List of Previous Addresses
In Portland, Oregon, I fill out apartment rental applications, hoping to find a place to live in an unfamiliar city. I list my last two addresses–one in Phoenix, Arizona, the other in Ames, Iowa–and the names of my previous landlords. My pen is running out of ink, and I scribble on the side of the paper to coax the remaining black liquid out. My boyfriend and I sit in a Starbucks, writing as quickly as we can, hoping to get our application in before someone else does. Unlike those in Arizona or the Midwest, apartments here go fast, gone before they’re even advertised, and they cost twice as much money.
I pull my driver’s license out of my wallet to find the requested ID number. It’s still an Arizona license, but will soon be replaced by an Oregon one. It’ll join a collection of expired licenses, a hole-punched stack of cards from states where I’ve lived. I still have my first license, issued by the state of Wisconsin where I grew up. In the picture I’m 16. My hair is cut short, and the flash of the camera makes me look like I have a mullet.
We turn in our applications and wander the neighborhood, a busy place with square blocks, old houses, and brick apartments buildings. It reminds me of the neighborhood where I went to high school in Milwaukee, but busier.
“I’ve lived a lot of places,” I say. I stop and count in my head the number of addresses I’ve had since leaving for college at 18. “I’ve had 11 addresses in the last 10 years. And have lived with 12 different roommates. Is that crazy?”
I look at my boyfriend, concerned I might actually be crazy.
“Maybe?” he says. “Probably not. Maybe this is just how people live now.”
Lately, I’ve started to feel like I’ve lived everywhere and belong nowhere. Maybe this is emblematic of my generation. My parents have lived in the same city their whole lives, but my friends have moved all over the country. While in college, I briefly lived in Madrid, Spain. After college, I spent a summer in New York City. Then I moved to Iowa for graduate school. Spent a summer in Mexico. Worked in Arizona. Ended up in the Northwest. Sometimes it feels aimless. It feels like it requires justification. It feels like I’ve ended up knowing a lot of places a little and a lot of people a little, and I’ve begun to understand why people might grow roots in a place. I wonder if 20 years from now I’ll look back and think how great it was I got to live so many places in my twenties, or if I’ll regret not making a life somewhere.
The leaves on the trees are just beginning to change, though, and the sun is still shining. We walk up a hill of old Victorian houses with flowerbeds, rose bushes, and large porches.
“So when does it start raining?” I ask.
“You’ve lived a lot of places,” the interviewer says, flipping my resume from the first page to the second.
“Yes,” I say. “I’ve moved for school multiple times. And for work.”
“You’ve done a lot of different things.” The interviewer taps a pen on the table and straightens his tie. “Why do you want this position? It looks like you’ve never done much technical writing before.”
“I’m looking to expand my writing skills,” I say, which is what I often say. “I’m looking for a new challenge.”
When I first started graduate school, my program director pointed out our degrees would technically only qualify us to do a couple things: teach composition and work as baristas. He laughed, but the laugh felt ominous. I found a writing job in Arizona pretty quickly after graduating, but ever since the company I worked for shut down my office, the job search has been tough. In Portland, I’m afraid there are thousands of people like me. I’m afraid we’ve created something unsustainable: a mass of over-educated twenty-somethings and few jobs to fit our skills. I wonder if a place like this might be the recipient of the Midwest’s brain drain, to everyone’s detriment.
I tell the interviewer about my past work experiences, about how the skills I acquired as a teacher would help me in almost any job involving other people. I’m not sure he believes me. I want to stand on the table and scream that I am a capable person, I am more than the list of work history and volunteer activities and awards on my resume. I am more than a piece of paper. At the end of the day, though, I’m afraid I’m just another name on his list, and my experiences align less perfectly with the job description than someone else’s.
I had a writing professor once who wrote an email to everyone in my class upon graduation. He told us to not get bogged down by the struggles of career. He told us to live our lives, worry less, write more. I look up at the interviewer and take a deep breath.
I smile, I nod, I say thank-you, I follow up by email. I never hear back.
All of our email inboxes are connected by listservs whose far-reaching tentacles tangle us in a digital web. I receive emails through the listserv of a publishing program I attended in the summer of 2008, usually from someone who still lives in New York City and knows of a job opening at their company or who’s looking to rent a spare room. A typical posting:
HUGE, BRIGHT, SPACIOUS room available in my apartment on the Upper East Side. Laundromat nearby. Second-story walk-up. I’m looking for a clean, fun roommate who doesn’t mind a few parties now and then. Rent is $1100/mo.
