When you’ve moved around a lot it’s hard to get a sense of where you’re standing. I’ve moved a lot lately, four times in the last five years to be exact. New York to Massachusetts, Massachusetts to New Jersey, New Jersey to Colorado, and back again to New York.
That’s a circle of sorts, I suppose. But it’s not quite right. Too elegant. One person I know calls it “pingponging.” That’s better.
It’s even more difficult to get a sense of your whereabouts when the geographical shifts are accompanied by familial flux: kids born and growing, jobs changing, circumstances morphing – and all this while tracking the ceaseless, open-ended migrations of friends and family members.
One consequence – and perhaps this is a character trait, even a flaw – is that you don’t give much thought to anything that might be deemed “local.” You don’t bother with the community board or the city council or the P.T.A. You beat back the nostalgia that rises when you see the banner on Main Street advertising little league registration. You don’t explore the civic landscape because to do so would concede an intellectual and emotional investment; a commitment to something that extends beyond the terms of the current lease; a making a go of it, here, in this quaint little quadrant where you find your body temporarily at rest.
You like it well enough, but you won’t be hammering down any stakes.
You carry out the vital functions necessary to sustain operations in your temporary camp. You hone your skills as a hunter and a gatherer. You venture out to the grocery store for bunches of bananas, bagged bread and lunchmeats. You furnish your rented domicile with furniture from IKEA and the occasional flourish from Pottery Barn or Williams-Sonoma. Always with a mind to portability. You lead the kids on quick frolics to the park across the street and the occasional foray to the library.
You don’t care much for the chitchat of the librarians – particularly the older guy behind the desk who resembles that small, mustachioed, slightly effeminate actor. What’s his name? He scans the books and movies you heap up on the desk in front of him. Last time, he said, he noticed that you take out lots of books and movies on energy and the environment. He mentions that the library loans wattage meters that can be used to track home energy use.
“You can do your own energy audit,” he says. “It’s pretty eye-opening to see the numbers moving on the meter even when the lights are off and you assume everything is powered down.”
You nod but inside you’re thinking, “Just let me pay the fine, give me the books and let me go on my way.” You don’t like this sort of interaction because it assumes a continuity you’re really in no position to consider. This might be the sort of activity one engages in as an anchored resident, when the forward momentum has been exhausted and the mind can turn without irony to an accounting of the bleeding energy – the entropy – of the home place. But you can’t afford the real estate, and you’re not expecting the heat death anytime soon.
You don’t plant roses either. (I did this once and it’s tough because you must relinquish them to the indifference – or malice – of the next renter.) The roots take a couple years to get established and you just don’t have that kind of time. Neither do you paint because that’s more money and elbow grease than you care to expend in a place you’ll just as soon be leaving.
Admittedly, though, at a certain stage of the game, you would have moved more quickly to remove the pen and crayon marks made by the kids in the halls and closets, driven by the irrational fear that the landlord might stop by unannounced and see his pretty white walls turned into the Lascaux Caves.
You’ve learned through experience that this does not happen, and that the whitewashing of the crude little flowers, the backward letters, the pencil ticks on the doorjamb denoting the rapid yet imperceptible growth of the children, is easily accomplished with a flick of touch-up paint on the day of the move – when the truck is loaded and pointed vaguely in the direction of your next destination.