Breaking out of the Shire

I have a tendency to think of myself as a hobbit.  Even when I do the buzzfeed quizzes about what Lord of the Rings character I am, I always fall into the hobbit category.  Maybe it’s because I love gardening.  Maybe it’s my pacifistic nature.  Maybe it’s because I’m a bit chubby and having multiple breakfasts just sounds enjoyable.

I love Samwise Gamgee.  I have a tendency to name vehicles.  The first truck my husband owned when we were dating was named Smaug.  Although Pat hates the fact that I give everything a name (he thinks calling something by its noun form as opposed to an possibly unrelated proper noun is so much more proper…I disagree.  I know the difference between a rock and Castle Rock.  And so does he), he approved of the name Smaug. The truck was big, red, and ugly.  It belched out smoke and everyone could hear it coming.  Also, since the brakes weren’t always trustworthy, the truck couldn’t always be stopped.

See, very much like a dragon.

So, yeah, I consider myself a hobbit.  And I like my boundaries because growing up in a military family, I never really had a sense of where I was from.  I was born in England.  I grew up on DC and Germany.  I went to school in America but never really felt like an American.  So, given that I have been living in the same house since 2000 and been living in this city since 1998 (even though I still really won’t say that I’m from this city…because I didn’t grow up here.  I live here now….), I like that I have a sense of roots and stability.

And because I like the sense of stability and the fact that I’m starting to say (for example when I was in New York City) that I was from this city even though I don’t consider myself from this city but the phrase “I’m from….” is so much easier and more comprehensible than “I currently live in ….,” breaking out of my comfort zone and going someplace new was truly important to me.

If you compare me to my husband, I am a type A personality.  Line me up against my brother and parents and I am so B-, I could be a C personality (which doesn’t even exist, I think).  For the last couple of summers, I went to Florida to stay in my parents’ empty condo because I knew how to get there and I knew what to do while I was there.  The roads were familiar.  I had traveled down them so many times, it was easy to find my old footsteps in the burning concrete.

But as I was planning out this summer, my daughter asked that we not go to Florida.

“Why?”

“Because we keep on going to the same places and doing the same thing.”

Interestingly, I had already felt the chafing of routine against my skin.  We hadn’t really explored that much, but given my daughter is the epitome of a little white girl, sunlight and heat is not her friend.  No matter how many times I apply and re-apply sunscreen, she burns and southern Florida in summer, peak sunlight hours can pretty much be deadly for my girl.

So exploring in Florida during the short hours of the morning and the short hours of the afternoon before the thunderstorms arrive is not always feasible.

I had been thinking about going to New York City for several years. Originally, I wanted to go to a Broadway musical.  Then, I wanted to go to the 9/11 Museum.

And then, I just wanted to go.  I wanted to break out of the routine of the Florida vacation and I wanted to shake off the ennui that arrives with constantly doing the same thing from summer to summer.  I have been going through the same steps for years and I needed to do something new, something completely different.  It was time to put on new shoes and take a walk with Robert Frost.

This summer,  I have explored paths within Shenandoah National Park.  I have gotten a tattoo on my right shoulder.  I have run miles down roads that I didn’t know existed.

I, like Samwise Gamgee, found the edge of the cornfield and realized that I was about to step into uncharted territory.  And, unlike Samwise, I didn’t stay on the borders that were familiar and reflect.  I surged over them, sped my little car packed with my family across the lines of my girlhood and young adulthood and drove north as quickly as my car could take me (and wouldn’t grab the attention of the state troopers).

New York City was where I shed the old, dry skin that I have been carrying with me for years.  It was there that I truly explored, where, even when I consulted maps, I really had no idea where I was going.  I loved the fact that when we were in Chinatown, we went out for dinner.  I scanned the menu, found meals I had sampled in other “Chinese food restaurants” before.  And then I found something that had a collection of ingredients that I liked and ordered it.

Pork with bean sprouts and green onions with cantonese noodles.  Yum!  And I ate it with chopsticks.  Or, I floundered with the chopsticks but I refused to stop making a mess (which I cleaned up) and savored every last bite.

Because I was forcing myself out of my comfort zone.  I had stepped out of my own personal Shire and was exulting in the happiness and joy that comes with finding my own uncharted territory and loving the streets and the people within this new land.

Did I see things and experience things that I would have preferred not to see?

Duh.

Passing the man, squatting on the sidewalk in Chinatown, while he prepped a hit of heroin was tragic and almost bewildering.  Seeing the women walking topless through Times Square (their chests were covered in body paint) was disconcerting.  I grew up in Germany where nudity was normal and biological and beautiful.  This was sexuality for money, almost like a form of body-painted pornography or a bit of epidermal prostitution.  It had nothing to do with my children.  It had everything to do with the women seemingly selling themselves by going after middle school boys or people who needed to pose with glitz, glam, and body parts.

But those moments were thirty seconds of occasional ugliness.  They are part of my memories of New York. But they are not the texture of the city, of the sanctuary of Central Park, of the hallowed shadows at the 9/11 Memorial, or within the crystalline statuesqueness of the Chrysler Building.  The memories that have made the strongest impressions were the smiling, helpful police officers or the woman on a subway to Brooklyn who called me “sweetheart” and asked me to ensure that my backpack was closed or a man named Joe who fed my family and offered nothing more than hospitality and kindness.

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