And inevitably someone will reply to the entire listserv, to all the hundreds of program alumni spread out all over the country. Then one of my old roommates from the program emails me an electronic eye roll at people’s inability to not reply-all. I send an electronic nod in response, and then months or years go by before we get back in touch. If one of us asked the person who manages the listserv to remove us from the list, we might never talk again. But I don’t ask to be cut from the list. Although I live on the other side of the country, those trivial emails remind me I was once a part of something. They let me picture the place I briefly lived and might have stayed.
Reasons to Write
One of my all-time favorite pieces of writing is a letter by the author Terry Tempest Williams titled “Why I Write.” It’s addressed to a friend who asked her why she writes. Williams says she woke up in the middle of the night thinking about the question, and turned to the keyboard to answer it. I imagine her sitting in a dark room, the house silent except for the sound of her typing, unable to sleep until she puts the question to rest.
As a composition instructor in graduate school, I bring the list to my students the first week of class. I ask them to pick out their favorite lines and add their own.
I write because I believe in words. I write because I do not believe in words.
I write to imagine things differently and in imagining things differently perhaps the world will change.
I write as ritual. I write because I am not employable.
I write for the love of ideas. I write for the surprise of a sentence. I write with the belief of alchemy.
I write knowing I can be killed by my own words, stabbed by syntax, crucified by both understanding and misunderstanding.
I write because it is dangerous, a bloody risk, like love, to form the words, to say words, to touch the source, to be touched, to reveal how vulnerable we are, how transient.
From the students:
I write to express myself.
I write to make sense of my life.
I write when I don’t have someone to talk to.
I write to remember.
I write homework assignments, essays, and emails.
I write because my professors make me.
I met Williams during my first semester as a graduate student. She attended a symposium of environmental writers at my campus. I listened to her read from her recently published book about time she spent in Italy, the American Southwest, and Rwanda. The book, called Finding Beauty in a Broken World, pieces together stories of people and animals living in difficult situations, and in telling the stories, Williams finds the reasons the stories matter and the details that make them beautiful. Her work—and her list of reasons for writing—is about creation. About putting together the pieces, building, and figuring out why.
As the students from my 8am section file out of the classroom, I pack up my books and laptop, smiling. “Why I Write” is a lesson I love teaching. It might tell my students more about me than the other way around, but perhaps that’s okay. They can get a glimpse into why I care about what we do in class. I put on my coat, scarf, and mittens and brace myself for the biting winds of January on the central campus. Outside, the grounds crew tries to break up the ice on the sidewalk with a jackhammer, and the sunlight reflects off mounds of recently shoveled snow.
Every year, I wait for the Best Books of the Year lists that come out for the holiday shopping season. I go through these lists—from The New York Times, NPR, The Atlantic—and add the books that sound interesting to my “To Read” Microsoft Word document. Somehow, I always manage to forget to consult this list before visiting a bookstore.
Today, I enter the local independent bookstore and wish I had brought part of my list with me. Everything in the store is 30 percent off, and the checkout line is hundreds of people long. The store, which takes up an entire city block and is a maze of color-coded rooms, buzzes with chatter. I’m sure if asked, customers in the store today would roll their eyes at the suggestion that print is dead. I spend an hour wandering the shelves, trying to remember which books I want to read. I eventually gather a small pile, a couple novels and a book of travel writing, and tell myself it’s okay to spend the money. Independent bookstores need patrons. Plus, the books are on sale. I’ll add the books to my “To Read” pile, which now takes up almost a whole shelf in my bookcase.
When I read, I underline. Or sometimes I mark sentences with sticky tabs, creating a fan of colorful bits of paper. I mark the things that seem noteworthy. The pretty sentences. The ideas that hit me in a way that makes me want to keep them. In a book of short stories I read not too long ago, one character tells another she doesn’t want to die because she wants to know the end of the story. She wants to know what happens next. She articulates exactly how I feel about life; I want to see the end of all the stories. I want to know how the world ends. I want to know why. So I mark the passage and later add it to a document titled “Things That Must Be Saved Somewhere,” another Word document I’ve maintained for nearly a decade. Some of the things are quotes from books or famous people. Some are things friends say. Some are photos or postcards or poems. The most recent addition is a photo overlaid with a quote attributed to the Buddha: “The trouble is, you think you have time.”
There’s an episode of the TV show Parks and Recreation, the NBC sitcom about a city Parks Department in Indiana, where one of the characters reveals he has a bucket list. He’s a goofy character, and he and his wife, who are in their twenties, generally shirk responsibilities and do what they feel like. His wife is shocked to learn he has a bucket list she didn’t know about, so she decides they need to spend the day doing as many things on his list as they can. So they make the best grilled cheese sandwich ever, they reenact scenes from action movies, and they go to the bank so they can hold a thousand dollars cash in their hands. Then they borrow a car and drive to the Grand Canyon. I love it because they don’t leave the list for the future. They seize the bucket list. They start doing it NOW.
