Featured photo: Anton Sahler, Idomeni, Greece.
I began and ended this year in Oregon, with several exhausting, inspiring, heartbreaking, fulfilling months in between spent circling the globe. Here are a few realizations I’ve had in the past twelve months.
- “Sometimes, if you travel too fast, too far, your spirit can’t keep up with your body.”
If my financial state wasn’t enough to convince me to settle down and get back to stable work, it’s the toll that constant upheaval has had on me physiologically. I spent twenty-six months being uprooted. Only about 15-20% of that time was spent “traveling” in the traditional sense- the rest, at long-term volunteer placements, guiding, running a remote hostel, working back in Portland, etc. I’ve floundered for a long time along the emotional and logistical struggles that inevitably come when you’re living the outskirts of a society that values stability.
I’m tired. A few months ago, while passing through Oregon on the trip that convinced me to return to roost, I visited some hot springs and picked up a minor inner ear infection that caused me to have these odd fainting spells for a few days. I had to hole up at my parent’s house in San Diego for an extra week to recover and to pack for my next adventure to the US-Mexico border. While there, a friend relayed some wisdom from a shaman that has stuck with me. “Sometimes, if you travel too fast, too far, your spirit can’t keep up with your body.” I don’t know that I believe in spirits, but I know that that minor illness was a sign that it was time for me to slow down and unpack. To regain consistency. Rebuild community. To put down roots and establish myself in a meaningful way in a new community where I could be an expert on something again, rather than just a passer-by. I can’t get into words how excited I’ve been to STOP traveling, and just get to say that “I live here.” I get to make friends and think about dating without seeing the inevitable finish line in the distance. It’s wonderful.
2. The best thing about siblings is that you can FaceTime them at 9pm on a Friday night just to tell them that you remembered something funny from six years ago and then talk for the next hour in a hilariously bad accent about nothing of any substance whatsoever and it’s totally normal.
3. I want my own family eventually.
It’s a realization that probably should have struck before now, but I feel incredibly fortunate to have gotten to lead such an examined life that someday starting a family has never felt like a given assumption for me. This vague goal that I’ve only recently put words to was motivated by a few things. Among them, hormones, probably. But also having spent six weeks this summer in what felt like a pseudo-parental role of guiding service-learning trips for North American teens in Beijing, China. I realized that as much as I love exploring new countries alone or with friends, that getting to do so from within this “trip leader” role that was additionally protective, parental, and encouraging was significantly more meaningful to me. My coworkers and I were able to create this space together with the students that turned a small Beijing basement apartment into a home, long bus rides into song-filled photo sessions, and a safe environment to learn how to care for medically fragile orphans together. I eventually answered to either “mom” or “dad” and was genuinely felt sad and a bit lost when the last of the students flew back to the US and left my coworker Evan and me alone at the busy Beijing airport.
Additionally, in what will probably go down as one of my favorite mistakes, I dated a single dad for a portion of the past year. It was casual, and of course I was only a very very peripheral friend in this kiddo’s life. But I got to be on the sidelines, quietly taking in details of this incredible relationship and marveling at the sense of responsibility that I’ve never experienced in my own little single life.
It was love, exploration, care, sacrifice, protection, frustration, and this wild tenderness wrapped up in a bond that I couldn’t have understood between two fantastic humans. Ultimately their life wouldn’t be mine, which is fine, but I’ve retained this awe of that parental bond that had previously felt foreign to me.
So I’ve realized that now I genuinely want to slow my vagabonding and lean towards thinking about creating that amazing space for smaller humans and a solid, inspiring partner in my own life. Maybe it sounds silly to you that I’m just now learning this about myself as I round the corner towards 29, but I’m happy with this life trajectory that’s allowed me to get to come to this place thoughtfully and entirely on my own terms.
- If you order a pancake and orange juice in Turkey, they will pour the orange juice over the pancake before serving. (It’s still good.
- I love the desert.
I feel most at home in the mossy, fern-filled undergrowth in Oregon’s pine and fir forests, but this autumn I gained a new love for the Southwestern desert. I spent a month sleeping in a hammock in a remote part of the Sonoran desert, getting familiar with the moon phases, packs of howling coyotes, and the hardy yet vibrant plant species of the Southwest. I learned that the desert is actually so full of life in ways that I’d never realized while just passing through. It took a few weeks of slowing down, listening to the various bird calls, picking up rocks, and examining the different cacti species. I still have a healthy fear and respect of its vastness, but for the first time learned how much an observer of the desert can be rewarded with unexpected, healing beauty.
The more of this vast, complicated world I’m exposed to, the more humble I’ve become in realizing how little I’ll ever know. I’ve had the privilege of exploring some corners of the world, but I think that until you spend years rooting down in a community, it’ll only ever be the most shallow, two-dimensional experiences of what is actually a deep, complicated and infinitely interesting place. I don’t read travel blogs, or write in that style either because the process of distilling a place I visited briefly into an 800-word essay seems impossibly simplistic.
