There will come a time in a conversation with a stranger or a new friend when they will ask me why my work has taken me to so many different countries, why I never stayed in place for too long. The answer I always give, somewhat cheekily, somewhat accurately, is that “I get antsy after more than three years in one city.”
It has been five years since I last moved back to Toronto. Before that, for more than a decade, I jumped from city to city every two or three years, always looking for the next new thing, looking for a new adventure or challenge or just a change of pace and scenery.
About a year after moving back to Toronto, a former friend once laughed and called me a transient, a drifter. He chuckled as he said, in jest and in good nature, that if I had been born a few decades earlier, I would have been among those that rode the freight trains, jumping off in a new town and setting up life there, only to pack up and leave a short while later.
There has been much written about transience in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping; a quick search online reveals academic papers on the subject that are longer than the novel itself. It’s true that the story is primarily about moving, and moving on—what struck me most is how the book is also about the difficulty of staying home.
Our protagonist is caught between these two worlds, and perhaps perpetually caught between many worlds: Ruthie never really finds her place until the end of the novel, and even then, that place is fleeting. Ruthie exists in liminality, between childhood and adulthood, between frivolity and seriousness, between feeling and thinking, between bad mistakes and good judgment, between carelessness and responsibility, between the desire to run and the desire to stay.
Mrs. Robinson’s prose captures the limbo beautifully. She uses words like brushstrokes on a canvas. The story is more painting than text: it changes and morphs and reveals new insight upon every read depending on how close you are to it that day. At times, you feel enveloped by the bleakness of Fingerbone; at others, you sit away from it, watching the town in wonder as its inhabitants go about their lives with a sorrowful merriment.
As readers, we are never in one place. Mrs. Robinson makes us feel the transience of the characters of the novel through her prose, by making the reader drift through space and time and perspective. We are constantly moving, and even when we are staying still, we await the next time we will be displaced. The descriptions are vivid, memorable; the amount of time we are able to linger upon those descriptions are short and fleeting. With every turn of the page, we are led to wonder what adventures lie beyond the bridge across the lake, yet still want to stay in Fingerbone for a little while longer.
Housekeeping is masterful at telling this story of transience, not because it is about always leaving to go somewhere new, but because it places us in the grey zone between the old and the new, the then and the now, the here and the there. It is a tale of liminality more than transience, of the embrace of uncertainty.
There’s a line, about halfway through Housekeeping, that reads: “It seemed to me that if she could remain transient here, she would not have to leave.”
It is a short passage that is easy to quickly read past, but it is one I came back to, again and again. It reminded me of a revelation that came to me when I lived in the US capital.
It was in Washington DC when I first realized that it was easy for me to live a life where all my possessions could fit into two or three boxes. It was in Washington DC when I first realized that I had remained, for many years before that, transient in the cities where I lived.
DC is the most transient city I have ever known: nobody there stays, but instead “passes through.” Sometimes, they pass through for a few months, or a couple of years, and sometimes, they pass through for a few decades, but there were very few people that I met that were born in the District and planned to die there too.
Sylvie, in Housekeeping, is also passing through. We did not know for just how long she would stay, but we knew that one day, she would hop on the train and ride the tracks across the bridge to a new adventure. In the meantime, she would act erratically and oddly—transiently—while she remained in Fingerbone with her nieces.
For years before my recent return to Toronto, I was only passing through every city in which I lived. I knew that I would soon be gone, but didn’t know quite when that time would come. Instead, I would live minimally, with few possessions, and would spend my time as an explorer in my own town. To some, perhaps I was erratic and odd; to myself, I was simply transient, prepared at any moment to leave, but willing myself to stay.
I am no longer transient here. While I know that, realistically, I will undoubtedly be somewhere new soon, I no longer spend my time in expectation of that move. The liminality has been replaced by a sense of settlement: I feel settled in place, in mind, in love, in life, and no longer caught between one space and another.