Back in 2015 I spent the entire Spring and Summer touring around the USA for Food Not Lawns. I taught workshops, turned lawns into gardens, and made hundreds of new friends. When I got to Indiana, I took three days off to catch up with my friend Garry, a sort of Uncle From Another Muncle character, who has been my writing mentor for thirty years.
Garry describes me as having been “a very serious child,” and loves to tell the story about how I made a Rubix Cube costume out of a painted cardboard box and won First Place in the Cerritos Mall Halloween Contest. I used to show him the weird little stories I wrote and he always critiqued them with clarity and sincerity, always encouraged me to “just keep writing.”
These days, Garry is a successful screenwriter with a dozen feature films under his belt. He just turned sixty. He has a wife and three grown children, and writes Hollywood movies in his cozy studio on the old family farm in Northwest Indiana. I found it beautiful there, pastoral, as long as you don’t mind the mosquitoes. Cornfields sprawl in every direction. I found zen in the monoculture, peace in the predictability of rural Indiana. It is basically the opposite of the West Coast. There are no hipsters, no gentrification to speak of, and coffee still costs a dollar. I found comfort in that. But of course it was an illusion.
Garry and I stayed up late, cracking obscure literary jokes, carrying on about the hero’s journey, and geeking out on the ancient art of storytelling. I told him about my MFA thesis, about my assertion that a true female heroine wouldn’t use violence to solve her problems, she would use her mind, her wit, her lineage, and her experience. She would negotiate, rather than fight. And she wouldn’t just solve her own problems or quest for her own treasure, she would only find satisfaction in a victory that helped others. We talked about how the proverbial beast, the dragon to be slain, in whatever form manifested, shows up in all great stories ever told, and how that beast is a metaphor for what lies within each of us. We mused over whether perhaps the problem with this profit-driven, destructive culture is that we have been spending too much time trying to slay and control our beasts, but not enough time trying to understand and befriend them.
My last night in Logansport, I went out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant with Garry and his whole family. All of the clientele, including our party, were white, blonde, tall and thin. I, with my raven black hair and short, curvy body, was by far the brownest person in the room. Until I saw that the staff was entirely Latino. When our waiter came to our table, he asked each person in turn, in English, what they would like to order. But when he came to me he said, with a broad smile:
“Que quieras, mija?”
What do you want, my child?
My grandmother used to call me mi’ja. It’s a term of endearment used commonly in Latino families. And it warmed my heart to feel seen here, by this brown-skinned waiter in this Mexican restaurant in Indiana, as one of his family.
Later that night, while Garry and I were having our chat, he brought it up.
“Did you see the metaphor there?” He asked me.
“Aren’t you searching for something?” he asked.
Garry laughed and shook his head. “No, Heather, not the way you are. You think everyone is searching? Most people are sleeping. Most people are just going through their lives without embracing any quest at all. But you, you are on the quest of your life right now. And as a writer, you are your own protagonist. The heroine of your own journey. So, in keeping with the pattern of any good protagonist, tell me: what is your greatest desire? What is your simple, concrete goal?”
Que quieras, mija?
What do I want? I want a home, a focus, and to feel like I am doing meaningful work in a community that appreciates me. It’s an easy sentence to type out but what do those things actually mean? Dare I unpack that?
A place to live, a practice to love, and a way to contribute that makes use of my skills and provides for my needs in return. Seems simple enough. Permaculture, sustainability, community, right livelihood — these terms are familiar to us, but what do they really mean? For me they imply regenerative human ecosystems, habitat, shelter, interaction. Connection. I want to be an animal in the system in which I live. Not exactly like Tarzan and Jane but…close. But more than that, I want to feel like my unique set of skills and experiences is doing the most it can do.
Is this what I would call “home”?
Wherever you go, there you are. Physically. And wherever you find yourself, that’s the path. Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan talked a lot about the “path with a heart.”
Is that the way home, then?
Home is where the heart is, that’s what they say.
Hmm. My heart is in my body, and my body can’t seem to stay in one place for more than a few seasons. Ok, I know that old saying means home is where your family is, where the people you love, live. But for me those people are spread out all over, and to be honest I wouldn’t want to live with most of them anyway.
Perhaps home is where the art is? And again we come back to the body. I use my body to make the art, but where do the ideas come from? My brain, also my body? Or somewhere else? I have never been able to settle on a belief system for that one. All I know is that I don’t know.
Where does the art come from, and where does it go? In my case, everywhere. I have left my art in every house I have ever lived — more than a hundred houses now. My life has taken me to so many places, and I leave a trail of art-crumbs so that my family can find me, in case I get lost in the woods. I leave the art behind, but my body goes with me, and everything I have done goes back to it.
We cannot talk about home without talking about privilege.
