I’ve done unconventional things in my life. Generally dumb, maybe a few clever choices, but mostly, just odd. For instance, have I ever mentioned that time I moved to ten different cities over ten years? Oh, I have?
Well, in the midst of those ten years, I tried something else that many of you might not know about, especially if you only started reading this site in the last few years.
As my sixth year – Nashville, Tennessee – passed the halfway mark, I wanted to try something to shake-up the proceedings of a project that had started to have predictable beats. That far into the project, I was locked in to completing the whole endeavor, or die trying (sounds dramatic, but honestly, there were more than a few months where my next meal wasn’t guaranteed).
So, in order to liven things up and keep myself from getting too bored, I introduced a new gambit. I opted to put the power in readers’ hands: They voted on my next city.
I was prudent enough to know that giving the internet unrestricted options would wind up with me being sent to Bedford, Wyoming or some other desolate ink dot, so I gave voters options: Austin, TX; Denver, CO; Portland, OR; and Seattle, WA.
I didn’t have a lot of readers in those days (some things never change), so there wasn’t a deluge of votes, but there were enough to make it interesting. The voting lasted about two months, and though Seattle and Portland pulled ahead initially, it wound up being neck and neck, with Denver, Austin, and Denver duking it out for first place (Portland, to my surprise, fell far behind and was never much of a contender after the first couple weeks).
In the end, as I’m sure you can deduce, Seattle won the vote, beating out Denver by one vote. Fortuitous that it did, as well, because my year in Seattle was one of the best of the entire project and the city remains among my favorites in all of the US. Conceivably, it’s possible I would have come to love Denver or Austin or Portland just as much; we’ll never know.
All these years later, I can admit, letting internet strangers vote on my next home does seem a bit out there, even more than 10×10. It was a period in my life where I had no preconceptions or directions for what would come next so I figured I’d let the winds decide.
I feel like I’m at a similar place in my life, now.
A couple weeks ago, I was sitting at one of Madrid’s many spectacular cafés with three friends and I asked them that cliché question that everybody hates, but which I think is worth contemplating from time to time: What would your ideal life look like?
It’s something I keep asking myself because I’m not entirely certainly. In part, that’s because, as I age and pursue certain avenues, other pathways that I had previously contemplated are closing to me. Some people will say that you can still be anything you want at any age, citing some septuagenarian grandmother who went back to college or a celebrity who didn’t became famous until their 50s. Those people are morons. Don’t feed them.
Life is finite and if I had only one dream, it’s true, I could dedicate myself to it and in time I might achieve some level of success. But I don’t have one dream, I have many. Just like I don’t have one home, or one passion. I want to master every art form, I want to live in every city, I want to taste every whiskey.
I want to live on every continent. Yeah, Antarctica, too. And then I want to fly to Mars.
When I answered my own question with my friends, I said that I didn’t care so much what I did for work so long as it allowed me to keep traveling. I wish I could be a renowned author (never going to happen) or a world-famous photographer (probably not going to happen), but those pursuits aren’t likely to change the course of my life.
I’ve gotten to an age where it would be damn near impossible to go back to the US and work my way up in a traditional career. That bridge is, if not burnt, then covered in gasoline and being occupied by a bunch of smokers.
I’m not sure any of it matters. I’ve never made much money in my life, always just skirting by. But skirt by I have, and I’m now living in my thirteenth city on my second continent. Somehow, I’m still going. So, I guess I’ll keep going until I can’t. That’s pretty much the point of life, verdad?
I don’t know where I’m going next, or when, but there are more destinations ahead, of that I’m confident. So, just for fun, as a bit of non-binding but informative polling, I’m putting the question to my readers again: For my next continent, where should I move?
It’s not all my story, and in fact, it originates somewhere that I’ve never been: Portland, Oregon.
Before we get there, though, I need to back up to somewhere I’ve spent far too much time: my hometown.
