Should I Stay or Should I Go? Tales of Chronic Mover

Fear #29: putting down roots; fear #30: uprooting: I just renewed the lease for my studio. May 1 will mark the beginning of my third year. I can't remember the last time I lived in the same home for more than two years. I've cycled through different residences every year or two like cheap dresses from H&M. Each move makes sense at the time--rent hikes, roommates, grad school, pests, restlessness for a better space. But now, as I approach an unprecedented third year under the same roof, my itchy feet (incongruous with intense hatred of actually moving) suggest other causes for my chronic moving syndrome. 
   One possibility? I moved--or was moved, with my father at the helm--ten times in the first ten years of my life, continent to continent, coast to coast. I've asked my mother if moving with two small children was difficult; her vague answers depend on her mood. In a good one, she'll say, "Oh, your father was adventurous, I was happy to go where he wanted to go," or "We were young." In a bad mood, she becomes defensive, as if the question were absurd, an accusation. 
The most tumultuous period is the relocation from Japan to Oregon to Ohio, a span of only two years. In 1978 my parents, baby sister and I fly from Tokyo to Portland, the city Papa's chosen as the ideal American home. We live in the Mallory Motel for two weeks while he finds a house. The first, a two-story rental in nearby Tigard, turns out to be impossibly smelly. Family lore goes that the previous tenants had owned pet snakes which roamed freely through the rooms. I can't recall the stink, but I remember fragrant blackberry bushes in the yard; I remember walking with Mama to the giant grocery store, where she lets me pick out Brach's candies, each kind--butterscotch, cinnamon, peppermint--heaped in its own dazzling clear bin. We move from stinkville to a ranch house set deep into woods. The entire house is carpeted in wall-to-wall shag, each room its own vivid disco hue: lime, pink, orange, aqua. One night, my parents see--out of nowhere--the owner of the house standing in the living room. The next day, they learn that he had crashed his motorcycle in the night and died. Convinced they've seen a ghost, we move into an apartment, where we finally settle down for a year. Our neighbors include a Hawaiian family, and I make friends with their daughter, Bufferin. 
     One May afternoon, ashes sprinkle from the sky and dust our picnic table. With the side of my hand I scrape ashes into a jar, a souvenir. It's 1980, and a furious Mount St. Helens has erupted.  
    We're leaving again--because the volcano chased us away, I believe, but in fact Papa's bankrupt. We're going to move in with his parents in Ohio, he says. And we're going to make a vacation out of it. We pile into our rust-red Toyota hatchback, the back seat folded down where my sister and I lie on blankets. As if he hasn't a care in the world, Papa drives us through the Pacific Northwest into Yellowstone National Park, where we stop for several nights to see geysers and wild animals--moose, elk, buffalo. We meander across Montana, the Rocky Mountains, North Dakota, we drive and drive until the land flattens like the underside of the glacier that scraped it clean. 
   We move in with Grandma and Grandpa Heck, into their log cabin overlooking Lake Erie. Sassafras Lodge, as they've named the house, with its fireplace, toy-filled loft, and sprawling yard overgrown with mint and ivy and bluebells, is the ideal home for two girls age 5 and 9. That is, unless they are stuffed into it along with four tense adults and one jumpy Boston Terrier. 
     After five months of play, church-going, and overheard arguments, we move three doors down into a furnished two bedroom beach-rental. Ninety-seven creaky wooden stairs descend from its back patio onto the beach. Despite Papa remaining unemployed and Mama suffering from cabin fever and insomnia, the place is fun for us kids. I traipse over to Grandma's to eat graham crackers with cold butter, and to read my favorite book, an illustrated encyclopedia on gnomes. One of my favorite chapters details a gnome's house, showing a map of the interior--cupboards, sleeping quarters, cellar. I tell my grandma: "I think I saw a gnome, behind some ivy." "Yes, yes," she says, "I'm certain he was there." 
    As the economy sinks and gas prices soar, we kids canoe, fish, swim, and build castles and miniature lakes in the sand. My family lives off food stamps for a while, government-issued cheese, canned peaches, peanut butter. Finally, my father lands a job at the local nuclear power plant, and he buys his first--and last--house, the three-bedroom, split-level home my mother resides in now. 
    She is the opposite of me, deeply rooted into her space, with her hoards of newspapers, knick-knacks, books, the appliances and furniture of my childhood grimed with dust and memory. Her belongings carry the weight of gravestones.
    My one-room studio remains a little too tidy, the walls blank, impatient white, as if they are holding their breath to see what will be nailed down, who will stay. I'm eyeing a loft bed at Ikea, and thinking robin's egg blue for the walls.



