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some photos of the night, by way of the past

March 14, 2010

In my final months of college, I remember asking myself some questions that sounded easy to answer: Do I want to go into business or a more creative pursuit? Do I want live in the city where family and friends are, or a place with less attachments?  If you choose a job that pays well, are you sacrificing more imaginative work?  They were questions that asked me to decide if I could continue moving forward while surrounded by the past.  I thought that it was one or the other  – the new or the old; the creative or the mundane – and that at a certain point life demanded that you make a choice.

Though they sounded like fairly straightforward questions, they were not, and I couldn’t answer them.  I spent those final months of college and a year in Europe trying to decide which it was going to be, and I was so confused about which way to go that every time I spoke to friends back home I reported that I was moving to a different city upon my return.  New York, San Francisco, Miami, Boston.  I had claimed them all as my future residence.  One close friend thought I had finally gone mad when I proclaimed that I was moving to Portland, for no real reason other than that “it seemed to be the right place.”  I was searching everywhere for something – for what, exactly, I did not know.  And I still don’t, because I’ve never found it.

It was after my arrival back in the US, after I’d taken a job for a technology company working in the “business world,” had moved into an apartment in Chicago and found myself more pleased at the end of each day than I’d ever been before, that I came up with what I’ve come to call The Rule of Both.  The ultimatums I’d been giving myself for years turned out to be insignificant.  I learned quickly how you could have both: old friends and new; a job in a more traditional field that was creatively fulfilling; you could look towards the future at the same time that you were bound by the past; you could continue to travel the world even as you worked a full-time job.  It sounds like a simple discovery now, but the path to it was a grueling one.

I started thinking again about The Rule of Both earlier today while flipping through John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley In Search of America, a book I read during a week in Guatemala a couple years back as I was coming to understand how to embrace the old and the new.  In the book, Steinbeck arrives in central California at the town of his birth, and finds that once you leave home you can never go back.  Returning home, he believes, only confuses your memories and those of your friends at home who fix an image of you in their memory the day you leave.  I think he’s right, to a point, but fails to mention how you often fix an image on a person or place you’ve known a long time and continue to see regularly.  In the end, that image is often as disappointing as if the person had left forever, or if you’d never returned to the place.   You can’t go home again, but even if you never quite leave you’re bound to wake up one day and realize that that image of home, of friends and family, is no more real than the memories of those who left forever.  As Steinbeck writes: “Home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.”

No. 296: 3/13/2010

No. 297: 3/12/2010

Here on these high rocks my memory myth repaired itself.  Charley, having explored the area, sat at my feet, his fringed ears blowing like laundry on a line.  His nose, moist with curiosity, sniffed the wind-borne pattern of a hundred miles.

“You wouldn’t know, my Charley, that right down there, in that little valley, I fished for trout with your namesake, my Uncle Charley.  And over there – see where I’m pointing – my mother shot a wildcat.  Straight down there, forty miles away, our family ranch was – old starvation ranch.  Can you see that darker place there?  Well, that’s a tiny canyon with a clear and lovely stream bordered with wild azaleas and fringed with big oaks.  And on one of those oaks my father burned his name with a hot iron together with the name of the girl he loved.  In the long years the bark grew over the burn and covered it.  And just a little while ago, a man cut that oak for firewood and his splitting wedge uncovered my father’s name and the man sent it to me.  In the spring, Charley, when the valley is carpeted with blue lupines like a flowery sea, there’s the smell of heaven up here, the smell of heaven.”

I printed it once more on my eyes, south, west, and north, and then we hurried away from the permanent and changeless past where my mother is always shooting a wildcat and my father is always burning his name with his love.

– John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley In Search of America

One Comment leave one →
  1. David permalink
    March 24, 2010 8:34 am

    You write: “…You can’t go home again, but even if you never quite leave you’re bound to wake up one day and realize that that image of home, of friends and family, is no more real than the memories of those who left forever.”

    This makes me think of the Herman Hesse novel, Narcissus and Goldmund. On The Rule of Both, I wonder how Hesse would feel of this desirable balance–in the novel Hesse delicately and beautifuly portrays the lives of these two characters whose lives evolve to become undeniably contrasting, yet intricately drawn to one another. When your done (if ever, and I’m not suggesting that you ever should be) and need a break from accurately expressing how a majority Americans are consuming ourselves in an ignorant, gluttonous, chowhound manner you should check it out.

    Keep the good thoughts coming!

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