(So, I actually wrote this a bit ago, but finally felt like putting it out in the world.)
I just watched Nomadland, a newly released film that is quickly garnering awards and Oscar buzz after the Golden Globes. And, it made me uncomfortable. More so than that, it made me…afraid. The film felt like it was touching an unresolved, or honestly, unresolvable set of questions in my life, and in the history and choices of my own family.
My mother—though not spurned by a tangible grief and doing so at a very different time when the social safety net was somewhat more intact—also lived in ways familiar to the landscape of the film. I grew up without hot water in the house until I was about 7. We grew up without a toilet until I was a teenager. We lived in tipis and tents, in cabins, and homebuilt houses of her own making with materials from salvage yards. We lived in trailers, camper vans, VW buses. When my brother was small, they lived in a tree house, bathing in nearby hot springs and sleeping in the back of a dusty blue rusted pickup when it rained.
And yet, I never felt like our housing was precarious until much later, well into my adulthood. Like others in her generation, my mother chose that life as an alternative to the corporate economies of the aspiring middle classes. She had a strong political, social, and spiritual consciousness which guided her to create alternative ways of homemaking, community relationships, and livelihoods. My parents met at a Buddhist commune, immediately got pregnant and quickly split. While my father conquered a struggle with alcoholism, remarried, and rejoined society so to speak, my mother never did. All this was always, positioned as a reasonable decision to make, even a principled one, much like the sort of preacher character in Nomadland articulates it. Questions of how to live life closer to seasons, cycles, and most importantly, in ways that allowed us TIME to be together, were of central importance to her. She explained that the idea of being away from us for a 40-hour a week gig, was unthinkable. So, she worked from home in her own ways, as a single mom. She started businesses and got on food stamps when she could. It wasn’t that my mother aggrandized her choices, she just had reasons why she felt that they were viable and sound. The thing is, in a lot of ways, I don’t disagree with her.
Yet, watching the shame, anger, and fear Fern’s character experiences as she has to navigate a vehicle repair, quietly undid something in me. The way she cannot almost translate, to a normal person, the importance of this thing that is home or how irreplaceable it is even as it is crumbling. This scene took me back to a version of myself that is small and afraid. In my house, we got around in a string of 500-1000-dollar cars and when they needed repair, we drove them until they broke and then scrambled for the cost of fixing them. There wasn’t a relative to ask for money, most of the time, unlike in the film. I suspect my mother leaned on my dad some, but I’m not sure how willing he was to help, and he had a new family. More often than not, we sold a broken vehicle for cheap and simply got another that ran. We lived on food stamps, the food my mom grew and her small, fluctuating income from a string of cottage industry businesses she started and her occasional wages from tutoring or substitute teaching. When I was a teenager, she went back to school and we lived off of her student loans.
When we moved from Southern New Mexico to Northern, a lot of things changed. Taos is really expensive and living wages are hard to come by. In Gila in the south, the economic precarity is in reality far worse but things are cheaper and more rural so getting by looks really different. In Taos, we lived in no less than a half a dozen rentals over the course of several years from when I was 15 until I was in my early 20s, living at home on and off between stints in college or cohabitating with boyfriends. At some point, my mom bought a trailer in a trailer park. It was across from the a locally owned, eclectic pizza shop where my mother, brother, and sister all worked and were able to bring free food from home at night.
The trailer was right on the river as she would proudly explain. In it, my mother quickly set to tearing out the wood paneling, painting everything white, putting in shelving for all our many books, laying down tongue and groove flooring she’d gotten cheap from somewhere, tiling a countertop in a mosaic pattern to make it feel artistic and covering the walls with a kind of bamboo wallpaper. She put up a fence around the outside of the trailer for a little privacy. At one time, my sister, brother, mother, stepdad, and my boyfriend were all living there, in a 2-bedroom, one bathroom single-wide with a tiny added room that my mom built a futon bed into. She covered the windows with a stain-glass patterned tape for privacy. It didn’t feel poor. She explained that by paying 300 dollars in trailer park rent, we could sustain ourselves more realistically. She housed all of us, for a few hundred dollars a month. This is remarkable.
Yet, whenever we would move outward into the other circles of our lives the reaction from friends, many of whom were from wealthy backgrounds living in Taos and fetishizing its poverty while they worked on their spiritual growth, made me uncomfortable. Somehow, our trailer was a constant topic of conversation. To this day, 20 years later, people bring it up. “Remember when your mom lived in that trailer!” they will say, as if it is somehow a magical event.
I quickly learned then, that people wanted to know all about why/how/what it was like to live in a trailer, in that trailer park no less! This is where whiteness and class intersected in our lives as well. Our neighbors were mostly intergenerational Chicana/o families or immigrant families from Northern Mexico. Our white community mostly couldn’t believe we’d live there. Yes, there was gang activity there. Yes, it was loud on the weekends. Yes, we were the weird, white, hippie family living there but everyone mostly got along. My mom had a way of making people feel seen and comfortable and this meant we were relatively welcomed, odd as we were.
When I was 19 my mom was diagnosed with cancer. A month before, our neighbor’s rottweiler had killed her dog and broken her heart and she finally let her boyfriend convince her to move to Hawaii with him. I had spent two weeks helping her pack, clean, get rid of things, and get ready for the move while he had gone ahead to Maui. While there, he quickly started sleeping with someone else and broke her heart even more. Admittedly, he was a narcissist from the beginning, in a string of narcissist men, but that’s a whole other story. Regardless there she was; she’d sold the trailer to a young Mexican family for what she bought it for, she’d packed and sold all her stuff, she was jobless, and didn’t know what to do next with a cancer diagnosis.
