I really want to go somewhere right now. Basically anywhere.
Alas, we cannot.
Instead let me take you on a tour of the apartment complex. And I’ll tell you about Mary,* while we’re at it.
As you get close to the building, you’ll notice a certain wildness on the sidewalks. This block has been described, not at all accurately, as the Times Square of this otherwise subdued city. There are lots of people milling around, hanging out in biggish groups despite everything, and engaging in all kinds of commerce. Sometimes there are other gatherings, too: book sales, religious revivals, heritage festivals, ad-hoc playgrounds for children, farmers markets,** etc, all happening in front of the more traditional commercial storefronts (your cellular companies, your ice-cream parlors, your nail salons, your fried chicken, your megabank).
The first thing that struck me about this place was the greenness. Remember that one afternoon hugging the bluffs over the Potomac in late July when I was 24, how green it was? I imagined God creating this place in a frenzy:
This is where He smashed His hands on the keyboard that is GREEN, playing all the notes at once and letting a thousand shades explode all over the trees.
But I can be so grateful for the trilling birds, for the bee upsetting my earbud in a mad dash for my brain.
For the flowering trees pink and white and raspberry-yogurt color against the bluest sky.
The clean breezes.
The quiet smiles of people reading a newspaper on the porch swing. Delivery workers gently maneuvering hand trucks laden with what we need to keep us all afloat.
For shy buds spreading their fingers in greybrown woods to stretch their green skin out against the sun for the first time.
For drops of rain on tulip heads. For babies screeching in sheer joy.
For the sweet salad smell of wild onions rioting through the forest.
For the cool, mournful smell of city gardens after a thunderstorm.
For a birthday party taking place on a stoop and spreading out into the street so that clusters of guests can give each other a six-foot berth. Balloons spelling out a golden HAPPY BIRTHDAY across the awning. It’s almost normal and it’s happening right here.
For birdsong at the open window and the four or so walls that keep us safe and together.
Here’s the irony about this fixation on places: so much of my time is spent in the great nowhere/everywhere that is the inside of a modern apartment with an HVAC system and the Internet.
On top of that, my current dwelling, although very comfortable for my needs, is a gentrification fever dream. How it feels to live there; the walls and pavement that line it; most of the people who now walk their (many) dogs and (far fewer) human children around it—none of these meaningfully existed fifteen years ago. It’s been terraformed of the whole cloth of long-term neglect. The neighborhood got a new name to anoint its rebirth, its entry into the witness protection program.
Living in gentrified space like this can feel like a grander version of living inside with the HVAC and the Internet. It’s a way to escape being somewhere. A way to escape being anywhere at all.
On the other hand, my search for somewhere feels as though it’s all about dirt, trees, bricks, mortar. A place that is not just anywhere. An idiosyncratic place. One on which I can have an impact, and it on me.
There’s a theme in my life: the search for a place. Or a sense of place, at least.
I’m always thinking about where I’ll be when I finally land where I will be. You see the problem: this is inherently circular.
Where will I be when I’m there?
There, I guess.
But where is that?
Where I’ll be.
I long for it. I get wistful walking through pleasing neighborhoods. When I like one particularly I visit it frequently, lurking around with longing. Most recently it’s the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of DC, which occasionally still gets away with styling itself a “village.”
It’s leafy. That’s the major thing. I think I could thrive anywhere if the trees are big and green around me. And it has that lived-in feeling, especially right now when the weather is abnormally good. It’s all people gardening, sitting on stoops drinking iced tea and shouting kindly with their neighbors from a safe distance. There are lots of Little Free Libraries, which I’m getting better about not automatically laying hands on. And I imagine the insides of the houses: tasteful art, comfortable couches for reading in, dappled natural light from the backyard, which I imagine is similarly leafy and has great places to sit as warm twilight comes on.
It’s not even so much that I want to be there; it’s that I want to be the kind of person I imagine I would instantly become if I were there. Relaxed, capacious. I’d read during the daytime, rather than just for five or ten minutes with eyes half-closed at bedtime. I’d probably know my neighbors, invite each other over for tea, that kind of thing. I’d take up crafting.
Why this longing? I’ve moved a lot over the last 14 years, not only between apartments but also states, from coast to coast and halfway in between. Depending on how you count, it’s somewhere between 16 times (unique top-level street addresses) and 25 times (every time I moved all my stuff from one room or apartment to another). That’s…bonkers.
And in all these moves, I’ve clung to a sense of the temporary. This is just for now. This is just in these weird circumstances. There’s never been a decision of ah, this is forever.
That’s what I see in my lurk-walks through leafy places. The dream of finally being the sort of person who goes ah, this is forever.
Or, because we know that God laughs when we make plans/sweeping statements, at least “ah, this is not actively temporary. I will not sabotage my happiness by keeping one foot in and one foot out.”