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The Road Ahead, and the Grief that Travels with Us

In the past two weeks, after almost six years of living our own version of Nomadland in three different motorhomes, we’ve sold our rig and bought a lovely, small home in the Pacific Northwest. As in so many other times and places, we are meeting new neighbors and learning what days the local farmers’ markets are open. But we are no longer transients, just rolling through—we belong, as neighbors rooted in place, in a way that the road seldom allows. 

Though we’ve been moving toward this change for a few months, I can tell that we aren’t fully transitioned to the “stick-and-brick” way of life. A couple of days ago I was buying gas for our car and found myself eying the height and width of the bays to see if our now-former big rig might fit. At Costco I had to remind myself that we can now store a whole case of paper towels rather than our usual two-packs.

As we begin to relax into this new sanctuary-without-wheels situation, we are also reckoning with the end of a life we have known: a big, full, adventurous era that included both coasts as our front yard and all but four states in between. In this there is gratitude, but there is also grief, as there is in some measure at every completion. It’s the connective tissue that bridges what we’ve inevitably lost of our former life and where we are now. And every ending brings a loss to be reckoned with—be it a friendship, a chapter or a life.

And there have been plenty of endings around my family over these past months, as there have been with so many. Over the past ten months my wife and I have lost eight friends, nearly all of them suddenly. Our mourning has been compounded and, occasionally, delayed by the speed of passage. Remarkably, in every case we are aware of, the sense of shared grief—that bridge to what has been lost to the visible—has strengthened the weave of friendship and family relationships. None of our friends who died were direct family members, but each passing affected the lives of not only relatives but also many others, both seen and unknown. 

Multiplied at a national scale, I can only imagine the collective web of connection spun by so many endings—lives, livelihoods, eras—and the largely unspoken grief that binds us. Together we are facing the closing of an age unlike any we have experienced in our lifetimes. So many of us have been suspended in time and place over the past year and a half: we’ve been a transient population, in a way, “just rolling through” an otherworldly landscape. We’re not yet where we will be, and we have lost much of where we were. Each loss, however, with the bridge of grief it offers, can join us in being human together.

When my wife and I landed here in Washington a couple of weeks ago, many of the Covid restrictions were still in place. Now they are lifting. Many store windows in the area display freshly printed “If vaccinated, no mask needed” signs. Shopping today, I felt a little naked without my face covering, as if I’d worn swim trunks to a dinner party. Our little town feels the way a little town does after a spring that follows a long, dark winter. This chapter’s end seems near. In several parts of the world—at least the ones with resources and influence—there is the joy of emergence. As we re-engage and orient to whatever may come next, perhaps we can let the bridges of inevitable mourning connect us not only with what has passed, but with each other. In this, none of us—despite what many of us have been taught—needs to “release our grief” while we let go of what has passed. That bridge will remain for as long as it is needed. It has its own timing. May we let it carry us forward, traveling toward a compassionate and loving place, one in which we are all neighbors, rooted in a new place together.

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