Monday, November 19, 2007

En route from Chicago, Illinois, to Albany, New York, currently between Rochester and Syracuse

982 statute miles
Weather: 50°F, some light snow in the trees as we pass

I’m continuing to read “The Spell of the Sensuous” as we cross upstate New York by train. Today’s chapter focused on oral cultures and their intrinsic, synaesthetic connection to the earth. He talks a lot about aboriginal Australians, members of the world’s oldest living culture, and their birth--instead of being merely conceived physically, they arise from the spirit animal tracks that criss-cross the land, from the literal footsteps of the Spirits who walked across Australia laying spirit seed that rests dormant in the earth until someone’s mother feels an awakening in her womb at the exact site where the spirit animal stepped.

When an aboriginal woman becomes pregnant, the clan elders get together and decide which footstep the baby is most closely tied to. The track is remembered by elaborate song, each set of spirit footsteps paired with a couplet of a poem. That person, when born, becomes that couplet, and that piece of land is their birthright. When they die, they return to that piece of land so that their spirit can once again meld back into the soil and become one.

I can’t imagine a connection to the land that intense. I don’t suppose any of us can. I watch the narrow trees rush past the train’s windows, and the contours of the landscape are meaningless to me. I’ve never seen them before, chances are I’ll never see them again. I’m moving too fast to understand the ground, the birds, the brush. It’s all beautiful, but it’s silent.

In front of me, behind me, next to me, people are watching computer-generated DVDs on their laptops, playing video games on their cell phones, listening to iPods. They don’t even see the silent earth we’re whizzing past. It’s invisible to them.

I suppose my connection to the earth is more tenuous than most. I don’t even have a home country, a home state, a home city. Wandering through the streets of Chicago this last week reminded me of the trails I’ve walked through the city these last ten years, each step a memory. But I don’t belong there the way an aboriginal belongs to a particular piece of earth. I don’t belong anywhere. I’ve uprooted Karl successfully, too, dragging him along in my endless wake as we wander far from his true home turf. He truly belongs in New England. Its seasons echo in his body, its landscape speaks to him in a way it doesn’t speak to me.

Maybe it’s why I’m so drawn to the sea--featureless, changing, vast, empty. A blank canvas, terrain where no human belongs. I like teh story of Ulysses, our last true story, the last story from when our culture, too, was oral, tied to the earth. Back when we meant something other than desolation. Ulysses spent ten years trying to find home. I’m trying to do that, too. The only part that doesn’t ring true is the happy ending.

I kept apologizing to my hip Chicago friends for our “homeless chic”--Karl’s raggedy hair and beard, my patched jeans and old ratty sweaters, clothes from thrift-store bins and ancient basement-mildewed cardboard boxes, holey socks and shoes, stained tee-shirts. Perhaps being somewhere that was home to me, however briefly, reinforced how thoroughly homeless I am again, my only shelter a little fiberglass house bobbing forlornly thousands of miles away. I don’t like living out of an ultralight backpack and a giant Turkish purse, never able to costume myself correctly or feel the comfortable familiarity of a local. I used to be able to do these things.

Still, though, I thrive on the existential edge that not belonging brings to my existence. Everything is uncertain, everything new, everything exciting. I can’t be an aboriginal. But maybe I’ll wander forever like Ulysses, searching for my lost couplet, my lost song. And when I finally do, I can lay my bones to rest on my lost piece of earth.

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