Leaving the Familiar

AS much as I love knowing everyone on the twisting valley road that borders our home on the Pacific, I've also come to yearn for the times when we've lived in places where we've known no one.

My children and I are an unlikely crew to travel, to leave the familiar for the unknown. My son, Dylan, likes his lamp, the brown one with the long arm, tilted at just the right angle to chase the shadows out of a dark room. It has occupied the same position on his night stand for 10 years.

My daughter, Hallie, has developed a litany of rituals to perform before bed, so many that she had to write a list in order to remember them all.

The same woman has cut my hair for 20 years now. I've visited the local gas station for as long, seeing it change hands from father to son. We are the family that personifies the cliche "creatures of habit."

Life has allowed us great stretches of orderly time - time when we garden, work, and build a family, time to build ties with our community. It has also presented us with shifts that we'd neither foreseen nor planned, shifts that have pushed us from our nest into new places for lengths of time ranging from weeks to months.

Occasionally, we've become wanderers even in our own home, clinging to less, loving more tenderly, buying time together instead of things we might hold in our hands.

On our travels, we've resisted hotels and motels, instead camping along the way and resting in some small community. My children are familiar with maps. My daughter has been our official "navigator" in the car since she was 4, and she's already advanced in her ability to tell north from south.

IN a new place, we redefine ourselves and our family. I find days pass with no ringing phones. Even letters trickle down to a few die-hard missives from friends who put words on paper as easily as they might speak with you on the phone.

It takes a while on foreign soil for our habits to become visible. Soon we are on friendly terms with the owners of the local coffee shop where we get muffins in the morning. Then of course, given the age of our vehicles, we usually meet the local mechanic. We spend hours in the city parks, so we generally meet mothers and fathers with small children. Once in Quebec, we met a grandfather who spoke only French, but who transcended language barriers with strong arms that could push a swing higher than any adult in the park.

We begin to weave strands of connection that bind us to other people, other places than those with which we are most familiar. In a new place, we set to learning the names of the trees and which birds call to us in the morning. The sense of responsibility that is community follows us like a tail on a kite. It is hard to treat another area poorly when it feels like home.

There was a time when I thought that if I had to leave this place where I live, I would die, pure and simple. Without the long stretch of sand and the crashing Pacific at my side, how could I judge my relative smallness in the world? Without the slightly salty air, how would I be able to clear my head? If I couldn't see the huge Douglas fir and watch the heron, how could I have faith a natural world existed?

The more we travel, though, the more we redefine the term "homesick." If we're in the West, we can conjure up the East just by talking about our favorite ice-cream store or the sweet-singing cardinals or the fireflies. If we're in the East, an image of the mountains of the Northwest can make us want to hop the next train. The sweet yearnings for friends and places remind us of the depth and breadth of community.

Our family will be living in a small town in Central America next year. My son Dylan says he's excited about going to a "foreign" place.

"You'll be the foreigner," I tell him.

We talk about how at first, it will be as though we're a guest in someone's home. Then it will gradually turn into a familiar place with memories we'll take with us long past the time we leave.

While my roots are firmly embedded in the soil of this valley I call home, the things that once held me here - the smell of the sea, the feel of rough bark, and the fog - come with me as surely as what I carry in my hands. And the strength of home, memories, and thoughts of relatives and friends will remind us that the best place for a root to sink is not in the soil, but in the heart.

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