BootsnAll Travel Network

Nomads, misfits, travelers

Five days before I leave for Portugal, I reflect on the nomadic life, its treasures and its costs. Travel shapes us. Travel gives us the opportunity to reinvent ourselves. It also makes us outcasts, exiles, misfits, wanderers and nomads, the family of Cain. In the Judaic creation myth, Cain was cursed to be a vagabond because he killed his brother. Cain traveled from Eden to the land of Nod, married a Nod-woman, and begat tent-dwellers, musicians, and artificers. Where did the people of Nod come from? I feel my ancestral relation to Cain and the Nod-people, and I know in my blood the hunger Cain had to belong, but the people of Nod never did belong, even to themselves. They were outsiders. My tribe.

Travelers make connections with places and people; we move on and leave parts of ourselves (as well as half-dead plants and boxes of our books) behind; and then we make new connections and can’t leave them; but we do. I celebrate being a nomad, which is a good thing, since being a nomad is what the circumstances of my life have given me, curse or not. It’s a way of life, this misfit-ness. I was just reading an interview with Isabel Allende. I identify with her at a soul-level, though the circumstances of our lives could hardly be more different (she’s a fabulously successful writer, lives in a mansion in Marin County, has been in two long marriages, seems to be the woman who has it all, although there was that horror of the death of her daughter). I identify with her because I have also lived a life in movement, a life teetering from one obsession or project to the next, a life as an outsider. I guess I’m Isabel Allende, minus the important family, the success, the money, and the husbands. And I hate to cook. She writes, “I compare myself with most people my age that never traveled or traveled very little and stayed in Chile. And we are different—there’s no doubt that I have had to tell my story and they haven’t, because they have witnesses all over. They belong in a place where their lives have been witnessed for sixty years by their community, by their family and friends and by acquaintances…. That has not been my case because every place I go, I have to tell my story.”

Well, Isabel, yes and no.

Nobody has to tell their story. Most people don’t want to hear anybody’s story. They’d rather go swimming, watch TV, check their email, or answer their cell phone. If we nomads want to get any kind of human connection at all, we need to be charming; we need to tell stories. Isabel, you’re a damn fine storyteller. You’re like the one Vargas Llosa writes about, the guy with the birthmark who blended in with the indigenous people in the Amazon forest and became the keeper of their stories. They gave him that privilege because he was so good at storytelling, and although he never belonged with the people of the forest, they accepted him, fed him, gave him a place to stay for a while, till he moved on to the next group.

But you and I—now I’m into this dialogue—you and I, Isabel, listen to the stories around us, tell and re-tell, shape and re-shape, examine and reinvent ourselves and the people we meet. When we want to move on, we just stand up and walk away. People who have grown up with a community of witnesses are different because instead of telling their stories, they LIVE their stories, their lives. With witnesses. That’s the key. Travelers are always going where there are no witnesses to what they have been. Travelers live in a perpetual present. People with witnesses live with their past and their present woven together around them like a tapestry that hangs in Yorkminster Cathedral. It says, “In the work of our hands is our prayer.”

Take my friend Christine. I love Christine fiercely, and I look at her life the way I study a work of art by, say, a Dutch painter, the kind who painted women illumined by inner and outer light, standing by windows, possibly pregnant, doing ordinary things with extraordinary beauty and grace. Christine lives in Yorkshire, in the mill town where she was born, where her mum and dad met at the mill and married and lived in a mill house across the stream from the mill and went to the pub on Saturday nights with all their friends who worked at the mill and with all their friends’ grannies and kids. Christine and I have been friends since 1970 (I met her on one of my travels; she was working as a hotel maid in Haworth, where I was staying to commune with the Brontes but got lonely, and she rescued me and took me home to her family). Whenever I can, I go back to Yorkshire and am dazzled by the Dutch-painterly beauty of Christine’s life. She married, soon after we met, Melvin, the first man she ever loved, in the local church; they love each other still; they have three well-rounded, healthy kids who turned out happy and married people who love them. Christine and Mel and their kids grew up in community, and after the kids got married Chris and Mel moved to a houseboat, where they live right now, surrounded by loving family, all except for Christine’s wild red-haired sister Shirley, who ended up living in New Zealand, married to a man who loves her; but Shirley comes back to visit every few years.

Christine and Mel still go to the pub; Mel plays snooker; they take casseroles to friends who are sick, they don’t make a fuss of religion, they love the world and the people in it. And all the people there are witnesses to her life. I’ve watched it unfold for the past thirty-six years. Mel moved up from being a mechanic to being manager of a car franchise, and after the kids were grown Christine got a part-time job at the local hospital, so they take vacations in Majorca with the whole family. Christine and Mel have created a functional family. They’re a fucking miracle to my eyes, as rare and exotic as a type of orchid that only grows on a hillside in a remote corner of Paraguay. That’s what it’s like to belong. I watch like a Dickens character, gazing through iron gates at people who live in the light. What a marvel. How beautiful.

I see, I marvel, but I can’t quite imagine myself in such a life. Christine has a soft, womanly body, gives the best hugs in the world. I wasn’t made for her life, her body. My awkward, irascible, bony and lanky self can’t fit into a life in Yorkshire, much though I envy it. There would always be parts of me sticking awkwardly out. Would that have been so if I hadn’t traveled? How would I know? I’ve traveled since I was five. North Carolina, Mississippi, New York City, Hawai’i, England, France, Italy, New Orleans (before Katrina it was like a country in itself), Switzerland, Mexico, Lesotho, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland. I name them like lovers, and every name comes with albums of images. I haven’t just visited these places; I’ve worked in them, loved in them, made friends in them, attended funerals and weddings and woven my life’s blood into the lives of people in these places. I never lived anywhere more than six years till now. I got too old to relocate this last time, so I’ve ended up spending seven years, and possibly one and a half more, in a part of Texas I never would have chosen if I’d had anything to do with it. Got my Ph.D. Wrote unsuccessful books, raised Seth and Manko. Tried to raise Chris and Palesa. My students generally like me, and I enjoy what I do. It does no harm. It allows me to go on asking questions, having conversations with people about life’s big issues. I meet people who have great stories, and sometimes I help them tell their stories. All of this flows from my nomadic life. All I have had, or made, has been a part of my travels. So I know what you mean, Isabel, when you say that traveling, or not-traveling, shapes our lives.

I’ve been going through a dry spell, as far as travel goes, since I returned to the USA in 99. I made some commitments, and I have done my best to keep them, and I have some friends here who matter to me profoundly. I have a dream come true of an apartment. But there are pieces of me sticking out in the cold (or, in this case, the heat). I am about to start traveling again, letting go of all that I have to lose, again. In five days I will be off exploring, sniffing about for the possibility of a new life. In Portugal. Why? Don’t know. Just a notion I woke up with one day. Where will it take me? I’ve gone back to the hiking boots; my ankles have been pinging a bit lately. Backpack is ready. Now all that needs to happen is for me to get there. I grin into the cliff-hanger my nomadic life is.

Tags: , ,

2 responses to “Nomads, misfits, travelers”

  1. Noel says:

    The saying on my Zen calendar for today, July 9, 2006, is by Liao-an: “Know the mind and see its essence, and you may speak at will and go wherever your feet take you – nothing is not the path.” Words for you Kendal! Travel well. Love, Noel

  2. admin says:

    Nothing is not the path. Perfect. Thanks, Noel! I had no idea you were reading this. Nothing is not the path. It’s a mantra.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *