I recently streamed the film Nomadland and it may just be the most perfect movie to view as our pandiversary approaches. Yep, one year – one endless year in lockdown. The movie is adapted from the book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century by journalist Jessica Burder. Fern, a sixty-something-year-old woman, played by the astonishing Frances McDormand, is a fictional character that does not appear in the book but is based on a composite of many of the real-life vandwellers Burder followed for almost two years. Here’s the basic plot – Fern puts most of her possessions in a storage unit, tricks out a weathered van to live in, and hits the open road of the American West. Her husband Bob has died and the town they lived in has been dissolved after the closing of the local gypsum plant. There is literally nothing left for her as she leaves Empire, Nevada to find seasonal work at an Amazon fulfillment center in Virginia. She’s got a few personal belongings and a good bit of unattended wanderlust as she heads out alone.
Are you all in? Okay, life can’t be all Bridgerton. Stay with me just a while as I connect some existential dots. I’ve always appreciated clever symbolism and Fern’s storage unit was a pandemic Pandora’s box for me. Most of her belongings are mundane – old furniture, some lamps, clothing – but one special box is filled with dishes her father gave her when she graduated from high school. The pattern is Autumn Leaf and we learn later in the film that he had collected the set at yard sales over the years. The only other item she pulls out of the pile of boxes is a denim jacket – her late husband’s – and she hugs it to her chest and smells it – longing for the scent of her lost life.
I had a storage unit for a couple of years after I moved in with my wife. I had owned a three-bedroom house and was downsizing into her condo. You’ll need some backstory here. My dear wife was a minimalist long before Marie Kondo made it fashionable. She values experiences over things. True story – the first time I came to her condo when we started dating, I thought it was the model unit. I’m serious – there was just not much stuff. I’m pretty sure I broke into a cold sweat wondering how this would ever work out if we got together for the long haul. I had some stuff. Quality stuff, but quantity, too.
I pared down when I moved in with her and rented a storage unit for things I would save for when we moved into a bigger place. The transition to minimalism was a rocky one for me in the beginning. I can laugh out loud about it now. Early on my wife said to me, “what you own, owns you.” Back then, I didn’t mind being owned by a lot of pottery. Today, I no longer have a storage unit and when it came time to get rid of it, I only kept a few antique pieces that belonged to my parents. I either gave away or sold the rest. And guess what? I don’t miss any of it. And I’m grateful for a spouse who would never say I told you so. Oh, and we never did move to a bigger place. We decided to live small and travel large. Okay, we may have questioned that decision more than a few times during the past 12 months.
We’ve all had to store a lot in our metaphorical storage units this past year – luxuries like trips and dinner parties and eating inside restaurants – and more precious things like visits with loved ones. I haven’t seen my sister in California in 14 months – since Christmas over a year ago. She works in healthcare and has had half a dozen COVID exposures at work. She is now fully vaccinated, and I am sleeping better at night. We speak on the phone every day and sometimes we get teary when we wonder when we will be able to see each other again. I always miss her but knowing she has been in the epicenter of the pandemic has been excruciating. That’s probably why I have little patience for those whining about frivolous matters like vacations. Not to go all Melania on you, but, no, I really don’t care that you haven’t been able to go to Europe in a year.
Now don’t get me wrong – I’ve been no role model for selflessness during this pandemic. I’ve had more than a few breakdowns over having to make dinner for the 18th time in a week. Those meltdowns have sometimes ended with an entrée of a peanut butter sammie paired with a nice Malbec. One night before bed a few weeks ago, I told my wife that the white dishes she has had for over a dozen years were sucking my soul dry and that I desperately needed some color in my dinner plates. I give her a lot of credit. After listening to my emotional nonsensical monologue, she paused a few seconds before responding and then said tenderly, “I didn’t realize this was so important to you.” I felt heard and sometimes that’s what you need most in the middle of a pandemic. Note: We still haven’t gotten any new plates because I seemed to have gotten over my deep dish anguish.
Some of us put hair color and professional cuts in our pandemic storage units. I haven’t seen my stylist in a year. If you had told me this a year ago, I would have laughed in your face. No restaurants are one thing, but no cut and color? Am I an animal? Well, now that you mention it, my wife now lovingly refers to me as a silver fox. The fox part is obviously quite generous, but the silver is accurate. I’ve gone a bit grey and I don’t hate it at all. 500,000 dead and counting really helps put one’s hair color in perspective. Now, I know I’m lucky that my wife discovered mad skills as a haircutter during lockdown. She’s cut my hair on the front porch, the deck and in the bathroom when the weather turned cold. She really enjoys doing it and it is has become a pandemic ritual that we both find quite settling. I’ll go back to my stylist eventually, but probably not for color. And with the money I’ll save, I too can go to Europe.
Frances McDormand cuts her own hair in Nomadland. I bet she cuts her own hair in her real life, too. She has long been one of my favorite actors and I am always drawn to her authenticity. I saw an interview with her the other day in which she recalled a review of her Oscar winning performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. The critic wrote that “a close-up of Frances McDormand’s face is like visiting a national park.” McDormand loves that description and she loves the story her face tells. And it is a perfect vantage point from which to view the bare natural landscapes we see in Nomadland as Fern moves from park to park following the seasonal work.
While Fern’s journey in the film is a solitary one, she is buoyed by her new community of nomads. They share meals, help each other out and listen to each other’s stories of loss and love. Their grief is tinged with the shared hopefulness of wanderlust. In one of the most moving scenes of the film, Fern has a soulful conversation with Bob Wells, the author and YouTuber who is a vandweller guru. She tells him that her father always told her that what is remembered lives. She says wistfully, “I maybe spent too much of my life just remembering Bob.”
I know I’ve been guilty of that – too much remembering. Losing my parents the way I did – only seven months apart from each other when I was still relatively young and the cascade of collateral damage that followed that loss – broken relationships and bad decisions – made me yearn for a happier time. Like Fern, I have been looking back for too long. This pandemic has made me turn my gaze more forward to something beyond my borders. No, this doesn’t mean I’m buying a van and hitting the road, but I’ve spent a lot of pandemic time working on emptying out some of my emotional storage units – the one filled with regret and shame for past decisions, the one filled with expectations of others that will never be met, and the one filled with burdens I no longer want to carry. I want to travel lighter when this lockdown is over. I want more room for discovery.
Near the end of Nomadland, Fern returns to Empire to empty out her storage unit. We see the back of a pickup truck filled with her belongings. “Are you sure you don’t need any of this stuff?” the owner of the facility asks her. Fern has a peaceful look of certainty on her beautifully worn face as she responds, “No. I don’t need any of it. I’m good. I’m not gonna miss a thing.”