As we neared landfall in the Marquesas Islands back in 2008, nearly 3000 miles from where we had started, we were farther from anywhere we had ever known. I have been living aboard my sailboat, Momo, for years – it is home. My husband and I set sail when our first daughter was born. The vast Pacific has been the only backyard our kids know, and we’ve grown accustomed to being out here alone. We’ve sailed to Hawaii, Alaska, British Columbia, Mexico, and across the South Pacific island chain that stretches toward New Zealand. But that stretch of water from Mexico to the Marquesas was our longest ocean crossing, and it went west, west. The verdant peaks of Fatu Hiva appeared on the horizon on the 44th day. For the previous forty-three, our world had been an infinite variety of watery, wonderful blue.
These distances across the largest ocean in the world world make me think a lot about my sense of place. For most of my life, I’ve had a disconnected feeling when it comes to place. There are plenty of towns I love, and even some where I thought I fit in. But I’ve moved around every couple years most of my adult life, and the truth is, this has suited my restless soul. The time I’ve spent on my sailboat is the longest time I have lived in any one place since I left my parents’ house over two decades ago. But of course we don’t live in any one place. The irony is not lost on me that it is here, in the watery world of my boat, peeking each day a little further over the horizon, that I feel most at home.
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I am drawn to authors who write about place. You can’t read Annie Proulx’ The Shipping News without getting a profound sense of the grey isolation that life in Newfoundland offers, a place whose very location at the edge of North America makes it possible for the protagonist Quoyle to start over and sort out his troubled past. William Styron’s Stingo and Thomas Wolfe’s George Webber can only hail from the American South, their dilemmas and ordeals so embedded in the places they were born. Christa Wolf’s writing is distinctly and problematically East German, just as Guenther Grass wrote from a determined West German hand through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. All these places – Newfoundland, the American South, and Germany – mean something to me, and I find myself reaching for authors who take me there again and again. Then there’s John Barth, who writes about the Chesapeake Bay with such a playful sense of language and history that I’d fall in love with Maryland’s tidewater region even if I didn’t already know it so well.
The Chesapeake is where my roots grew deepest. We came to Maryland when I was four, and lived near Annapolis from then on. Growing up in a place called Harwood, our sweaty summers made our existence worth living. Riding bikes with my brothers through the narrow and winding country roads of southern Maryland, driving with all the windows rolled down on a summer day so scorching that the oven-hot puffs almost burned our lungs, dipping chicken necks tied to white string into the murky waters of the West River to entice blue crabs – these are my childhood memories. Home made go-karts careening down the driveway and tumbling into pieces after spectacular jumps off makeshift ramps. Row after straight row of corn stalks reaching all the way to the Eastern Shore. Robust tobacco leaves crouching in thick rows down through Calvert County. Sunburned shoulders and cool muddy creeks. Protracted Saturday games of
Cops ’n’ Robbers; hiding in big barns and hay bails, itching my arms and eyes. Hard blue crabs poured out of steaming pots onto picnic tables lined up end-to-end, pungent Old Bay spice wrinkling up my nose. Soft crabs served on white toast, their legs too gangly and long, sticking out of the square bread and begging to be nibbled off first, dripping buttery hot from the pan. Magnolias in my mother’s yard, fireflies in a jar. Sweet mint tea and steamed Silver Queen for dinner. Piano music drifting on the warm summer air, morning, noon, and night.
My brother Kirk also had a strong interest in place. Had he lived long enough to share my reflections, I think he too would have come to write about the Tidewater region.* Where John Barth sits in a place of honor on my bookshelf today, so too did authors of place occupy Kirk’s mind and heart. We had all been raised on the best of American Lit (our classical-pianist-mother a firm believer in high literature – I’ve never seen a Grisham or Clancy novel in her hands), and Kirk related to my mother’s southern roots more than any of the rest of us. It surprised no one when he went off to college in our native Durham, North Carolina, or that he developed a deep appreciation for southern writers. He admired Styron and Faulkner and Reynolds Price and Robert Penn Warren, but he also loved the twentieth century’s southern women writers: Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter. The exploration of an individual’s place in community, questions of race and religion, and the inner conflicts created by passion and rage – the unique southern flavor of these themes shouted out to Kirk page after page.
