I announced a two-day sale and opened my doors to a continuous flow of neighbors and friends who happily carried away the furniture, appliances, books and the plants that I had lovingly nurtured. I gave away all my artwork. The house had two wood stoves that blazed for a week as I burned old letters and the contents of several file cabinets.
I was startled by my intense attachment to a few items: large art books, a set of fine kitchen knives and an antique table. My grip on these cherished objects was not to be easily released. I hesitated at the prospect of destroying my photograph albums. My mother had been fanatical with her camera, insisting that she record as much of our lives as possible. Before her death, she had filled a huge bookcase with carefully notated albums. As I kneeled in front of the flames and randomly peered at the photos, I became aware that they triggered melancholy. If I wanted to recall an event, I reasoned, every event still lived inside of me, perhaps in a more potent, purer form. As the images of my life burned, I imagined I was freeing myself to live more fully in the present.
Having winnowed my possessions down to just my clothes and work-related materials, I began what was to become an eight-year period of nomadic living. The remaining items were stored in a rented locker near an international airport. In between courses, I would return to a nearby hotel to quickly unpack, pack again, and depart for the next destination. I was teaching courses in Europe, South America and the USA, residing in a continual succession of retreat centers.
I was somewhat proud of my lifestyle, gloating that there was a noble aspect inherent in living lightly and dedicated to healing and spirituality. There was, however, a good deal of secret loneliness. Each location entailed interacting with strangers in an unfamiliar neighborhood and often in a different language. While the individuals I met were friendly, our connection was transitory and the level of interaction assuredly casual. The lack of community was challenging. My work was deeply satisfying, however my role as teacher would never permit the intimacy I lacked.
The hotel rooms and retreat center lodgings were often small and spartan. I experimented with strategies to somehow gain ownership of the rooms, however temporarily, and create a sense of belonging. I hid the ugly paintings and rearranged the furniture. I’d place an aromatherapy candle at my bedside. I expanded my iTunes library. When possible, I spoke with friends and family via the Internet. These actions, however, were never able to heal the suffering that arose from the continual anonymity experienced in a foreign place. I had no refuge to rest and rejuvenate and no loving community that knew me. The glory of the adventure began to fade and even became excruciating when I was vulnerable.
I began a practice of photographing every bed that I slept in, and that resulted in hundreds of photos that track eight years of travel. Without conscious realization, I had resorted to a modern version of my mother’s photographic obsession, although thanks to the digital revolution this collection does not occupy physical space but resides in the iCloud.
I took photos to fix a moment of ownership and attempt control amidst the intangible flow of my life. The beds are markers across three continents, from the foothills of the Andes in Argentina, to the frigid, winter forests of Canada, to an 18th-century, Belgian monastery, to a lodge perched in the Italian Alps — and many, many portraits of beds in Brazil. This is a circular trail of discovery that upon its return reveals the importance of a familiar locale of peaceful beauty where renewal can occur –especially for an introvert like myself.
During one particularly difficult period, I realized that the lack of a home was interfering with my inner work towards individuation. My deepest wounds were shielded because I had to contend with constant movement and perceived lack of safety. I decided to create a refuge and honor my commitment to personal growth. I would create a place for rejuvenation, reflection and healing, and also allow myself to join in community.
Today, I enjoy a special place of my own. I still travel frequently, yet when I finish work, I eagerly head for home and all that awaits my return. My intention is that what I have assembled serves as a pleasurable option for my well-being, rather than a necessity. One of my favorite reflections on materialism is Material World: A Global Family Portrait, by Peter Menzel. The photographic essay is striking collection of families from different cultures posing in front of their homes, surrounded by their possessions. Of course, the American example is an absurdity.
I don’t regret the past exercise of releasing my possessions. My nomadic years enabled me to make conscious my materialistic consumerism. I imagine I am better prepared for loss if a tornado, fire or flood assumes everything. I like to think that, perhaps, I’ve completed an important, preparatory step for the inevitable, total dissolution at life’s end.