We have been away from home, away from our lovely and familiar home. Unlike some places I could name, Port Townsend is not a nice place to leave; it exerts a gravitational field that tends to keep one close, keeps one wanting another day here, and another, and another. It is not exactly a paradise — the police have plenty to keep them occupied, greed and short-sightedness are an ongoing threat, etc. — but when we came back, after a month away, I was reminded how delightful my life is here, how the sail loft and the shipwrights and the smart-ass baristas and the Rose Theater and the whale-watching boats and all the other features and activities and personnel here add up to a town that is worth staying in, worth celebrating and savoring, and I found myself wondering why we had left in the first place.
It is true that other places have charms of their own, and that one must leave home to experience those charms. I’ll get back to that in a bit. But there is something intrinsic to humanity that leads one to wander. When I was young, my family moved nearly every year, driven by my father’s restlessness. And he wasn’t exactly an outlier; post WW II it seemed the whole country was uprooting itself, in search of a fresh start. In any event, the lifestyle suited me. In the words of a song,
The road was like a dream,
The arrival an awakening,
And into a new neighborhood I ran.
But it soon lay all discovered,
And I began to yearn
For an unfamiliar light
On an unfamiliar land.
Some people, it seems, never lose that urge to wander, but for me it became an exhausting process, especially as I began to discover that staying in one place for a while could reveal virtues and verities that are invisible to the nomad. Engaging, rich duration can be fulfilling in a way that brief intensity never can.
Of course, staying put is an infamous path to a stultifying life. Many people escape from the hamster wheel of constant travel, only to find themselves on a suburban treadmill. And many never give into the urge to wander in the first place. Too much of either, and what should be a setting for mutual support and affection can take on overtones of mutual bitterness and resentment. Robert Frost was thinking of this kind of place when he said that “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
I think there must be an algorithm for human social equilibrium, with variables like history, age distribution, population density, etc. If such an algorithm exists, then some degree of novelty, or uncertainty — or even outright instability — must be included. If we occasionally cast ourselves into the strange and wild outlands, it is at least in part because they inform and define our places of shelter.
So we are back at home, having done our part to unsettle ourselves, and this place, and now we resume doing our best to conserve it. We vote, we attend a crowded Power-Point-intensive meeting on the Port’s budget, we attend an equally crowded slide show by “Spawn Till You Die” artist Ray Troll. We do laundry, tend a sick old cat, put rigs into boats, have tea with friends, go to the dentist, check mooring lines. We do the things that help bolster and preserve this place we love, and all the while, in the background, is the memory of the road.
Please bring strange things.
Please come bringing new things.
Let very old things come into your hands.
Let what you do not know come into your eyes.
Let desert sand harden your feet.
Let the arch of your feet be the mountains.
Let the paths of your fingertips be your maps
and the ways you go be the lines on your palms.
Let there be deep snow in your inbreathing
and your outbreath be the shining of ice.
May your mouth contain the shapes of strange words.
May you smell food cooking you have not eaten.
May the spring of a foreign river be your navel.
May your soul be at home where there are no houses.
Walk carefully, well loved one,
walk mindfully, well loved one,
walk fearlessly, well loved one.
Return with us, return to us,
be always coming home.
– Ursula LeGuin
By generous permission