This year, on this day, November 19th, Philip would have turned seventy-three. Seventy-three—an age hard to fathom from where I sit so uncomfortably near to it. How did we get this old? I’m five years younger than Philip and have become accustomed to my sixties. But seventies? Isn’t that an undeniable border-crossing? A first step beyond middle-aged?
In my inner images of Philip, the man I carry gently tucked into the corners of my soul, he is forever young. The vulnerable man-child who, at our first encounter, reached for me, pulled me into his arms, and whispered, “Ahh, it’s you.” The rapscallion charmer who toasted me with a wink at our picnic wedding, acting more like a flirt on a pickup than a bridegroom. The whimsical dreamer, ever walking us into our next adventure.
“We carry within us the wonders we seek without us.” I read this quote from Thomas Brown (in Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening. 2000, 2020) and thought of Philip’s never-ending longing for his place on the planet. Was he mistaking the wonders without for those within? Do we ever find home? Is there some coordinate on a map where we belong, where we finally inhale reflected recognition and exhale a resounding relief? Ahh … here it is. We are home.
But must we accept that the inward turn is the only way to go (or stay)? Might there be another way or a combination of ways for some to attain the inner life? Would Philip ever have been able to nest, to settle into a physical place? Or was he bound to wander, to seek? He who otherwise spoke and wrote incessantly of the longings of the soul for the inward-facing life. He who chose to walk slowly so to be with a place. He who–rather than explore the tourist sites of a new town, preferred to sit on the city’s riverbank, savoring a ripe peach, and, from a contemplative distance, view an ancient cathedral.
Were his wonders solely within? He was also inclined to pack up his picnic, catch the next train, map out the route to the next destination, hail the next boat-taxi. He sat in the prow of the boats we took on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala like a happy dog with his ears flapping back in the wind, scenting and anticipating what was to come in the next port.
Was this impossibly contradictory soul happiest when he was on his way to the next possibility? A nomad, a gypsy? The one who takes to the road to find himself and his solace. Is it an absolute that salvation lies only in a turning within? Or are some of us destined to traverse a more roving, a more transient path on our way to that inner home?
Perhaps, we should have invested in a gypsy caravan (a small RV? A houseboat?) and spent our years wandering. Maybe it would have been a life of staying only long enough to imbibe the beauty and awe of a place, traveling with John Ruskin’s two aims for art: to find beauty in the particularity of each locale and/or to make sense of pain. Our vagabond life—a work of art.
In our simple rolling or floating home, we might, ironically, have found our ground in movement, in flow. Rather than seeking the one place to settle, perhaps, we were more akin to the traveler, Levison Wood, who feared that “getting stuck in one place meant a loss of momentum and with that the prospect of getting stuck in one narrative…” (An Arabian Journey, 2018). Possibly, had we shifted our narrative, no longer seeking a singular home, we might have found more satisfaction in the unsettled, more fluid way of life we’d unwittingly adopted. Perhaps, a narrative embracing a life on the road or the water would have allowed us to build our inward home, one we would furnish with all the splendors and sorrows of the wide world. In many ways, we’d already done this. Yet, the story of finding our place on the planet may have blinded us to an alternative way to see it. How powerful–these stories we tell ourselves. These tales we live by.
Mark Nepo says, “Seeking in the world has always been a way to mirror … where we need to work inwardly.” Perhaps, our way home would have been worked in flux, in search. Possibly, it was a multifaceted narrative, one of external change and diversity—mirroring back an interior journey rather than a settled existence.
Nepo quotes Saint Francis as saying, “You are that which you are seeking.” Maybe Philip was a seeker mistakenly looking for a place to settle. What he was seeking was the beauty that would ease his pain. Perhaps, a beauty that could not be held still or planted in one spot.
So, my wanderer, my gypsy soulmate, on your Birthday, wherever you roam and wherever you rest, I wish you love. I send you all the love I have found to furnish my inmost home in this time when I’m still here … and you have gone on.