The Places Inside
by Richard Moore
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Nearly my entire life has been about moving: from one family to another, one residence to another; from one city, one country, one identity, one woman to another. I seem to have spent most of my life burning through people, places, and experiences. Sometimes I wonder whether—in an earlier incarnation—I was one of those slash-and-burn migrants who seek out land to clear and farm, then move on when the land’s fecundity is exhausted. But I loved my nomadic life, despite the years of constant uprooting and disruption. Something about traveling, picking up, moving on, became my identity—my “I am.”
This inner condition is utterly unlike, say, the way a fourth-generation farmer feels on his land—that is his “I am.” He is rooted deep into place by buried relatives and loved ones, connected by shared tragedies of draught, floods, and loss, by shared rituals, traditions, beliefs, values, these makers and markers of identity. He is also rooted by his inability to conceive of any other place, any other way.
My formative years created within me the desire to get away from everything I had grown up with. I was born at LA General and moved into my mom’s parents’ house in the working-class suburb of Highland Park about three years later, after my dad left us. My grandparents’ house was more like a boarding house than a family home, always full of aunts, uncles, cousins, and their progeny bustling about. My mom lived there, too, but she faded into the background, preoccupied with work, college courses at night, and a string of failed marriages in which I was not involved.
The home atmosphere was impersonal. We children were expected to look out for ourselves, solve our own problems. My grandparents admonished but did not require us to do well in school. My authoritarian grandma, Ruby, enforced our family’s prevailing religion of self-reliance. She was harsh, unaffectionate, austere, and utterly loyal to all of us.
Once, when I was 7 or 8, I returned to Ruby’s extended family home after a short visit with my other grandparents, who were as warm and nurturing as my mom’s parents were emotionally withered. I always experienced withdrawal symptoms when I came back from stays with my father’s parents. I would have preferred to live with them, but my mother would never allow it. When Grandma Ruby spotted me sitting alone in her darkened living room, she stood above me, hands on hips, thin lips pursed. “Well, don’t just sit there feeling sorry for yourself,” she said. “Get washed up. Dinner in five minutes.”
I felt that I hated her at that moment, but feared her, too. I scampered to the bathroom to wash my hands.
Grandma Ruby’s house provided the bones of an identity, though the social connections were loose and impersonal. I was on my own recognizance from an early age. The children could do anything we wanted and go anywhere we wanted with no adult supervision. I was used to my own freedom.
That all changed when my mother remarried to a man who took an active interest in my life, sometimes a violent one. My stepfather’s dominating presence, plus the dreaded probability of a working-class future in Highland Park, proved intolerable. I moved out of my mother’s house before graduating from high school. I left the house, left the state, and never lived with them or my extended family again.
The pattern continued throughout most of my life. I moved from one place to another: inside the US, to myriad countries overseas, then back to the US, rarely in one place for more than three years. Even while living in the States, my public health work took me to at least a half dozen countries every year. Meantime, I wandered through the lives of lots of people, not always successfully. I left, and kept on leaving. Here, there, not always clear why.
My kind of nomadism was essentially solitary, untethered, internally driven and unattached to places and people. I think of this as inner nomadism, a need to wander which comes from someplace inside. Am I running away, running to, or some combination? This question keeps coming back, pushing me for an answer.
As a young man, I experienced a deep-dyed romanticism about foreign lands with exotic names like Coromandel, Serengeti, Istanbul, the Khyber Pass. Visions of these perfumed nirvanas uplifted me and exerted a gravitational pull. I liked what I imagined, then learned, what each one offered, and was gluttonous to experience the next, then the next.
Right out of college, when I finished my naval officer training in Florida, I was posted to a naval air station just outside Yokohama. There were some challenges during my time there, for example losing all my luggage in San Francisco, having my car disappear at sea for weeks, and later, a typhoon blowing off the roof of my house. But in my eyes, these were minor setbacks. I loved every minute of those two years in Japan.
