Remembering is hard. Christmas without a loved one is hard. Not having money is hard, especially when you’re older. And so freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose, to quote the famous song. And the open road beckons.
This weekend I rented Nomadland, the Oscar-winning film based on the 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder. In the movie, Fern’s not homeless … just houseless. She lives in a van with the ghost of her late husband. Time may not be on her side, but despite the grief, the loss, she’s determined to make the most of her circumstances.
I remember when I was fifty-six. My brother Andy sized up my situation. I owned my home and had enough money in the bank. Widowed and with the kids out of college, I never had to work again, he said. It felt like going backwards. I was twenty-one again, traveling to London on a PanAm flight and landing on a muggy July morning a little too late to attend services at Westminster Abbey but embarking on a solo journey of a lifetime.
Now, a career behind me, reinvention on the horizon, the West beckoned. Like Fern, I found community in the desert. No longer tethered to the same place, the same routine, I discovered a new sense of freedom in Arizona. I didn’t want to waste any time. Every day out West felt new.
The specter of falling in love again called … albeit with the fear of being hurt again. I’ve had my chance to trade the solitary nomadic life for another house, another partner. Like Fern, I pondered the tradeoff … loss of freedom for ‘security ‘ … was it worth it?
Yet freedom to smell the morning air, take my time over a cup of coffee with no one to answer to proved a more powerful aphrodisiac, although if you have options, there’s risk. But if you don’t risk anything, maybe you won’t write anymore. A trip to the Himalayas, to the Great Wall, to the Great Barrier Reef in the years that followed after that conversation with my brother were my version of nomadland. The alchemy of transformation morphed into the spiritual, into the return to a small, white-steepled church overlooking farmland near Pennsylvania Dutch country where the ghosts of my husband and my parents some Sundays sit next to me on the wooden pews.
Now life has taken a slower, simpler turn. An August afternoon, walking a wooded path where the footfalls of Revolutionary War soldiers still echo is my ‘open road’. An impromptu lunch with my sons in a small town where a Quaker meetinghouse dates back to the 1830s is my social life. But the path, for me, at least, still leads to this: It’s always interesting what’s out there…
As a woman in Nomadland says, “you just have to learn to take care of your own shit.” Like Fern, I remind myself of the joy of being alive. Of reveling in a sunset from my kitchen window. Of opening that iron gate and taking to the open road … again, soon, maybe. I’m reminded of traveling with a community of nomads, women alone I’ve met along the writer’s way. I’m reminded of things coming full circle.