Nomadland A Nomad in the Land of Loss

A Lonely Nomad in the Land of Loss

Loss can feel like a nowhere land of moving aimlessly from feeling to feeling, from place to place inside your mind. You’ve lost the home you know, with a person that you love. There’s sadness, anger, memories – as you grapple with the challenges of an uprooted life. Chloé Zhao’s Best Picture nominee, Nomadland, takes us there, with Frances McDormand’s Fern leading the way through the open expanses of loss. Loss is a journey, not unlike the one Fern takes in her trusty van, Vanguard. And, in the film’s hopeful story of Fern and other nomads she meets, what do we learn about grief?

A Lonely Nomad’s Vast Land of Loss

 Beau died. The recession hit. And, in 2011, Fern lost her job when the US Gypsum plant shut down on January 31, in Empire, Nevada. She’d worked there alongside Beau for years and stayed there after he died. How to survive now? There’s been so much loss.

With nowhere to go and no house to live in, Fern builds out a van – Vanguard, she calls her – stores the unnecessary belongings, hugs an old jacket of Beau’s close to her heart, gives it a kiss, and hits the road. After all, she doesn’t need much of anything, right? Attachments aren’t easy now. All she needed was Beau and a job. But now Beau’s gone.

Fern sings a Christmas carol as she sets off on the road to her temporary holiday job at an Amazon Warehouse. There she meets a friendly Linda May who takes her in and introduces Fern to all her co-workers. One, a tattooed woman, sports a tattoo that reads: “Is home just a word or something you carry within you?” Well … home was Beau.

Linda May, who lives in a van too, tells Fern how she found Bob Wells and nomad life. She draws a map to Arizona where Bob’s support group gathers “for people that need help.” “No,” Fern says, “I’m not going to come.” She can’t allow any need. Not now.

“I’m Fine, I Don’t Need Anything” & Quick “Bye’s

“Don’t worry about me, I’m fine” is all Fern can say to concerned friends. Offered a church bed when it’s freezing outside: “No, thanks. I’m going to be good …” That’s what she tells herself. Trying to rely on anyone is scary when you’ve already lost so much.

Yet, out on the road alone, really alone for the first time, an instinct and need for contact takes her to Arizona, Bob Wells’ welcoming group, and her new friend, Linda May.

We watch Fern, as people share their stories of hardship along with hearty food. She wants to join in, hungry for contact, but can only take so much. Bob says: “I think you’ve come to the right place. Real community, a Tribe, makes all the difference.”

Can she let it? Not yet. As soon as Fern makes a connection, there’s a quick “Bye.” Loss makes you scared of opening up. You tell yourself: “I don’t need anything,” even when you do. New friends, Linda May and Swankie, help. Dave (David Strathairn) too, but he’s scarier. As they dance, “Fall in love again” plays. That’s not where Fern can be.

“Are you married?” a woman at the RV park asks. “Yes, I am. But my husband died.” She points to Fern’s wedding band: “That ring is a circle and it never ends and you may not be able to take it off if you tried.” Fern smiles through tears: “I don’t think I can.”

If Only Love Was Never Saying Goodbye

Fern’s still with Beau, sad without him, but she does need friends, as timid as she is. When you’re a nomad, though, going from physical place to physical place, scavenging for work, running into problems along the way, it’s not so easy to keep up with friends. Maybe that’s safer? Yet, nomads are family. They take care of each other.

When Fern gets a flat tire, Swankie sets her right: “You don’t have a spare? You’re out here in the wilderness. Take it seriously. You have to have a way to get help, have to be able to change your own tire.” You have to fend for yourself now, after loss.

Being a Nomad means no ties, no roots, no more loss. Out on the road, in the land of other nomads, there are people that do understand. Bob Wells says through his tears:

“My son took his life 5 years ago … I couldn’t understand how I could be in this world when he was not … I love this life. You never have to say goodbye. It’s just, ‘I’ll see you.’ It might be a few months, a year, a few years …  but I always see them down the road.” That’s what you do, in Nomadland.

Fern moves in the vast expanse of her grief, as boundless as the land she travels in. Sometimes, when the others drive off, she seems to be walking through a ghost town.

And she is, she’s living with the ghosts of her loss. If only love was never saying goodbye.

 What Does It Take to Open Up to Love Again?

It’s hard to open up to love again. Sometimes it’s fear of memories fading. Sometimes it’s guilt that makes you feel you could have done more: “Maybe I should have pressed that morphine drip a little harder, let him go sooner and so he wasn’t in so much pain.” Swankie wisely says: “Maybe he wanted to stay with you as long as he could.”

Fern felt the same about Beau: “Beau didn’t have parents, we never had kids, if I left, it would be like he never existed, I couldn’t pack up and move on. I couldn’t leave him … So, I stayed as long as I could.” If you’re afraid he’s totally gone, you can’t move on.

Then there’s Dave. His guilt might make him miss a new opportunity with his son, soon to be a father himself. “He didn’t like it that I wasn’t around much when he was young … I guess I forgot how to be a dad.” “Go now,” Fern tells him, “be a Grandpa.”

“You want to come with me?” Dave asks. “Maybe I can visit sometime … Bye …” Yes, Fern’s too scared. And, later, when Dave knocks on her door, Fern doesn’t answer. Before leaving to drive off down the road, he leaves his address wrapped around a stone.

Fern does visit and hears Dave and his son, James (Tay Strathairn), play a moving piano duet. They have another chance to be father and son because of Dave’s willingness to open himself up. Some people you don’t have to lose. But you have to be ready.

A trusting baby puts his hand in yours. But to let someone fill the big hole that’s been left when someone you love dies? Fern leaves quickly, silently, without her usual “Bye.”

Moving on “Down the Road” From Loss, in Nomadland

A year later, Fern takes off from the Amazon Warehouse for Swankie’s Memorial. Before she died, Swankie taught Fern about moving on, as she remembered kayaking:

“Swallows were flying all around, reflecting on the water so it looks like I’m flying with [them] under me, over me, all around me, little babies hatching out and eggshells falling out of nests, landing on the water. It was just so awesome … I felt my life was complete.”

There can be a new life, that’s what Swankie’s telling Fern. Nothing can take your memories. It means opening up (as nomads do), to who is coming next, down the road.

Fern tearfully touches Beau’s photo. A song plays: “Love is here to stay …” There are goodbyes, but love doesn’t stop. On the road again, she heads back to Empire, to let go.

“You don’t want any of this stuff?” “No, I’m not going to miss one thing.” Things are not Beau. Fern walks through their old house one last time. Opening the front door, she looks out at the wide, open space of land going forever, with “nothing in the way.”

Fern gets back into Vanguard. As her dad said: “What’s remembered, lives.” Is she ready to head towards Dave? Maybe. If you’ve grieved, nothing’s in the way. Nomadland’s ending dedication says it all: “to the ones who had to depart. See you down the road…”

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