If I were alone — if my dear wife were gone, my friends scattered to the winds, my love and work unmoored from a place, where would I choose to be? It’s a useful mental exercise. The question of where on the planet you choose put your body defines, profoundly, who you are.
My brother recently announced that after over 30 years of living in the same house in Columbus with his wife, he wants to move to Boise, Idaho. He’s done with living in the same place, the only place he’s ever lived as an adult, and his wife has agreed to go, and he’s just undergone a harrowing year of successful cancer treatment, which perhaps has something to do with it, but the choice still struck me as remarkable. They know no one in Boise, it’s as far away culturally and otherwise as they could move without leaving the country, and they’re discarding a foundation of familiarity as deep as it gets in most people’s lives. And I’m sure that’s the point. My brother wants, at least for a time, to be in a place not because he needs to be there, or because it’s where he’s always been, but just because he chose it.
For most of your life, as with his, family or love or work or simple habit determines where you put your body. You live where your parents live, or where you go to school, or where your lover lives, or where you come into adulthood, or where you have a job. But after a time, maybe late in life, only rarely when you are just starting out, all that falls away, and you are left with the looming question of where, in all the world, in all your corporeal essence, you belong. If your life were an itinerary, this would be the final destination; this would be the last place.
Because this sort of choosing of place becomes possible when attachments fall away, it’s partly a question of where solitude would be tolerable, or even comfortable. There’s no quick answer, as most of us have little or no experience with true, protracted aloneness. Even in those brief spans of time when I technically lived alone — for part of college and law school and, briefly, after starting to work in New York, and in those backwaters of transient solitude that followed break-ups — my life was filled with people I saw daily and knew intimately – fellow students, my professors, co-workers, mentors, friends. In the law firm where I started out, we routinely worked 12-hour days, took our meals in groups of other lawyers similarly indentured. That’s not really living alone in any meaningful sense, even though I returned at night to a space where no one else lived.
Then love or marriage or parenthood or friendships or all of them, if you’re lucky, absolve you from solitude for most of the rest of your life, if you’re lucky. The places you live have little to do with where you might be if you were alone; the question doesn’t begin to present itself. In America, solitude and placelessness are indicators of something gone drastically wrong.
Even when marriages end, or loved ones die, or children grow up and leave, there are always those few friends who will be there, and by being there will fix you to a place. Some will even fight through your claims that you really want to be alone, as when a mentor-friend of mine, dead now, insisted on seeing me after my divorce, made me sit and talk about it over drinks and a long dinner, refused to let me define myself as circumstances seemed to demand: a man alone. Not on his watch. He suggested – insisted, really — that I move from the east coast to California, where he lived. And I did.
California is our national last place, out there on the left edge of the map, forever fecund with possibility, forever retreating behind its own myth. I was fleeing the bad breakup of what could have been a good marriage, I was almost middle-aged, and had been working at a job I had lost all passion for. California, and the San Francisco peninsula, was my place of personal reinvention. But I had friends there and secured a new job there before I left New York, and knew where I was going, and to whom, and more or less what waited for me. It was full of entanglements new and old, made and avoided. It was not my last place.
Friendship drew me westward then, but sometimes solitude happens and there is no one to prevent it. I can imagine that for me that could happen if my wife, who is my tether to the world, the keeper of the skein of our friendships, were gone (and no, I can’t bring myself to use the other word). Part of my healing from her absence, I imagine, would be to go away too, to leave behind our house and town and all the thousand reminders of her and of our life together, and find a place that was solely mine. It would not be a place I’d lived before, with its own tangle of memories. It would be a new place, maybe the last place.
There is a purgative aspect to this leaving things behind, a sloughing off of loss by abandoning the familiar. When time for my last place comes, I imagine, I will take all my clothes to Goodwill and keep only a few shirts and blue jeans. The suits that I wore in the years in New York and San Francisco, the poles of my working life, will be given away, the dress shirts with their spread collars, the tight leather shoes with their laces, the belts and ties. Endless clothes, forgotten years of clothes, bales of it, stuffed into black plastic bags and given away. And still my excess will seem limitless. I will box up the books in the study and take them to the town library like a man taking his dog to be put down. I will enlist some neighbor boys to help move furniture out into the back yard where Goodwill can fetch it. I’d leave perhaps just a chair or two in each room, our piano, our dining table. And even those things would be too much. This would be her last gift, her true bequest: escape from the thousand things that have bound me to our place, so that I can depart for another.
What would be the qualities of that other place? It would, for one thing, hold the hope of solace. It wouldn’t be a place where work would be pursued, or a hobby would come to fruition, though those things might happen there. It would be chosen for its aesthetics, not its utility.
It wouldn’t, therefore, be a city. Cities are utilitarian, places of distraction and challenge, not consolation, and I did the city thing when I was young, in New York, which is the distillation of all cities. It was enough. Every other city, no matter where on the globe, would seem a nagging shadow of that place and time.
A quiet place, then. Probably not a seaside, where people tend to go in crowds when temporarily leaving behind their real lives. It wouldn’t be a tourist town, where you’re constantly distinguishing between locals and transients. I’d want to be among people who, like me, belonged to the place.
The deep woods, maybe, or in a working mountain town, or a combination of the two. Colorado has its places like this, away from the ski resorts, along rivers and streams where nobody bothers to raft.
But when all else is forgotten, when the symbolisms of birthplace and heritage and career and prestige are put aside, what beckons is the desert, the hot dry land, with mountains in the distance. The high desert around Santa Fe comes to mind, but it too is a tourist town, and my wife and I built a home there and lived there off and on, so it too would reverberate with memory.
A few years ago a cousin and her husband pulled up decades-deep stakes in a Phoenix suburb and moved to San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico, too full of retired expats for me, but they seem to love it. I lived in Mexico as a child, and the heat of the plains around Monterrey, with Saddle Mountain rising to the west, the starry chaos of the night skies there, may account for my love of deserts hemmed by hills. My memories of the place are too spotty to be encumbering; I’m remembering photographs in family albums, not what was being photographed. Mexico, maybe. Es posible.
The thought experiment has no conclusion, goes back on the shelf of unresolved inquiries. With any luck it will remain hypothetical. But it’s worth asking: where on the planet would you place yourself, if it were just you? Who and where are you, really?