I have to start this out with a melancholia disclaimer. If you’re not in the mood for some serious stuff, exit this and move on to a review of some blockbuster movie or other.
I wondered about the title as I contemplated writing this essay. Do you ever really come in off the road once you set out on it with all your heart? Perhaps only intermittently at best. Nevertheless, the concept will serve for what I have to say.
Casting about to put my thoughts into some sort of frame of reference, I came up with the stories of Bilbo Baggins in “The Hobbit” and Frodo Baggins in “The Lord of the Rings.” Both found themselves back home at the end of their stories, but the results of the returns were profoundly different. Bilbo came back with a chest full of gold and managed to live quite comfortably for many long years – obsessed off and on by the ring perhaps, but able to live a fairly normal life regardless. Frodo, on the other hand, came back in pain. Unlike Bilbo, who went there and back again, whose plan was always to return to Bag End, Frodo went on a quest from which he never expected to return. He died along the way, in a sense, and though he was revived, nursed back to health, honored by those who understood what he had accomplished, when he returned to Bag End something was missing, incomplete. He was left restless, unfulfilled, bothered by old wounds and nightmares. Both of them eventually went back out on the road. It turned out that there was no permanent resting place for either.
I think my situation, being back in the States and, of all locales, in the place where I was born and raised, is more like Frodo’s than Bilbo’s. I feel a pain and I wonder if it can ever be assuaged. I long for the road sometimes, to be out and about and able to go whithersoever I want. I want to return to Europe where the people are more relaxed, where they have had many more centuries to get comfortable with their heritage and culture.
What brought all this on? I came to the United States about two years ago not for myself but for my sons. They had no opportunities in Greece and I had to get them out to a place where they could do more than constantly tread water and eventually drown. It wasn’t easy, for me at least. My sons were soon thriving, but I foundered, beset with culture shock and the difficulty of making a completely fresh start in what for me was a new land. The United States I left was little like the one I found myself in when I returned, as I recount at length in “America Redux: Impressions of the United States After Thirty-Five Years Abroad.” And I’ve tried to step out, seek out writer’s groups and mingle and mix, especially here in Seattle where such gatherings are common. Sometimes it works out well, and sometimes it seems that no one gets where I am coming from. When I explain that I recently returned after thirty-five years abroad, people are surprised, yes, but they have no frame of reference to grasp such a concept. Most of them have grown up here, have established themselves, have their roots in, so to speak, and have a much more stable and secure situation than I do.
Back to “The Lord of the Rings” analogy. When Frodo returned to Hobbiton, nobody could relate to what he had gone through. That was true for Samwise and Pippin and Merry too, of course, but they had more resiliency, they had not been wounded so deeply, they recovered and used the skills they had acquired on the road to become great ones in Hobbit society. Frodo, on the other hand, was ignored, pushed aside, forgotten. Alone he worked on his book, and the only ones who understood his worth and knew what he had gone through for the sake of all of Middle Earth were the ones who had accompanied him on his quest.
For me, that’s like my sons. They are the only ones who have any sort of inkling what I have gone through. If I say, “I set out on the road to find my voice as a writer,” what does that really mean? For me it means stepping so far outside my comfort zone that there was no zone left, burning all my bridges, continuing onward no matter what obstacles stood in the way, looking at possible scenarios of death many times. A moment alone on an unmapped path high up in the Himalayas epitomizes what I mean. There was no farther to go upward unless I wanted to die on the mountain, but when I turned and went down, I did it with the realization that I had gone as far as I could, all alone, no map, no money, no guide, only something inside that led me on.
How do you explain that to someone? It reminds me of the movie “The Keys of the Kingdom” with Gregory Peck. I haven’t seen it for decades, but what I remember is the stirring story of a missionary who fought great odds, braved many dangers, and saved many lives in China for many years, and yet when he returned home as an old man he was forgotten. He was an old country priest in an isolated church with few parishioners, and no one remembered what great deeds he had done. That’s what I feel like sometimes.
Remember in the movie “The Return of the King” where the four returning Hobbits sit around a table sharing beers and they look at each other and you can see that they share a secret that none of those around can possibly understand.
And this from the book of Ecclesiastes 9:14-16: “There was a little city, and few men within it; and there came a great king against it, and besieged it, and built great bulwarks against it: Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city; yet no man remembered that same poor man. Then said I, Wisdom is better than strength: nevertheless the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard.”
Well, that’s about all. I’ve just about got it off my chest. I’ve told it before but I had to tell it one more time because something happened over the weekend to set it off again, a situation in which the person I was with just didn’t get it, and the exchange ended awkwardly, and I thought much about it afterwards, and this is the result. C’est la vie.