Enduring the crucible of the Covid era has led many of us to reevaluate how and where we want to live and work. Demographers are sussing it out. Distance from our bosses and coworkers, no commute except from the bedroom to the living room, and more time to think about life’s big questions provide plenty to ponder. Are we really following our bliss? If we knew we would die next week, what would we regret not having done? For me these questions were compounded last November when my longtime partner, painter Dorothy Goode, died suddenly and unexpectedly at age 51 of a pulmonary embolism unrelated to Covid. This essay isn’t about Dorothy per se, so I won’t belabor the incredible shock and pain of losing her, but I will mention that on a logistical level her death necessitated that I organize her studio after she died and, even more agonizingly, sort through her books, photographs, letters, and personal effects.
As all too many of you know, going through the belongings of someone you loved and lost — stuffed animals and Crayon drawings from their childhood, high-school yearbooks, letters they kept from former lovers, rocks they kept from meaningful places — inevitably fast-forwards you to the day when someone else will be poring through your own stuff, pondering why you kept what you kept. What does it mean that a person lived and died, had friends and paramours and careers, strengths and foibles and pet peeves, dreams that came true, others that didn’t? All our imperfect strivings reduce to a roux of finite mementos, a collection of synaptic firings we call memories, and a box of ashes in a discreet tote bag handed to you by a person in a uniform in a funeral parlor. When you add a beloved spouse’s death to the sapping anxiety and claustrophobia of Covid life, your entire conception of your future transmogrifies in a heartbeat.
I moved to Portland, Oregon, 21 years ago this month, and the city has blessed me with hundreds of friends and professional allies. I’ve been fortunate to have many rewarding projects elsewhere, but Portland for all its faults and growing pains is home. Lately, though, I find myself thinking about leaving. In the aftermath of Dorothy’s death, this city feels like a ghost town to me, and I’m one of the ghosts. Relocation and reinvention beckon, and as the lifestyle and cultural-trend articles keep proclaiming, we don’t have to be tethered anymore in this age of Zoom. Freelance writers presumably have more mobility than ever. Grab your laptop, hit the road, and join the ranks of the “digital nomads.” I could be one of those, couldn’t I? Haven’t I already? For this very publication I’ve filed remote dispatches from the Biennale of Sydney and the Yokohama Triennale, written about modern dance in Auckland and Orthodox churches in Siberia, always relating these topics to wider ideas in art history and contemporary art.
I daydream (naïvely?) of a post-Covid world in which international travel is safe again, freeing me to migrate from one country to the next, immersing myself in the art, architecture, and music of sundry cultures. A month in Berlin, a month in Edinburgh, staying in hostels or Airbnbs, Dakkar, Mumbai, Buenos Aires. I picture a quaint homestead in the Caribbean or Southeast Asia, perched on a bluff overlooking turquoise waters, temperate breeze wafting through French doors, my laptop aglow as I tap out my latest cultural commentary, art digestifs, perhaps even a novel or memoir. Surely I don’t have to be anchored in New York, much less humble Portland, to pen pithy meditations on an art world we are constantly told has gone global. I can opine about NFTs and parse the fate of mid-level galleries from Phuket or St. Lucia, can’t I? Perhaps. Or perhaps I’d just blow out my flipflop, step on a pop top, find myself visiting “art galleries” proffering dolphin sculptures and parrot portraits, and finally crawl back to Portland with my tail between my sunburned legs. “Hey, everybody, remember me? Me — Richard Speer. Huh? S-P-E-E-R. I used to be a medium-sized fish in this small pond!”
It may be I need to be grounded somewhere, but somewhere new and different. I always wanted to live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but Dorothy thought we should wait till we were older. I could make that move now without being overridden. I do know people in Santa Fe (ten, to be exact) — but that’s nowhere near the support system I have in Portland, so I hesitate. If there’s anything I’ve learned from our annus horribilis, it’s that there’s no substitute for real friends in real time and space who’ll come to your girlfriend’s studio at the drop of a hat, help you lug heavy things around, offer their pickup trucks, and let you store stuff in their basement. Who’ll show up on your patio in the dead of January bearing home-cooked food, then invite you over to their outdoor fire pit the following week for a distanced visit and a glass of hot mulled wine. I couldn’t have made it through this ordeal without the friends who rallied to my side. Do I really want 1,400 miles between them and me?
It’s reassuring to tell ourselves we can reinvent ourselves at 50 as easily as we could at 30. Then again, it sounds like a lot of work. In middle age, you want things to be a little more comfy. Theoretically you’ve already established a reputation and have less to prove. The fire in the belly feels more like a warm glow as you realize that no, you’re not going to become a canonical figure studied by historians 400 years hence, and you come to terms with that. It’s enough — it’s damned fortunate, in fact — to have fulfilling work, modest success, dear friends, travels that widen your worldview, and above all, the love of someone you adore. “Wherever we are in the world,” I told Dorothy more than once, “as long as I’m with you, I’m home.” I can’t say that anymore. My comfy-ish, non-canonical life has turned upside-down. Reinventing myself is not an option; the universe has reinvented me against my choosing, and the only question is where my next chapter will be set.
I’m giving myself a year to try out different paradigms. I’m looking for other apartments in Portland. Heading to Florida for a month to visit my parents, who are in their 70s. I’m going to spend September and October in Santa Fe and see if it still beckons me. January and February, if it’s Covid-safe, I’m looking into Airbnb’ing in St. Lucia and seeing if the writing gigs keep coming even though I have a snorkel in my mouth. A radical change of scenery will either help me heal or make me feel more isolated. If all I do is sit under a coconut tree, missing Portland, that will tell me something valuable. I don’t know that the world can ever be my oyster again, but maybe, just maybe it could be my office. I’ll let you know how it goes.
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