Moving day

Princes, adorn yourselves!
This earthly house is not our home.
Princes, adorn yourselves! 

A fragment of old poetry, translated from Nahuatl to Spanish to English. I did the Spanish-English translation years ago, but still don’t know what the writer meant by Princes, adorn yourselves! To prepare for the journey? To celebrate it?

Put on me a necklace
Of varied flowers.
They are in my hands,
Garlands flower on me.
We will leave the earth here.
We are loaned to one another.
We go to His house.

That’s another translation. I’m guessing it’s from the same Nahuatl original.

I left my bottle of flowers on a random doorstep, because they would not travel well. Hopefully the person who finds the daffodils in the lemonade bottle will be pleasantly surprised. My garlands are boxes of clothing, a red bicycle, and an unused banjo in need of repair. The Asheville apartment was boxed up, the forecast was rain. A good excuse to linger in town, postpone loading the bike rack until tomorrow… an unexpected urge, given my excitement to leave. But the daffodils and forsythia were out, and the redbuds were fat, and the birds sang. Spring was about to pop. It’s rumored that spring and summer in Asheville are top notch: festivals, music, exuberance, joy. There’s a lot more to see and do here. But maybe another year. I packed boxes into the car between spells of drizzle, grateful for the slight clearing. My week of solitude had been enjoyable, but it was time to go.

Hot beverage
Typical evening fun

I’d reverted, laughably quickly, to a tame spinsterhood in J.’s absence. (He left for Georgia several days before. His paying job was over, and he was drafted as a shuttler of recently repaired family vehicles.) Alone in the apartment, I was like a grandmother in an independent living facility: baby carrots and popcorn and microwaved soup for dinner, washing my singleton dishes to a soundtrack of NPR on a clock radio, in bed by 9:30, wrapped in blankets with a candle on the nightstand, reading my library book until it’s no longer indecently early to fall asleep. Not unfun, really.

I also read Asheville: A History, by Nan Chase. Without the internet, which J. took with him, I actually visited the library in person. After reading a few chapters after work, I’d walk around town, absorbing the living history, comparing notes and impressions with the history I’d learned. The book explained many previously confounding Asheville paradoxes. Despite an SUV’s bumpersticker that proclaimed “Keep Asheville Mediocre,” Asheville is a city of extremes, nothing mediocre about it.  “Asheville: Sweet Cesspool of Sin,” sported by more than a few rundown Toyotas, may be a bit more apt. Because the town contains both the grand Art Deco high school… and the painful and belated racial integration of same. The Grove Park Inn… and crumbling sidewalks. Magnificent public edifices… and apathy masquerading as uniqueness or bohemianism. The liberal “Coexist!” enthusiasm… the persistent segregation of the community. Pride and neglect. Warmth and coolness. Skill at craft and music, skill at boozing and mooching. Even an unenlightened newcomer can sense the legacy of the extreme boom-and-bust cycles of Asheville, which, after the Depression, had the greatest per-capita debt of any city in the United States. It took until 1976 for those debts to be paid: a wonderful time capsule for architecture, but a lousy omen for infrastructure. The effects still reverberate today in overgrown underbrush (is that an oxymoron?), the kudzu choking the flowering trees, nature overtaking blacktop.

Triangle Park Mural
A small part of the Triangle Park Mural

After clocking those last few, historically tinted miles on my labyrinthine MapMyRun of Asheville Ramblings, it was time for goodbyes, or goodbye-for-nows. I did not make fast friends here. I am a slow friendmaker. But I did make a handful of lovely acquaintances with potential. I made cocoa truffles as a gesture of thanks for my coworkers, dusted with red Hawaiian sea salt, toasted coconut, and cayenne pepper. For Carl and Jude, the lovely couple at the Farmacy Juice & Tonic Bar; for Rosanne, kind owner of the Market—the folks who let me paint their windows. For Sumitra, the tea bar woman who soothed J. and my post-move nerves with Pu-erh. And for my workmates, whether stylish, quiet, mysterious, jack-up, depressed, grumpy, kind, and/or deeply good. All containing hidden talents which I did not stay long enough to know. Everyone wrote notes in a card that Nicki gave to me along with that lemonade bottle filled with daffodils. Really touching notes. I was surprised to feel so sad to leave them. Does a part of me like leaving places because leaving makes people show you their affection?

