About the Feature

Photo by Mark Bonica

It is not down in any map; true places never are.
—Herman Melville, Moby Dick

1. Black-Tent

In the deserts near my home in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, Bedouin pitched their black-tents. This was the late-1970s, but the same style tent once housed Abraham and Moses according to the Old Testament and pre-dates those books by millennia. Out in the sands, I’d scan the horizon for the tents’ low-slung pentagram shapes, for the camels and cooking fires. My dad told me Bedouin are the most gracious of peoples, that hospitality is the cornerstone of nomadism. He said desert nomads will starve to give a visitor—even a visiting enemy—a meal. This was what interested him: insights into the varied social universes intrinsic to his career managing international contracts. But it was the black-tents that repeated in my seven- and eight-year-old mind like a favorite song.

Their stark premise exhilarated me, then as now: A primary residence that is portable. The tent-home is as intimate and nimble as room-sized clothing. It untethers the domestic world from address, lightens it to a freedom of movement. Its inhabitants must plant roots someplace other than a patch of earth, a hometown’s fixed proximities, instead reaching ambient, skyward. Maybe a nomadic child grows like an epiphyte, all nutrients critical for development absorbed from the traveled-through atmospheres—fabrics of light, language, scent, and sound, their inherited and intuited meanings.

2. Synaptic

I have a history of nomadism. Growing up, I moved on average once a year, lived in seventeen homes across four continents—very particular corners of North America, Asia, Europe, and South America—by the time I graduated from high school at age seventeen. Like traditional pastoral nomads, my sense of home was as temporary as a campsite. But unlike them, my family’s “campsites”—our homes—were never revisited. No seasonal structure directed my family’s movements; no terrain was deemed ours—our family’s, our ancestors’—to revolve around with grazing animals, whether goats or camels or sheep; no regular orbit of travel arranged the world into a geographic pattern my family might call, on the grandest scale, a home.

Yet nomads we were, twentieth-century people from the developed world moving far and wide to “develop” the rest of it. What directed our travel were my father’s white-collar jobs on massive engineering and building projects—the very construction that halts traditional ways of living, spreads postmodern clockworks, technologies, transit systems. The culture we brought miniaturized weeks of overland travel into five-hour flights and fused intricate synaptic cross-stitchings of cityscapes, histories, cuisines, topographies, religions, artworks, and languages—all as we’d found them in our own, constantly shifting backyard.

My family’s version of nomadism continues an original American tradition: to chase that setting sun. Going back just as far as “America,” nearly all my ancestors were typical colonial-era religious refugees who had to get out of the Old Country in a hurry. Three to four hundred years ago, these people boarded wooden ships from Atlantic Europe to North America and landed in a history lesson of the colonies—Plymouth, New Amsterdam, Massachusetts Bay Colony, Philadelphia, and dozens more. Then their descendants surged through one frontier after another, inexorably west, until all my great-grandparents were born west of the Mississippi; all my grandparents raised their kids in Washington, Oregon, or California. And my parents, not to be stymied by the continent’s Pacific coastline, leapt up like a sneaker wave and landed in Saudi Arabia.

Why did my parents do this? For the money, yes, but probably not any more money than had they stayed put. Their hunger for distance—and thus mine—seems inborn, intractable. My mother quotes her Tigris, Missouri-born father on his own family’s restlessness: “We are called to the next mountain.”

What are “we” trying to find there? What do we create from mobility, from the drive that transfuses the imagination and reroutes the intellect into maps we can’t help but follow?

3. Box

My parents drifted over my brother and me like mostly sunny, sometimes unpredictable weather systems able to cyclone us suddenly around the planet—to the streets of Lahore, Rome, Cairo, Dublin, Panama City, and Bangkok; of Kathmandu, Edinburgh, Bogotá, Heidelberg, Jubail, Amsterdam, and Nairobi; of Hong Kong, Athens, Mombasa, Kuwait City, Frankfurt, London, and Abu Dhabi.

So like any nomadic child, I learned to apprehend places differently than settled people. During all the travel, as each of my homes was replaced by another, again, another, again, those seventeen times, the world loosened for me into flexible components: the view from another kitchen window, shadows cast by unfamiliar trees, my self refracted through more strangers in a new classroom. Patchwork, scraps, jumble—these fragments pieced into a perspective that lacked a solid middle distance; that place we take for granted to be “real life” kept disappearing on me. Over time, only the very near (inside my head) or the very vast (“London,” “astronomy,” “poetry”) felt tangible or trustworthy or discoverable. This ongoing abstraction was abetted by cardboard.

