A Stranger’s Neighborhood is a memoir in essays that, by turns, focuses on childhood and home, adulthood and travel. A book of journeying and sojourning in the literal sense, it is also the story of a journey into the self, the past, and our sojourn among others—familiar and foreign—in the present. The stranger’s neighborhood: that place of origins, that place which first shapes a person; also that zone which the travelers enters, wherever the travel journeys, and where one lives when one is a native. It is as much a metaphysical condition as a bodily circumstance. Morrill examines home-life and the wandering life, as his travels bring him encounters with a goddess, a president, racecars drivers and runaway teenagers, pubic relations executives, beggars and boors, artists and gropers, a Nobel laureate, human wrecks, a mad philatelist. Along the way, he probes issues of family and coming of age, of living abroad with foreigners, of substance abuse, money and the imagination, culture shock, lust, vanished friendship, American notions of failure, the fugitive souls, marriage and divorce, fatherhood, and the comforts and confines of staying put.
Sleeping on a Door
In Gyantse, Tibet, an ancient woman approached me as I gawked at an old man napping in a temple courtyard. At first, I thought she might chastise me for my rudeness. But she spoke softly, in a language unintelligible to me, and her eyes were exceptionally kind and wet, made so, perhaps, by illness. With hands as wrinkled and smooth as shell, she led me onward, and I — with the traveler’s unjustifable trust — followed. Why did I think she might be trying to show me some special part of the temple rather than deliver me to a pair of waiting robbers?
Around the corner of the building we ambled, and almost as quickly as she had appeared, she drifted away, leaving me in the company of a half dozen begging urchins. Like most of the children I’d seen in Tibet, they were ragged — with runny noses and the snare drum cough. I distributed the cookies in my knapsack. Then I sat on a stone and wrote a note in my journal. In recurring wonder, the children ran their hands up and down my forearm hair. They also strained over the mysterious words on my page. Finally, one of them held out his hand, and I drew a letter on his open palm. He leapt back and squealed happily. Soon, each child mustered the courage to receive a mark.
Later, in the town’s crowded truckstop-hostel, I lay on the only bed available — a door across two sawhorses — and gazed at stars through the broken pane of a latticed window. I’d been in the country a few weeks, most of them in and around the capital Lasa. Now I was heading cross country — to the Nepal border — with a hodge-podge of other roamers in a city bus we had secured through a fidgety black-marketeer called “Secret Steve.” The stars elated me because I saw them framed by a land famously forbidden to outsiders, jealous of its remoteness, a place which had briefly allowed me entrance. I had been drawn to Tibet more by its myth of inaccessibility than its myth of spiritual uniqueness. I’d also come because I’d been teaching at a university in Changchun, in the northeast of China, and summer recess had permitted me to escape the routine there.
That old woman at the temple and those children were provincials, I thought, like myself. And, of course, they were so much unlike me. One of the children had written in my journal, and I, too, had peered confusedly at a page. How mystified my Chinese friends in Changchun had been by my wish to visit this distant domain! To them — citizens of the nation occupying Tibet militarily for the last four decades — it seemed vacant and dreary. Why not go to Beijing? they asked. Or maybe Shanghai!
Thinking of them, I recalled that surveyor-spy who in the last century had traversed a closed Tibet by posing as an ordinary pilgrim, recording his survey by tallying his footsteps on a string of prayerbeads. How much had his purpose been altered by his journey? How much had he tried to maintain an unvaried stride, as uniform, say, as the length of a supplicant’s body crossing the land one prostration at a time?
Thus I lay, with a door knob gouging my hip, a kink confidently investing my shoulder, supine on some rigid, ambiguous plane.
Sleeping on a door. While this seemed to me then an ideal image of a stranger in a strange land, it seems now an even more apt embodiment of one’s relation to the first home place — in my case, Iowa, a place existing, for me, increasingly in memory only.
On that door in Gyantse, I was as far from Iowa as I could be and yet no distance at all. I had begun to realize that my hometown of Des Moines was a foreign land always near. I had left it years before. It had become forbidden to me inasmuch as the door to my time there could never be reopened, though I might dream a way through that barrier and support. Still, I wondered then as now: am I on the inside or outside?
This is the quandary of being from somewhere that made you. There is a knocking on the door: is it something you want to let in . . . or lock out? Is such a choice possible?
Iowa, my intimate Tibet. So far from an ocean. Horizontal to anyone not on foot or bicycle. But, like the brain, crowded with obscure, intricate valleys, habitats of undiscovered species and undocumented life. No Shangri-la. No current army of occupation. This is the country of the accent erroneously called neutral, with its theology of dry humor and economics of sincere routine, where people make room for you in public, excusing themselves for passing within a foot. Territory of farms foreclosed upon, spawning ground of syndicated advice columnists and runaways to the glamorous, predatory metropolises.
Its dreamer and progeny, I still survey its monotonous grandeur, its full capacity to bore. Des Moines, for instance, which seems to symbolize for the rest of America the aspiring capital of humdrum; home of the dumb, appreciative audience; Stucksville. It greatly comforts those superior to its niceness. And in certain hearts it begets an anguish that beats metaphysically. But one is born lucky if simple repetitions — the sunset or the odor of snow — also please him, and I am lucky. Nothingness is everything in that landscape. I have loved it so often, and ignored it: the meager brook among the osage orange; the ripped-up rail line; the nighttime gleam of downtown’s three proud office buildings. Why do I still leave it and try to make more of it than it is?