In this culture where a basic human shelter is not considered a basic human right, the question of what it means to have a home becomes inextricably connected to the question of what it means to be a human. And for me, my decisions to be childfree, and to eschew the norms of an “average American woman,” have profoundly affected my perceptions of both home and humanity.
Having a safe, secure and stable home is a privilege, but it should be a right. We are born and we exist. We didn’t choose that. And while we are here, we need a place to sleep, to eat, to shit, to make love. We need a place to be, to live, to express and create. And the entire capitalist system is built around forcing humans to work in order to have a place to live. And, according to the particular destiny of vicinity in which we might find ourselves, some people have to work a lot harder for a lot less space to live in than others.
Me, I grew up on the road. Single mom, two kids, and we never stayed in one place more than a year. It wasn’t because we enjoyed traveling. It was because my mom had such a hard time keeping a roof over our heads that, a lot of the time, we didn’t have one. It was just cheaper to sleep in the van. Mom was a hippie, a groupie, a teenage single mother and survivor of severe sexual, verbal and physical abuse. We parked the van, the car, the station wagon (we also went through a lot of cheap used cars) in somebody’s driveway and stayed awhile, then moved on. Sometimes we had an apartment. Later on mom got better at finding cute little houses for cheap rent. She fixed the place up, made curtains for the windows.
By the time I dropped out of high school in tenth grade, I had attended nineteen different schools. As an adult, the longest I have ever lived in one house was about three years, and that only happened twice: once at the Ant Farm (our punk house named after the colony of carpenter ants who lived in the kitchen ceiling) and then again at the Hope Farm (it was an acronym for Holistic Organic Permaculture Education.) Both times, it was a love affair and garden that kept me there so long, and the falling apart of said relationship that forced me to move. The agriculture was the part that made it feel like home, and the sex was the nexus, the vortex, the nucleus of the experience. Biology runs the show.
So, what do I mean when I say I want a home? Do I mean that I want to find a house and get a mortgage? No. Hell no. That is not at all what I am talking about. When I say I want to find a place that feels like home, I mean I want a tribe, a connection that feels like I can finally, for the first time since I was born, stop running. I want to belong. To be loved. To grow food and share it. To express my ideas and opinions and have them feel useful, valued, accessible. A farm and some dogs. A field of seeds and a grove of trees. A group of friends who laugh together and trust each other without question.
Forget all the reasons I shouldn’t want these things or why I think I don’t deserve them. Forget how untouchable they may seem at this moment. I want them and I don’t have to justify that to anyone. All I have to do is find them.
The Destiny of Vicinity
Sometimes I talk about “the destiny of vicinity.” Whatever I find myself around, that’s what influences me. That’s my quest, my personal yellowbrick road. That’s what I do, whom I meet, who I love and fuck and live with. And those relationships influence my thoughts, my feelings, my choices. No man is an island, and women? Even less so. How about you? Are you at “home”? Or just in a house somewhere? What is the compass you use to navigate your life? How has the placement of your physical body affected your path through the world? Have you mastered the fine art of being in the right place at the right time?
We all follow a path through life that unfolds according to where we find ourselves living, working, studying. Often these locations were not choices made by ourselves, but rather are connected to our families, employers and opportunities. I am fascinated by the way a person’s life is ultimately connected to where they find themselves. This connects to community work, partnership, and so much more.
Comfort vs. Free Will
People always say to me “I envy you, you have so much freedom. I feel trapped in my life and you just seem to go and do whatever you want.” But freedom can become a prison of its own, and what a lot of people don’t realize is that my ecdemomania is largely fueled by economic and social imperative. It costs a lot of money to stay in one place. And it really helps if you fit in, or you might find yourself in danger. I don’t have a lot of money, and I certainly do not fit in. And so what many people seem to see as me making “choices,” I see more as me making the best use of the limited options I have available.
And so, back to the destiny of vicinity. If I refuse to accept the options that fell into my lap by accident, then where do I place myself in order for the things that I want to become available to me? Where do I go? Do I continue the path of happenstance, feel my way, clue by clue, through the world? Do I accept my destiny as a vagabond, a life spent entirely on the move, and just keep running? Trust that this ability to run is the pattern that was given to me, my super power that will guide me through? Or do I hover and wait and focus and pray? I am determined to figure it out, one day, one step, one mile at a time.
I wrote this piece at the tail end of ten years of perpetual wandering with no partner, no stable home or job to speak of. I had just spent several months in an adobe house in the hot springs town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and was about to hit the road yet again, still searching for my true place in the world.
But then something shifted. It was as if, through writing this, through allowing myself to explore the layers of my predicament, I broke free from the pattern. Shortly after, I stumbled into what can only be described as the healthiest and happiest relationship of my life, moved to Spain, and settled into an abundant, effortless creative practice that seems to hold none of the daily turmoil that used to follow me around. What comes next remains to be seen, but for now, I have finally, at forty-six years old, come home.