Because we lived mostly out of boxes. Boxes in various stages of being packed and unpacked, sealed up, sliced open; carted off to a moving van or storage; sitting in my new, strange-smelling bedroom. Boxes always ordered or rustled up by my mother, kept track of on yellow pads in voluminous detail by my mother, packed and unpacked with extraordinary speed and skill by my mother. My mother was a homemaker, both in the “did not work outside the home” sense and, far more concretely, as she settled and dismantled our multitude of homes. Meanwhile, my father was nearly always “at work”—that phrase a partial cover for his secret, deepening absence, one that will earn him the label “extremely high-functioning.” He, by contrast, rarely did any packing.

4. Architect

Bedouin call themselves “ahl el beit” or “people of the tent.” Their tribes once numbered in the hundreds, though all are said to share an ancient and highly reasonable bias against sedentary townspeople for being—in comparison to them—slow, soft, and materialistic. The word “Arab” itself has roots in nomadism; in ancient Hebrew, the term was often used to describe tent-dwelling desert people, just as Muhammed used it in the Quran centuries later. Bedouin trace their patrilineal ancestry all the way through Ishmael, son of Abraham, back to Adam. But only they live as Ishmael once did, in tents woven of hair from the black goats led from place to place for grazing, along routes followed since a continuously relevant antiquity.

The weaving of the tent fabric is done, not so surprisingly, by women. Women also design the tents. They fabricate them by hand, expand them as their family grows, replace pieces as they wear out. And it is women who pitch the tents. Women construct and settle the campsites—tasks usually accomplished in under an hour. When it’s time to go, they dismantle and pack up the tents and belongings in equally brief time.

Women have performed this form of home-building in every black-tent tribe—whether Bedouin or Berber, Kurdish or Tibetan. And they’ve done so in nearly every other traditional tent-dwelling culture across Asia, Europe, and North Africa: like the Tuareg, who weave animal skins into their goat-hair tents, or the indigenous peoples of Siberia and Lapland, whose conical, wool-and-animal-skin tents—like the Lapp kata—are primarily fabricated by and always pitched by women. In North America, the iconic tipi of nomadic Plains tribes were owned, designed, and constructed at each campsite by women.

The word “architect” contains this lightly buried cultural legacy. It derives from two Greek roots: archi, director, and tectos, weaving. To be an architect once meant to conceive and create a moveable housing of textiles or sewn skins—dwellings lightweight enough to be transported on a camel or donkey or horse, yet strong enough to withstand the elements. And among nearly all traditional tent-dwelling peoples, the idea was synonymous with being female.

5. Print

Paper, as for any book lover, manifests “journey” for me: the horizon-like sweep of page, print’s ink trails leading the reader onward. But the moving boxes’ paper is ingeniously built for literal journeys, origamied into usefulness of the most practical kind: cardboard strong enough to hold almost anything.

Like covers to unwieldy books, each box was scrawled with a title that doubled as setting: LIVING ROOM, EVAN’S ROOM, KITCHEN, MEGAN’S ROOM. Sometimes subheadings followed: “Neal’s papers,” “Sherry’s sewing machine,” “Sherry’s books.” Most boxes featured the word “books”—my mother’s family value. Though we would never settle into a permanent home, we would always have enough books, shipped around the planet at considerable expense. Books mimic adrenaline to the narratively restless: nests of worlds in which the mind takes predestined flights from time and place.

The boxes were numbered 1-89 or 1-112 or 1-136, like too many chapters in a rambling, episodic novel. Together, they told a story, attempted a plot that defied any classical arc, featuring exactly no suspense, climax, or development. The characters they depicted—American family of mom and dad, daughter and son—were merely owners of some items that kept moving around, without explanation, cause or effect. Boxes got packed, unpacked, shuffled from home to home, storage unit to moving van to shipping container in an obsessive, nonlinear ritual. One box perpetually belonged in a well-stocked, country-style kitchen. One listed certain “Sports Equipment.” Another box, “Spode fine bone,” was stashed in our Houston two-car garage, then vanished from a truck heading west.

6. Storage

My mother grew up in houses filled with boxes, as her family moved to college towns up and down the West Coast for her father’s teaching and coaching jobs. These moves performed for her how “home” was never there for long, so how much did it really matter? Boxes enabled my brilliant father’s escape out of tiny Big Bear, California, away from his “broken” childhood home, and toward a world where his wits could take him—almost literally—anywhere. It’s as if he thought: Anyone can have a home, but not everyone can travel the world the way we can.

“When we get all our boxes out of storage . . .” opened my family’s favorite fairy tale. But our boxes never stayed out of storage for long. They protected our belongings, while also preventing them from being swept into the drenching continuum of life, the coherence—however messy—of a family home. The boxes were strong enough to compartmentalize even that.

They still do. Today, nearly all my parents’ possessions are housed in boxes in my mother’s storage unit in Seattle, not far from where she lives, a widow now for twenty years.

7. Belonging

Traditional camel-herding Bedouin live with the sparsest essential belongings. Even their tents are minimalist compared to hardier nomadic structures like the yurt or tipi, which possess heavy freestanding frameworks constructed of wood or wattle. By contrast, a black-tent may be pitched using a single pole, the fabric stretched into shape by a tensile network of long ropes, hooked from the fabric panels and pegged deep into the ground. The poles, fabric, rope, and pegs together compose the framework, each element interdependent in holding the structure in place. This is a mobile architecture so ingeniously sturdy yet lightweight that it’s been in use since the Stone Age.

Most nomadic tents consist of a single room divided into distinct zones of living. In Bedouin black-tents, women and children sleep in a larger space on the left side, with men’s sleeping rolls confined to the right. A fabric flap divides the two sides, and it’s lowered when male visitors are greeted on the men’s side—also where the coffee pot resides. But nothing, including social convention, prevents women from joining in any conversation. Bedouin women may not be seen by male visitors, but they can very much be heard.

Bedouins traditionally make nearly every item they own, their caravan a self-sustaining transit system of food and shelter. Goat-wool yarn is hand-spun by girls as they walk; freestanding looms are kept near the open cooking fire, where women weave the fabric for their family’s clothing, bedding, and domicile; men sit outside to work the camel-skin leather saddles they use to ride their camels. Sleeping usually takes place inside the tent, but Bedouin prefer to live outdoors. They consider the desert—its vastness and desiccation and horizon—to be their true home.

8. Terrain

The entire world—or at least where the most lucrative engineering projects might be occurring—opened up to my family as a potential future home. At one point, India was mentioned. At another, Indonesia. An unsettling discussion involving a transfer to Connecticut occurred. My family didn’t move to these places, but their shapes, their possible breaths, bumped against my own history, my immediate future, parallel universes that might suddenly rope around my present, palpitating self.

Meanwhile, on the ground, my feet rattled across another new hometown I’d come to know intimately. No one expected me to like it. I was expected to grasp it, get by in it, and I did. I learned to suss out everything meaningful I would ever feel about a place within about twenty seconds. It flashed inside me like a nuclear cloud, a revelation of the collective habits we call culture, the sensory gauze of terrain.

When people ask where I’m from, my answer is always in some way a lie, not that I mean it to be. I don’t know where I’m from, but who wants to hear that? The answer should be easy, should help supply a label, though I’ve always been struck by how geography seems the least questioned destiny. You can’t really know what your world determines about you: where it ends and you begin. It would require a map of all the places and times you said no to it, where and when you said yes, and how deeply you meant it.

9. Room

The sky never leaves you—a fact so stunningly obvious it’s easy not to notice the experience of it. But when you live on the move, on the road, the sky’s presence magnifies, can solidify into something like your room, hung and framed with directional intimacies. In this way, its expanse opens your vision onto other, more proximal senses, like your sense of freedom, of exposure, of safety.

The sky offers a special promise to the nomad: that freedom is safety.

As a child, I decide there is nowhere I cannot handle with this gleaming room above me—one that, as I move around the world, collapses lower or vaults wider, shines a blue opaqued with gray or heat-distilled yellow, bristles or brightens or mists against my skin. But that it’s always the same place is a refuge.

This begins in the Arabian desert, where whatever in me—in any of us—that vibrates to the night sky’s indigos and fizzing tides of constellations learned to reach out in soul-like volumes to join with it, then rest beside it, as at a campfire.

The night sky inspires a genre in the Bedouin oral tradition called “stellar poetry.” Lyricism merges with logistics in its language, since desert nomads discern their lifetimes of journey from the constellations, which unfurl ever-changing maps of time and travel to the wettest places. Orion moving south with the months, rainfall during Pleiades or Ursa Major. These and other celestial signals tell the Bedouin when to get a move on. In his book Arabia of the Bedouins, Dutch diplomat Marcel Kurpershoek describes living with Bedouin tribes in the late 1980s and early 1990s so he could collect their poetry—none of which had ever been written down. “We have the clumsy term ‘oral poetry’ for this phenomenon,” Kurpershoek observes. “The Saudis simply call it ‘rhyme, invention, chant’ or ‘words.’” When Canopus returns, it sits low on the southern horizon, described in tribal verse as “red and beating like a wolf’s heart.”

10. Children

Most of us in the settled West know the Bedouins’ world—if we do at all—from the writings of such adventurers as T. E. Lawrence, Wilfred Thesiger, and Isabelle Eberhardt. I grew up around Lawrence’s and Thesiger’s books, and discovered Eberhardt’s just before traveling to the Sahara Desert in my twenties.

In The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T. E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia, describes visiting a ruin with Syrian Bedouin: “We went into the main lodging, to the gaping window sockets of its eastern face, and there drank with open mouths of the effortless, empty, eddyless wind of the desert, throbbing past. . . . ‘This,’ they told me, ‘is the best: it has no taste.’”

Wilfred Thesiger, the English explorer and travel writer who first mapped the Rub al-Khali, Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter, wrote in Arabian Sands: “In the desert I had found a freedom unattainable in civilisation; a life unhampered by possessions, since everything that was not a necessity was an encumbrance.”

Born in Geneva in 1877, Isabelle Eberhardt moved at age twenty to Algeria’s Sahara Desert—where she lived as a Bedouin man, converted to Islam, married an Algerian soldier, and wrote prolifically until her death in a flash flood at twenty-seven. In The Oblivion Seekers, she wrote: “But the vagrant owns the whole vast earth that ends only at the nonexistent horizon, and his empire is a tangible one, for his domination and enjoyment of it are things of the spirit.”

Especially in contrast to the overstuffed, busily furnished West, no solitude is more buoyant, saturating, or crystalline than an open desert’s. But unlike these European-born writers, traditional nomads—like the very Bedouin whom these writers befriended and admired—are never escape artists, loners, vagrants, or iconoclastic adventurers. Or anything close.

Nothing kills the mood like a screaming baby, but the fact is nomadism is based on family life. Bedouins by definition live with their nuclear family and extended tribe in tight, temporary quarters that move with their herds—the colloquial “fields on the hoof.” Yet this central narrative of nomadism—the one in which the children are raised—is mostly omitted or diminished in their books.

In my own nomadic family, my parents viewed their children as the world that mattered most, and as long as we were all together, our location was mere detail. But “our family” was an ideology that sometimes lacked practical application, as if belief in its absolute good absolved any breaks in logic or common sense. Would moving our children three times in one school year and twice the next be detrimental in some way to their development? was not a question either of my parents asked. After all, we could take the kaleidoscopic beauties and riches and wonders of our travels with us anywhere. They could assemble around us like a fanciful wardrobe, invisible yet dramatic as the emperor’s clothes.

11. Chatwin

Bruce Chatwin goes deeper. In The Songlines, he weaves a quasi-fictionalized travel narrative about the Australian outback into a gorgeously speculative theory on nomadism and the origins of human language. He describes the “songlines” of the nomadic Australian Aborigines, a genre and culture dating back forty thousand years, as songs that map out the continent by landmark and associated ancestral mythology, from one “line” or node to the next, as sung by someone walking at a four-mile-per-hour gait. Language and movement through place thus cohere like an auditory map—and help prevent the singer from ever getting lost.

But this journey into lyrical ethnography is interrupted by Chatwin’s thoughts—raw, vital, searching thoughts—on his failed, ten-year project: a book on nomadism. This section of The Songlines is called “The Notebooks,” a globe-wandering composite memoir of Chatwin’s travels with nomads. One of its anecdotes stands out for me, involving a tent-dwelling Bedouin sheikh in Mauritania. The sheikh answers Chatwin’s question about why he continues to live in the Sahara with all its hardships, why it is “irresistible” to him.

This is the sheikh’s reply: “Bah! I’d like nothing better than to live in a house in town. Here in the desert you can’t keep clean. You can’t take a shower! It’s the women who make us live in the desert. They say the desert brings health and happiness, to them and to the children.”

