“So, what part of Maine are you from?”
“Um, well, I’m from New Jersey.”
I’ve been taking a walk around the developments behind my mother’s apartment complex in the mornings before she’s up, while it’s cool and breezy. The robins are fierce in their activity at that time of day. I notice two have built a nest in the space above my mother’s patio slider. They swoop furiously away whenever I wander out there for air. A couple of geese honk and flap their way over to pick at the lawn of the empty building behind the apartments.
One morning I picked mulberry leaves, very pointy oak leaves, and a cedar blossom, of all things, something I’ve never seen, to bring back to Maine. I checked on the stand of bamboo in the yard that has the rusted metal sculpture of some kind of bird, maybe a chicken? I didn’t have my glasses on, and I wasn’t brave enough to trespass. It didn’t matter. I moved on as a man came out onto the deck carrying a potted plant. My heart ached to have some bit of dirt I could get my hands into.
This morning I ventured into King’s Croft, a condo community. I discovered that I don’t know what a croft is, and that the streets with signs that say “Not a Thru Street” are, actually, through streets. I noticed that beyond the carefully sculpted gardens lay the remnants of what once were the woods. Back when the Cherry Hill Mall was built, there was nothing but woods around here. The Mall cropped up out of the woods. Now it’s the other way around. Patches of wildness hide behind people’s back yards. There are occasional foot paths through these patches of wood and dirt. It’s almost irresistable to cut through and walk on dirt, if you can. If you’re me.
When I was little there were two things I did when I was lying in bed trying unsuccessfully to fall asleep. I would fantasize that I was camping out under the hedges, under people’s windows. Something about being right under their living room windows and also under a bush, next to tiny creatures and leftover raindrops made me feel safe and secure. The other was to somehow project myself way up into the sky until I was in outer space looking down on the earth. There I would amuse myself by flying, doing somersaults, and hanging upside down.
When my mother moved here, after my first year in college, I came back for the summer and tried to have a summer like you would in a neighborhood with a yard. It was impossible for me to penetrate the concrete and landscaping, in either direction, even in my sleep.
This place is designed for people who don’t want to walk on uneven surfaces, who don’t want bugs to land on their skin, who don’t want to smell things or hear things, or taste things, or touch things. This place is for shopping and driving and watching TV. At night I am lonely for people sitting around and playing music, cooking, or just plain talking. Last night, I was so lonely for talking as my mother lay snoozing along side the blare of the TV and the onslaught of TV-speak and TV reality, that I walked in and tried to give her some ibuprofen just to make contact. We ended up having a big fight about nothing, then making up.
Tonight she can’t remember the fight, but does remember something, because she keeps saying, “I don’t have to watch this, I can turn it off, you know.” Thinking I keep getting up because I can’t stand the TV, when, really, it’s because I can’t get my browser to work and I am restarting the computer and walking away to do the dishes in between. Does she remember that I wept and that she held me like a mother is supposed to after that?
Wherever it is I’m from, I want to walk there. I want to walk the length of this country, to be like Walt Whitman and Peace Pilgrim. I’m convinced it’s the only way to know anything about life on earth. I wonder how long it would take me to walk from my home in Maine to Mom’s home in New Jersey, and if I have the urban wilderness skills to pull it off. At one time, I could have written an underground guide to toilets in Boston. Maybe I could pull it off.
I’m daunted by practicality and impracticality. They seem to meet in the same impossible place. Taking care of my mother here is scarily like I’m back during that horrible summer after freshman year, except instead of staying continually stoned, I am constantly going out for walks and meetings. But still longing for dirt, still lonely for the warmth of a hearth, still looking for a place I belong, out somewhere between here and there.