SPOILER ALERT: If you have not yet seen Nomadland (which is winning everything) and don’t want to read one word about it until you do, then stop reading. Otherwise, I don’t give much away in this post.
Hilary and I watched Chloe Zhao’s exceptional film, Nomadland, within days of its release on Hulu. It’s won the Golden Globes best picture award among many others. The film, based on the book by Jessica Bruder, is about a group of folks, mostly senior citizens, that travel around the country in a caravan of campers, RVs, and station wagons, setting up camps, finding temporary work when they need some dough, and providing a community of support.
One of the first things that struck me about the film is that, with the exception of Frances McDormand (who plays Fern), and David Strathairn (Dave), no one else is an actor—they play themselves—which gives the film its documentary feel.
This is the case with Bob Wells who is the defacto leader of the Nomads.
Towards the end of the film, the dialogue in these back-to-back scenes really grabbed me. “Swankie,” one of the long-time nomads, and an enduring soul, has recently passed over. Here are the excerpts from the script.
EXT. RTR – CAMPFIRE – NIGHT-A group of NOMADS gathered around a campfire to remember Swankie. One by one they toss a stone into the fire. Bob Wells walks to the fire and looks down into the flames.
BOB WELLS: “So long, Swankie. See you down the road.”
He tosses a rock into the flames. Fern stands next and tosses another rock. The embers rise up into the night sky, disappearing amongst the stars.
EXT. DESERT – NEXT DAWN The first light of the morning sky. Fern and Bob Wells sit together beside his van.
FERN: “I’ve been thinking a lot in the past year about why I didn’t just leave Empire when my husband Beau died. I could’ve left and started a new life sooner. But… I think I somehow made up my mind that if I just packed up and left, it would be as if Beau never existed. You see… Beau never knew his parents and we never had kids. But he loved Empire. He loved being there. He loved his work. Everybody loved him. So, I stayed. Same town, same house. It’s like my dad used to say ‘what’s remembered, lives’. (beat) I might’ve spent too much of my life just… remembering. Know what I mean, Bob?”
BOB WELLS: “I can relate… I rarely talk about my son, but he took his own life five years ago… Like you, I think I’ve made up my mind that I’m going to be his rememberer. I carry him everywhere I go. I realized I could honor him by helping people. It gives me a reason to go through the day. Some days that’s all I’ve got. (beat)
“Out here there’s a lot of people our age carrying grief and loss with them. Most of them don’t get over it, and that’s OK. That’s OK. (beat) One of the things I love most about this life is that there’s no final goodbye. I’ve met hundreds of people out here and we don’t ever say a final goodbye. We just say, ‘I’ll see you down the road.’ And I do. Whether it’s a month or a year or sometimes years, I see them again. I can look down the road and I feel certain in my heart that I’ll see my son again. You’ll see Beau again and you can remember your life together then.”
We who have suffered the death of someone we deeply love are very much like the Nomads, roaming the land, carrying our grief. We’re involuntary members of a tribe, not unlike the “houseless not homeless” traversing the countryside in Nomadland.
As Dr. Alan Wolfelt so eloquently writes in Companioning the Bereaved, “grief never resolves. While we can learn to reconcile ourselves to it, grief is transformative and life-changing. The grief journey requires that we go into the wilderness.”
Like Billy Bob Thornton said about the death of his younger brother, Jimmy. “You won’t ever get over it. The more you know it and embrace it, the better off you will be.”
Dr. Wolfelt observes that it is in the wilderness where we can find a place of solitude, empty ourselves, and begin to become refilled. “It is within the solitude of the wilderness where our heart is invited to observe signs of sacredness, to regain purpose, to rediscover love, to renew life.” It is in the wilderness where we can find and interact with “the mysterious, spiritual dimension of grief that allows us to go on living until we, too, die.”
Our friends and colleagues may think we sufferers are walking the same ground, travelling down the same roads they do. We’re not. Our loss has thrust us onto different paths, and into foreign, foreboding new territory—into our own wilderness.
It is on these new roads, with our fellow nomads, where we are introduced to our new selves. It is in this wilderness where we begin to adjust and adapt to the different person we are becoming. It is where we catch glimpses of and messages from the spiritual dimension—the “other side.”
As explored in the “‘Tis A Fearful Thing” chapter of WHEN THE VEIL COMES DOWN, Rabbi Rick Rheins teaches it is in our sanctuary, our place of solitude, where we can “connect to spiritual dimensions that we can sense, but not define. We can almost feel the presence of our loved ones bound gently with us.”
It takes practice and discipline. Rabbi Rheins says by doing the work we “strengthen the spiritual essence of those who have passed and those yet to be born, bringing us the gift of heavenly peace.”
Doing the work in our in our collective wilderness brings us and our loved ones closer to the veil, occasionally rewarding us and them with some step-throughs to “have a catch.”
And it is travelling down this new highway where we also learn that we never really say goodbye to our loves ones. “We’ll see them down the road.”
We nomads do this together.