I have sometimes wanted to be one of them, the people who could stay there. I huddled with them in the southeast corner of our basements, sirens wailing overhead, the June sky green, knobby, and pendulous. We listened for the wind to ebb and that ominous quiet to settle on everything around us, that legendary silence before the roar of the tornado so often described as like a thousand railroad trains. That sound never swept over us, and we were grateful. Just as were oddly proud of the number of cows killed in a December freeze: the more fatalities the more memorable our weather. I failed to belong irrevocably to this huddling, to that climate of a spirit one must endure long after one leaves it, though that has been my greatest success. No one there knows how clean he is, how plentiful his uncomplicated, unwholesome food. Some part of me still longs to belong there, and this could happen someday — though I’m also proud of my exile and call it my belonging.
Like those children in Gyantse, touching me in amazement, I sometimes recall those encounters, however brief, which impressed themselves on my growing up. I study the mark I received. I see, for instance, a neighbor, Mr. Mills, who as a teenager in the 1930s worked at the medical dispensary in Dexter, Iowa. There police brought in the blasted body of Buck Barrows and his wife Blanche blinded in the ambush at the Dexfield Park campground. Buck’s more famous brother, Clyde, and Clyde’s lover, Bonnie Parker, had escaped the posse. Nonetheless, Mr. Mills could hold up his hand before me as a child and claim it had touched the bullet wounds of a notorious villain, an evil nature actually among us.
Or maybe I see again Lanita Connett — to whom I never spoke — just as our eighth grade teacher, Mr. Simonson, whispered to her the news that her father had died suddenly. I see that utter change as the horribly unforeseeable swept into her features, for the first time, surely. She wept while she awaited the car coming for her, and the class looked at her for a long, purgatorial minute before she was at last excused.
Or, maybe, I happen upon someone like Dorothy, the painter, who pursued me in my first year of college, intrigued by my whiteness. She was, I think, collecting exotic experience, as I imagined I was. Her beauty and her blackness fascinated me (how could they be separate?), but the latter frightened me. I ran from her, still in the age when people like my parents referred openly to blacks as “coloreds,” when Italians on the south side of Des Moines made up the town ethnic group in Anglo minds and eating in a tratorria there was thought a daring excursion.
Who, or what, led such beings to me then? Among them and so many others, I carved, in relief, on a redwood plank: Be What You Can Be, Not What You Are. Words not mine but from a pop song. Words not outlined on the plank by my hand but by another more skilled. Words, however, that I worshipped for their permission, in all the complacency of the youthfully desperate, who cannot stop to wonder if their capacity might render anything but good. I bestowed them, as a birthday gift, upon my highschool girlfriend, who knew I was leaving before I did, who sensed better than I what could hold her well. Such are the materials and terms out of which one may urge oneself, by turns reckless and timid, toward what one cannot imagine. Such, too, is a door to dream upon.
“A threshold is a sacred thing,” wrote Polybius. The cemeteries of the east side of Des Moines have begun to house stones bearing names unpronounceable — and sometimes illegible — to the natives of midwestern English, itself an immigrant language. Sleepers of a different sort, these dead bore their own Tibets to Iowa and relinquished them for a more enigmatic journey, a present they can’t bring back to this second, or third, or fourth homeland.
And what soil is this? Next door to my brother’s house on the west side, a Bosnian couple in their fifties, refugees from genocide, planted tomatoes in the backyard garden plot. A yellow, two-story colonial fronts it, the residence of citizens who had donated the plot as part of a resettlement program. The couple stooped over their work, the man wearing an odd felt cap, a scarf wrapped tightly around the woman’s face almost like a habit — figures from the generic old country, the former time which is somehow still ours. They were — can this be?—new. My brother waved to them, respectful of the murder they had witnessed “over there,” which he had witnessed on television. My brother who, at twelve, had decided to escape by stealing our father’s car. Barely able to see over the steering wheel, he drove west until he ran out of money and gas, at our grandmother’s house in Omaha.
A preserved buffalo herd now roams Jester Park, north of Des Moines. Teenage boys are smoking their first public cigars in Younkers Tea Room. The bookmobile teems with grade schoolers on Dubuque Avenue, one of them checking out volumes of Sartre she cannot possibly comprehend. Old Dominic at the kiln on the south side gains local fame through the remarkable number of bricks he can stack on his head. His picture graces the newspaper, but the copy doesn’t mention his encounter with the Virgin Mother among the pallets stacked in the warehouse.
In the life of my starting place, they are a few beads in a suspect pilgrim’s hand. Trivial, perhaps, in isolation; in aggregate, part of a summing up of self lost in the secret one tries to tell of the person he has become. My stride has varied, helplessly. The world is round but one never really comes back. Character moves through us, between us. Iowa, where a youngest son drives a tractor all one summer day in only his BVDs. Des Moines, where a mother honks her car horn for her children as they pass through the tunnel south of the capitol and later plays a loud Medea at the community theater. In Gyantse, I awoke at dawn with them and others like the birds fluttering in and out through the missing windowpanes. Strangers rose all around me, some shy about rummaging through their belongings, others quick to the mirror, each of us bearing necessary and unintended confidences.