Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Life is No Longer Elsewhere

I was driving with my daughter Isabel a few years back when she said very earnestly from the back seat, “I know everybody probably thinks this when they are young, but I KNOW I am going to be famous some day.” I had to laugh at the accuracy of her statement—at least the first part of it. In fact, it seems that for most men I know part of the “work” of their thirties is making peace with their failure to become famous. Along with fame, I also think that everybody of a certain age, income, and education believes s/he will someday have a job and a stable relationship and a place to call home—will, in fact, have what we call a life.

I am 46 years old and to the casual outside observer, I have a life. I have been married to the same person for almost 16 years, I have a happy, healthy 12 year-old daughter, I have taught at a school I love for eight years, I own a house, I am not suffering from crushing debt, debilitating depression or chronic pain. I have friends. I have hobbies. I have two dogs that love me. Surely these things are sufficient to qualify as a life. Yet, for me life still feels like it is elsewhere.

Years ago I went on a Milan Kundera tear and read every novel I could find by the Czech novelist. I started with The Unbearable Lightness of Being and immediately moved into everything else he had published. In a few weeks I came out the other side of this immersion convinced that Milan Kundera is a brilliant writer. Twenty-five years later he is still on my list of top five modern novelists, along with Phillip Roth, Graham Swift, Vladimir Nabakov, and Haruki Murakami.

To be fully honest, I consumed his novels so voraciously that their plots and main characters bled together into a great big blob of darkly humorous Eastern European existentialism. One of Kundera’s novels is called Life is Elsewhere. I had to google Life is Elsewhere to even remind myself of the plot just now. I know that I read it and loved it, but even after reading the plot summary I could not remember a thing about the book. (Does it make me a bad person that I don’t really care that I am unable to remember anything at all about a book by one of my favorite authors? This is a question for another time.)

What I really want to focus on now is the title: Life is Elsewhere.

This title has come back to me again and again over the past twenty-five years; not because of the power of the story but rather because of the resonance of the idea. For me, life has been elsewhere ever since I graduated college in 1987. First, I went to the Peace Corps in North Yemen. I knew it was a two-year gig and that when it was over I would be moving back to the United States. Once I got back I lived in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Maine, and Montana over the course of the next five years. None of these moves felt permanent and none of the places felt like home.

By the time I was 29 and living in Billings I was ready to commit to a place to call home. I was considering moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico to start a teacher certification/Masters of Education program. In the meantime, I met the woman who became my wife. She was a Montana girl and rather than moving to New Mexico I stayed in Billings for another 18 months. Shortly after we met we knew we would get married. We also knew we would be moving. She wanted more than what life in Billings was able to offer. She wanted graduate school and a bigger world of ideas and challenges.

So this is the story I tell myself: I was looking for a place to commit to; a place to put down roots and build a life one connection at a time. But instead of a place, I found a person. And then we moved to a new place and then to another. And now here it is a full 25 years since I graduated college and still I have not found a place to build a life.

Of course, life has been happening anyway. As I said, we own a home and have jobs and a daughter and two dogs. But I have not built this life that has been happening to me. As John Lennon wrote, “life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” I have been a participant so far, not a decider. (In this one way I hope to become more like George W. Bush in the coming months and years.)

There have been a couple of consequences that I can see to the way my life has unspooled itself. One is that I have never felt the pleasure that I imagine a person gets from feeling truly part of a place, with roots that reach down into the soil and connections that bolster and support all around. The other is that my long-suffering partner, Erica, has been forced to stand in for the place I want to call home. In the absence of a place to live my life fully, I have substituted a person and Erica has had to be the place I grew my roots and also the connections that bolster and support me all around.

As anyone who has spent more than ten seconds thinking about it can tell you, this sort of relationship cannot sustain. It is bound to crash under the weight of so much need and expectation. Luckily, we have both seen the problem and taken steps to change things. No single person is big enough to provide all the things a place can give—even the smallest sort of place. I realize I have been waiting to get to wherever it is we are going to build our lives for 25 years now and that is way too long.

So, it is with great excitement that I am looking forward to our next move. We are heading to Ithaca, New York sometime in the next few months and I could not be more thrilled. Of course I am feeling a fair amount of stress about selling our crappy house in New Haven and buying a not-crappy house in Ithaca, about finding meaningful work that pays well, and about my daughter’s new life in a new place. But all of these things pale in comparison to the excitement I feel about finally moving to a place with the full expectation that it will be where my life is. I will miss the school where I teach and the families who go there. I will miss my friends in New Haven. But not enough to make me stay. I am ready to put down some roots, to join clubs, to plant trees and asparagus and rhubarb instead of things that grow once and are gone, and to commit to living life where I am living instead of in my head in some future place.

Hot damn. Let the wild rumpus begin.

Update, September, 2014: It took 2 years, but we have finally bought a house in Ithaca and we are loving it. Also, it took a year, but I found a job as a writer working for Cornell's College of Engineering and it is going great. This fall, I will learn how to grow asparagus.