I drive around from time to time looking for new places where the next interesting book to add to the collection could be hiding. The invariable part of every new town I pass through is that you can tell a lot about where you are by the kind of businesses occupying prominent or high traffic areas.
As a general rule, once I hit the part of town where pawn shops, storefront check cashing, and empty buildings predominate, I’ve probably gone too far. The likelihood of finding what I’m looking for seems to diminish with every payday loan processor I pass. Often enough, these are parts of town when I have no business being or otherwise stick out like a sore thumb. If there’s treasure hidden somewhere there, I’ll leave it to someone else.
Last week I had something of the opposite experience. Returning home from a successful book buying expedition, I found myself driving through a picturesque bit of Delaware – long lawns, gated drives, and the early 20th century impression of old money. Soon enough the residential gave way to the commercial – cheese mongers, wineshops, and a several block stretch of insurance agencies, understated banks, and “wealth management firms.”
Sure, I felt altogether more comfortable there than I do driving down a block of abandoned and burned-out row houses, but it was still very much a case of being a stranger in a strange land. Less likely to get mugged, maybe, but far more likely to be offered a “can’t lose” investment opportunity, so perhaps they’re not all that different, really.
I don’t suppose there’s anything particularly insightful here… just a musing on the oddities of finding yourself out of place.
1. Denali. Humans have been changing the names of places basically forever. In parts of the world that have been continuously populated for thousands of years it’s happened a lot. That’s why there isn’t currently a Sumerian city-state called Ur in southern Mesopotamia. That place is now called Tell el-Muqayyar and is located in southern Iraq. Five thousand years from now it seems pretty unlikely that it’s going to matter whether in 2015 there was a mountain in Alaska called Denali or Mt. McKinley. It seems to me that both sides are wasting a good deal of breath on something that just doesn’t really matter all that much.
2. Annual Training. Every new fiscal year starts the clock on the approximately 47,632 annual mandatory training requirements I’m supposed to take. Every year, I’m determined not to procrastinate in taking them. Every year I somehow find myself well into September and realizing that I’ve done none of them. Yes, it’s my fault that I procrastinated on checking those boxes… but perhaps if there weren’t quite so many that need checked I wouldn’t feel the need to avoid them for as long as humanly possible.
3. Do your damned job. If you’re hired to do a job and find that the requirements of the position demand something that that violates your moral or ethical code, honor demands that you resign from that position. Honor doesn’t demand that you make a spectacle of yourself by simply not doing the job (while continuing to draw salary). If your moral sensibilities aren’t troubled enough that you need to resign in protest, then they aren’t really troubled and all you’re trying to do is get your face on television. At that point you’re not a martyr to the cause, you’re a self-aggrandizing douchecanoe.
There’s a certain smell to summer in proximity to the Chesapeake. It’s not the saltwater smell you find at the beach. It’s not the aggressive punch of decomposing plant matter in the wetlands right down along the water’s edge. It’s a smell I only know from a few miles inland. It’s salty and woody and vaguely marshy. It’s a good smell and a familiar one for me. For a few weeks during the hottest parts of the summer I’d catch it in St. Mary’s County when I lived down at the southern tip of the western shore. It’s here now, too, at the northern reaches of the Eastern.
My first memory of that smell, and where I remember it most distinctly, is an a little town in between those two points no one reading this would have ever heard of. It’s the smell of long ago summer visits to far away relatives, of horses, of learning to pick crabs and to shuck oysters, and swimming until the pool’s rough bottom had worn blisters on my toes. It’s s a smell of a simpler time, or at least one that seemed simpler by virtue of knowing so little about the world’s machinations. It’s the single smell I’ll (apparently) forever associate with one very specific place and time.
It’s not a smell I’ve ever encountered elsewhere in my travels – there’s no hint of it in Petersburg, or Honolulu, or Memphis. Oregon has its own particular smell of the old, deep woods and powerful running water, but it’s not at all the same. I picked up that fleeting scent a few nights ago. It’s that time of year. The instant recall and deeply fond memories of times and people long gone couldn’t possibly have been stronger. I don’t think I’ll ever stop being amazed at what small details the brain snatches for its own and hides away only to restore them with perfect clarity years and decades later.
Four years ago at this time I was sitting in a very empty house wondering if I had lost my mind for accepting a demotion and dragging all my worldly possessions a third of the way across the country to start a job with an outfit I didn’t know anything about. Anyone who was following along back in 2011 knows I wasn’t quite so much running towards this new life as I was running away from the one in Memphis that seemed to implode at every turn. I was following that most basic of animal instincts: Home = Safety. Now of course I was never in any real physical danger, but mentally I knew my position was untenable. Stay put and I was going to slowly (or not so slowly) come unglued.
Interstate 40 to I-81 to 70 was the route to my salvation. It was the route home. With every mile West Tennessee dropped behind me the more like myself I felt. The last four years have had their own set of issues, of course, but none of them have ever felt existential in the way they were before. I was correcting my Great Mistake and my psyche knew it.
Sitting here now, in a different house, looking out at the last of the day’s sun streaming through the towering oaks and maples, brightening the stark white mountain laurel blooms, I think that listless, wandering part of life is finally behind me. Maybe I haven’t found enlightenment, but finding a sense of place seem to be just as important.
On the eve of Virginia’s succession, Robert E. Lee was offered command of the Union army, but declined, commenting only that he would not raise is hand against his birthplace – his country as he understood the word. I never really understood this sentiment until circumstances drew me away from my own birthplace. It was in being away that the concept of what home means crystalized for me. It was the thought of coming back that let me tolerate what had become the worst experience of my professional life. It’s the simple act of being back on home soil that’s letting me find peace of mind amidst a steep climb along the learning curve and and living situation that, at best, can currently be described as “less than ideal.” For all the pain in the ass that getting back to Maryland has caused, I’d never dream of having it any other way. Maybe it’s not true for everyone, but I’ve discovered that for me geography is important. It’s as much a part of my self identity as my fingerprint. After a long time gone, I’m here – in my county… and the rest is simply administrative minutia.