“Go Somewhere and Stop”

17 Oct

Poet Gary Snyder wrote this in answer to the eternal questions that haunt people who, often in life, find themselves in the wrong place: What do we do? Where do we go? How do we make a place?

Usually it’s not “the wrong place” in a larger scheme or even cultural or social construct, just the wrong place for some people at that particular time in their lives. And sometimes the wrong place morphs itself into that, after being the right place for quite some time. Places become right and wrong because of people inhabiting them. Because, often, we make places rather than live in them. We force them. Twist and starve the land by means of exploitation. Fit and work the soil into whatever box (field) we’ve designated for it. (Corral animals into restrictive pens on that land for other exploitative uses.)

No worries, this isn’t that kind of piece. Plenty of other more eloquent writers, farmers, journalists, novelists, and people living in their places—their homes—have done a much better job at documenting what we have done to . . . places. To make them “wrong” or “right.”

Gary Snyder’s imperative really resonated with me when I came across it not too long ago. It did so mainly because of its simplicity and honesty. It also implies stewardship and respect given by those who end up stopping (for good or not) in those places, to those places. At least that’s how it reads to me. But maybe to others it reads: “Go somewhere and stop. Now tear up the joint top to bottom, build your home on the ashes and soot remaining, and put up a Walmart while you’re at it ’cause we’re going to need stuff. Lots of it. And, naturally, pave this land here with black asphalt so we can have a giant parking lot for the Walmart. Where else are folks gonna leave their cars?”

No worries, this isn’t that kind of piece. But it sure does sound like it could be.

Gary Snyder’s advice connects with me not just as a regular human being trying to be as good a steward to my environment as possible (finally!), but also as an immigrant. I read somewhere recently (WaPo? NYTimes? PBS? CBC?) that a person in the States moves an average of 12 times in their lives. I thought that stat ridiculously high. Look at me, I thought. I’ve had long-term stints in Washington, D.C. (1982-2000), Florida (2000-2004), and Raleigh, N.C. (2004-present). No way a person moves around so much. The article is exaggerating for the sake of readership outrage. Or some other reason that has to do with advertising revenue.

But I took stock of my own life. Counting my place of birth in Romania, I have moved 14 times in my life. Given my 18 years of staying local to D.C. and 17 years and counting as a Raleigh stalwart, I am blown away by this slow-motion mobility. This probably doesn’t surprise too many people, I realize. My daughter’s mother attended 13 different schools in 4 different states just through the end of her academic career, which ended with her graduation from high school.

I do not and never have wished to speak for immigrants in general; I can only speak for my immigrant self. But I have never in my life felt like I have put down roots in any place. Despite the aforementioned years upon years in those areas. Or maybe I did put down some roots—I think fondly of growing up in the D.C. area even though we were going through some difficult times during those decades—but I’ve always ended up digging them out and moving them to someplace else to be buried in that particular earth.

And yet, generally, I’d have to say that mine hasn’t been a transitory life at all. It could be that, for people like me, the years lived can be corralled into phases or acts. It could be. Sociologists or anthropologists are likely able to better analyze my life or similar lives of other immigrants. There sure is a ton of literature and comment, though, on the virtues of being born and staying put and making a life of productivity right there, on the land which gave birth to you. It seems that the act of leaving home never to return, for some, is unforgivable.

The idea of home, hearth, and allegiance has been debated and explored and ruminated upon by so many other eloquent writers, poets, and artists, that I feel dumb even writing a paragraph about it here. Speaking on the birth of the cool—bebop jazz pioneered by the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley, Dexter Gordon, and a bit later taken out of the stratosphere by Miles, Coltrane, Monk, and the others—a grumpy Ralph Ellison in several essays expressed melancholy for the big band and Saturday night dance hall days of the Savoys and the Apollos, while eschewing bebop as the frantic shriek of a lost, big-citified people whose home is “nowhere.”*

Also speaking on the concept of homestead and allegiance, but in a much less eloquent fashion, my father once scoffed in jest when I was a boy having just arrived in the States: “…what home? We are immigrants. We have been uprooted for good.” Never mind that immigration for my family was a decision apparently well thought out and planned. (You did that to yourself, buddy!) But then again, most emigres take decisive action for some urgent and pressing reason, not the least being genocide or social/tribal upheaval in their homeland. At least in my limited circles, I have never met an immigrant who willingly la-di-da-ed their way to another foreign land because, say, they were bored or decided to “shake things up.” Whichever way those decisions to leave were made (in haste or long-time planned), they were—in effect—forced to be made. Under duress, likely. I often think of these decisions on par with having been excommunicated. And sometimes, excommunication carrying the threat of extinction if not accepted.

I am writing this brief piece as thoughts of pulling up stakes and leaving this country now are not just being entertained by my small family, but indeed beginning to be fleshed out and certain plans put into actions. There are many questions that pop up if one is in their mid-50s and planning on (once again, in my case) uprooting and settling in another country: What do we do? Where exactly do we go? How do we make a place?

Well . . . poet Gary Snyder may have a good answer.

*Living with Music – Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings, Random House, 2001

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