In those days, there was no traffic, no air pollution, and everything was dirt cheap—even for impecunious me. The Japanese were always so polite; I never suffered loud voices or tolerated expressions of annoyance. In addition, the ancient culture and evident Japanese sensitivity to beauty in all its forms entranced me. I drank up their aesthetic through drama, art, literature, music, architecture, and daily life. The smells emanating from fetid canals in Yokohama during warm weather, even the sinus-clearing pungency of vapors from the “honey-bucket men” captivated me. I listened to the unfamiliar strummed and sung music that accompanied the Kabuki dramas for as long as they lasted. It didn’t matter that they went on and on, or that I rarely understood what the stories were about.
A bit later in my international career, I became a foundation official in India. During my first winter there, a colleague and I drove from Calcutta to Darjeeling in the Himalayas on a cooked-up inspection trip. We stayed in a colonial-era hotel run by Tibetans. The room was so cold that ice cubes wouldn’t melt. We were determined to witness the sunrise as it illuminated Kanchenjunga, the Himalayan peak that looms over Darjeeling. We got up in the dark and took a Landrover up a vertiginous mountain road to an austere outcrop at least nine thousand feet high. As the hundreds of Tibetan prayer flags snapped in the wind, we stood there freezing, watching the sun inch its wan light onto Kanchenjunga. Shades of grey morphed into pink, then incandescent white, revealing the massif’s immense, awesome beauty. Neither of us spoke until we got back to the hotel. I have no words then or now to describe the majesty.
My wandering life demanded all my emotional attention. I remember it to have been so very satisfying at the time. For one thing, I reveled in the serendipity which goes with life in “exotic” places like Japan, India, Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, and Thailand. Every day was different, unlike the day before. And to me that was so very exciting—it made life an adventure, not just a predictable, drab journey from point A to point B.
But I was not alone on this path. I married when I was 22, and six years later we had a child. My wife, Pat, was with me in Japan, Egypt, and India. For the first few years, she seemed to enjoy the wandering life as much as I did. As time went on, however, she tired of its disruptions and discomforts, of being away from her family and friends. Other stresses between us signaled a growing rift in what each of us wanted.
While the pull of romantic places enticed me outward, that alone explains little beyond a vague wanderlust. The other, perhaps dominant force to my wandering was the push: a wish to get away, to escape some domestic or job situation that had become intolerable. Fearful of a dismal future in a marriage or a dead-end job, I felt compelled to put daylight between me and situations which threatened what I saw as my potential for achieving happiness.
Perhaps the most wrenching, maybe shameful, of my escapes was when I left my wife and small daughter behind in Ithaca, where we’d moved from Delhi so I could work at Cornell University. I had finished my doctoral coursework and exams and was wondering how I could continue to find the time to write my dissertation while working full time. Also on my mind was how soon I could get back overseas after five years in isolated upstate New York. One afternoon at my office, I got a call from a University of Michigan professor with whom I had been friends in India.
“Rick, this is Jason. Got to make this quick as I have a class in five minutes. Hey, I’m now in charge of fellowship program for Americans who want to go to a developing country to write a graduate thesis or dissertation. The fellowships are for two years. You won’t get rich, but they provide enough to live on. I think I can help to get you one. Interested?”
It took me a moment to stammer, “Jason, my dear man, you have no idea how timely and exciting this is. A fellowship like this is better than anything I could have dreamed of. How can I ever thank you? And what do I have to do to apply?”
When I got home that night, I told my wife about the fellowship and about how excited I was. In my exuberance, I just poured forth the news, mindless of her feelings about leaving the US again, maybe hoping my enthusiasm would catch. Instead of the frown or silence I’d expected, she exploded. “I have followed you around to Japan, Egypt, and India already, and I have no interest in running off to another place! We don’t have enough money to pay our bills now, and here you want to live on a fellowship, and drag me and your daughter to some screwed up, unhealthy place, just so you can live overseas again?”
