The last year of my life was spent in a sort of “lack of place.”
This was deliberate. And it was lovely.
Last October, I pulled back from society and disappeared somewhere for a little while. I stepped away from things in the fall and put myself up in a space that was my own, in a place few others lived, for the winter. And that place, over time, started to feel very much like a cocoon. Things happened there.
Looking for it originally, I had deliberately sought out a “lack of place” – a space I described, even before seeing it, as “a white box:” four white walls; a hardwood floor; a shower. And that’s it. (I was adamant – even aggressive – about the fact that that would be it.)
I wanted a place of “nowhere;” where I could shed everything and give nothing. In this place, I knew, I would refuse to compromise. I could be selfish. I would exist alone; no roommates; no real guests. There would be nothing to have, to offer, or to take away. A space only for one; a space to simply be.
And I found exactly that.
And when my mother (one of the few people to ever see the place) announced that she would be visiting just a few weeks later, even though I described it in this way to her before she came, the first thing she said when she walked in was: “wow. You’re weren’t kidding.”
No. I wasn’t. “White box” it very was.
My mother has visited me in Chicago several times since I moved here about three years ago – many more times, truthfully, than I ever thought she would. And whether the timing has just worked out this way or she has a way of knowing, each time I move from one apartment to a new one, she finds me there – coming into the city and in through the door and giving the place a once-over, bringing with her a new little dish towel and a new mat for the floor – and makes sure I’m doing okay.
On her visit a year ago, just after I moved into “the white box,” she came and she slept next to me on the mattress on the floor and she sat down with me on the hardwood. I didn’t have any furniture, so we sat like this, facing one another – I drank a beer and she eyed the speed at which I did so – and we talked and she asked questions and worked the angles to make sure I was happy. And by the time she left a day or two after, I think she felt reassured enough that I was.
Now, almost a year later, she visits again. And she finds me finally back on the sidewalks, working my way along the lakefront and taking her to all of the touristy spots again, like the first two times; the times before the one before this. And she talks to me about where I am and where I’m planning on heading and I tell her.
We walk to get coffee one morning, both of us slow-moving with the dog sniffing at the end of the leash in one hand, and we are talking about my work and my love life and everything in between. She asks me how it’s all going and I tell her, and after I tell her and she senses that things are lightening, she asks, referencing the last year of my life:
“So. What happened to you?… Where did you go?”
I didn’t know my mother talked like this. I hadn’t even known that she realized I had “left” in the way she meant – the way it was – let alone find the words to ask me in the way that was right. She was right, of course; I had disappeared – not in a physical way, but in a bigger one.
And then, because her questions were only rhetorical and not really meant to be answered, she tidied things up a bit and closed them out with: “we were worried.”
Buttoned up before it was even said.
So I didn’t answer – she didn’t need it and the point was moot – but I did know not only where I went, but why. Because there was a deliberateness – a constructive deliberateness – to the whole thing (and this, I believe, she knew, but didn’t need to know know. Didn’t need the details of knowing, that is. And I think knew better than to pressure me for what she didn’t need.)
I knew for myself going in and am comfortable discussing coming out, however, that when it comes to “where I went” and “why,” the answer is: I was in a place of seclusion – a place not only of pulling back, but, more importantly, a place of pulling in. I was rebuilding. And, in doing so, I was tearing everything possible down. I cut my life down to its core – no kitchen; no roommates; no WiFi; no TV; no decor; no car – and I surrounded myself with simplicity; sat down in the middle of a four-walled fresh canvas and just… collected.
I sat with myself for a year, asked questions, and made decisions, and the process was a successful one. But the framework and context of getting myself there first involved finding a place where I could strip everything away, tuck myself away for a while, and have space to simply ruminate.
“The early stages of change or cure may mimic deterioration. Cut a chrysalis open, and you will find a rotting caterpillar. What you will never find is that mythical creature, half caterpillar, half butterfly, a fit emblem of the human soul, for those whose cast of mind leads them to seek such emblems. No, the process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay.” (Pat Barker, Regeneration)
And I was dutiful to that task. I was serious.
And not even a year later – a good two months before my lease was up – I was ready to emerge knowing new things about myself and more armed with the means with which to pursue them. I’m not done – none of us are ever truly done – but I got what I needed from this year. And I am ready to step out.
I think about all of this, because I like to. I know where I was because I like to know where I am; I try to always know where I am. I try very hard to live deliberately.
And I know, moving out and moving on, that while I still like being untethered and without roots, I am ready to live in a place that is not “not a place;” not “nowhere.” I am no longer seeking a “white box” or a “no man’s land.”
I am ready to “rejoin society” now – ready for roommates; ready for sidewalks and people intercepting me on them; ready for impromptu beers. I am ready again to compromise; willing again to yield on things I refused to offer a year before. And more importantly than that, perhaps, I am ready for far greater “life’ing.”
I only think of these things and do not answer my mother, partly because she and I can both see that that place is, for the most part, over. And because it’s over and she respects my adulthood – voicing concerns only after the fact and only in passing – we walk in silence until we get to the coffee shop and, once there, we set all of this down on the sidewalk outside and go in – I get us a coffee (black) and a chai (warm, not hot) – and by the time we come back out again, it’s gone.