Looking out of the window of my daughter’s apartment in Washington Heights, the last time I looked out was a hot summer day, feeling shaky. I had spent two weeks impromptu after a big deal falling accident, mending a 3 inch gash on my forehead from the AT hike.
My forehead has given me a new routine of heavy Nivea cream application to keep the wound moist, topping it off with SPF 50 sunscreen so my new pinky flesh between the still swollen collagen layer will be protected from burning through the thin layer of baby skin. Now, I have traveled to Japan and back, returning to New York City. The trip was to assess health issues of my elderly parents, not very fruitful. It has been months of these kind of trips, Tokyo, at home in Kentucky, and here, in New York. A little bit more like tumbling weed than I prefer to be.
The scar still has a life of its own, quivering and tickling itself every now and then, seemingly with no reason, just making sure I know it’s there and remember to pamper it so it will better blend in with the rest of my body. Along with my forehead, which is the more visually obvious casualty from the hike, my left bum knee pain is ever so present. Despite its invisibility, the knee injury is much more serious and debilitating. The most prominent sense of disability is the task of squatting, much needed than one would think especially in Japanese culture. I was worried if I could function well back home. From bathing to public courtesy of sitting on the floor, bending one’s knee all the way and being able to stand back up is engrained and expected movement there. The notion of something being gone makes you realize the value of what you have lost, this injury has been profound.
Proud to say that my knee got a good work out in Japan, out of necessity, getting in and out of the futon on the floor which my daughter and I slept on during our stay. Daily baths forced me to attempt a squat and the hot deep baths have helped my joints relax and flex. I showed my daughter’s boyfriend that I can now get up from sitting on the floor of their Manhattan apartment to standing, without aid, as the last time he saw me, standing up was a circus act of flipping over on all fours and standing up from a “down dog” position, quite pitiful to watch. I gave my knee a shout out “Let’s keep this up my bum! I am old but prove to me that I can mend. I promise to be patient.”
On July 28th, 2022, the consecutive days of heavy rain resulted in a “flood of the century” in Eastern Kentucky, washing away my car and leaving mud on the floors of my home. Second night and third day in returning on the trail back in Pennsylvania after the weeks of recuperation, this news was a complete blow to anything I could have imagined as a reason to get me off the AT for good. End of my dream of being a thru hiker. The 3 inch, 10 stitches gash in my forehead couldn’t convince me before. I left the trail at 1183.5 miles in. Leaving me a little past the midway point with a Harry Potter scar as a souvenir.
The concept of home was something I have contemplated on for many years. Probably since my youth, experiencing 11 moves by 12 and another 11 or so in the 20 year residency in Florida. That is quite a bit of roofs above my head to call them my home. Not enough years in each of these dwellings to perhaps even call it that. If home is not in a building, defined in a house or a neighborhood for this matter, I was shown well in my life to seek what could define “home” as I see it. Like my knee, this maybe coming closer to perhaps, mending.
My master’s “dissertation” was called “Match Seller’s Syndrome”. It was an interactive immersive sculptural exhibition of three paper houses that hung from the ceiling, each containing videos of people eating together. The TV gave off ambient light that lit the translucent houses. One could hear the mumbling conversation of people eating but couldn’t really see who they were or what they were saying. It was my attempt to recreate the commute back from school on chilly winter evenings, walking through the narrow streets of my newly built house in Tokyo, listening, smelling and seeing the moving lights of houses with frosted windows. I, always an outsider, wishing that I was with them, in their routine of simply eating with their family. Something my dad tried to do for me but couldn’t do, perhaps a shared dream by both of us. A house with family, doing family things. Mundane happiness from the ordinary routine, something we both never had as a child.
The trail taught me that what is home can be incredibly simple. Home on the trail, in the woods and elements was a space in mind where contentment filled my body and heart, which at the end of the day I could sigh, smile and drift into a peaceful slumber. It was a day of completion with simple yet plenty of nourishment for the body, accommodation with comfort, just enough for the tired body to lay flat, padded with softness, just enough temperature control with shielding from nature’s changing climate. The body loved the routine of sleep and wake, timely consumption and elimination, movement to strengthen all aspects of the biology. There were unseen rhythm of elements which penetrated the body from nature and gave no stress on either parties. Closest level of co-existence with the earth was evident in how the body adapted and thrived. I was happy with so little. My small tent, warm sleeping bag, thin insulated pad and warm meals were appreciated every use and every rest where the woods and forest canopies provided shade and sun, logs and water, animals and insects which welcomed me there. Left alone for each to do its thing, nothing was in fear but simply living with what was given to us, no questions but just letting things be.