In what I thought was a moderated voice, I said, “You have known for years that it’s important to me, to my career, to get back overseas again, and into a good job down the road. You have to admit that we had some good times overseas. You need to understand that this fellowship is my big chance to get where I want to go, and I’m not passing it up.”
While she glared at me white-faced from the couch, I went up to the spare bedroom where I studied almost every night until at least midnight. I had begun to sleep there, too, so as (I told myself) not to disturb my wife with my nocturnal habits.
I was sound asleep upstairs when the door crashed open and Pat came rushing in, flipping the light switch as she entered. He face was livid, contorted with anger, as she yelled at me in a loud, shrill voice.
“Goddamn you, Rick, all you ever think about is what you want. You never give a thought to me or your daughter. We haven’t spent more than a few hours together as a family for months. Your daughter hardly knows you. For our sake, I want you to get a better job and stay right here in Ithaca. I’m just not going to go off with you to some crappy country to live like a peasant again.”
By now she was sobbing, tears running down her reddened face. I was sitting up in bed taking all this in when she ran at me and began to pummel me with her fists, still yelling words I can’t remember. I stood up and held her arms, trying to calm her. As I did so, I noticed that she had been drinking, probably since our quarrel earlier in the evening. Beyond Pat’s flailing arms, I saw my 8-year-old daughter, Mary, standing in the doorway in her nightgown. She was crying and had a scared look on her face.
I left for Iran some months later. The night before my departure, I dropped by my ex-wife’s apartment to say goodbye to Mary. Although she knew I was leaving, having overheard her mother and I talk (and argue) about it for months, I had not told her directly. We sat on the couch in the living room while Pat watched TV in another room. Classical music was playing softly in the background, traffic sounds coming through the open windows.
“I have to go away for a while,” I said. “While I’m gone, I have made arrangements for you and your mother to stay at your grandmother’s nice house in Pasadena. You remember her house?”
Mary looked at me, expressionless. She nodded. I wondered, did this mean yes, she understood that I was leaving—or yes, she remembered her grandmother’s house.
I didn’t know what else to say, how to express even that I loved and would miss her. I didn’t tell her I’d be gone a long time. In fact, I hoped she would believe I was only going away for some business trip and would be back. Somehow, I thought this might hurt her less. I never really understood what my absence would mean to her life, or, to the extent that I did understand, I shielded myself from these feelings.
I hugged Mary at the door and gave her a kiss. She just stood there, no crying, no expression. I felt rotten. Would she resent me, as I resented my father? And if my wife was so intolerable that I was prepared to leave her, how could I justify leaving my daughter for her to raise? I rationalized that divorce is less traumatic for a child than growing up in a loveless, violent household. This of course sidestepped the fact that I would disappear for at least two years and not be around to offer love and support when she needed it.
Peter Pan is one of the Jungian archetypes, the older man whose emotional life has remained at an adolescent level. He leads a superficial life, due to the fear of being caught in a situation from which it might not be possible to escape. And so he runs, and keeps moving. Was that me? I perceive some similarities, to my chagrin.
The story of the archetypal hero—“The Odyssey,” for example—is about the cycle of leaving and returning. But there’s another type of traveler who never returns home; he is the exile. Some people have the urge to leave, to pull up stakes, become permanently alienated and different. I’m no hero, and while I am capable of much negativism, I never wanted to be, never thought of myself as, some kind of permanent exile, a mindset which carries with it more than a whiff of alienation from an entire society. I never actually hated a place or person. I just wanted something better, wanted to pursue my “bliss,” which I just knew was out there, whatever it was, waiting to be discovered.
When I was 42 and almost fifteen years into my international career, I joined the UN and was posted in Seoul, Korea. I was in the office of Dr. Kim, the director of a prestigious think tank, discussing the grant that my agency had made to his institute when the phone rang. Dr. Kim picked it up and said something in Korean. He turned to me and said, “I have asked our new staff member to join us. She will manage your grant program with immediate effect. She is just back from graduate school in America.”