white light/white wedding: how afterlife revealed itself to me

fear #25: this is all there is; fear #26: death

London, England, spring 2005: My lucky friend is marrying a Swede in London, and I'm aboard the airport "Super Shuttle" van at 4:00 am, en route to fly out for the wedding. Preparing for this trip has been overwhelmingly stressful: passport, flights, accommodations, dogsitter, wedding outift, etc. At last, my enormous suitcase is packed, and though I'm painfully under-caffienated and sleepy, I'm headed to Dulles International Airport.
    The driver asks us dozen passengers: "What airline you taking from Reagan National?" Mayhem erupts: half of us have flights out of Dulles in Virginia, half out of Reagan in D.C. The driver shouts to his dispatcher on his radio, who promises to send another van--as soon as they can rouse a driver, presumably fast asleep somewhere in a bed. Meanwhile, we are hurtling through suburban darkness in the wrong direction.
    In a foggy panic, I strategize with a fellow Dulles passenger: we'll get out and take a taxi. One hour and one hundred dollars later, we finally arrive curbside at the right airport. When the driver opens the trunk, my suitcase is gone. Vanished. I must have left it in the van, or lost it in the befuddled transition. What to do? The wedding is tomorrow evening. A few angry calls to Not-So-Super Shuttle avail nothing.
    I board the plane with a wallet, passport, and one change of clothes for a three-night stay.
John Keats
    Nine hours later, underdressed and empty-handed, I arrive at the door of my home-stay near Hampstead Heath. "Home-stay," a British style of lodging, wherein guests stay in the homes of owners, enjoying the coziness of a bed-and-breakfast without the costly frills.
   The next morning, I eat breakfast with the owners, a quiet, middle-aged married couple. After discussing the nearest clothing stores, we chat over coffee and pastries. I ask them about the house. It's their empty nest, they tell me. They lost their only daughter to cancer about ten years ago.
    "She would have been--oh, about your age now," the father says.
    "I understand," I say. "I lost my dad when I was 18."  
    The rest of that day is filled with desperate clothes-shopping efforts in the morning, wedding festivities at night. The following day, free to sight see, I plan to visit Hampstead Heath and the Keats House. My hosts offer to drive me there.
     I feel like a kid out with my parents for a Sunday drive: that safe feeling of being in the backseat; sun flickering though the window, turning my closed eyelids red; the steering wheel snug in the father's hands. We stop for lunch at a modest restaurant, and then go walking on the Heath. I'd long dreamed of following in the footsteps of the Romantics: to feel the steady walking rhythm of Wordworth's lines, to see the light and textures that glow within Keats's lyrics, to hear his nightingale and my heart beat in the landscape of my heroes.
    The Heath is less park, more nature preserve: acres of woods, fields, hills, ponds, and thickets fenced off and undeveloped for centuries. Its charms are subtler than I'd imagined, observed in the stately girth of trees, the knobby, wrinkled tree roots to trip over, the patches of swimming-holes glimpsed through tangled greens. I'm aware of my walking partner, this grieving father (mother chose to rest on a bench), pointing out the sights with pride, as if he were partly responsible for creating them. I'm aware of myself beside him, like a daughter, dependent on his knowledge (where should I get a dress? how do I get to the Underground?), perhaps acting a little needier than I am.
     The next morning is my last: I'm at breakfast again, talking to the father. For the first time, he tells me his daughter's name, Sybil. A rising star in law school. Working pro bono for clients in need. In her last days, she bought an apartment for her parents. She watches over me, he says, and presses his palms into his damp eyes.
    For a moment--how can I say this?--for one or two long seconds, here at a table cluttered with coffee cups and jam jars and baskets of bread, as I sense how much he misses his daughter--just as I miss my father--I'm overcome with absolute conviction that our two lost beloveds are in the room. I suddenly know, as well as I know 1+1=2, that a supernatural-something exists beyond the comprehension of my five senses. The feeling comes, and then goes, like a slight breeze, a sliver of moon disappearing behind clouds.
    Not ghosts, not angels--merely a presence, a something. When I return to the U.S., I can't describe the moment to my friends without breaking down in tears. Maybe sometimes you have to go far away and lose everything to get closer to home.