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When you’re out on your own, with no university, corporation or Uncle Sam to hold your hand, you start over each day. You figure. You sip your chai, tear your pita, take notes. You watch a smithy hammer out a blunderbuss in a tiny sidewalk stall. You wonder at the market for blunderbuss. Your days are long, fragrant and cursed by cultural miscues, because you couldn’t be bothered to read a book about the place, wouldn’t spend the money. You cross your legs and blithely expose the soles of your shoes. You confuse the gesture for “Come on in” with the one for “Go away,” the confusion you’re told, no doubt wrongly, being some remnant of the Crusades. Such things are always dense with theory.
The strange thing about bumming is that if you go out far enough, alone, your homies grow accents. You hear a Midwest voice in a far-off place and it sounds peculiar, quaint. This is a strangely satisfying sensation, because you can actually feel yourself changing. It’s hard to explain, but it’s how you know you’ve begun to swim from the heap of received ideas. You’re a concept smuggler now, expanding citizenship. Even your face looks different in New Delhi, and it’s more than the thinning hair and the withered bulk. You see less of nearly everything there. You watch hard lives escape on funeral pyres, become cirrus drifts across the Genghis. You see fire clarify. Ambition seems the most combustible. It goes up in a huff.
In the end, third-world countries are unbelievably difficult to negotiate on the cheap, but you see amazing things when you get that close, and surviving builds confidence. . . . So I was alternately lost and found in my early-to-mid-twenties, as I came and went; different countries, various states, always restless. I’d work construction or go to school a semester or two, then sell my stuff and bail. I worried my parents and crashed on my siblings. I disappointed. It took six years to graduate college, but in the end, I managed to patch together an education.
What was I after? I’ve since heard it described as “an authentic life and a reconciled temperament.” These still seem reasonable goals for a restless kid on the desperate edge, or for that matter, an aging writer with a grandson here on his lap, pounding his keyboard. Who knows why we do what we do, why we write certain scenes into our lives, why we see ourselves one way when we’re really another? I suspect we’re wired for it, that it’s some yawning, double-helix amplitude that we’ll never quite touch. Even as a pre-schooler I craved restoration, to a state I still couldn’t describe if you put a gun to my head. Not to put too fine a point on it, but some of this is just what we get, and we should be glad we didn’t get worse. As I see it now, I traveled afar to make sense of the near, to make the near legible, because that’s what distance does for you, and it doesn’t matter if you’re running to or from. When they rake the ashes of my life, they’re going to find some clinkers, but this won’t be one of them.