We are loaned to one another.
We go to His house.

It’ll be good to return to the mothership for a few days: J.’s parents’ house. To smell country air and watch bluets, violets, and henbit shade the lawn lavender. To squeeze onto the sofa between family, one old cat, three dogs, maybe a rabbit. Then it is on to the next house, and again and again, until we make our own. Our own bit of earth, until we leave it. Every day is moving day!

The Isle of Man

Have you ever traveled so much that you are all legs–no head, heart or soul?

If so, do I have a flag for you!

“Whithersoever ye throw it, it will stand.” That’s the official motto of the Isle of Man, a tiny island in the Irish Sea. Its flag is a trident of flailing limbs:


Thus it was that after a year of unforgettable, unregrettable travel, I (crash) landed in a shabby corner of a mountain city, a bundle of legs, inertially in motion like a decapitated chicken. The relocation process was as smooth as could be hoped: my partner and I were both at least somewhat employed in due time, and found an affordable, if eccentric, place to stay.

Conventional wisdom proclaims a difficult readjustment period after a long hike. I figured after two months without trouble (aside from cars filled with mold from being closed up all year) that I was home free, exempt. But suddenly I felt two-dimensional, isolated, lonely, confused, and sans identity. It had failed to occur to me that when a person changes geographic location, reboots career and culture and community all at once, that’s a lot to manage. There’s no trusted mechanic, dentist… or friend. While aware of many things that were working out fine, I still felt empty and sad. My closest Montana friends did not return calls or emails. It was definitely not the time to blog about my life. It’s not that I wished I were back on the trail. It’s that I wished I were back in the womb! At 35, I felt ancient, as if I had tried to start over one too many times. Who can imagine how it feels at seventy, widowed? Or as a refugee leaving one’s homeland?

The dismal feelings bottomed out at winter solstice. A most pleasant time to hit, actually, the darkest time of year: the seasons mirror the mental state, encouraging introspection, yet promising a gradual increase of light. The thought arrived–You don’t have to move anywhere unless or until you feel called to do so–and gave me strange comfort, given that I was none too crazy about my current location. And then it was time to start drawing a map off of the island, draw myself outta there, into the next.

Here are the directions.

Light some candles and watch the smoke curl. Make pancakes every Saturday and pretend that you have been doing so for years.

Go to a different church every week and stand in the back and watch how people interact during the sign of peace, and see if they come over if you don’t make eye contact. Crawl out of your skin at five different meditation groups. Examine the baseboards for dust instead of pining for enlightenment.

Quit being in such a damned hurry.

Go to a party where you don’t know anybody and find the most boring person, because at least you can listen to them if you can’t bring yourself to talk with anybody else. Awkwardly ask a coworker if she would like to come over for Indian food. Ask if she will also bring her dog. Pet the dog.

Feel shitty again and then pull back out of it. Feel shitty less often.

Poke your nose in some new place every day. It takes a long time to get off an island, even in a city, so familiarize yourself with the traffic. I have a map that proves my commitment to this, my fastidious and neurotic commitment. It’s a map that shows every street in this town that I have run or walked along. It is nearly 200 miles of red highlighting, a snakes’ nest of aerobic wandering:

(Note to creeps: neither the red nor the green dot are where I live.)

I know precious little about this town or even about my wearily reborn self right now. But I’ve got all these legs, I might as well use ’em.

Fellow denizens of the Isle of Man, refugees, rebooters, unite: Whithersoever ye throw us, there we stand.