I found a worn copy of James Dickey’s Poems 1957-1967 on Kirk’s nightstand when he died, and I carried that around with me for years afterward, reading and re-reading several pages that became favorites of my own. Kirk’s copy of Dickey poems, which has been my copy for nearly sixteen years, is dog-eared from cradling and caressing, his and mine. “In the Treehouse at Night” spoke to me in particular back then, and still shows me how one poem can bridge the gap between the living and the dead, between siblings across time and space and memory.
In the Tree House at Night (James L. Dickey)
And now the green household is dark.
The half-moon completely is shining
On the earth-lighted tops of the trees.
To be dead, a house must be still.
The floor and the walls wave me slowly;
I am deep in them over my head.
The needles and pine cones about me
Are full of small birds at their roundest,
Their fist without mercy gripping
Hard down through the tree to the roots
To sing back at light when they feel it.
We lie here like angels in bodies,
My brothers and I, one dead,
The other asleep from much living,
In mid-air huddled beside me.
Dark climbed to us here as we climbed
Up the nails I have hammered all day
Through the sprained, comic rungs of the ladder
Of broom handles, crate slats, and laths
Foot by foot up the trunk to the branches
Where we came out at last over lakes
Of leaves, of fields disencumbered of earth
That move with the moves of the spirit.
Each nail that sustains us I set here;
Each nail in the house is now steadied
By my dead brother’s huge, freckled hand.
Through the years, he has pointed his hammer
Up into these limbs, and told us
That we must ascend, and all lie here.
Step after step he has brought me,
Embracing the trunk as his body,
Shaking its limbs with my heartbeat,
Till the pine cones danced without wind
And fell from the branches like apples.
In the arm-slender forks of our dwelling
I breathe my live brother’s light hair.
The blanket around us becomes
As solid as stone, and it sways.
With all my heart, I close
The blue, timeless eye of my mind.
Wind springs, as my dead brother smiles
And touches the tree at the root;
A shudder of joy runs up
The trunk; the needles tingle;
One bird uncontrollably cries.
The wind changes round, and I stir
Within another’s life. Whose life?
Who is dead? Whose presence is living?
When may I fall strangely to earth,
Who am nailed to this branch by a spirit?
Can two bodies make up a third?
To sing, must I feel the world’s light?
My green, graceful bones fill the air
With sleeping birds. Alone, alone
And with them I move gently.
I move at the heart of the world.
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I find myself wondering these days whether Kirk’s interest in the South had more to do with a searching than a belonging. Like me, he loved authors who captured a sense of place, and those places meant something personal to him. And like me, he was perhaps looking for a place to fit in. He found inspiration in the mountain streams of western Carolina and their endless trickle and then rush and roar down to the deltas of the sandy eastern seaboard. He was the son who returned to his roots in that sense. But he also loved other places, too. He greatly admired the Gulf Stream and all the bounty and power therein, spending days out there on his fishing boat with our older brother, Marc. At the time he died, Kirk was falling in love with the great expanse of the American West and may have found a deeper connection to the lands of Idaho or Wyoming or New Mexico had his life lasted longer than a mere twenty-eight years.
But he did not belong to any of those places. He was from the south but not a Southerner. He worked in Boston with our other older brother, Marc, but did not fit comfortably into the Cambridge club of Harvard men where Marc had so adeptly carved out his niche. Kirk did not live long enough to find one place he loved more than any other. There was always something tentative about his very existence. Where Marc wore a holster for his revolver (if that’s not a cocksure declaration of who you are, I don’t know what is), it was Kirk who started the cowboy boot trend among their friends and colleagues in Boston. He bought his first pair just out of college, and at the time of his death he owned at least a dozen pairs. He strode the streets of Boston with an easy confidence, but always with a sense of irony. Kirk’s boots took him places, and created a following. Indeed, at the time of Kirk’s death, there was hardly an employee at the company where he worked who did not own a pair of Justins or Tony Lamas or Luccheses – I think the good people of Marble Associates, Inc were responsible for a large portion of income to a shop called Helen’s in Beacon Hill in the 1990s.