Someone told me once that “In college, you should become aware of how little you know. If you don’t, you’re doing it wrong.” I apply that logic to the rest of life too. Most things I’ll ever experience, whether a conversation, a specific route up a mountain, a nonfiction book, a foreign dish- are the tiniest, most superficial hint towards the larger, more beautifully complex thing. I’ve been to Greece three times now, and have spent a few months living in different parts of that country, but can only ever be an awkward, outside observer. I can share snippets of travel advice and fleeting impressions, but I’ll never know the real heart of Greece and Greeks not to mention that I don’t speak the language).
- Don’t buy a 16gig iPhone.
It’s just not worth it. I saved a hundred or so dollars a few years ago when I bought it, but file sizes and the iOS are too big, and the frustration and limitations haven’t been worth the savings. Yeah, first world problem, but it’s still a legit complaint.
- Paying it forward with mentorship and advice.
Isaac Newton said, “If I’ve seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” That experience is so true in my own life, where I’ve only been able to come to this thoughtful, curious, and compassionate place of happiness and fulfillment in life because of the amazing mentors, parents, friends, supervisors in my life who have allowed me to get here.
Now, I regularly get emails from younger people, often college students, who’ve stumbled upon my blog or are friends with my younger sister, and want to hear how to do cool things in the world too. Of course, there’s no magic formula and it’s not like I have any fantastic advice, but I love getting to take the time to share nuggets of wisdom and URLs to opportunities that I’ve found helpful. Now that I’m stable, I’m looking forward to getting to be a more consistent presence in young people’s lives.
- Sometimes the world just sucks.
I’m philosophically pessimistic but manage to ground my daily existence and motivation in optimism despite that. I struggle with pessimism after having worked in refugee camps and the American homeless population.
Before I saw all of this, I think it would have been accurate to characterize my outlook on the world as blindly optimistic. Now that I’ve been “ruined for life” by having seen the human victims of society’s failings, my rosy outlook on the world has been crushed. I think that many of us will end up being refugees in our lifetime, whether due to climate change or politics. The communities I’ve been working with are just the canaries in the coal mine. Sometimes it’s difficult to function when I don’t feel a whole lot of existential hope, but in the absence of an external source of optimism, I just keep chugging along.
10. Cooking is cool.
I’ve had this longstanding stubborn resistance to learning how to cook. I think it was stupidly rooted in equating cooking with boring domesticity. I hate the time sacrifice required to make a great meal, and will probably never be a fantastic cook. But I do love to eat, and I love extending hospitality. And it’s healthier, cheaper, more grown-up, etc. I get it. I’ll stop whining about cooking and actually learn a few recipes. Suggestions?
- PostSecret has been a huge influence on my life.
It’s amazing how little I think about this weekly ritual that I’ve had now for several years of reading through each new batch of PostSecret’s Sunday Secrets. The secrets people share are beautiful, haunting, depressing, funny, intimate, petty, horrifying, and collectively shed light on the fact that every single person has secrets, and feels a need to hide some part of themselves. Reading them each week and watching the view count (over 773 million) rise over time keeps me feeling grounded and connected.
- The older I get, the more confident I am and the pickier I’ve become about who I spend time with.
As an extrovert, it was a great realization to discover how much I really liked spending time alone. My own company is actually rad. And it has been a liberating discovery to finally feel okay spending a Saturday night alone at home. I also realize that this makes dating harder because I don’t feel like I’m in a very “needy” place. Someone has to be pretty amazing to break into my alone time or friend time.
- It snows a lot in Bend.
No one told me this before I moved here. I haven’t seen the ground for a month.
- America only experiences the tiniest variety of Chinese food.
I mean, look at a map of China! How could I have ever thought that Chinese food was all beef and broccoli, white rice, and chicken chow mein? Two months in China was a culinary exploration of bbq-ed lamb on a willow stalks, warm soybean milk, flaky mooncakes from a street vendor, piles of sticky pork steam buns, red bean ice cream, buttery grilled snails, dragon fruit, and spicy sour soups.
- Write! Read!
I forget everything if I don’t write it down. And how can I know what I’m thinking if I can’t read my thoughts? There’s an important power in being able to preserve and transmit your ideas to others. Also, especially with this upcoming Trump presidency, history’s mistakes are going to be repeated. I’d argue that there’s a moral imperative now more than ever for people of conscious to take the time to re-inform ourselves of how dictators have risen to power before, how groups of people have been demonized, and how a demagogue can over time subtly infiltrate means of communication. Keep your critical thinking sharp, and your attention span healthy enough to be able to dissect Tweets, to understand bias, and to place attention-grabbing headlines in context.
- Displaced communities…. People at the mercy of an unmerciful world.
People fleeing their countries are stronger and braver than I’ll ever be. I spent a few months working with refugees in Greece, and a month doing humanitarian aid on the US-Mexico border. I can’t imagine existing in that placeless unknown between violence and rejection. In their presence, I’m humbled beyond words and realize how petty my own struggles and insecurities are. Allying myself with displaced communities, whether homeless, migrants, or refugees, has had a profound impact on me in terms of steadying my resolve to advocate and sense of gratitude. I still haven’t wrapped my head around the right words for it. Maybe I’ll never be able to.