusty and dull among the glittering jewels of wilder landscapes. A place with boats and beer and biting black flies, with road rage and bigotry and hedonistic culinary delights. A place where time is measured in snowfall and relationships in perceived slights.
When I visit, I’m colder. Meaner. I run along trenches of neuroses and angst, unable to climb someplace warmer, sunnier, calmer.
Maybe environment shapes a person, and interminable months of solitude, daily battles against elements, and vast expanses of nothing—no mountain to change your vantage or sea to carry you away—turn one inward. Maybe it’s easier to harbor resentments in dark, heated rooms, with howling gusts of freeze between you and your nearest neighbor. Maybe a brief burst of green feels important, magical, pride-worthy when it punctuates intolerable gray.
Increasingly, it seems as if every place I go is a variation on a theme. Beautiful sights blend together. Is this picture of leaves any more interesting than this picture of rocks? How is this sweeping panorama more remarkable than the last? Palm trees and cacti or granite and pines, prairie dogs in a canyon or seagulls on a pier, serene Caribbean green or thrashing Atlantic gray—it’s all lovely, all the same.
My ex-husband is selling the house we bought together. As I scroll through photos of the listing, staged to reflect impeccable realtor tastes, I drift into memory.
I see the dining room floor and remember the muffin tin we filled with kibble for the cat who’d otherwise wolf and gulp. I see the living room and remember those black velvet Craigslist chairs, where we’d perch for Futurama, hot cocoa spiked with peppermint schnapps, and countless rounds of gin rummy. I see the kitchen and remember his meticulous vegetable-chopping, the slow-growing piles of tidy onion cubes juxtaposed with flurries of broccoli florets, pepper seeds, and mushroom bits amassing around me.
I see the master bedroom and remember sleeping beside him, skin to skin, safe. I see the second bedroom and remember hiding, crying, cowering from persistent banging on the locked door, rejecting call after call, pleading, “Please let me sleep.”
I remember weeping to melancholy chords as I moved garments from drawer to cardboard box, and he in the next room, seated in the cheap green chair at the expansive wooden desk where I planned to write and create and flourish, looking out that window, at that enormous tree, for years to come.
What would it feel like to inhabit those rooms now, to drift across old familiar floorboards, across time, into old familiar pain?
A pleasant pulse beats in Joshua Tree, and it feels like her comfortable company, her smile after we kissed, the shape of her—impossible—overlooking vast desert. She wore my hat and smiled over her shoulder as I photographed her skipping over otherworldly rocks. A gazelle, my gazelle, and I was falling more than she ever knew.
Months later, her hips would haunt the walls of my tent, even alone, even in the dark, when I could no longer see the sand, the stone, the vast purple sky reminding me of that day. Even then, I felt her. I saw her hips, plain as the coyote’s call—I could bite them—and it felt like falling then, too.
In every hardware store, I’m eight years old. I’m high on my father, on Dad Time and the sugar he would have fed us—my sister’s and my love was as easy as a Hostess cupcake back then.
Rows of screws and lumber, ceiling fans and light fixtures, router saws and siding samples, conjure a giddiness in me. No matter how 32-years-old I am outside those walls, inside I want to run down aisles and scream-laugh until they ask me to leave, like they did that one time in the Fleet Farm Christmas display, even though it was their own fault for creating a wonderland that so seduced and delighted dad-high daughters.
London sinks my stomach. In its streets, I simmered. Resentment boiled. Blackness infected my heart.
An ill friend begged my love—my friendship and understanding—and I spat vitriol in his face.
He loomed like an insect in every corner of the city, a six-foot mantis stalking Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, and that godforsaken bridge. He was everywhere, and I tried to drink him away.
Loud, barking, indiscreet, I martyred myself before our mutual friends. I loathed him and my own self-pitying tears.
Shame crept in slowly, over months and years, as I realized the person I’d become, the vulgar insensitivity I’d displayed in those darkened pubs. I made amends where possible, but no apologies could wash stain of my behavior. It lives deep in the threads of that gray city, and if I never return, I’ll never miss it.
Maybe each new place is a blank canvas, and we paint our emotions, experiences, and memories onto it. Maybe that’s why everywhere feels the same. Exhilarating at first, novelty soon becomes a web of foibles and entanglements. Nostalgia or regret. I drink too much and run off with a Montenegrin here; I drink too much and run off with an Australian there. I climb to this vista; I climb to that vista. Sprawling cities; sprawling wilderness. Him; him; her; them.
Last night, I walked into a bar, and the bartender greeted me by name. “Hi, Meghan! How was the drive up from Freedom?” He remembered the town I live in, after meeting me once, a week prior.
Back in Minnesota and California, I stood in conversation circles for months with people who acknowledged me less. I frequented a coffee shop, half a block from home, for years without establishing first-name familiarity. I shared actual walls with people I never even bothered to meet.
In cities of 3 million residents, I grew accustomed to anonymity, to being just another face, another customer, another set of tail lights in a traffic jam.
How strange to be noticed.
Some people’s entire lives play out in a sitcom set of locations. A home, a workplace, a gathering spot. They toil and fight and fall in and out of love, all within familiar walls.
If my life had been smaller, if I grew up among a knowable population, in knowable places—if I were known—would I feel more certain, not only of myself, but of my ability to comprehend the world? Would the complex feel simple, graspable? Would I resent those crying nuance and bias and systems of oppression, had my life been filled not with systems but with people, with Jim at the corner store and Mary at church?
Travelers scatter themselves across the globe, snacking on sights and people and frivolities worldwide, dropping crumbs along the way. We flit and pollinate, carrying pieces of places we’ve been, never staying long enough to wear trenches in the ground.
Travel farther, travel wider, experience more.
Maybe in a foreign place, an Asian place, or an impoverished place, I’ll find some answer. High on a mountain or deep in a jungle, I’ll feel whole. If I hear the right life story or find the right community, I’ll fall in love with living and want to keep doing it, year after year, decade after decade. Instead of trudging through an endless string of days, cycling patterns I’m unable to break, or performing existence like a trussed-up actor on an overcrowded stage, I’ll hunger for waking and thirst for another opportunity to breathe, to experience, to be.
I just have to find the right place.