I’m a nomad by circumstance, if not by nature. Throughout my life, for whatever reason, circumstances have conspired so I haven’t spent longer than two years in any one setting, academic or professional, since seventh grade. It has never been my intention, but whether because of a career change, graduate school, or pursuit of the bigger and better, I have been in a perpetual state of change that has come with a consistent timeline. And now, my brain and heart, well-tuned to the seasons and the routines of my life, are noticing it’s almost time to pick up stakes again.
Only, I’m not sure it is. See, I am both nomad and settler. I long to feel I belong, and live in terror of sameness. I search out the unique, the unusual, and the fresh, and yet some place inside hungers for a true sense of home. These parts of me seem to be at war with each other. I haven’t found the right balance, the right place and time and circumstance where I feel safe and at rest, and yet not bored. It’s a boundary cloaked in confusion, even for me.
What I’ve noticed, in my years of nomading, is that the shadows become easier to see with time. I’m a social worker by trade, and most of my professional career has been spent in small towns. Here’s the thing about social work, which is also a Thing about writing: it deals with the deepest and darkest. The work I have chosen for myself, both with the person and on the page, is about diving into the secret places, the hidden things, the private and personal and often ugly. And what I’ve realized is that the longer I stay in a place, or with a project, the easier it becomes to see that darkness, and to have that darkness slowly cover everything else.
You’re probably a writer, if you’re here. Maybe you’re a social worker. STRANGER THINGS HAVE HAPPENED. But I’m wondering if it’s possible that you, too, have begun to see the shadows more clearly than the light. That’s thing about any profession that confronts truth. Truth is often cloaked in shadows, and reluctant to give up it’s cover. Spend enough time in the shadows, and you begin to forget what it is you’re pursuing there. The shadows become heavy. They crowd out other images – other experiences, the balance of the good, the joy you usually use as armor – and they wrap themselves around you with conviction.
The longer I spend in a town who’s secrets have become familiar to me, the more I see the cracked foundations, the sidewalk that lists to the left, the burned out streetlight near the park. I see the sagging front porches, the darkened windows, the plastic bags tossing in the breeze across yards of browned grass and abandoned toys.
The longer I spend in a writing project, the more I see it’s flaws. I see the listless plot points, the characters who either lack fullness or perhaps are full and yet are despicable somehow, because aren’t we all in some way? I get mired in a draft, loss in the restlessness of the middle or an unresolved end; I find myself stagnating in revisions, when I’ve torn a book apart and start to wonder if there’s any life left in it. It’s nothing but ugly truths and shifting shadows.
Here’s a truth I’ve learned in all my nomading, through books and lives and towns, through relationships and places and versions of myself, too: The ability to see beyond the shadows is a skill to be developed and maintained. How difficult it is to obtain in the first place depends on a myriad of factors, not least of which is your unique brain chemistry, your genetics, your temperament, your personal history, and your general inclination to see either darkness or light. How difficult it is to maintain depends on all those things, and one more – your awareness of the shadows themselves.
You can’t fight something you’re not aware of. You can’t push shadows back if you believe they’re fact. Immoveable. You can’t chase the shadows away if you believe the world to be comprised of nothing else.
The shadows are real. Small towns harbor plenty of sorrows, stories are broken, the world can be a dark and sad place. But shadows are neither reality nor truth. Somewhere beneath them, under a slithering mass of slippery darkness, hidden in the depths of the smooth midnight mists and all the broken things, is a truth far bigger than the shadows hiding it. Even a cracked and barren earth can bring forth flowers in the unlikeliest of places. Even a town with rough edges holds a hundred beautiful souls. Even a slashed up, shredded apart story will become something lovely and true.
Don’t forget about the shadows, my friends. If you, like me, have been feeling a little lost, a little broken, a little lonely, a little confused, lift up your hands and press the night away. Enlist help. Take your time. Truth will be there on the other side, no matter how long it takes you to find it.