Never Lenting Go

Rootedness and Restlessness in Nomadland

This article is by Trevor Almy:

For Ola Vee Crowe

Although we have left the official season lamenting our own mortality, the disposition of Lent continues to define the experience of the Church. While Easter seeds the earth with the promise of reintegration because of the bodily resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, disintegration threatens our lives until kingdom come. As the priest intones during the imposition of ashes, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Aware of death’s nearness, we look to the land for settlement and search the skies for significance. Life is Lent. We are in exile in the wilderness and experience the tension between rootedness and restlessness. Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland (2020) explores the earthy and escapist nature of our wandering existence.

Exile is marked by displacement, and Fern — the protagonist of the film — is displaced when Empire is discontinued. The deletion of her hometown is an erasure of an entire geography, dispersing not just one person, but a population. Since our communities are fleeting and fading, we recapitulate eviction from Eden on a regular basis. We buy houses and build them into homes, hoping to make heaven on earth.

After my daughter Karis was diagnosed with a terminal illness in Jackson and my wife left, I stayed in a house with literal and figurative shifting foundations. I felt that moving would be like moving on, a betrayal of Karis. Confessing similar feelings, Fern unburdens herself and says that she did not leave Empire immediately. She stayed to remember her late husband, a man who did not have children or know his own parents. Tethering herself to the past, she hoards her possessions in a storage unit and travels toward a future. Singing, “What Child is This?”, Fern will incarnate a wilderness experience. Like her name, Fern is planted, but will extend her life by spreading spores as she travels.

We tabernacle in order to mitigate being divided between competing urges to stay and go. The practice of tabernacling is learning what we should release and what we should retain as we roam through life. It is realizing, with the author of Hebrews 13:14, that, “For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” Or, as a tattoo of one of Fern’s co-workers at Amazon reads, “Home. Is it just a word or is it something you carry with you?” As I write this, I am traveling from exchanging my kids with their mom. Over the last several days, we have inhabited a space together and made a home. Last night, we were questing in a co-op video game and I was tucking them into bed. This morning, they were packing suitcases and I was loading a car. To tabernacle is to have a home in transition — and such are our postlapsarian lives. My home is long-distant.

Tabernacling implies relocating. Until we examine our shattered selves, however, we cannot search for wholeness. Before her westward trip, Fern stares at a puzzle that represents her fragmentation. At Amazon, she has been parceling herself out to the world. Ironically, she will piece herself together only by leaving to be relocated. By going west, her restlessness takes her towards rootedness.

Calling her and us to relocation is death. For us, the specter of Adam’s death looms, but the deaths, or potential deaths, of our loved ones also uproot us. For Fern, the impending death of a friend named Swankie catalyzes her trip. In the final moments before the two separate, Fern shaves her friend’s hair and gives a confession. She admits that in the waning moments of her husband’s life she wanted to end his suffering by overdosing him on morphine. I trembled during this scene as it transported me to the moments where Karis was in the PICU in 2012 and had to be intubated twice. Recovering from one of her grand mal seizures, my daughter looked into my eyes, and it was as if she was saying, “Let me go.” In the following days, her mother and I would make the difficult decision for Karis to have a tracheostomy, but I wondered if not intervening would have been the more merciful choice. False guilt festered in me as it festers in Fern, but Swankie reframes the situation by suggesting Fern’s husband wanted to remain. Augmenting my pain is the uncertainty of still not knowing if Karis wanted to stay or leave.

Healing happens in confessional community, but it also occurs in journey. Embarking on an Exodus, Fern travels through a tunnel which is symbolic of rebirth. She explores a ghost town, which is a reminder of the town that she has lost. Consecrating herself for her wilderness, she cuts her hair. Floating across a river, she baptizes herself; she crosses her Red Sea.  We cross thresholds too, when we re-engage with the church after years of lapsed attendance or remarry after a difficult divorce.

Repair is central to the experience of healing and of our Lenten lives. It marries restlessness and rootedness in that it is both a desire to reach and a desire to reside. When one of Fern’s plates shatters, she reassembles it rather than discards it. Brokenness is beautified when Fern glues the memento back together. It is not the same, but somehow the cracks enhance its glory. Watching this scene reminded me of how my wife, a found artist, will take trash and repurpose it into a new creation. Scavenging our home, she collects the detritus of our lives and reimagines it for delight and wonder. Beneath all of these endeavors is a restlessness to never embrace entropy, as well as a rootedness that preserves the pieces. There is something inherently redemptive about such pursuits — as our Lord Jesus did not leave his body in the earth, but rose from the land, showing his cracks as a part of his beauty.

Because of our exile, repair is repetitive. Circular imagery appears throughout the movie, whether it is Fern’s wedding ring, a spinning laundry machine, or a doughnut. Our lives are cyclical. We move between permanence and pursuit. We long to make a home for ourselves here, yet we know our homes, like ourselves, are transitory. Rocks are a recurring motif in the movie that represent our cyclical nature of coming from the earth and returning to it. Rocks are not mundane but are mysterious, as a man with a telescope explains how humans come from stars that explode and nourish the soil. “Hold out your hand and look at a star,” he says, which signifies that we have both cosmic and terrestrial origins and ends.

A couple of days ago was the four year anniversary of my maternal grandmother, Granny, dying. At the viewing, I saw her lying in the casket. It was her, yet it was not her. Despite the mortician’s best efforts, he could not recapture her rollicking, reflexive laughter that would leave us both gasping after uncontrollable fits, only to wonder at the end why either of us were laughing in the first place. During the graveside service, I watched as her body descended back into the earth. At the same time, all I could think about was how for years prior to her funeral, she wanted to be buried facing east because Jesus would be returning in the skies from that direction.

At Nomadland’s climax, Bob Wells, a veteran van dweller, recounts his son’s suicide and his own mourning. The question that haunts him is, “How can I be alive on this earth when he’s not?” As Bob explains, many nomads are working through loss. He says, “Some people never get over it. That’s okay.” Lent is at once an acceptance of grief and a letting go of the need to “get over it.” Bob’s faith is more than just embracing grief, though. It is grief with hope, as he says, “On the road, I don’t ever say a final goodbye. I always just say, ‘I’ll see you down the road.’ And I do…I can be certain in my heart that I’ll see my son again.”

Struggling with the desire to remain with those we love and the desire to reunite with those we have lost, we are Ferns, nomads on the road, who want our homes on earth. But, like Fern, we never say a final goodbye. Look down the road. Who do you see? I can see Karis walking to me.

I can see Granny laughing again.

Throw a rock in the fire. We’ll all see each other down the road.

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One response to “Never Lenting Go”

  1. Peter Weems says:

    LI in no way wish to diminish this wonderful letter when I say that for me I would like to hear about the important and life redeeming message we hear in the ressurection stories instead of referring to this folklore as though it were a physically literal historical event. Otherwise I think this is a fabulous piece.

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