Corrugated, recycled cardboard, moving crates. The familiar, loud ripping sound of packing tape. Old sheets, towels and magazines to wrap breakables. I have moved more than 25 times since age 17, including time spent in Europe and Asia. It was easy at first. My personal belongings started small. I left my childhood home to attend university 1300 miles away. I brought a large backpack, a soft, worn comforter, a couple of crates and my teddy bear named Jake.
Frances McDormand’s breathtaking, Academy Award-winning performance in Nomadland resonates with me today as I pack, yet again, this time as my husband, 10- year-old daughter, two dogs and I prepare to leave our home in Greater New Orleans for a new family adventure in exurban Texas.
For much of my childhood, my family stayed in one place but it was unknown if we would be, as McDormand’s character Fern describes her condition, “houseless.” We had many struggles. Both my parents suffered from severe physical ailments that contributed to their own mental anguish; we never knew if we would have enough money to heat our home or clothe our growing bodies. As I suspect McDormand/Fern felt as she was thrown into her scary new “houseless” adventure, an underlying fear and vulnerability permeated our daily lives and I built protective barriers for many years. I strove never to rely on others. I did not let people in.
By the time I finished high school, I had an overwhelming need to move. Staying in one place made me feel fragile, as if my carefully constructed shell would fracture if I formed deeper bonds with people. I could welcome new friends but always at arm’s length. Something about this pattern made me feel stagnant, but physically moving to new places energized me. The new and the unknown, the adrenaline triggered by the challenges of changing geography and finding my way around new places felt like progress or growth. Moving frequently filled some gap in my life and convinced me I was “on my path.” Each move created possibility and provided a milestone, a remembrance of the excitement of the particular era of my history. While clearly “running” to whatever was next and unconsciously seeking a distraction from certain self-reflection, invariably I still learned new things about myself in the process. Various moves took me to Boston, Bangkok, New York City, Paris, London, Austin and cities in between.
As I pack for our current move, I carefully wrap a coconut from the Krewe of Zulu, a memory of attending Mardi Gras freshman year in college. Next to it, a keepsake from a study-abroad program in India – a small, rock carving of Ganesh – the Hindu god of beginnings – believed to pave the way to move forward in life.
Jennifer S. Bankston
Papers scatter from a folder. A photo of two friends toasting my first New York City apartment in the East Village, falls to the ground. By the time I left that residence, my collection of worldly possessions had grown to include a favorite cereal bowl, one skillet and a small stereo system; it took only a friend’s small jeep to pack me up and drive me and my things to a suburb of Boston for graduate school.
Different memories surface when an old sheet from a trundle bed is used to wrap a salt and pepper shaker from the Chatuchak Weekend Market, about a ten-minute drive from my apartment in Bangkok – my stomping grounds 20-something years ago. I worked for the U.S. Department of Commerce at the time.
Tape, scissors and loud crackling come with wrapping a poster purchased in Les Puces, one of the largest flea markets in Paris. It hung in my tiny apartment in the 10th arrondissement, near Canal St. Martin on the only wall with enough space to hold a poster. It still has a faint smell of pralines, bonbons and other confections I bought at a delightful patisserie and enjoyed in the comfort of that apartment.
An ordinary white towel remnant sticks out of a remembrance box. I brought it home to an apartment I had in the Hamptons after singer Chris Cornell tossed it out to the crowd at a concert in Reading, Pennsylvania. My days of crowd surfing and mosh pits ended at that Soundgarden concert in the early 1990s. I carefully close the box, smile and put it in my keep pile.
Beneath mothballs, I discover a box of heavy winter coats in the attic and set it aside for donation. On cue, memories flood of a burgundy coat being pelted by snowballs from neighborhood kids outside of my northeastern home.
I sort through the remaining rooms in our house, organizing kitchen items – drinking glasses, a set of plates and extra towels to give away.
I recall my mindset 25 years ago, when I envisioned living in as many places around the world as possible, never planting roots. It’s been a long time since moving merely required a backpack and some small belongings. Furniture is covered. Mirrors are protected. Mattresses are hauled. And it’s hard to part with a collection of keepsakes.
And, then came the pandemic. A need to shelter in place. A time to turn inward. For me and my family, a nudge to go deeper and take more time to explore ourselves and our own dynamics. The three of us were given some downtime to celebrate our pasts and get to know one another better. We shared memories and went for long walks along the lakefront. We actually put down our electronics. And talked. And laughed. We harnessed our creative energies and found collective projects. And through that self and collective discovery, we became a tighter unit.
But the yearning was still there. We bought an RV and some property on an old cow pasture outside Austin. And, now we’re off to a new adventure – as homesteaders. My heartbeat quickens as I envision rattlesnakes and coyotes.
The other night, as I watched the sun set through my living room window, over the lake where we have lived for almost four years, I realized it was the longest set of similar sunsets I had watched in the same location since childhood.
I still get the familiar pangs of wanting to pack up and go.
Though my circumstances are different from Fern’s in Nomadland (I chose my rootlessness and my travels), the film is a beautiful meditation on how we need both connection to place as well as new experiences. The film challenged me to consider my own choices and twin desires for the familiar and the novel – but so did Covid. By forcing me to stay in one place for so long, the pandemic unexpectedly led me to a deeper acceptance of these dual urges.
As I reflect on my journey, the pandemic and the film, I keep landing on the word fulfillment. Like some of the characters in the movie, I sense we share a desire to see and experience as much as possible in this lifetime. It’s about pursuing possibilities and never looking back saying “what if” or “I wonder what that would have been like?”
So, once again I’m moving on. No matter how many boxes are loaded on the moving truck, I could just as easily put on my backpack and hold my teddy bear, Jake. He’s now missing an eye and some of his stuffing after one of our dogs got a hold of him. But I will always place him gently on top of one of the moving crates.
Jennifer S. Bankston, heads Bankston Marketing Solutions – a strategic marketing and communications company.