November 2011

Kerri Arsenault

Locus Pocus

Driving Home

Home is at the heart of human identity, and in November, for better or worse, it is the focus of many Thanksgiving plans. But the definition of home is complex, for it includes more than just four walls and a roof. Home is braided together with places lived, people loved, childhood, and an emotional connection to where you brush your teeth every day. Often, however, the ideal place to live is compromised by jobs, partners, timing, or money and any concession made usually excludes some of our most wistful criteria.

Home, for me, is a constant muddle. We move a lot. My husband’s job demands it, and we don’t get to choose where we live. Every few years we pack up our cat and Cuisinart, beer making supplies and Dalah horses, cookbooks and cough syrup, and alight unto new environs. We soon figure out the local customs and sad truths, myths and mores, dos and don’ts, eating and exercise routines, real estate prices, languages or accents, people and plants of our new homeland. We manage to fit in, make friends, find our way around supermarkets, Internet providers, streets with unfamiliar names. And thus far, we’ve evaded malaria, bombs, scorpions, sharks, children, cancer.

Like most non-natives, we seek comfort in comparison and contrast, trying to find familiar things to keep us buoyant after first arriving, this dichotomy a lifeline to stability. When I recently came upon Mary’s Gone Crackers crackers in a small Caribbean market near our apartment, nothing could have been more joyous; I bought 15 boxes as if their presence somehow made me closer to the Marin hinterlands I left behind. What’s more difficult to stumble across when living afar, however, is a “deep reservoir of shared memories” with new neighbors, one of the themes Jonathan Raban explores in his collection of essays, Driving Home: An American Journey. Raban’s loosely tethered essays combine to form a journey, both literal and figurative, and the search for “a connection between oneself and the articulate and meaningful past.”

Being on foreign soil makes you a rapt observer, as there are no behavioral redundancies to lull the mind into a stationary and thus inattentive state. Everyone is familiar with bypassing local touristic mores in one’s own native land; it’s why as a Mainer I never ate lobster until well into my 20s. In 1990, Raban moved from London to Seattle, a city with “its livelihood grounded in tall trees and deep water” because he “met someone.” It is with this uprooted and outsider’s eye he takes readers through an American landscape they probably never noticed, pausing on such topics as Puget Sound, watching waves, Robert Lowell, Paul Bunyan, the shifting meaning of trees and water, Sarah Palin and the settlement of the American West. Though common enough topics, Raban’s acuity shows readers an America not taught in high school history classes. To wit:

The great flat farms of Minnesota are laid out in a ruled grid, as empty of surprises as a sheet of graph paper. Every graveled path, every ditch, has been projected along the latitude and longitude lines of the township-and-range survey system. The farms are square, the fields are square, the houses are square; if you could pluck their roofs off from over people’s heads, you’d see the families sitting at square tables in the dead center of square rooms. Nature has been stripped, shaven, drilled, punished, and repressed in this right-angled, right-thinking Lutheran country.

In the essay, “Why Travel?” Raban concedes to prefer the transportation of small boats because “rarely do I land up where I’d meant to go.” His writing, like his boat rides, starts out with a general direction, but usually ends up somewhere else. Like the pull of his venerated Mississippi River or the waters around Desolation Sound that give way to the “visceral dread of chaos,” he lets himself and his writing deviate with the “haphazard drift of things.” Raban positions himself among other inveterate travelers: Captain Cook, Lewis and Clark, George Vancouver, and Donald Crowhurst. Like my husband and I, Raban (and his seamen) seem perennially, “an awkward stranger sailing over these drowned rift valleys, with the troubled water forming itself into whirlpools, rips, and overfalls” Even after ten years of living in Seattle, he still felt like an inchoate suspended traveler, “…long enough to qualify as a near native of a city where everyone comes from somewhere else. I haven’t yet found my feet here, and maybe never will… Ten years is an uncomfortably long time to be a visitor…” Because of this indeterminate state, home becomes an intractable dilemma, one underscored in the title of the book.

Seattleites may bristle at some descriptions of their beloved hometown: “Any place needing that many bridges to connect its separate quarters is surely suffering from a chronic sense of isolation and dislocation.” But Raban’s enthusiasm and fondness for the Pacific Northwest is bundled alongside his tectchiness -- “At home I’m a grump; it’s as much as I can do to pass the time of day with the mailman and the checkout clerk… On the road, I am a champion pesterer, milking people for the workaday details of what they do and how the do it…” His proves that unbridled curiosity and affection softens his unsentimental edge, and this conflicting purview is what makes his writing glisten.

He writes about the landscape as most travel writers do, but also about the people in it, and considers them part of its intrinsic fabric. Raban’s intimacy with his subjects often helps his writing escape the clichés of otherness, an unforgiveable act he eviscerates American writer Sarah Lyall for committing in The Anglo Files in his essay “An American in England” originally published in New York Review of Books. Of his own approach, he writes, “Worming your way into the skin of a true denizen, you begin to see the landscape itself as a real place and not just as the pretty backdrop to your own holiday… one day, you’ll find a life that seems to be a perfect fit -- and you’ll be there for good.”

With dry, sharp humor, a scrupulous traveler’s eye, and an infectious enthusiam for his subjects, each word he pens are gold nuggets, and he gives them freely. While in a diner in Walla Walla during a road trip, Raban’s description of an encounter with the only other person in the restaurant is representative:

He was fortyish, with a narrow, sallow face and a limp moustache like a drowned vole. He held out his loneliness in the manner of a derelict exhibiting an open sore; and, having made me meet his eye once, he was a relentless anecdotalist.

As my husband and I wait impatiently for our next transfer (soon), I confess thumbing to essays that peaked my interest and skipped around liberally and unchronologically, which worked and was not incongruent to Raban’s own tack and my own discombobbled life. It seems just as we are settling in, we are scheduled to leave, with our next port of call a doppleganger of the last. We will begin again and find ourselves, in Raban’s words, “without a shared past, we [will be] short of humor, short of intimacy, short of allusions and cross-references -- short of that essential common stock of experience that makes a society tick.”

Jonathan Raban’s essays are as vast and expansive as the America he writes about but they all contain a common thread many Americans share: a sense of being a stranger in a strange land displaced generations ago, by the current job market, or as witness to the exodus of so many young people from so many small towns across the country. Alienated, uprooted, transplanted, irascible, Raban is all that, but he’s comfortable in his otherness. His advice to the homesick? “The immigrant needs to grow a memory, and grow it fast. Somehow or other, he must learn to convert the uncanny into the homely, in order to find a stable footing in the new land.”

For now, my husband and I live on the Caribbean Sea, with a 240-degree view of the horizon. What’s great about living here, I suppose, is the opportunity to do so. But before long, we’ll pack up our cache of coral, scuba gear, air-conditioners, bathing suits, juicer, and leftover rum and be faced with the terrifying and insoluble dilemma of choice.