My Two Lives

August 5, 2010

At the base of it, my problem lies in the mutual incompatibility of my nomadic and sedentary selves. They live different lives, have separate dreams and goals. They have never met, and never will, for one must die if the other is to live fully.

A wandering adventurer can’t have the house, wife, family, stability that society deems necessary to be a normal human being. Already I see my friends couple off, marry, settle down, and work themselves into careers and the associated chains. How on earth could I hope to go off and be a nomad with a wife, child, mortgage, car, dog, cat, garden, house to maintain? There is no way to be that person and still have those things, yet if I commit to that, commit to never being stable, I’m also resigning myself to a life where I will never be understood or accepted by my friends and family. I’m already an outlier, simply for having left. I’m already a weird guy for being alone and happy with it, for having no corporate career ambition and never buying things. It’s unacceptable to bring up my empathy for bums, downright uncouth to dare question whether our society really has the correct path to happiness nailed down, and yet the nomad does all this, and so much more, simply by his existence!

At 24 I am strange and not understood, but that is alright because in the minds of my peers I have not yet found my place (by which they invariably mean their own place) in this strange and wonderful world (by which they mean lower-middle class America.) If I continue this same path, continue to wander at 25, 26, 30, 74, then I will slip past weird to a waste, to a lazy mooch, to a hopeless case who never could quite live up to his potential. “Look at K,” they will say, “such a strong start, such a beautiful life he had ahead of him, and now look how he’s gone and cocked things up. Such a shame… His poor parents.” They will say this and think far worse, because the sedentary mind cannot comprehend her nomadic brother – cannot indeed hope to grasp the edges of what makes the life in motion worth living.

Our lifestyles breed certain blind spots into our thinking, and the chaos, movement, unknown that envelop the wanderer are incomprehensible to those brought up to be steady and stationary. One fears the same things that the other craves and chases after! At a young age, or with an open mind, it is possible to see across the void and perhaps understand part of what endears such a wild life, but the simple truth is that all of us will grow old and most of us will never develop the mental ability to see another’s life from within her shoes. Certainly we are not taught to do so here! No, any student of the American school comes out thinking that her view is shared by all truly good and honest people, and that any who derive from this view are deficient in some way, else they would live and think as she does. Thus as I age, with my friends and family doing the same at their own paces, more and more of my social group will lock themselves into the sedentary life, and I will be pushed further outside of their lives until we no longer have the overlaps called friendship. As a nomad, I will lose the comfortable connections with friends and family – it is inevitable, I see it already all around me. The links are strained now, and one day they will snap – there is no forever in human ties, no matter what the romantic comedies or boys who want to get into your pants will tell you.

This is perhaps the most painful realization of the wanderer – impermanence surrounds all that we do, indeed becomes who we are. A ghost slips into town, makes friends, carves out a niche for a short while, is interesting and attractive, funny, a great addition to the universes of those whom he touches. Then he tells one fantastic story too many, and the doubts slip in. Who is this guy? Why is he lying to us? What is he hiding? The doubt turns fear turns distrust and resentment. The happy audience begins to heckle, and the wanderer brushes them off. Resentment becomes anger – who the fuck does that guy think he is? That cute girl has been around here for weeks, – we’re all lusting after her – what gives him the right to just walk up and start joking with her? He’s full of shit; has to be. Then something happens – some small encounter, brief-lived evidence that the wanderer was telling the truth in at least some small way, brings the crowd back around. Anger fades back into grudging admiration – what a life this guy must have lived! “What lives,” the wanderer corrects, “there have been a lot of them.” Nobody gets that, except those who already have lived a handful themselves. Life goes on, and then one day the wanderer is gone and nobody can quite remember what he was doing there anyway.

All things are fleeting dreams – the rush to cast them into permanence – to marry love, to photograph a beautiful moment, to write out thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams – these all create mere shadows of the existence they hope to capture pristine. No marriage can hold the intensity of falling in love for the first time. No photograph holds more than an image of what was once brilliant, dizzying reality. Words on a page are poor substitute for words spoken, burning kisses, wild actions. Who can ever describe a breeze well enough to negate the need to feel one on your tear-stained cheeks? No one can. There is no permanence, no stability in the universe save everpresent chaos. The nomad embraces this as best he can, but what a bitter pill to swallow! The times I have wanted to stop, to rest a while and build a life for myself are cut forever short by the burning desire to move ever onward, upward; to fill my glass with every beautiful experience I can fit into these despicably short years of my life. One day all we will have left are our memories, and even those are faulty. Far better to let them fly, to cease efforts to hold them to my breast, and simply try to live each present moment as best I can.

I am happy as a nomad – I feel fulfilled because I am not looking for meaning or fulfillment, I have purpose because I do not seek any. There is no existence I have ever found more rewarding, more pleasurable, more healthy and spiritual than that of the wandering soul. Certainly I could be happy in this.

And yet… for this beautiful life there is much that I must lose. The price of being forever able to go, do, be whatever I desire is one that most people would never dream of paying. First there are the friends and family, as I mentioned before – different worlds, separate realities create such a rift as cannot be crossed in the old ways. There is the lack of ownership – the nomad is forever touching upon the world, never standing still, always bouncing along to the next adventure. Societal expectations – designed to keep people from acting out in the first instance – are strong forces on all of us, but the wanderer cannot keep a house, a household, a steady life without failing to be a wanderer at all. Instead, the nomad becomes an outsider to those whom he once called brother, even as he realizes that all are his brothers and sisters. Perceptions are strong, and the wanderer will be perceived as a threat, a nuisance, an ugly blemish on an otherwise unchallenging world view. If I choose to wander, I will lose those close to me – we might still see each other, call one another friend, spend good times together even, but there will never be the same dynamic as before.

How could there? With new experience, with new worlds and languages and peoples invariably comes change, and the biggest changes are in the nomad himself. How could it not be? He runs headfirst into the maelstrom of competing ideas, and some at least will pierce his skin. Others will penetrate deep, change him at the very core of his being. He will experience crippling poverty, unbelievable wealth, systems of government bad and good, religions of all stripes, beliefs completely foreign and uncomfortable – great beauty, ignorance, hate, love, peace, environs so hospitable and unforgiving that his mind will buckle at times. His world will be transformed – not once – but over and again, constantly. The nomad drinks deep of the well of life, and such experience leaves nothing unscathed. How then can such a man re-enter his old life and fit there in the same way as before? I have found it to be quite impossible, that a certain level of pretending and play-acting are necessary simply to survive in this old life.

Now, this is not to say that people kept in the same environments throughout their lives do not also change as well. Certainly changing location does not hold a monopoly over inner development. Society, stable as it is, still permits some disaster and fortune to affect those who live within it. Still, the concentration of change, the timespan upon which one is affected by her changing world is greatly compressed for the wanderer, while stretched quite long for her stationary sister. Take two twins, raised in the same family, in the same city. To a certain point their lives are very similar, but there is one day a split, and they go different directions. One of them continues on with her life, falls in love, is married, graduates college, gets a comfortable job with good benefits, and has a child. The other, in the same time period, drops out of school after catching her fiancé with another woman, hitchhikes the country, works at a dive bar using her body to push drinks unto drunk men, has a number of sexual partners, saves up for a plane ticket, and spends several years living across Eastern Europe, learning languages, making friends different than herself, and finally returns home to her family due to emergency.

Which sister will be the strange one? Which sister will not fit into the same old family mold? Which twin will be the one who works well within the framework of American society, and which will chafe and long to leave? There are several points to be made here – neither sister is “normal” – there simply exists one who found her path by doing what she was raised to believe desirable, and another who had that world come crashing down on her head and had to rebuild by her own rules. The traveling sister will never fit into her old life, but there is no guarantee that the sedentary one will either – how many of us truly stay with the same friends our entire lives? I count myself fortunate simply to have those few friends who do stay true, as who we befriend is a factor of who we are and what we do in a given instance – to find people who truly speak to your soul regardless of circumstance is a rare gift indeed!

With our twin sisters, we will soon find that there is no way to measure who has done right or wrong in life without relying on our own subjective views. There is nothing that allows us to authoritatively say one or the other has done “better” unless we set some sort of strict parameters as to what it means to succeed in life, and even then we run into random chance, to decisions made, to promises left unfilled. If the sister with the kid and career had spent her life prior to having a child dreaming of traveling the world for the rest of her days, can we judge her to have failed? What if the traveling sister has the five most beautiful, wonder-filled years of her life, then dies in a freak accident? There are so many questions precisely because we cannot judge people’s lives except based on the fulfillment and happiness they feel with themselves. As much as I might think you have done things wrong (by which I really mean not as I desired to see them) I am not you, I am not able to judge. Yet chances are good that I will regardless, and that I will make some decision that I pretend is objective, and then I will spread my good or bad opinion of your life among anyone I feel necessary to tell.

In this world of reality TV and virtual social networks we have lost our ability to tell the objective and verifiable from mere opinion, and we must accept that committing to live any life outside of mainstream culture will be viewed as inferior to adherents of that culture. Within America, with American blinders and prejudices, taught history and ethics from an American perspective, alternative lifestyles are incomprehensible – I assure you that once outside our world and into theirs, the behavior of just about anyone makes a hell of a lot more sense. Still, I cannot convert the world to my way of life, and indeed I have no desire to do so – if we were all nomads there would not be so many worlds for me to explore! I merely wish to illustrate the proposition I put forth here:

In order to be a nomad, one must commit to losing oneself, and all that is attached to that self. If we attempt to hold onto anything that we feel defines us then we let it do exactly that, and in doing so jeopardize ever finding who we truly are – we destroy our ability to become all of the people we will one day be. Likewise, if we wish to live the life stationary, we cannot be nomads, for we accumulate possessions and baggage that slowly begin to define us, and eventually become us. The nomad and the stationary man are matter and anti-matter – they cannot come into contact, cannot exist in the same body. One will have to win out, leaving the other destroyed.

In my case, I have the growing suspicion that the battle has already been fought, and the nomad has won out. I say this because the sacrifices I made while wandering – cold water, lack of privacy, the constant feeling of being an outsider, etc – all seemed quite tolerable, while the ones I now face in trying to be a stable, responsible, “normal” being grate on me daily, drive me mad an inch at a time, and all of my free time is consumed by thoughts of escape, adventure, and further wandering. I dream of learning six languages, of climbing tall mountains, of seeing every continent stretch out before me. I do not dream of marriage, of career success, or of raising a family of kids with the love of my life. That, to me, is what best speaks as to where my future lies.

And yet… there are those days; when I see a good friendship blossoming, when all the things in my life are going right for a day, when a beautiful woman and I talk of parallel dreams; those days I find myself wonder “what if?” Then the feelings pass and I’m left alone again and let’s face it honestly – if my life here was one that I desired to live, the pressures to stay would be a whole hell of a lot stronger.

The fight between selves will continue for a while yet. In the meanwhile, does anyone know a good Arabic tutor?

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