As a woman, a mother, I’m fascinated that it is the women who—if Chatwin and that Mauritanian sheikh are telling the truth here—love the freedom of nomadic living more. Is this because, in so many societies, the settled life is harder on women, restricting their movements into a stifling domestic sphere? And perhaps no one can see that more clearly—can see it, indeed, at all—than a nomadic mother grown used to the shifting horizon as her family’s terrain. She may be responsible for tending the fire, but that fire is always on the move.

This ancient way of life appealed to my mother: all the arrivals in new homes she’d soon leave behind. She didn’t seem very interested in living in these homes, at least not for long. It was in their making, and unmaking, that she excelled, as if the homes themselves comprised an extreme, materially creative form of travel.

12. Dream House

As a girl, I often constructed my dream bedroom in my head. It usually overlooked a Swiss Alps lake. Besides the tall white bed, fireplace, books, and cats, flokatis featured prominently.

I was alone there, hidden away as long as I wanted to be.

But—I’m squinting my eyes here at the memory of myself as a girl imagining myself in that room—I was also not moving much.

I was safe, but motionless, in perfect suspension. Living never entered into it.

“Thus the dream house must possess every virtue. However spacious, it must also be a cottage, a dove-cote, a nest, a chrysalis. Intimacy needs the heart of a nest.” This is French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, from his ravishing treatise on domestic metaphysics, The Poetics of Space, in which he examines the classic château of a bourgeois Frenchperson’s childhood as a setting for phenomenology. He transforms rooms, major pieces of furniture, and personal effects—like an attic, a cupboard, a collection of seashells—into philosophical and psychological archetypes of language and identity.

Bachelard does not address freedom of mobility in relation to this dream house. Freedom is not a component beyond one crucial activity: the ability to daydream there. He’s transfixed by the settled person’s dilemma: how to extract from a singular home a universe’s meaning?

The nomad has different issues, an exact inversion: how to sculpt from rootlessness an identifiable, meaningful universe? Or, put more unnervingly: how do we attach meaning to constant change?

Even as a child, I understood we can’t “attach” anything to change, and that this can form a spiritual directive. During our travels, my father grew interested in Buddhism, started meditating twice daily, a practice he kept up for decades. He taught me how early on, and I’ve toyed with meditation ever since. It has beauty—like the sensation of pure, bright safety. But like my dream bedroom overlooking that alpine lake, it’s a retreat into stillness, the body left eerily motionless.

13. Privacy

In his book on human geography, Space and Place, Ti-Fu Yan makes this distinction: “Place is security, space is freedom; we are attached to the one and long for the other.”

Those contrasting definitions of space and place are exceptionally useful. But since nomads of whatever iteration are attached to space and its freedoms, how secure do we ever feel in a single place? I long to feel at home anywhere, without also getting squirrelly with claustrophobia over nothing more constricting than a normal house that is purportedly my own. It pins me down; they know where to find me. Mobility, by contrast, brings the supplest, most inventive of privacies.

Was this one reason my parents adored the rush of travel, the flexibility of never committing to any place? What they didn’t do was commit to these untethered, unbroken parts of themselves. They didn’t say: We are nomads; there is no getting around it. They kept pretending they could make permanent homes. They couldn’t. And their many failed attempts to settle down—to slow themselves into the sedentary—finally hollowed into vacancy, into loss.

My parents viewed address as an easily remedied accident; chased locational adventures like they were game; wielded an unshakeable curiosity in this world’s many forms; thought best on their feet. What they couldn’t do was stop, and stay healthy.

This is what a nomad is. What I am.

14. Looking Glass

In 1866, an eighteen-year-old Civil War veteran, after walking for two months with the Fisk Expedition—a thousand-mile trek from St. Cloud, Minnesota, to Montana’s then-rumored gold country—wrote to his mother:

I am in good health and am enjoying myself to the best of my abilities. I have not been sick a day or hour with the exception of sore feet. Some of the party are discouraged, homesick and consequently in the worst of humors, cursing the country, the Expedition, etc. I am glad it is not in my nature to get discouraged easily or to look on the dark side of every picture. We have six weeks yet to travel before we reach our destination. I can see the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers from the door of my tent.

This teenager was my great-great-grandfather, Wilson Barber Harlan, and the door to that tent—the green and blue rivers it opens onto—is one I’ve imagined into a made-up memory. My father read me this letter when I was a kid, from an article written by his uncle for the Journal of the West. It created an inspiring legend of my family’s true nature.

Over the next decade, W. B. Harlan and other Montana settlers claimed lands long considered home by the Nez Perce tribes, who’d lived as nomads along the region’s rivers for centuries. W. B. Harlan cultivated the lush valley along the Bitterroot River with the vast apple orchards that would make him wealthy.

