I am a master at leaving.
The first time I left home, I was four years old. Without telling anyone or asking permission, I carted all my toys up the stairs to where my grandmother lived – on the second floor of our house in the suburbs of New York City – and declared that I lived with her. Over the following decade, I did – and that was 10 times longer than I would stay in any one place for the next 20 years.
Blessed with a loving family – and a total lack of survival skills – I never ran any further away than upstairs, but I lived on a steady diet of books about kids who did. I dreamed of living in the woods like Sam Gribley in My Side of the Mountain, in a museum like Claudia Kincaid in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler, or even in the New York City subway system like Aremis Slake in Slake’s Limbo. By the time I was 12, I was saving every dollar I earned so that I could backpack through Europe (which I did at 19).
I traveled as cheaply as I could in order to travel as much as I could. I missed the first few weeks of my final year of college at Cornell University in order to go across the United States. I loved every minute of it, even the 53 straight hours I spent on a Greyhound bus. To this day, the sight of a dilapidated bus station in a podunk town gets my adrenalin flowing.
My 20s were a blur of broken leases, short-term sublets and other people’s couches. For a while, I worked as a house-sitter, and lived somewhere else in every off-season: I saw upstate New York in the winter and the Caribbean in the doldrums of August. In one memorable 12-month period, I lived in eight apartments, four states and two Puerto Rican islands.
People used to ask if it was exhausting, all this moving around, but I found it exhilarating. I was always looking for something more, for something new, for something other. I wanted to See It All and, in my head, I could hear those capital letters. It was the closest thing I felt to a mission in life. How could I understand anything – the world, myself – if I hadn’t seen everything?
And to be really honest, a part of me loved the shallowness of it all, how I could dip my foot in one world and then move on to another. Call it wanderlust or irresponsibility, but I always felt like I was better at doing something new than maintaining something familiar. For 30 years, I skimmed across the surface of the world like the skipping stones I used to fling across the stream by my parent’s house.
It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize something very simple: staying in one place is as unique and specific an experience as traveling to somewhere I’d never been, and there were things to be discovered in stillness as well as in motion. I thought settling down would be easy when the time came, without even thinking that it might require a different set of muscles – ones I’d never exercised. I knew the non-routine of waking up in a new place every few months; how to orient myself to a new city, find people and make fast and easy friendships. I didn’t know how to pay the bills, or commit to a job or value an object enough to keep it when it couldn’t fit inside a backpack.
The idea of “settling down” frightened me a little ... but if a new experience was really my goal, I thought maybe the thing that seemed the hardest to do was the thing I needed to do the most.
I began to make forays into permanency, but it took falling in love to make it stick – as I suspect is true for many people like me. A relationship provided both the tether and excitement that I needed, and my partners were caring enough to work through their fear that I might drift away again.
At times, staying put has felt scary and vulnerable. You accrue; your past piles up and you can’t (or at least won’t) walk away from it. It’s not about there being bad things I’ve wanted to escape, but rather about allowing the moss of everyday life to grow on me. There have been days that I’ve wanted to shake myself off and run again, but there were once weeks on the road when all I wanted to do was stop and rest for a while. Sometimes you want what you don’t have. That’s life.
And, in 2015, I’m planning to cross a new Rubicon: with my partners and three other friends, I’m buying a building in Brooklyn. It will be my first permanent home since I left the room I shared with my grandmother decades ago. Maybe in 10 years I’ll pack it all up and set out on the road again, though it would be as a caravan and not a lone traveler.
Or maybe this is the last new address I’ll ever have. Either way, it will be the thing I’ve always wanted: something new.