This is my symphony

What I read & what I lived …

I love my nest. The sunlight. The rocker I refinished nearly forty years ago. Amish rugs. Green kitchen chairs. My dad’s watercolors. Books. The antique trunk. Polished wood floors. Don’t get me wrong–if I had a million bucks, I’d make big time changes. But at the end of the day, my nest is my refuge.

Part of that is probably due to the fact that when I was young I was a bit of a nomad; by the time I was thirteen I had lived in ten houses. People always ask why and if I’m feeling kind I answer with a golly-gee smile, “Oh, my dad was a rolling stone…” (As in every family’s history, there’s always more to the story.) Marriage and divorce brought me six more moves.

So you might not think I would love Choe Zhoa’s Nomadland as much as I did.

It is a beautiful film, quiet and evocative. And while many reviewers (and their commenters) lament the film as “too sad”, I couldn’t disagree more. Rather, Nomadland is the story of people who–through no fault of their own–lived through some sort of loss, and by going on the road gain agency over their lives.

I couldn’t overlook the fact that so many of the nomads are women. Even more specifically women of a certain age. Women who, as they age, start to fade until they become invisible. Women who have worked hard their entire lives, made a home, raised a family–and at the end of the day receive a pittance in Social Security to see them through those golden years we Americans love to fantasize about.

Fern, the film’s main character, is grieving. Recently widowed, out of a job, and stripped of her company house after the gypsum mine closes. No one would deny Fern’s losses were great. But like so many of the nomads we meet in Nomadland she refuses to curl up like a pill bug and roll into a dusty corner. She takes to the road, reclaims the steering wheel, and determines the course of her life. She isn’t homeless, she is “houseless” and in so many small ways it’s clear her van isn’t a substitute for a home–it is her home: the Santa tchotchke, her husband’s tackle box-turned-cupboard, her autumn leaf dishes. There is still connection in her life: at Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, with girl friends, and fellow CamperForce workers. And it is all of her choosing.

I loved the scene where Fern walks through a campground with a sparkler and “Happy New Year” party hat. Sad, you say? I think not. Fern is making a life of her own, one that fits with her new reality. In fact, I resented her (almost) love interest, Dave, who seemed to be dangled in front of us as though he could be Fern’s way out of life on the road. Why is it we think that a woman needs to leave the life she has made for herself–solitary or unconventional though it may be–and attach herself to a man to experience happiness? (But, damn, that David Strathairn is fine …)

For several years I’ve followed Bob Wells’ Cheap RV Living and Carolyn’s RV Life, so the nomad life was not new to me. (“And both appear in the movie!” she fangirled.) At first I watched because I was preparing to buy a small trailer for summer camping in my retirement. But I found myself captivated by the life. Even a little envious. Could I make it on the road? Would I have the courage to leave my beloved nest behind?

I think about it often. I was married the first time at eighteen to a controlling man and married again in my forties to another. (Yes, I do see a pattern …) Like my favorite sociology professor used to say, a woman is only one man away from becoming homeless. For many reasons, I feel that possibility keenly.

One of the final scenes in the movie stays with me because it felt so close to home. Fern returns to her empty house in the abandoned town and walks through, much like a prospective buyer would. After visiting every room, she walks out the backdoor, into the yard, and through an open gate that leads to the road.

For now it’s enough for me to know my trailer stands ready; the gate, open. And I can walk through anytime I want to.

Or need to.

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