One of the things I feel most useful when I return to Japan to see my parents is house cleaning and simple repairs. Looking back, while we had housekeepers all along, with a working set of parents, I picked up a lot of deep cleaning that the housekeepers missed. Cleaning my parents house today, brings back those memories, not necessarily fondly but as a comfortable routine that I do to feel at home.
This visit I replaced a Japanese paper window screen. Simplicity is in Japanese architecture and houses made of wood and paper is a stereotype that I do not mind. Washi paper is an incredible resource which provides so many uses beyond the typical screens and lampshades which comes to mind for many. Washi is paper and paper is made from trees. In Washi the fibers are more visible and from this, I see this like my skin. My grandmother, a shinto, had an altar at home. She prayed two times a day which consisted of song, clapping of wooden sticks and sometimes a simple hand dance. Paper and wood made up the altar. In the center was a round mirror which was where “God” lived as I understood it as a child and I felt it magical that the mirror reflected my face when I would peer into it. Most magical was a small wooden box, a size of a medium sized match box, which contained small thin pieces of washi, with a small red stamp showing that it was “holy”. My grandmother used this on me multiple times as a bandaid. She would wet the paper and stick it right on the cut. It would seal the wound, stop the blood and dry up until it fell off with a new skin underneath. I would stare at the tiny white membrane of the tree fibers holding my skin together as it healed. The translucent paper would stay there wet or dry until the scab decided to let it go when the healing work was done.
The wooden frame to the window screen is typically made of light weighted red cedar wood. So soft it will dent with your fingernails but mend with light scrub going along the grain. The wood is immaculately joined to make a light weighted grid for paper support. The only thing that holds the paper on the gridded frame is glue traditionally made from watered down cooked rice, now replaced with a water based thin glue which can be melted back with simple application of water. The frame has a shallow guide where the paper should lay, easy to apply the new glue and washi when it is time to be replaced. The paper is thin and translucent. Remarkably, it shields the coldest of wind, insulates and lets in ambient light for all types of weather, essentially translating the outside light into the house like and inverted lampshade. My thesis paper house construction was just this, my physical concept of the home. To me, it is a container that places me in safety through a translucent minimal barrier between the natural elements. How thin and close can I get to be with the earth so my body, inept to survive without covering can still be connected with the dirt, soil, tree, leaves and water.
In the “Flood of the Century” my house in Kentucky did not like the water. In flooded houses, the drywall, cleverly and accurately named, crumbled where it touched the flood waters and the insulation fiber glass, capitulated the water like the heat it should absorb, destroying the houses from within. My house was no exception. Thousands of people lost their homes this way, spreading the flood-mud-mold every nook and cranny of the region. The flood water mud has a unique odor that lives in any flood victims nostrils for years to come. My house was a lucky house compared to others. It took many arms of miracle working volunteers to quickly remove the wet construction to save its foundation. I returned it to the family which I bought it from. Had I not hiked the trail and lived in my tent for four months, I am not sure if I understood the relationship I had with this house, and the land which I called home for nearly three years. The house was actually never mine, regardless of what the deed said. Despite thinking and repeating that I believed this was my forever home, apparently for me, there is no such thing and for once, it feels okay to me.
Houseless tumble weed, I am tumbling around a large territory from Kentucky to Japan. I think of the weight of my furniture that is shoved inside three little storage units assuming that someday they will be set free to the new “home”, whether it be mine or someone else’s. Once in an article by a writer who interviewed me, called me a “vagabond”. At the time I felt misrepresented and was puzzled how and why she felt that this word described me for it to be significant enough to be used in the subtitle to the article. Well, she was insightful and surely a good listener. My search for the perfect forever home seems to have truly made me a self recognizable vagabond. The good thing is, for once I am okay with this. For the trail has certainly proven to me that a paper thin wall of my tent and some comfy pad and bag on the ground can keep me pretty happy, if not happier than a brick and mortar house. Because I was raised in a culture of houses made in paper and wood. Because I was conditioned to squat and sleep on the ground. So, for now, let it be. Letting my body mend to where it came from as I listen to my body remember things, certainly sometimes much better than my mind is able to.