But he was always aware that he was not organically of the boot, that this was an artifice of sorts, a fashion statement of the most ridiculous kind. He loved his boots, every single pair of them — the outlandish ostrich and elephant skins; the smooth snakeskins and rough crocodiles; the standard black and brown cowhides. He wore them with jeans, with khakis, with suits. Had he been a man to wear shorts, he probably would have found the right pair of boots to match. His poem “My Cowboy Boots” was framed by a heart-sore employee and put on a wall in Marble’s offices after he died. It exhibits my brother’s characteristically complicated warmth and distance, his appreciation for beauty and irony.
My Cowboy Boots (Kirk Elvy)
I know in a way it’s silly to live
in this New England city and wear boots.
None of us are cowpokes or even have roots
to the old west. You might not believe
I love mine, but I do. They are old friends
who have stood with me through thick and thin,
have likely absorbed as much beer and bourbon
as I have. Side by side they stand
against the wall. I admire them, see me
in them. I am not ashamed of the vamp,
a politically incorrect elephant
hide that still holds the shape of my feet
and will last. The calf uppers, worn
to the angle of my ankles, nearly flop
over with fatigue. I lift one boot and rub
the grainy foot, the bumps my toes formed.
Its scent corkscrews into my nose,
A blend of the rotten and the sweet
in me, old animal spoor, and faint reek
of all the shit on these streets we rove.
These boots have been with me through a lot
of my life, while writing my best songs,
for better and worse and wild sex; they were on
for the gigs when we were worshipped like small gods
and when we bombed, the band too drunk to play.
Together we’ve crawled alleys thick and dank
with despair, we’ve walked the thin plank
of happiness and survived, a little frayed,
sure, but intact. The creases get more bold
all the time, but these boots aren’t yet falling apart.
With a finger I trace the pathways of scars,
push in a hobnail worked loose from the sole.
It seems a lifetime ago that I also embraced that craze of wearing cowboy boots. My first pair was a gift from Kirk (of course), basic black Justins, and after his death his collection became my collection. Most of them went to friends and family members who could fit their feet into a men’s size nine, but some I kept. I had the vamp cut down to my size — with great difficulty and not some degree of moral discomfort regarding donning the skin of my favorite of all animals. I do not have occasion to wear the vamp much these days, but they live on, safely tucked away in our mother’s attic, along with my Justins and the last pair of boots I ever purchased, a fantastically gaudy pair of Texas fashionwear, purple with black trim and inlaid leather designs: gold stars and green cactus plants. Some things you just cannot throw out.
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In the end, I wonder if Kirk loved reading and writing about Place for the same reasons I do: because he hadn’t (as I haven’t) really found any one place where he definitively fit in. He traipsed through the streets of Boston not entirely secure in his existence there. Uncomfortable, searching, and not at home anywhere — not yet. This was my brother at the time of his death:
Thinking of the Dancers (Kirk Elvy)
I misjudge its level and trip
into my futon bed, off balance
more from exhaustion than free booze
we got at the club. I’m too wired to sleep,
too up, and it’s hot in this studio
apartment I call my place, not home.
The windows have been painted shut
by the landlord or some other idiot,
though it’s too cold out to open them –
I’d catch cold and kill our next gig.
I wonder why people dance; I don’t.
Tonight it was crazy, the crowd moved
before us like a school of feeding fish,
each one alone but linked to the others
in frenzy energy, cutting, diving,
surfacing, to gain an edge, an angle,
driven by an ancient mob momentum,
an instinct that all this has some purpose.
I guess the dancers have found their way
to say, “I ache,” “Fuck you,” or “Now
I am perfect” — mine takes another form.
But I don’t really know why they do it,
I’ve made this all up. I pull the blanket
off and on me, an insomniac
ritual I repeat. And I can hear,
through the thin wall, in the next-door flat
two more’s rhythmic shuffle and violent slam,
am kept up by the rough struggle for love.