The care and feeding of transplants

Who could be calling from outside? Nobody knows us here yet…

But I opened the screen door of the attic apartment and saw Carolyn, our next-door neighbor, standing on the driveway below with a brown bag in her arms. We had met her the day before, our first full day in Asheville. Already, here she was, a one-woman welcome wagon of Southern hospitality, with two ripe tomatoes, a boxed loaf of pumpkin bread, a giant container of mixed nuts, and four gold apples obviously from a real tree nearby. She had noticed the Montana plates on our car, and told us how much she wished she could move there. Not only her gesture but her timing was perfect. We had just finished carrying our most basic possessions into the loft of the peeling old house, and it felt like being on a lifeboat at sea. As if the world were fluid beneath us, and our munitions were few. And here she was, a friendly little craft who knew our port of departure.

It had been hard to leave J.’s parents’ house, much as we were ready for a place of our own. This despite the fact that the primary occupation of our week and a half visit was neurotically cleaning, disassembling, reupholstering and reassembling our Mazda, in which green nasties had sprouted during the wet spring months of our absence. Between bouts of scrubbing, we took humble excursions to remind us that beauty is nearby, and so is peace, even when we return to the daily grind. You wouldn’t know to drive along the Cleveland Highway that just a few hundred meters away is the blue hole spring at Red Clay, the water source of the last home of the Cherokee people before the Trail of Tears (upon which the Cleveland Highway was later built).

We also took care of the animals while J.’s folks were away: two hypersensitive daschunds, one bouncy mutt, an elderly cat, fifteen chickens, five chicks, plus everything that the hummingbird feeder attracts. The hens were a small-scale throwback to our chores at Nuestra Finca, enjoyably so. Flo’s birds are the only truly happy ones I’ve met. They roam free in the big, green backyard, and have roosting barns with protective netting at night. Every other day, with a plastic extension claw, one of us retrieves eggs from underneath the power saw, where they nestle in a bit of straw next to a hollow green Easter egg, unless a hen has decided to sit on a batch, in which case she is allowed to hatch them. When their laying years are over, no axe awaits, only a long, verdant retirement. Hence they feel entitled to develop outsized personalities, like the rest of us. The animal scene at Fawa’s Cottage made us remember a deeper purpose than a life spent among only televisions or newspapers or websites can convey: to care for creatures, as we ourselves are cared-for creatures, and to see them through their shorter lives.

The day before we left, a beautiful chill entered the air. I walked the perimeter and snipped leaves and berries and dried bits of blooms past, and put them in jars of water around the house. Symbols of fall: of the brilliant energy of change and death and transformation. We all, but travelers especially, must perform such minor rituals to remind ourselves of the season, to remain grounded in cycles despite constant uprooting.

Despite the repeated transplants, from the Montana bed to the Appalachian Trail vine to the Costa Rican forest to the Georgia sanctuary to, finally, the rocky soil of Asheville, we ought not fret. The city is a new nut to crack, jobs and housing and culture and people, and our lifeboat, though cozy, contains a leaky toilet but not a smoke detector… but the drive to North Carolina was beautiful, valleys of trees inhaling the warm blue afternoon, deep gulps in preparation for the impending costume change. It’s an autumn transplant, both in the sense of it being hopefully the last one for a good long while, and in a more urgent sense of wanting to get situated before snow flies. But the world is full of surprises, and we sometimes remember to trust our higher power. We have reinvented our lives before. Sometimes I feel ancient, but we ain’t that old yet.

I miss awakening to dawns full of toucan cries and monkey talk, to air redolent of fruits and flowers. I miss knowing my task for the day is simple, the rhythm steady, the subtle variations pleasures to be savored. I miss feeling secure and content within the boundaries of a miniature existence, one wherein the Future and Income and Lodging are not concerns. But of course the seasons turn, and all things end, and we are living in a different chapter now. Carolyn’s gesture of hospitality spurred me to another small ritual: baking. Symbol of taking up residence, filling a small space with heat and domestic aroma. Which means acknowledging that yes, this is where we are now, might as well make banana bread. Might as well make connections: give a loaf to Carolyn, two big pieces for our downstairs roommates (whose oven we use, our upstairs having only a two-burner and a nuker), a slice for our landlord, and some for ourselves, a communion, however haltingly granted, of place and nourishment.

Perhaps in the next few days I will even see fit to snip some bouquets of wild, scraggly plants from the yard, to adorn our lifeboat, to mark it as, for now, home.