By Steven Schwartzberg | December 2010, Green River, Vermont. I’m with my friend Craig in his comfortable old farmhouse, nestled in a picture-postcard setting. The kitchen windows look out on the gentle river and a covered wooden bridge. The place screams “Vermont!” like a cheesy advertisement from the Chamber of Commerce. He and I are having a fine visit. I am home.
February 2009, Rishikesh, India. It’s my third stay in four years at the cheap, funky, zero-star Hotel Ishan. I’m in my favorite room, overlooking the bustling Laxman Jhula footbridge that spans the Ganges. The sacred river sparkles below as the noisy jangle of townspeople and pilgrims rises up to my small porch. I love it here. It’s not my country, or my culture, and I’m home.
July 2008: Subletting an outbuilding on Jean-Claude’s property for the summer... November 2006: Camping in the Anza-Boreggo desert with Kai and Chris... April 2004: Staying with Charley for a bit here in Phnom Penh…
Home. It’s a stranger concept for me than for most others. Something I carry with me, by dint of the blessed and peculiar life I have chosen to lead. Home with no fixed address or reliable location. Home in no traditional sense of the word. Friends in a Boston suburb receive my mail. My remaining possessions are in storage or sprinkled around living rooms in three states. I have no landline because I have no land. I no longer collect art; I’m way short on wall space. I’m a nomad, equal measure saddhu and sloth, skilled houseguest, spiritual seeker, international couch potato.
I’ve lived like this since July 2003. The decision was not borne of financial hardship, psychiatric necessity, or bum luck. It wasn’t even a “decision” in any common sense of the word. It was the logical extension of a compelling daydream hatched the year before: to take a break from work, open up my life, and explore the world beyond the confines of the routines and expectations to which I’d become accustomed.
By my mid-40s my life had assumed a certain shape. I was unpartnered and had no children. My parents, then in their 70s, were not yet, and still aren’t, “elderly.” I had a reasonably satisfying career as a psychologist. A fortuitous financial decision a few years earlier had resulted in some extra savings.
I had no idea how a break would work financially, emotionally, or in any regard. Even more puzzling—and invigorating—was the fact that I couldn’t really say what I wanted to do or hoped to gain by upending my life. But my excitement outpaced my fear, and in the nine months it took to plan and prepare, I rediscovered a forgotten youthful optimism. I rented out my home to help finance this vision. I assumed this openness would last a year, maybe two. I never imagined I would still be on the road nine years later.
Over the years, this experiment in houselessness has morphed from financial expediency and novelty into challenge, delight, routine, periodic annoyance, and readily available spiritual practice. The rare calamity has been more than compensated by stretches of joyous freedom. It’s like I’ve stumbled onto an unanticipated secret: My life has become an ongoing meditation on what it means to carry home inside oneself, regardless of location or circumstance.
The practicalities turn out not to be that difficult. Tracking bills and maintaining contacts is easy with a cell phone and the Internet. I have a legal residence with the friends who receive my mail. Surprisingly little of bureaucratic necessity falls through the cracks. I vote, serve jury duty, carry health insurance, and pay taxes. I keep my psychology license up-to-date, in case I ever choose to think, act, and perform like a psychologist again.
I no longer fret, as I did when first setting out, about where I will stay. Except when camping I have never spent a night without a roof over my head. Friends have been remarkably generous hosts for days, weeks, or even months at a time. I occasionally house-sit, or rent a place for a short stretch. At times my itinerary is mapped out in a rough trajectory that guides me for a year or so; other times, I have no plans beyond next Thursday, and all I know is I need a place to crash until one emerges.
My life tends to coalesce into chapters of several months’ duration. I travel out of the country between two and five months a year, often to Asia, where it is inexpensive to roam and easy to escape the winter. I’ve sat several long meditation retreats, from weeks to months at a time. But there is no set pattern or progression. Last year, several wintry months house-sitting in the woodlands of New Jersey segued into 10 weeks trekking in northern India, followed by a month of rapidly paced visits to friends around New England.
I have come to measure my inner stability in ever broader swaths: I look for balance over the long term, not day by day. If I spend too much time in solitude I get lonely, and seek the company of familiar beloveds; too much immersion in a relationship leaves me jonesing for solitude; too much novelty and I miss the comfort of the known; too much routine sparks a new round of adventure.
It’s all come to feel surprisingly ordinary. I have friends with far more radical politics who live in suburban split-levels. You wouldn’t assume my lifestyle to look at me. Houselessness is actually manageable and sensible enough that I sometimes wonder why more people don’t choose it.
Yet of course this is only part of the picture. Living home-free for so long has meant, by design and default, shedding many trappings of conventional contemporary life. I have dismantled many of the familiar structures that, for better and worse, moor our days. Outside I look the same; inside, I have been wilded.
For all my travel, I’m not a particularly adept or enthusiastic tourist. I have no “bucket list.” There are few places in the world I feel compelled to visit, and few that I wouldn’t go.
It’s not that I haven’t relished seeing some amazing places. But the deeper lessons have come from realizing that no matter how sublime or exotic any given moment or experience, it fades. Whether you spend your entire life in a small village, or ceaselessly globetrotting, this truth cannot be outrun. And with no home, why distinguish between “real life” and “tourism” anyway?
From one vantage point, all my days are equivalently exotic. I visit the cremation ghats in Varanasi. I drive a friend’s teenaged son to the mall in Seattle to pick up his high-school-prom tux rental. I fast for a fortnight-long shamanic retreat in the Amazon. I watch the 13-year-old daughter of friends in Spain rehearse her flamenco lesson, the moment redolent with the first hints of her body’s awakening. It is all beautiful, all worth the price of admission, all memorable—and all fleeting. Such is life. What, ultimately, can we claim as ours? We are visitors. We appreciate or not, horde keepsakes or not, cherish our fellow wayfarers or not, and at some point inevitably leave, or are left. Tourism may be the only thing available to any of us.
Yet—and here is the delight—shift the lens ever so slightly at the very same events and places: They’re also all church. As tourism and real life congeal, so do the ordinary and the holy. Most every moment of our lives will be forgotten; most every moment can be elevated to sacrament. Everything is pedestrian, and nothing is.
I don’t recommend this path. It probably wouldn’t work for most people; I’m frankly befuddled that it works so well for me. When I meet others, as I occasionally do, who are also home-free by choice—individuals, couples, families—we excitedly compare notes as to the specific rhythms and flavors of our journey, and secretly smile at one another as kin. But clearly it is not for everyone, either by dint of temperament or financial strictures or ethical obligations.
But what I do recommend, wholeheartedly and unabashedly, is the invitation to realize that the possibilities of how to live are far greater than we usually allow ourselves to imagine, no matter our current circumstances. As far as I can tell, nobody—no therapist, priest, or professor, no spouse or parent, no bank or government, no advertiser, artist, or sage—knows the best way for you to live your own particular life. With a little luck, each of us may stumble onto that ourselves.
March 2012, Barre, Massachusetts. Another three-month meditation retreat is ending. Some days I never left my small, unadorned room. Why bother? There’s no place to go. And every place. I am home.
Steven Schwartzberg C’80, a frequent essayist for the Gazette, does have one consistent address: he can be reached at Steve_Schwartzberg@yahoo.com.