Nomad Heart


Out on the water

The hour was late, and our drinks were dwindling down to single remaining sips. Some of my friends had already gone home, each punctuating their exit with an embrace, a wish of good luck, a lingering handshake. Thanh and I stood near the piano and continued berating the pianist to play “Leaving on a Jetplane,” because that’s what we were doing the next day, and we were several beers deep, and just play the damn song.

The familiar strains eventually hit us, and my friends joined in to sing the words as they said their last goodbyes. It was dark outside, but warm and safe within, as I was surrounded by friends, by relatives, by colleagues. Each expressed their love, their concern, their hope. It seemed absurd, in that moment, that I could want to abandon that feeling. That I had already packed my bags, and was preparing to leave all of this.

All of this was the only this that I had known.

Two years later, I begin packing up my apartment in South Korea. I take down are pictures, Korean movie posters, calligraphy scrolls. I have little scraps of paper from months-long projects. I have books that others gave to me to read. I have texts filled with my own Korean hand-writing, at first shaky and tentative, growing stronger and more confident as months passed. I have home-made Halloween costumes, and board games, and handwritten cards left by friends visiting from distant shores. I have a couch where I have slept friends and relatives. I have my grandfather’s stop-watch, a reliquary I rescued from his house during my brief return to Canada for his funeral. In this apartment I have a life I have constructed over two years, one which I am packing up and abandoning for the unknown.

It seems silly to do this, especially so soon after the last time I did this exact thing. To trade in  a perfectly legitimate happiness for the unknown seems foolish, or childishly selfish, when so many other people would be desperate for such a smarmy, well-fed contentedness. It feels patently bourgeoisie, it feels bloated and Westernized, it feels direly First World Problems. I’m happy, but couldn’t I be happier? I look to the open road, to the mysterious destination, as solace, as potential, as something even greater to be consumed, and willingly say goodbye to those things which I already know to be good, and safe, and warm. I leave this behind because I think there could be more out there. Somewhere.

And yet I pack my bags. I seal my life into cardboard boxes and put them on a boat. I write laboured, emotional goodbye letters and slip them under doors, into mailboxes. I give weary, red-eyed hugs to dozens of people I cherish. I make lists of the best things I have experienced and hope I can hold onto them in my memory  forever, little fragments and scraps of wood I nail together and hold against age and distance. And then I strap a pack to my back and walk out the door. I do willingly say goodbye, and it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint why.

Of course, the prospect of the goodbye shakes me deep. There are people in Korea, just as there are in Canada, that have come to mean a great deal. People I know will flit in and out of my life for as long as I have it, people who I will cross oceans to see again. There are also those for whom I know this goodbye will be the last one; our protestations to the contrary aside, we will never make it out to see one another. People for whom our connection has a definite, final book-end, a boundary line we will never recross. People who I will begin to think of in past-tense verbs, who I will remember fondly but never bother to contact. People that will fade away, people that I will fade away from. That I am choosing to fade away from.

And the thought of making this goodbye is more than a lump in my throat, it’s a wound that’s somewhere deep and thudding. What drives me to this? Why am I trading in these fragile, birdbone relationships to be broken when I could just as easily stay and nourish them, shore them against time, grow them stronger: why can’t I postpone leaving, why can’t I forego an aching now for an aching future, if it means I might distill these bonds?

It’s because I know I can’t.

It’s a knowledge that I can’t stay here, even as much as I may love the country, the people, the life. It’s a feeling of quicksand about my ankles, the opaque but crystalized knowing that I could blink away my life here. It feels, even now, that my time here has been short, that I could easily let months and years and decades slip away if I just held on. And there’s an ease to just holding on, but it’s the ease that worries me. I’m not challenged. I’m not tested. I am sleeping.

I can feel it: there’s a need to be on the road. Even when that road may be dark, and I don’t technically know which direction I will follow, I know I need to walk it. I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t know where I’ll end up, but I’m certain that I can’t stay here. It’s not that I’m not happy, but it’s a comfortable happy. Recumbent. Satisfactory. Gentle. And as calm and pleasant as somnambulism might be, sometimes you need to wake up, and walk with your eyes open. Here was good for now, was good for a few years, could very easily be good forever. But there are plenty of other good forevers out there, and I think I’d like to try and find them. If I could find one so easily, it seems silly not to try looking for more.

The why of the leaving may be in the dawning realization that maybe no here will ever really be enough. That there’s too much world, too many places on the globe I haven’t been. Too many things I haven’t tasted. Too many mountains I haven’t climbed. Too many rivers, too many roads, too many temples and churches and mosques. Too many jungles and forests and cities. Too many people. Even as I regret leaving those people, those places, that have come to mean so much, I can’t fathom staying with them forever when there is a whole world full of other places to go and people to meet. I will see them again. I will rewalk the same roads, I will wake up in the same beds, I will eat with the same knives and forks. But I these things need to wait, at least for now. There’s too much new to find.

I start looking into backpacks. I browse hostels and guest houses and hotels. I get my compass and my map. I can’t possibly stay still. I’m just a person that people are going to have to miss, some of the time. I’ve got a nomad heart, and I just need to go.

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24 thoughts on “Nomad Heart

  1. Like sand through the hour glass…

    This was a beautiful (temporary) send-off. Here’s to getting stupider, foreignerer, and uglier. Bon Voyage Michael! See you in 2013!

  2. Damn you for making your sister cry so early in the morning. I hope that part of the ease of saying goodbye is always knowing you have a home to come home to and people who love you. Miss you brother man.

  3. It’s been a great read for two years and a pleasure to be part of your growing into a wonderful person. I’ll miss you, have a wonderful adventure, see you in 2013.

  4. Michael, a great closing to this chapter of your life! And as the new chapter begins some of the characters will move forward with you and some, as you say, will be referred to in the past-tense but that is the way life is as it moves on.

    I am sorry that I have been absent over the past few months but promise to get caught up on your blog this September so when you can access it you will likely find notes from me on your past comments – never too late I say. Anyway, safe journey as you set out on your cousin Barry’s 36th birthday today! Glenn

  5. First time commenter here. I’m some random chick in Toronto who found your blog a year ago — came for the Korea-related stuff (having also been a stupid ugly foreigner there about a decade ago), but quickly became a fan of your multi-faceted pov scribing and have been regularly reading ever since. You are a treasure, and I look forward to seeing your reappearance on das internets. Thank you for taking the time to post what you write. Now go get lost. 🙂

  6. It’s been amazing watching your life from afar for all these years. You always were far wiser than me, but I never realized you were also bolder until you went to Korea and threw yourself into every experience wholeheartedly. I look forward to your further adventures. Do FB once in a while, please, so we know you’re safe. Happy trails! ^_^

    • Hah, wiser maybe not, but I’ll take bold. Maybe headstrong and sometimes cautionless is a better descriptor.

      I’m happy to have always had you as a reader, and to have remained connected to you through all these years.

  7. First time commenter but I’ve been following you since the beginning of the summer. Have thoroughly enjoyed reading the archives about your adventures in places I cannot wait to visit.Thanks for all the laughs and best wishes on your future adventures!

  8. I have been reading your blog on and off for the past year and a half. You write well and you have a true dedication to it. You are a real writer and not just a blogger. I think you are a really talented person. Good luck with your future travels.

    From a fan in New Zealand 🙂

  9. I would like to say thank you to you for wording my exact feelings because frankly, I suck at explaining my heart. Take out Korea and input China and it’s perfect. It’s nice to know that somewhere in the cyber world, there are people who understand, and people who love Asia. 🙂

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