“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.” – Henry David Thoreau
To quote John Steinbeck quoting Tom Wolfe: “(he) was right, ‘you can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except for in the mothballs of memory.'” The last time I was home, before I got rid of all of my belongings and hit the road indefinitely, it felt like I was trying to stuff myself into my ninth grade graduation dress. It is not my place anymore. We’re in mothball country now. And the sweet tragedy is that with every place I visit and then leave again, the less of a home I have anywhere.
Well, that is true and it’s not. I am a hermit crab, scuttling from shell to shiny shell, discovering a new sort of home in places like chaotic South American bus terminals, looking out of the window of the train as it rattles through the Nullarbor flats, and in ramshackle caravans in the Australian desert.
In two weeks I leave Redgum, after five months of living and working in the outback, with the flies and the spiders and the snakes and the heat. When change is imminent, there is a quickening within me, and things take on an otherworldly sheen that wasn’t there before, a simultaneous grasping and letting go. This is the addictive quality of travel, the transformation of the mundane into the miraculous.
Five months is a long time, an eon in travel terms. Time enough to forge a home, a transient nest in the scorched red dirt. I’ve been thinking about what that Wiccan woman that I met in Alice Springs said about the east, how it fosters illumination, and I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve done, what I’ve learned, and what, if anything, has been illuminated.
In my time here, I checked off a few boxes that were on my to do list: I paid off some debt, squirreled away money to go traveling in Southeast Asia with my mom, I got a story published, and I started writing a book. It looks good condensed like that, not spread out over weeks of going to work every day and hours of battling the beasts writer’s block and self doubt.
But that’s not all I’ll be taking away with me. The outback is a mirror, it shows you yourself. So too, does living and working with a small group of people. We call it the “spider in the sink” syndrome, named for the day we spent twenty minutes talking about the huntsman spider who had taken up residence in the bathroom sink. Life is magnified here; every emotion is felt in high resolution. Mine and everyone’s shortcomings and idiosyncrasies are advertised like Budweiser at the Superbowl. Trivial annoyances multiply and grow exponentially, feeding on miscommunication and rumination. In this place where most do not speak English as a first language, I’ve learned the greatest miscommunications occur the more you assume someone understands you.
I asked a friend of mine to help me find a way to handle these little shards of glass in my otherwise happy existence. He said that when he feels like he’s going to implode, he tries to be of service to someone. I hated that advice at first. The last thing I wanted to do was something nice for the people who were making me crazy. But I did. Just a small and insignificant gesture- I made everyone pumpkin and raisin scones one day. And I felt better. Not perfect, but better.
The other day, I was selling candy to a couple of kids – two girls, in that sweet clumsy stage between childhood and adolescence. They were giggling and squabbling over the candy; the picture of youthful girlfriends. As I looked closer at one of the girls, I recognized her. It was Rosita, the little girl who a few months ago answered “chicken and chips!” to my “how are you today?”. Then, her chin had barely reached the counter and she had to arch her pudgy little neck back to look at me. And now, she’s nearly my height, on the cusp of pubescence; growing up.
I’m so glad that I stuck around long enough to see that.