This reflection comes from our vagabond-in-recovery, Lizzie Stallings.

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Room with a view

There is a certain restlessness that stems from living out of one’s car. Daily games of I-Spy become the modus operandi, resulting in frequent conversations with oneself—along with a staggering degree of comfort in talking quite audibly to no one:

“Where are my shoes? Ah, yes, under that box of oatmeal. But then, where is my wallet? Oh…here, wedged in the spine of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes—with my headlamp! Perfect! Ah, but wait… my keys? Oh yes, in my collapsible camping pot!”

This lifestyle was a result of my decision to move to Jackson Hole, Wyoming this past summer. The town is in the midst of a housing crisis; lodging of any kind is hard to come by, and something affordable for a college-student interning for $5/hour is nearly out of the question. Fortunately, when I realized that I would not “find something when I got there,” a network of friends opened their doors for a few days at a time, allowing me to couch-surf pretty easily. When that option wasn’t available, I camped with fellow car dwellers (because yes, there were many of us!). I was living out of my car, but not in it, so while “homeless” in a technical sense, it was really more a state of “rotating-inhabitance.”

However, there came a point when this constant rotation became tiresome. About July, I decided that, though I had no technical space of my own, my car would become a mini home with “rooms.” I drive a Ford Taurus, so you can imagine the dimensions with which I was working, but still, a home it would be! This process provided me with a newfound ease with my circumstances. I created divisions for my “closet,” “cupboard,” and “half-bath,” with running water, obviously, remaining out of the question. I even had a library. I began to equate myself with these people:

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“Amazing couple quits their jobs to travel to North America in a tiny house.”

But then I began to wonder, why did it matter? Why did I have to have a library? It only held five books, after all, and one of them was a self-help cooking guide. I didn’t even have a stove! Though I was really fine with continually camping and couch surfing, ultimately I had to come to terms with an underlying discomfort with this state of mobility, with this lack of physical walls, and with this rootlessness. I had to drift happily or otherwise sink.

But human beings are not drifters. Despite the relatively novel fluidity of people in this age of globalization, social science and our own behavioral tendencies indicate that we remain “aborescent” in nature, preferring to have boundaries. Like trees, our metaphoric “leaves and branches” are a product of having fixed “rhizomes.” With territorial belonging, we have a space (however small) in which we can ‘root’ our cultures, beliefs, and identities.

On a local level, these boundaries might be our homes. Expand “home” to “neighborhood,” then “neighborhood” to “city”—everything from the location of these buildings to the color on the walls becomes a firm projection of our preferences and convictions. As individuals, we are mobile and adaptable, but as an individual with culture, opinions, priorities, and interests, we are like Russian nesting dolls embedded in Matryoshka layers of external affirmations.

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Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady

Take, for instance, the home: perhaps the smallest locus in the macrocosmic ‘nest’ one might choose to occupy. I think instantly of an interaction I had (or caused) a few weeks ago, in which I was hanging out with friends after a night out. We were sitting on couches in my friend’s room, but I had just met him, so I began sizing him up based on the design of his room (note: Thesaurus tells me to use the term ‘digs’ instead). I somewhat aggressively chose the bookshelf next to his bed as my first line of attack, and the conversation [sub. ‘bombardment’] went as follows:

“Wow. Interesting books. Looks like a pretty deliberate arrangement. May I?”

“Um, sure? I gue—”

On the Road,”—[scoff] (might I note I apologized profusely the next day)—“just screams, ‘anti-establishment! Individuality! Also, I’m well-read!’”

“Well, I… it’s just a good boo—”

“Next. Man of the Century: Winston Churchill. So you are historically informed and fond of good political leaders.”

At this point the defendant merely sighed.

CAPITALISM 4.0?! I thought you were trying to pull off the liberal intellectual thing? This blows your case.”

“Wh—I mean we are capitalists!”

“Pete Townsend’s autobiography? Fine, I guess that’s fine. The Who’s cool.”

After throwing the book at him (again, I cringe recalling this), the pattern continued, my interpretive dissection of this boy based solely on the literature on a shelf. Finally, the assault was over.

Screenshot 2015-09-24 14.03.57The next morning, however, as I reflected on my judgmental conduct the night before, I looked around my own room. My eyes glanced from my Indian elephant tapestry to the Fleetwood Mac album covers to the New Orlean’s Voodoo poster decorating my walls. Wasn’t I attempting to achieve the same end that [Undeserving Victim #1] may or may not have been communicating with his choice of books? These posters were both comforting and declarative: while they provided me with security and peace of mind, they also served a purpose. They spoke to my travels, my music taste, my love of all things spooky; they helped an outsider gather a sure sense of who “I” am.

Edward Relph’s Place and Placelessness speaks to this conflation of identity with physical space in depth. He identifies the difference between existential insideness and existential outsideness (or, more simply, “place” and “placelessness”) by stating:

“The strongest sense of place experiences is…a situation of deep, unself-conscious immersion in place and the experience most people know when they are at home in their own community and region. If a person feels inside a place, he or she is here rather than there, safe rather than threatened, enclosed rather than exposed, at ease rather than stressed” (1981, 1993).

Liisa Malkki, in her study of refugees and national identity (succinctly titled “National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of National Identity Among Scholars and Refugees”), furthers this assertion by suggesting that

“identity [that] is always mobile and processual—partly self-construction, partly categorization by others, partly a condition, a status, a label, a weapon, a shield, a fund of memories, et cetera—leads to a vision of displacement as pathological. Uprootedness comes to signal a loss of moral and, later, emotional bearings” (37).

Though I was not, (nor could ever relate to) a politically displaced refugee this past summer, I became forcibly aware of the reliance I had on the concrete, palpable walls in my own existence. The varying levels of ‘my self’ were somatic and spiritual only as long as that body and spirit belonged within. We, humans, seek protection in erected frontiers. Partitions denote solidarity within a community, and as individuals, partitions allow us to exist on the interior; on the inside, we have a space for conveying the varying components of the “self”, components we bear as a weapon and shield against our own vulnerabilities.

Ultimately, the mortal aversion to uprooted-ness indicates an intrinsic fear. To cite Victor Turner, we fear becoming the “liminal personae.” This liminality equates being a “threshold person,” a “naked unaccommodated man”; “undifferentiated raw material” (Malkki 44). Being undifferentiated, then, or without our own culture, opinions, priorities and beliefs fixed in the physical and temporal world, results in an amoral existence. “I” am not if I am not [here]. “I” am not if “I” do not eat, sleep, and breathe in a specific room with my Fleetwood Mac posters hanging above my head. “I” am not if I was not raised in a specific house, with a coral door and two shrubs lining the front stairs. “I” am not if that house does not belong to a specific neighborhood, with other houses inhabited by specific people in a specific part of town. The self is lost without a base.

However, aren’t we all the naked unaccommodated man in spirit? After all, the coordinates of our home will not save us. Nor will the paintings on our walls. Even having walls will not. Without the shield of our declarative existence, we are souls, bare essences that can’t self-justify. On that level, one cannot dictate the worth of their spirit by the titles on their bookshelf. It is here where love and connection become aborescent themselves. It is in nakedness that we can be saved. Though we may judge and ask to be judged according to our trappings, to be Man is to be on the threshold. Life, in perspective, is liminal.