We weren’t a happy family; perhaps not an unhappy one. We had our moments, to be sure, a series of explosions – laughter, anger, whichever broke us through. Before I’d even turned eight, we had already fractured once; a few years later, we’d do it all over again. Eventually, the whole damn thing fell apart. And we were fine.
The first fracture came when my oldest brother, Mike, abruptly left home when I was in second grade. The subsequent fracturing event came a few years later with the exit of my second oldest brother, Steve, who left home under acrimonious circumstances when I was maybe nine or ten. To be honest, the timeline of those early years has always been jumbled in my mind. The mixture of my sheltered youth and a familial tendency to talk around the issues has left me spending my adult life indolently piecing together family history, like someone absentmindedly scratching a bug bite.
I suppose it must seem strange that a writer would be this incurious about his own past, but the truth is, it isn’t my past. Everything happened around me; I was a background extra in my own life up until college, and even then, really only a featured player.
So, what I know of Steve’s exit: I was the last one to speak to him before he left the house that final time. There were five kids, so my parents had opted to get us a second landline phone just for us (just for them); it was even listed in the phone book as the separate Teens’ Line. That night, my parents had gone out and gave instructions that Steve was not to use the phone, he being on punishment for one infraction or another. Nothing new there.
I was watching TV in the living room when I heard the kids’ line ringing in the den. Since the phone was never for me, I instinctively ignored it until I remembered my parents’ instructions. I rushed to the den just in time to find Steve answering the phone.
“You’re not supposed to use the phone,” I dutifully bleated.
“I know!” Steve snapped back. “No one else was answering it!”
That was it. I skulked back to the living room, then, some minutes later, I heard Steve leaving out the garage and that was the last I would see of him for years.
That could all be wrong. I don’t trust the details of my memory; I tend to conflate different events, sometimes years apart. It’s immaterial; this is how I remember it. The great irony – and power – of our past is that perception shapes memory, which then shapes perception. We’re all living a lie we told ourselves. This is mine.
My next memory of seeing Steve in person came many months later. He was standing on our porch, saying hello to my tearful mother who was welcoming him back home to Lawrence. He’d gotten heroin thin – emaciated, really – and was covered with piercings, a safety pin pincushion.
I don’t remember if Steve was wearing the jacket, though I suspect not. This jacket, which came to represent all the mysteries and allure of my brother’s time away from home, was a plain brown, polyester gas station attendant’s jacket, an ugly thing made all the more unsightly by large rips and frayed edges. Like Steve’s eyebrows, the thing was pierced through with a phalanx of safety pins, some of them functional, most just for aesthetics. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.
After leaving home, but before meeting up with Mike in Flagstaff, Arizona, Steve spent time in Portland, Oregon, living in a shithole (probably) and working in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant. Other than learning the basics of cooking from the restaurant’s chef, Steve’s main pastimes in Portland were poetry and drugs (I won’t pretend to know which ones; all of them?).
In Portland, where by law gas station attendants still pump your gas, Steve picked up the jacket. What really made this unassuming article of clothing pop, at least for me, was the one piece of personalization that my brother had attached: a yellow and orange fabric patch with the name “Mary” sewn in green letters over an orange heart. I had no idea who Mary was, but she was clearly perfect.
In fact, Mary was no one, but everyone. As Steve later explained, “Mary” was the stand-in name he used in his poetry when he was writing about a woman but didn’t want to use her real name. She was the all-encompassing focus of love and lust, hate and sorrow; she was all womankind.
So she came to represent to me.
My parents were permitting my brother to store some of his belongings at the family house, which is how I came to stumble across the Mary Jacket hanging up in a hallway closet. For a time, I would take it out just to put it on, and then slip it back on its hanger. As the months passed, though, and Steve made no indication that he intended to take it back, I began to wear the jacket out of the house, to my mother’s chagrin.
Steve didn’t mind me wearing it, but there was always an understanding that someday I’d return it to him. That never happened.