But Kirk was not only a brooding writer, struggling toward love and publication, wearing his cowboy boots in defiance of Boston snobbery, a testament to individuality and self-mockery. He was deliberate in his pursuit of knowledge, whether it took the form of learning to play guitar or tie flies or read post-modern lit crit. He was meticulous in his notes; I lovingly hold onto mounds of notebooks with scribbling in his neat hand. They contain poetry and songs, lists of vocabulary words, lines he wanted to remember, word combinations that grabbed his fancy.
I wonder what Kirk would say about my wandering about. I think he might find an appreciation in it, follow the Tolkien line of Not all those who wander are lost. I do not feel lost out here, but some questions have nagged at the back of my mind for years. Am I merely restless, sailing the world with my young family because I do not know what else to do? That sounds irresponsible and childish. I’m too old for irresponsible and childish. My greater fear has been that I wander because I have no Place. But I’ve recently dismissed that too and come to a third notion, one that holds within the promise of resolution: perhaps by wandering I am making my own Place in this world, however unorthodox. This much I know: I do not find comfort in clearly defined places any more. Germany: a place I used to call home; a place where I felt at ease in the 1980s, when it was divided, where I thrived in the 1990s, when life’s very core consisted of existential questions and conundrums in the wake of the Berlin Wall tumbling down, a place that I long to visit with my daughters but at the same time fear just a little because it has evolved and I have evolved but we have not evolved together, and how could we fit any more, Germany and me? New England: a place of heartbreak and heartsong, a place I also called home and then turned my back on. The Chesapeake: the place of my childhood, the place where my roots grow ever deeper in rich soil, the place calling to me through literature and memory and piano music floating out my mother’s windows. The place I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to leave behind.
My life now is an in-between existence. I left the security of house and job and friends some seven years back. Travel is, for me, a way of life. It’s not lost on me that the small space of my boat is the place where I’ve spent the most consecutive years since my childhood. For most people, travel means getting away, changing pace. But this is my pace, and I have become comfortable living at speed of a few knots. In her book Eat, Pray, Love, Liz Gilbert describes her year of travel to Italy, India and Indonesia, during which she searches for answers to life’s big questions. Which is what we are all doing, in one way or another. What strikes me most about Gilbert’s travel memoir (and others like it) is that she deliberately “checks out” for a year and knows she must return to normal once her neatly organized year has passed. But for my family and me, there is no turning back to a world we once knew as normal. This floating life is normal.
And I have become comfortable with that. Bits of my heart are scattered all around the world, in the homes of my friends, and with my family. In Berlin and Hamburg and Munich and Leipzig, in Annapolis and Baltimore, North Carolina and New England. But my life is here, my place is here. It’s where Bernie and I have lived together the longest. It’s where we are raising our children. We are in a new place every nautical mile we travel, and yet we are at home.
Which brings me to one more book, by a German author named Janosch. The world of Janosch consists of all sorts of mischievous and loveable animals, but the two main characters are Little Tiger and Little Bear, who live together on the edge of a wood near a river in a small thatched roof house. In the book Oh Wie Schoen Ist Panama (Beautiful Panama) Little Tiger and Little Bear go looking for Panama, a land of their dreams where everything will be better. Along the way they meet various animals whom they ask for directions. They endure hardship caused by rain and hunger. They circumnavigate the woods where they live and, near the end, meet a crow who takes them to a treetop to survey the land. From that high vantage point in the tree, they spot a small house at the edge of the wood near a river with a thatched roof. They declare this a beautiful place, a perfect place. This is surely Panama, they exclaim. And they settle here to live out their lives in this comfortable home, happily ever after.
I love the circular route of this story, and the bond that keeps these two friends together. And even though our path is not circling back to anywhere, I nevertheless believe in the search for Panama. I think my husband and I may go circling the globe for a very long time searching for our Panama, all the while living our own lives here on Momo. We might even live happily ever after.
*My two older brothers were killed in a plane crash in 1994. Today, they reside in my stories — playfully skirting the edges, shouting out from center stage, lingering in my heart.