My mom ended up living in her car for a while. It was a gold colored, Oldsmobile from the 90s with plush upholstery. Eventually she got on housing assistance, disability support, and did her amazing thing of always making it work like most poor people do. I remember seeing her at the coffee shop where I was working one afternoon, and her telling me she didn’t know where she’d park that night. I told her she could come to where I was, a tiny cabin in the woods where a friend let me live for free that summer. We spent some weeks like that until she sorted it out. But even now I don’t remember what that solution was, or the sequence of events. My memory fades in and out, papered over with worry, now 20 years past.
My mother died of her cancer. She never did chemo, radiation or surgery, because she had strong feelings about how sick it might make her and the impact on her quality of life. She was probably afraid. She died at a friend’s house. She had 2,000 dollars to her name and at the time, lived in an unfinished 100 square foot outbuilding that was heated with a space heater into which she’d moved a small hot water heater and where my brother had set up a drain to water the trees. Her toilet was an outhouse and as it became more difficult to move, it was just too hard in winter. I’m grateful that the community my mother built and chose, took care of her in the end, but there is a part of me that wishes it didn’t have to be that way.
There is an even bigger part of me that is terrified to ever end up in that situation myself, a part of me that sees how easy it is to get there. I think that’s part of what bothered me about the film. If you employ a typical white, middle class gaze to it, (as I assume you are meant to do as a viewer) you can focus on the beautiful scenery, the unexplored landscapes of loneliness, of grief and the places it drives you to. And around the corner is always a family member who can pull you out of it, who can pull you back if you let them. The grief in the film appears as highly individual and personal. Yet, in my experience, this vastly misconstrues the communities who live that way. It erases the sexual violence, or fear of it, that women face when they live in their vehicles (yes, I’ve done that too), the drug addiction that so often accompanies that life (luckily not my mother’s case), and the ravages of just, a constant grind for survival on the day to day. Survival as lifestyle if you will. Part of what Fern is learning in the film, is about how to have community and resilience, beautiful things to be sure, but those experiences are significantly different when they are necessities rather than lofty visions, when they are temporary vs. permanent.
But even in telling this story, a story I didn’t intend to be about my mother or her choices, a story that seems like it can’t appear in any other way than a cautionary tale, I know I haven’t gotten it quite right. It’s not just that I loved my mother, that I want to get it right. Or that she was amazing, beautiful, kind, complex, hardworking, and brilliant, because she was all those things. It’s that, she wasn’t wrong. Nor are the people in the film. She didn’t just make those choices from being damaged. But she also didn’t, like none of us do, live in a society with a broad range of options outside of the dominant narratives of the importance of wealth accumulation. And certainly, there are many versions of nomadic life, many beautiful, safe, freeing. It isn’t all bleak poverty, of course. I don’t intend to oversimplify, even if my narrative is a singular one.
However, today, one of the particular crises related to our late-stage capitalist culture, which we are mostly ignoring, is the housing crisis. We have so many stereotypes about how it is to be housed, or unhoused, about what and why that is. And it mostly affects women. I would never have called my mom homeless. I have a dear friend working in the house sector who can clearly map the ways in which state distribution of government funds is having difficulty making its way into the hands of the women who need it for their families. It is not enough in this country to say you need help, you have to prove you need it but if you are in a position of needing that help, being able to provide that proof is exceptionally difficult and is already part of the reason why you need help to begin with. We simply also don’t have systems and structures to deliver this aid and it is quite literally languishing in state budgets. Fern can at least work. My mom was often unable to.
Meanwhile, we have an ongoing boom and bust housing market. Even where I live in Michigan (trust me, it’s relatively undesirable here), houses sell in a matter of hours or days, well over asking price and have been doing so for the last several years. This cannot go on. It will go on. Meanwhile the evictions continue, houses sit empty.
And I think what is difficult in the film Nomadland, is that we don’t see any of that. The context of the film is a collapsing industrial sector, but the critique is redirected by the personal narrative. Similarly, we don’t see the unanswerable question of how to live your life outside of the normal range of polite society in a realistic way. Perhaps it is too much to ask. I cannot seem to answer it for myself and also take refuge in personal narrative. Yet, the film doesn’t make a convincing argument for why people leave their “normal” lives. It also doesn’t tell the whole story of how hard and sad it can be to live by yourself in a van. Or how normal it can be. Mostly it also doesn’t say how important it can be. The film makes it seem like a moment, with a rescue family waiting in the wings. For so many, that doesn’t exist. For so many of those communities, alcoholism, abuse, violence and untreated mental and physical illness are the landmines you have to navigate within your community without the aid of any resources. But the argument that those resources are violent, and often do more harm, as Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarsinha does in their beautiful book Care Work, is absolutely also true.
In my case, my mother’s story, her choices, were the best possible version of such a life. She was smart and educated, and her mental struggles were well hidden, even from herself. She left us with some land to live on, she lived the way she wanted, and she died with few regrets. So why is it that I am so afraid as I watch the film? I didn’t cry when I watched Nomadland, but I felt empty, I felt shaky and heavy, and a kind of hopeless I haven’t felt in a very long time. During this pandemic, when people ask me how I am, I very nearly always answer with a note of gratitude about my house. Our home. It is warm and comfortable, and we are not in danger of losing it. Even on part time salaries for both of us, we can afford to live here. It is a thing I do not take for granted one single second. My sister just bought her first house. She sends me pictures of the new furniture she is putting in, the outside play area she set up for her children, a photo of a sunny porch under an overhang against an adobe wall. It feels like a miracle, given our childhood. It is the first time I have ever not feared for her. She is home. We are finally home.