The jacket engulfed me. It must have been huge on Steve when he was at his thinnest, which is why I doubt he was actually wearing it that day he showed up on our porch. It didn’t matter, I loved it and wore it constantly. After losing a great deal of weight in a very short time as a teenager, I was slow to update my wardrobe so most of my clothes were baggy on me. The jacket fit my style (a term I use loosely).
People asked all the time who Mary was, or, sometimes with confusion regarding my long, feminine blond hair, if I was Mary. Some kids took to calling me Mary, presumably as an insult, but if it bothered me, it didn’t stop me from wearing the jacket every damn day.
Whatever reason Steve had for choosing Mary as his female catch-all, the name had an extra level of resonance for his youngest brother, a kid named Joseph who had been brought up in the Jesus in Wonderland orthodoxy of Evangelical Pentecostals. Everything was filtered through Bible stories and purported prophecy. Mary didn’t just represent some unknown love interest, she came to represent the unseen woman, the one that completed the equation: Joseph and Mary.
Perhaps I have a genetic predisposition to symbolism, or it’s just a product of my religious upbringing, but early on I developed an obsession with poetic symmetry in life, always looking for surreptitious indicators of deeper meaning or direction in the innocuous happenstance of life: a song playing on the radio with an oddly fitting lyric; the crash of thunder in a moment of doubt; a girl named Mary.
I wanted – needed – there to be signs of something grand ahead, because in the now, life was pretty miserable. Certainly, I was.
As high school ceded to college, I left much of my old life behind, including church friends and my faith, but the Mary Jacket stayed with me. From wear, the tears had grown into fluttering gashes with loose threads hanging from the edges that I routinely had to cut off. I’d repurposed some of the extra safety pins to hold the entire left side together, which otherwise flung open like a gaping mouth.
If the jacket had arrived in Kansas looking like a holdover from the 80s hardcore scene, I had managed to turn it into a homemade Halloween costume assembled by a disinterested stepmother. It had long ago ceased to be a jacket in any functional sense, more of a rag to throw over my shoulders like a cape. So be it, it was my cape.
When I packed up everything I owned for the move to Charlotte that would launch 10 Cities/10 Years, I stuffed the Mary Jacket in my boxes. Eventually, I gained enough sense to stop wearing the thing, but for sentimental purposes, the jacket remained with me for many moves. After a few years, realizing that sentiment wasn’t worth the extra money and effort it required to move every year, I unceremoniously discarded the jacket along with many other artifacts of a life I no longer lived.
Before I tossed the jacket –there was no hope of donating it, the thing was mostly safety pins by that point – I removed the Mary patch. That I still have.
Writers love symbols. Fiction, in particular, is buoyed by their potential. Properly deployed, one symbol can say more than ten pages of exposition; even poor writing can be given the façade of depth with some hasty symbolism. Then there are the great writers, like Fitzgerald, whose symbolism could captivate so thoroughly, he redefined the prosaic truth of the image itself. A green light is never just a green light.
Even though I no longer believe in higher powers or spiritual intercession in the natural world, I’m still taken with the way coincidences can imbue day-to-day life with literary flair. From time to time, it’s fun to indulge a flight of fancy, to impose meaning on the meaningless. It’s utter rubbish, but what isn’t? A writer has to think in symbols.
Names will always hold deeper meaning, like how hearing a particular name brings a rush of memories about an ex or a friend I haven’t thought of in years. I’m always tickled by couples with famous name pairings or when someone’s moniker takes on an ironic double meaning. To this day, “Mary” is freighted with unrealistic meaning. It’s a connection to a past that’s mostly been forgotten or blurred into unreliable memory, and yet also a suggestion of a future that could have been, probably never will. I hear the name, it triggers visions of a specific type of life with a wife and a house, a family, a place; stability.