A woman in her late twenties entered, slender, medium height, long dark hair. She and Dr. Kim smiled and nodded towards each other as he waved us towards the seating area. We shook hands and took our seats on a circle of three easy chairs. “Dr. Park joined us only a few days back,” my director continued. “Please arrange to meet with her soon, so we can move this project ahead quickly. “She turned and said to me in perfect English, “I will call you tomorrow to set a time for our first meeting. I look forward to our association.”
She stood up. We shook hands. She nodded towards Dr. Kim and left.
I had heard before meeting her that she was beautiful, and very smart. I had no way to assess her intellect, other than her language skills. As far as looks were concerned, while she was physically attractive and seemed pleasant enough, I did not find her at all beautiful.
We began to meet at her office a couple of times a month to discuss the project. We spoke almost exclusively of project matters. She impressed me with her calm demeanor, no-nonsense intellect, charm, and the elegant way she presented herself. Although it may sound trivial, thanks to my working-class background, I am always impressed by what we call “class,” a term which defined her.
At that time, I was deeply unhappy in my second marriage, due among other things my wife’s preference to be back in Iran rather than with me. We had been living apart more than together for years. Yet during her near-constant absences, as lonely and unhappy as I was, I was not seeking romance, or even female companionship. It never occurred to me to think about Dr. Park as other than a professional counterpart. We shifted to a first-name basis and had an occasional lunch together, but nothing beyond that.
After about six months of working together, my UN headquarters called one day to advise me that I was being transferred to another Asian country, where, according to the agency director, our program was suffering from serious problems and needed my management skills. I was flattered, since it would mean a more important posting, and one where I would work far more closely with the head of my UN agency. I also fanaticized that, as part of the move, I could off-load my then-wife with a one-way ticket to her beloved country. So I cabled back to New York to say that I would take the post.
A few days later, at the end of an afternoon meeting with Dr. Park, I told her about my impending move, planned within the next couple of months. She busied herself with the papers on her desk for a moment, then said, “It’s getting late. I’ll walk you to the front door.” We walked past the guards towards the entrance of the institute. The setting sun flooded the entry area with a soft light, leaving long shadows. As we reached the exit, she looked up at me and said in a voice I hadn’t heard before, “Do you really have to go, Rick? I don’t want you to go. Please tell your headquarters this isn’t a good time for you personally. Will you do this?”
I was so surprised at her words and the evident emotion underlying them, I didn’t know what to say, but I felt a rush of tenderness towards her—a sentiment that was foreign to me, but which had been developing without my realizing it.
I finally stammered, “Well, I don’t know. Maybe it’s too late to get out of it. I’ll let you know.”
After thinking of her words all night, and picturing her face as she spoke them, I sent a cable the next morning to my agency director asking to remain in Korea. The excuse I gave was just “family reasons.” Two days later, I received his blunt response agreeing to allow me to remain in Korea. Given his tone, and what I knew of the director’s vengeful nature, I was sure I would pay a price for my decision. Nevertheless, I was relieved, and kept thinking about her, standing there in the lobby, looking up at me. Something had happened. I had no idea what, or where it would lead to. Once those unique and unforeseen feelings had taken hold inside me, they continued to grow, and became almost an obsession. I dared not utter even to myself the word “love.” I didn’t trust it, even though I was in its grip. Although I had cared about and felt emotional about a number of people over a lifetime, until I finally found the one I wandered through life incapable of feeling deeply for anyone. My chronic inability to love and trust another person had left a gap, an emptiness that gnawed at me, calling out to be filled. Yet, two protracted and unhappy marriages had created in me a deep skepticism about the ability of any two people to live happily together. Added to my own traumatic experiences, my mother’s decades-long, fruitless quest for a happy marriage had left an indelible impression. The very idea of love and marriage had become a bad dream, a bitter fraud.