I come from a family of travelers. Both sets of grandparents went to Asia, South America, Europe, the Middle East. Then my parents took my brother and me to national parks all over the country. They took us to Mexico, to Canada, to beaches and fleas markets and restaurants with new, foreign foods. Perhaps as a result, my bucket list involves a lot of travel.
I want to go back to Europe, see Spain again, France for the first time. Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Greece. I want to go to Costa Rica, Peru, Brazil. I want to go and to see and to plan routes using guidebooks and public transportation maps. I want to immerse myself in other places, to ensure I’m not the kind of person Mark Twain referred to in The Innocents Abroad when he wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
I also want to write books. Learn to play an instrument competently. Re-master Spanish. Learn graphic design and basic computer code. I want to be a teacher again. I want to work for the environment. I want to be a science writer. I want to run a full marathon. I want to overcome my fear of biking in cities. I want to put all my scattered friends in a room together and have a party. I want to find the ends to as many stories as possible. But maybe I need to think smaller, too, “best grilled cheese sandwich” size. I want to check things off the list not to get them done, but because by living, by doing things, life becomes fuller. Experiences are worth more than money in the bank, right? Though the experience of holding a thousand dollars cash in my hands might be entertaining, and it might make for a good story.
When I’m 21, I study abroad in Spain, and I don’t know what to pack. I drag out two suitcases and fill them with all sorts of clothes for all sorts of weather, my laptop, and a camera. I pack protein bars—in case vegetarian food is hard to come by—a Spanish-English dictionary, and the fifth Harry Potter book because I’m in the middle of re-reading it at the time and don’t want to leave it behind. I pack too many things, plenty of things I end up not needing, but when faced with six months in a foreign country, I don’t know what to expect. When I arrive in Madrid with a couple dozen other American students, I cart my suitcases through the airport and the subway, then up endless escalators to a line of cabs and through the city’s downtown to a hostel. When I eventually move in with the Spanish family I will spend the semester with, I discover my room is the size of a closet, only big enough to fit a twin bed with enough room to stand next to one side of it.
“American girls,” my señora says in Spanish. “You all bring so many things, not at all like the Japanese. The Japanese girls come with three shirts and three pairs of pants. They just mix and match.”
When I’m 24, I spend the summer teaching English at a university in central Mexico. I’ve learned about over-packing, so I take less. I pack fewer clothes, leave behind the heavy books (instead I purchase books in Spanish from a tiny bookstore crammed in between a convenience store and a candy shop when I arrive). I bring a camera, but take fewer photos, too. I leave extra room in my suitcase for the things I know I will bring back.
Travel, it seems, involves multiple types of accumulation. We accumulate souvenirs, experiences, lists of places visited. But travel, and life, are really the sum of all these things. Lists are just records, reminders, the tangible evidence. They’re the data. But there’s also more behind the data, the stories between the lines.
In the novel The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, a story about an first-generation immigrant family from India that moves to the United States, one character tells another: “Pack a pillow and a blanket and see as much of the world as you can. You will not regret it.”
I hope he’s right.
Items Donated to Goodwill
Outside the Goodwill donation center in suburban Phoenix, the teenage attendant asks, “Is there anything else?”
The late summer heat shimmers on the pavement and a black grackle squawks from the top of a nearby cactus. I shut my Honda’s trunk.
“Nope, that’s everything.”
The teen nods and hands me a receipt where he’s scribbled a short list of the items I donated in case I want to deduct them on my taxes.
One box clothes, shoes. One box household misc. Floor lamp. Blender. Books.
The list is vague and incomplete. It ignores the Ziplock bag of bracelets and necklaces I haven’t worn in years, the extra pots and pans, and the planters from the back porch I won’t be able to take with me when I move. But it doesn’t matter.
“Thanks,” I say and smile. I wonder what this guy must think about all the things people give away. Behind him, a large room filled with stacks of overflowing boxes, sets of golf clubs, children’s toys, and ironing boards awaits sorting.
I fold the list in half and toss it on the passenger seat of my car. When I get home I’ll throw it away. I don’t plan to itemize anything on my taxes this year, and not everything needs a physical record.
I exit the parking lot and drive in the direction of the brown-orange mountains west of town. Sun overwhelms the sky and shiny cars speed by in the opposite direction. Soon, it will be time to move on.
Photo By: palo