Before anyone thinks, “Awwww,” I haven’t lost anything, only come to understand myself better. Like that shredded gas attendant’s jacket, that existence wouldn’t fit me now. It’d only split and unravel. I held onto that vision of my future for a lot longer than I should have because I wanted so much for there to be a plan, a destination. Not anymore. I don’t need a prophecy to tell me about my future; I make my own.
Traveling has stripped me of much of my sentimentality. I’ve gotten much better at letting go of my relics. On the verge of another major move, my biggest yet, I’m examining my possessions with a plan to unload it all. Holding on to mementos from the past doesn’t actually prolong the past. Baggage is a burden, and a crutch. Minimalism is both a necessity and incredibly freeing.
Still, I like to imagine someone found that old jacket in the trash, took it home, and sewed it back together. Wouldn’t it be nice if all the things we abandoned came to have a second life with someone else? Well, the past is always being written and rewritten. May all we leave behind be remembered as fondly as a ripped polyester jacket.
One of the luxuries of living in the Northeast is the close proximity of so many states and their varying landscapes. Boston has its many beauties, but there are so many nearby areas with gorgeous views. Despite only being a couple hours drive away, a place like Portland, Maine looks like an entirely different region of the country.
Joining a friend I hadn’t seen in over a decade, I finally visited Portland and had an opportunity to see a city and coastline that numerous acquaintances have called one of their favorites in the country. Despite the rain and overcast skies, the trip did not disappoint. As usual, I prefer to let pictures tell the story, so I hope you enjoy a brief visual tour through Maine. And, of course, you can always follow me on Instagram.
As you can see, Seattle and Austin have come out as the frontrunners.
People are commenting to me on the site and in my day-to-day about how I should go here or there, or how I should definitely not go there. But it isn’t up to me. It’s up to you. I wish there was a way of quantifying all of those opinions, because I appreciate them a great deal and hope people will continue to share them with me.
In the end, though, it’s all coming down to the numbers.
There is still time to vote, seven days. Seven days to help forge history.
The very being of this project has changed because of seemingly unconnected decisions. If I hadn’t moved to Philly after Charlotte, I likely wouldn’t have gotten so involved with a bunch of online writers that led me to a 48-hour drunken weekend in Los Angeles where I met a woman that would eventually become my roommate in SoCal. In fact, I never would have gone to SoCal if not for that. And then I wouldn’t have moved to San Francisco the next year (though I presumably would have done it sometime).
I was actually going to do Chicago after Philadelphia, originally.
So, these decisions change history. And this year, I’m asking that you be the engine for that change. Maybe I’ll end up in the city you vote on, maybe I won’t. But if I don’t, maybe I will next year. Of course, there’s no way to know, because the beauty of this project is how unpredictable it can all be.
Maybe if I move to Austin, I’ll establish a friendship with someone who goes on to become a famous musician. Or if I end up in Seattle, maybe I’ll be unable to find a job and end up flailing for my life. The Ups and Downs of this project cannot be predicted, and I would have it no other way.
Everything is maybe.
I want you to be a part of it. 1o Cities / 10 Years is the story of America from 2005 to 2015 (still in progress). We’ve been to war, we’ve entered recession, we’ve elected the first black President and we’ve seen revolutions in technology that alter the way we connect with each other and our world.
We’ve also gotten married, had kids, gotten divorced, lost loved ones, graduated from school, changed jobs, changed cities, bought houses, bought cars, raised animals, become vegetarians, drank alcohol, found faith, lost faith, slept for days or slept barely at all and found ourselves on the other side of wisdom. Still fools.
Vote or Die
One last time, I’m asking you to help spread the word. Let your blog readers know to come and vote. Encourage your Facebook friends to check it out (speaking of which, ‘like’ the 10 Cities / 10 Years fan page). And if you haven’t done so already, be sure to vote.
When you vote, think about why you are where you are in your own life. Is it because you’ve finally reached your Promised Land. Or are you, like me, in the midst of a journey, not quite where you want to be, but closer each day to your goal, with the past always receding further behind you.