Monday, January 3, 2011

The Center of the Universe

When I was in college, I had this teacher named Matt Thomas. He was one of those people who make you desperate to figure out how he got to be the way he was, because he just kind of did whatever he wanted, which is what I've always wanted to do.

Anyway, how I became as familiar with Matt's peculiarities as I eventually did is a long story which I will tell you one day if...well, if you ask me, I guess.  But here are ten things I knew about Matt:

1. He was a giant man with a big, brown beard.
2. In his youth, he had spent time in the Coast Guard, which was noteworthy because the only thing I can really picture Matt doing in the Coast Guard is telling the Coast Guard to go fuck itself.  
3. He made his own pants.  Some of them were lavender.
4. No matter where he was or who he was with, Matt refused to stifle his farts. Some of them were deafeningly loud.
5. He traveled with a bunch of little color-coded nylon bags. In the pink one, he carried everything he'd need to make a fire; in the blue one, teabags; in the orange one, fun-sized candy bars. There were lots of them.
6. He took both reading and eating very seriously. He always read while he ate.
7. Rather than put his fine old dog through the indignity of euthanizing her at the vet's office, he carried her to the top of a mountain and shot her in the head.
8. He bought one raincoat in like 1990 and kept sending it back to the company for a new one every time he thought it was about to start leaking. By the time I met him, he had gotten six free raincoats this way.
9.  His laugh was really soft and high-piched for a man his size, and if you ever wondered whether Matt was laughing at you or with you, it's probably because he was laughing at you.
10. He was unusually devoted to Missoula, Montana.

So, when I was 19, Matt fascinated me. Seriously, he was just this 40 year old man--and grumpy, by the way--and I hung on his every word like he was telling me how to disable a bomb. The first day I met him we were driving around Missoula--a place I'd never been--and he broke one of his long, slightly uncomfortable silences with "Missoula, Montana: Center of the Universe!"

Having once been 19 years old myself, I feel pretty qualified to contend that 19 year olds know basically nothing. Less than nothing.  Because, deep down, the one thing they're completely sure of is their own ignorance, and they spend most of their time trying to hide from the world this one pure, humiliating, self-evident truth. When I was 19, the only thing I really wanted was to know something important. Matt obviously knew tons of important stuff, and if he said Missoula, Montana was the Center of the Universe...well, seemed like as good a thing to know as any.

Matt died of a heart attack when I was 24, and a year later, when I was living in Athens, Georgia, going through a bit of a rough patch, I decided the best thing to do for myself was to move to the Center of the Universe. As it happened, it was the very best thing I could have done--but not for the reasons you'd think.

Admittedly, Missoula is wonderful. You can hike up a mountain every day if you want. You can choose between adorable farmer's markets to visit on Saturday mornings. People make eye contact and smile because, why not? In Missoula, it's not difficult to be happy and to love your fellow humans, and I'm grateful that Matt got to live there until the end--in what he called his querencia.

The idea of querencia comes from bullfighting. Sometimes at the end of a fight, a matador will discover that the bull he is about to kill has found a special place in the ring where he feels more emboldened, safer and more assertive than in any other spot. Obviously, a bull that has found its querencia is a lot tougher to kill. Maybe I thought moving to Missoula--to Matt's place--would make me tougher to kill.

But here's the thing: one person's querencia might just be some other person's Really Nice Place To Visit.  After all, if everybody had the same querencia, nobody could be happy being there. I noticed living in Missoula that I really liked certain things about it, but it felt kind of like I had left one of my organs behind in Georgia--my spleen, maybe?--which went on observing the seasons of the Southeast with all the heat, haze, rainstorms, daffodils, and sunsets through bald forests in winter. 

It was too weird a feeling, being somewhere my spleen wasn't; so I came back.

And I've been back in Athens for a few years, and here's the thing: this is it. This is my place. And the reason I know is that people are always asking me things like, "Don't you want another baby? Don't you want a dog? A bigger house? Where are you going to move after Bryan finishes school?" And questions like that don't seem to bother me when I'm here, because not having answers just means I don't really have to do anything different than what I did today.  And today was pretty good. Answers will come when they're ready.

Anyway, I was just thinking about the first day I met Missoula, Montana and Matt--that day we were driving around town in his rusted out Suburban and he told me we were in the Center of the Universe. And just today I remembered a part of that conversation I've forgotten for so long--I think I un-rememebred it because it embarrassed me and caught me off guard at the time.

Immediately after he said, "Missoula, Montana: Center of the Universe!" Matt turned to me from the driver's seat and asked conversationally, "So, where's the Center of the Universe for you?"

Well, Matt--I wish I could tell you in person, but nearly 15 years later, I think I've got an answer.


  1. J - Amazing post. I just got back to Seattle after a week's vacation in Missoula, trying to figure out whether it is the center of my universe or not. I greatly appreciate the prescient assistance your words are providing as I attempt to reflect on my mixed emotions. Happy New Year - BFO

  2. I LOVE this post and I LOVE you and I would really have loved to meet a man that made his own pants. I agree wholeheartedly with you. There is something magical about this place we call home. I'm not sure what it is exactly, but the longer I stay here the more certain I am that this is indeed my querencia.

  3. Ain't my daughter a good writer...she know all kind of stuff and words!

    Ya'll younguns' listen, I ain't gonna say this but once.

    I decided Mother Earth... where ever... was fine with me when I was ten. Where ever you are is where you are.

    Careers were HIGHLY overrated. I could tell that early in life by how much people bitched about HAVING to go to work. It basically interefers with the free flow of one's life. I didn't like the rat race one little bit. Took seven long, painful years to learn what I already knew.

    What was at the end of a long dirt road was a career for me, if rambling around the country could be counted as a career.

    Living life is important. I still believe this. I have felt like my career title is Fortunate Hobo.

    I did tend to stick to the warmer less dry, more deciduous mid latitudes up above or down under.

    I think, by the comments to this post, Jessie hit a nerve in the audience.

    It's VERY annoying that the little dragon on one's shoulder keeps whispering something you can't understand. You will, in time.

    You have to earn that querencia. Merit badges. The bull learns where to make a last stand...a merit badge for hard sevice.

    I have never been in love with Danielsville. It's at the end of a long dirt roads for me. Not the best, but very adequate.

    The knees tell you before the brain does. I landed due to querencia indifference, I suppose. the knees said it was time. I got a lot merit badges.

    Finally, find someone to have bad knees with. I think it help.