A History of Restlessness
A few years ago, along with my oldest daughter, who shares with me a restless heart, I set out to retrace the medieval pilgrimage route of a Dominican friar with whom—happily married though I was—I’d become obsessed. In 1483, Friar Felix Fabri traveled from southern Germany to Venice. From there, he sailed on a galley from port to port—Rijeka, Dubrovnik, Methoni, Iraklio, Rhodes, Larnaca—arriving at Jaffa on the Judean coast. With his pilgrim band and under the protection of their Muslim guides, he traveled inland to Jerusalem by donkey, and made side trips to Bethlehem and Bethany, to monasteries scattered through the barren hills, to the viscous waters of the Dead Sea. Weeks later he journeyed on through the Sinai Desert in a camel caravan to St. Catherine’s Monastery at the base of Mount Sinai. He ended in Alexandria. And—minus the donkeys and the camels—so did my daughter and me.
This particular daughter I’d had on my own my senior year in college, and her arrival had forestalled just this sort of travel that I’d imagined for nearly my whole life. Who knows where that desire to see the world comes from? Who can trace the origins of longing?
The summer before my kindergarten year, my parents packed up a U-Haul and left behind their brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews and the small Missouri town where my father had been coaching football and wrestling and teaching drivers’ ed. on the side. They headed south to Houston to give their children more opportunities than the dying Midwest could offer. My father, in a great American act of reinvention, eventually made a life for himself and our family building houses in The Woodlands, which had just been founded.
This was in the early 1970s, when I, like many of my generation, became a child of the suburbs—a child of sawdust and cul-de-sacs and concrete slabs, of the new utopia. And though I was not overtly conscious that something was missing in this flat and humid Gulf Coast, nevertheless I missed the hills, I missed the seasons, I missed the cousins, I missed the old brick houses with attics and basements. The Woodlands was too blank and too new. My heart was a homeless child.
Maybe that’s why, in those years, I was reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books so obsessively, and wearing the calico pioneer outfit my mother sewed for me, and plaiting my hair in two long braids. I craved the “olden days” and fantasized about the prairie Home-Ec skills Laura and Mary learned from Ma: smoking a freshly butchered pig and roasting its tale over a fire, making candy by drizzling hot molasses through milk pans filled with snow. Still, it was Pa, with his yearning for the territory ahead of the rest, to whom I most related. Like Pa, like the pilgrims, I felt my home to be elsewhere.
For pilgrims have always been, even etymologically, wanderers and strangers, seeking a spiritual homeland that might offer them rest. Pilgrimage in the Middle Ages offered to the suffering hope for healing at a sacred shrine. Which is why, I think, the metaphor spoke to me. I set off after Fabri in part to heal the restlessness that I’d always felt and that I’d had to quell when my daughter arrived.
But at first, on that journey, I couldn’t find my homeland. It was not on the ferry that plowed through the translucent waters of the Adriatic. It was not in the stone ruins of the Venetian fort of Methoni on the Peloponnese. Nor in the Church of St. Trinity on Rhodes where an ancient woman with a bent back wearing a kerchief and apron was waving incense, sweet-smelling and thick, which she carried in an aluminum contraption like a Jiffy Pop pan. It was not on partitioned Cyprus. Nor in Jerusalem, though we walked the Via Dolorosa with friars chanting the Our Father in Latin. One night, I sensed it might be in the Sinai Desert when I woke to stars pressing down against me and thought that through them I could see a universe of light. But by morning, the vision had faded. And then, on the last day of our journey, in the frantic streets of Alexandria, a young man stopped me and chanted verses from the Qur’an as the traffic and the heat and the horns dissipated. In his voice I heard a restless longing. And then I understood that my homeland was the restlessness itself, the restlessness that had always lived like a kingdom inside me.
For years I have driven past the intersection of Highway 59 and W. Alabama Street in Houston, where we now live, and a two-story wood-frame house built there at the beginning of the former century on which is stenciled, in an unbroken line around the brightly-painted walls, Pablo Picasso’s koan: Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction. The other houses in the neighborhood that once surrounded it are mostly gone, and in their places the condos are rising. This house seems to me to be a sign of the city itself—praising the creation that emerges from what we’ve destroyed, and at the same time lamenting what’s been lost in our impatience for the new. We are a restless city of making and unmaking. And in that way, it’s a city that finally feels like home.