It took time during our early years together for me to evolve from unconnected loner to being able to give my trust to another, to her. When I did, the fear of “being caught” in a bad situation disappeared. What made our relationship perfect was that she was part migrant, too. For years afterward, our little pas de deux troop migrated together, with her as my trusted compass. Thus, the life-changing transition was rendered easy and natural. Although still a wanderer, I was no longer rootless, my life enriched through the added trust and emotional attachment that had been missing. Maybe even more important was how a close relationship forced me for the first time to give way to the desires and needs of another, to make compromises, to become less selfish and more human. To be able to do this, I had to decide what was really important to me: those few things which defined who I was, on which I could not compromise. It turned out the rest—most everything else—was not as important as I’d thought.
After twenty years of traveling the world together, and feeling a togetherness even when apart, my wife and I bought a house in the US. We even got to know the neighbors. I never had any desire to own a home, to feel the tie to any one place which ownership implies. But ownership is in my wife’s DNA, and I try to respond to her strongly felt needs. Oddly, having been here off and on for over twenty years—by far the longest tenure in one place in my life—I have come to love this old house. It is beautiful and elegant, both inside and outside, and unusually quiet for a home in the midst of a city. The fine kitchen allows me to indulge my hobby of cooking, filling the house with daily bouquets of spices and the aroma of baked goods. My cool basement provides the solitude I need to write. I feel a sense of comfort, of permanency—an identity—here that I never felt anywhere else. I now cherish my comfortable, relatively solitary routine, content to venture out as infrequently as possible.
Now that I am able to feel deep bonds of love for another person, I can glimpse how F. Scott Fitzgerald felt when he wrote about an early love he was to meet again years later. Faced with a reunion, he wrote: “She was the first girl I ever loved and I have faithfully avoided seeing her up to this moment to keep the illusion perfect. I don’t know whether I should go or not.” He did meet her and was so undone that he began drinking again.
The French writer J.M.G. Le Clézio expressed a similar sentiment about his nanny: “In order to keep the memory of her voice undisturbed I have thrown away all the yellowing photographs, the letters and books that she read. I always want to be able to hear her, like those whom we love but whose faces we can no longer see.”
As I look in the rearview mirror, through the years, the emotions evoked are often tinged with nostalgia. I am in fact awash in an innate sentimentality, like a low-budget Proust. The slightest stimuli trigger recollections which, however fleeting, take me back to places and experiences I want savor again and again. These mental revisits most often evoke mixed feelings of pleasure and sadness that it’s past.
Among many precious memories of places and experiences, the one I am most sentimental about is the week my wife and I spent together on Maui, our secret hideaway for a few precious days away from prying eyes. The images of those days flash by, one then another in no particular order, each one awash in the gauzy euphoria I felt. Everything was magic, life was magic. I was on a narcotic emotional high from which I have never “recovered,” and don’t want to.
My sentimentality sometimes urges me to return physically to places I cared about, where I forged sustaining memories. But having observed man’s capacity to create ugliness out of beauty and confusion out of simplicity, I assume that many places have changed for the worse. I worry about the entropy of time, the physics of decay. I often feel, or just imagine, that a “place” I cherished in the past has changed to the point that I don’t want to see it again. Once-wonderful places—like Yosemite, Boulder, Kyoto, Kamakura, Darjeeling, and Venice—are now more crowded, polluted, traffic-jammed, noisy, commercialized, and tarted-up. Even though I want to go back, I hesitate.
My ability to travel being largely over, I mostly avoid such disappointments, returning instead in my mind, where I have stored my most cherished experiences. It doesn’t bother me that these reflections are purely internal constructs. In fact, I love it that these places inside me keep mutating around, combining and recombining as I wish them to—they are mine, and will end when I do. The greatest moments in my life don’t return except as memories, and home is a moveable feast. All that I get to keep is that which is gone, or maybe never was.
Richard Moore is retired after forty years in international public health work, mainly overseas. He and his wife live in Washington, DC. He has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a PhD in Management. He has published a number of nonfiction pieces and is working on a guidebook to French Gothic Cathedrals.