In July 1877, the Nez Perce leader Looking Glass passed through the Bitterroot with his tribe, fleeing us Army soldiers sent to force them to live on a small reservation in Idaho. W. B. Harlan and other local men were tasked with stopping them—but they let the tribe pass unscathed. Criticized for this pacifism, Harlan defended it in the local paper, writing: “When we overtook the Indians, Looking Glass . . . told us he would not harm any persons or property in the valley if allowed to pass in peace, and that we could pass through his camp to our homes. . . . We were not silly enough to uselessly incite the Indians to devastate our valley.”

Looking Glass and his tribe would suffer heavy casualties a few weeks later, during the battle at Big Hole, and by October, the Nez Perce would surrender to confinement on the Idaho reservation.

15. Proxy

Great cities are proxies for nomadism. Cities are where most nomads—if only by nature—live these days.

I moved to Manhattan at twenty-one, walked for the next nine years whenever I could, walked to avoid the subway, walked to avoid the cost of a cab, walked because I love to, round and round and round that island. New York City was spacious enough, varied enough, shot through with thousands of miles of layered, coiling pathways. Stand still and everything around you changes. Its vastness mimicked, for me, the open desert’s—just crazily compressed. Instead of every star or color of heat, the sky is filled with people; windows; electricity; gossip; clanging, moving slices of architecture. In these multiplicities of closest proximity, you can wander, Escher around the place, for as long and as far as you want. And so I did, until I recovered from my dad’s death from alcoholism, and wondered where else on earth I could live.

I wanted “home”—so I went back to California, where I’d lived on and off, off and on, since infancy. But California, where I am today, doesn’t feel like my home. It is home for my son and my husband. And that, for now, is enough for me.

16. Stagecraft

Six months after having our son, my husband and I moved into the only house we’ve ever owned. This home is the “more” I wanted for my son that I, growing up, never had.

It is not a metaphor. It is not an emotion or a sense of family.

And home is not where the heart is—that cliché bearing all the catchy idiocy of propaganda. If you don’t have a home, you can still have a heart. You can still love and be loved. Your heart might be in any number of places, with any number of people.

Home is an actual place. It is a location. It has a roof. It can generally be expected to be there when you get back, filled with your stuff.

A home is simply and vastly the backstage of life. It makes private the grinding literality of daily needs: bed, food, bathroom, wardrobe. It doesn’t have to be pretty, but it does have to make sense to you. Too much drama backstage—will it be there? why have the stairs moved? who are all these new people?—sucks energy from your performance under the lights. You are left feeling restless, literally unable to fully rest, to recuperate anywhere. That can force you out onto the stage, into constant, free-form performance. Adults can often handle this, even enjoy it, embrace the adrenaline. But children need to learn how to belong somewhere or they may never figure it out.

I know this because if it weren’t for my son, I would still be rootless.

17. Scale

A racket starts, distant at first, like metal scraping metal. It plays up and down my nerves, atonal and grasping. The more I try to “breathe” it away, soothe it with cultural surrogates—concert, restaurant, museum, yoga class, play, more books—the more it scratches from inside my skin.

At a certain point I need to go wandering. My feet need to hit earth, again and again, that bone-filling drumbeat. I need the sky’s colored threads to tangle inside me, pull me somewhere new.

Just the smell of cardboard boxes—book, dust, intoxicating anonymity—still flexes my deepest pleasures and fears: of drift and disappearance, secrets of far and more, all the world ready to melt inward and sensory. I often fend off these desires like an addict, since I never want them to stop. I struggle to keep them in proportion, to a sedentary scale.

Like the sound of the boxes’ cardboard flaps scraping against each other, enough tension to hold together, to fight us off a little. The scrape and sweep and nick of the packing tape, whistling off its roll, sealing the boxes closed.

Then we get to slice the boxes open in the new place. Stacked in a garage, a storage unit, they wait for the next move, to anywhere at all. They are sturdy yet flexible, until they are used one too many times, begin to bend like heavy fabric, the outer fiberboard peeling off the corrugation, revealing a design composed largely of air.


About the Author

Megan Harlan is a nonfiction writer and poet. Her work has appeared in Agni, Alaska Quarterly Review, the New York Times, TriQuarterly, Hotel Amerika, Crazyhorse, PBS NewsHour, and elsewhere. She is the author of Mapmaking (BkMk Press/New Letters), awarded the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry.