on resilience

One morning when I was 16, I heard a sound I’ll never forget. It was the sound of my mom howling, something that sounded so much like laughter. As I stumbled down my attic stairs, I saw my dad clutching my mom, collapsed in his arms. It took my brain a few seconds to process the noise I’d heard — primal, guttural sadness. Grief in motion.

She’d just heard that her best friend was dying. In what would be a year of cancer diagnoses in our household, Sandee had been diagnosed with a fast-growing, stage four cancer. For as long as I’ll live, I’ll never shake that image or that sound, but not merely because of that moment, that moment of seeing your parent as a raw, full human. It’s mostly because of what came after.

One of my favorite photos of my mom and Sandee is from those few months that followed. Sandee is in a hospital bed, guffawing, and my mom is lying beside her, holding a bunch of grapes above her head. I’m pretty sure she was quite literally peeling grapes for Sandee, but mostly, she was making her laugh through the messiness. My mom has that way about her.

Six months ago, I left a man I’d loved for my entire adult life. He was and is a good, good man. We grew up together, shared a life, a home, a cat. But eventually, I had to listen to the growing voice inside that whispered “go.” As Cheryl Strayed said — in what became a mantra of sorts — sometimes, you have to have the courage to break your own heart.

But, in the weeks and months that followed, only one word kept rising to the surface. Unravel. It felt like the very foundation of me and my life had unraveled. In loss, of whatever kind, so much of what we lose is the person we were in relationship to the other. Without a partner, without a father, what kind of person was I?

One of my clearest memories in the final days with my dad was actually not with my dad at all. I had dashed out for some mid-morning caffeine for my mom and me at Starbucks. As I waited for our drinks, I stared around at every person in that store. I was going home to my dear dear father, hours away from death. What unspeakable pain was everyone else carrying as they waited for their lattes? Surely, in my 20 years on earth, I had stared someone in the eye going home to just as much pain. Or just carrying it within them.

I’ve never put much stock in the phrase “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I’m not convinced that where ankles twist, hearts break, or bones shatter that we are ever stronger in that place than we were before. But standing waiting for my coffee that day, I did know one thing. Whatever doesn’t kills us, well, it makes us better humans. Or at least it can, if we let it.

A few days later, after my dad had passed away, I remember making a promise to myself. I promised that I would never let myself get hardened by loss, not let myself get hardened by this world that sometimes tries to break you. It’s a lesson I saw firsthand every day in my mother, who in the years since I was 16 has laid beside people as they leave this earth. She brings candy, drinks, and whatever else she can smuggle in. She’s a bigger, better person because of all that she lets in (cue Indigo Girls), even if it hurts her.

In looking at my mom, a woman who lost the closest thing to a soulmate I’ve ever seen, I’ve thought a lot about the unspeakable worlds people carry within them. And, frankly, it’s made me in awe of the human spirit. Of what so many people live with, through, amidst. It can be so easy for pain to feel singular. But that line of thinking would eventually harden me. Because while each person has lived their own unique collection of moments, each person has also experienced pain. And each person has made a choice, an active choice, about what to do with that pain. The best among us — as the wise, late Carrie Fisher said — take their broken hearts and make it into art. My mom’s art was and will always be carrying on, showing up, and bringing the gummy bears.

This weekend, my mom and I will fly to see my grandmother, my dad’s stepmom and my sole remaining grandparent. We’re celebrating her 90th birthday. In her 90 years, she has suffered a debilitating stroke, lost two husbands, one young son in an accident, and two adult stepsons to colon cancer. For so long, when I thought of the Nears, I thought of a family steeped in silent, unspeakable pain — Nana most of all. But in the past two years as she has lived as a widow yet again, I’ve seen her continue to forge on through bouts of illnesses that could have taken her. She rises each day. She reads, she watches the trade winds rustle the palm trees, she visits with her nurses.

The silent story I didn’t see — the story that was there all along — is the same story of my mom that summer. It’s the story of resilience. These women with whom I share a last name or some chromosomes, they’ve held hands of people as they’ve left this earth. But they’ve also woken up the next day and made a cup of coffee. They’ve lived. They’ve built communities. And they’ve borne witness to the stories of hundreds of others who have suffered much more, and who’ve woken up the next day. And the day after.

On the days when it can feel so easy to let loss, struggle, or grief close me to the world, I think of these women. Of that moment in the coffee shop, of my grandma rising each day, of my mom peeling grapes, and I know I — we — are never alone. So, thank you mama — and countless others — for taking your broken hearts and making them into the most wonderful art. We are all better people because of it.

on discomfort

Seven months ago in the mountains of Italy, I got into a heated discussion about the continued relevance of feminism with new friends from Finland, South Africa, and Australia. For those who know me well, you’ll know I have a habit of striking up intense conversations with relative strangers, so this was nothing new. But, what was new was the fact I’d be living and working in close proximity with these people for a month. In my past life, I’d agree to disagree, and then I’d walk away. Here, that wasn’t an option.

As we sat on the cobblestones outside our communal kitchen, my room a few feet from the action, I had nowhere to escape. We would be cleaning bathrooms, drying dishes, and eating every meal together.

Over the course of a few hours, we shared many a coffee. We listened to each other. We rarely raised our voices. We disagreed plenty. And then we walked to dinner together. During the weeks that followed, I engaged in sometimes difficult but always fascinating conversations with this group of volunteers. In conversations about domestic policy, the military, women’s rights, and capitalism, I pushed far beyond my normal comfort zone. Unlike on social media or in most daily interactions, I couldn’t disengage when it was convenient. We were basically living in adult summer camp, for better or worse.

Here’s the thing though. Seven months later, I still remember those conversations vividly. And, seven months later, I still talk with those friends. They give me things to read, questions to ask, and continually give me hope for my generation — that we are engaged, resolved, active citizens of this world.

Nine years ago, I spent a summer knee deep in the archives of Philadelphia, researching and writing my thesis about the first newspapers of the early republic (what a wild summer it was!). The basic gist of my research came down to this: the way in which information was presented, the way in which stories were juxtaposed on the page, actively constructed identities. Namely — whiteness, blackness, what those meant, and who was included (and who wasn’t). How people consumed information mattered. It transferred off the page into lived experience.

I share this not to start a longer conversation about 19th century journalism (though I promise that would be thrilling!), but rather to remind myself that how we are presented with and consume information will always and has always mattered. It’s made me think about the ways in which I personally consume information, about the people I surround myself with, about the spaces I’ve been asked or forced to enter in the past year. Because they’ve been anything but homogenous.

Travel, especially cheap travel, is all about the unexpected and the unknown. In one of my favorite On Being episodes, writer and philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah uses the phrase “sidling up to difference.” To me, travel has become about sidling up to and engaging with difference in tangible ways — in sharing a bunkbed with someone with different viewpoints, in sharing a meal with someone in a different language, in navigating unfamiliar terrains. It’s constantly being presented with alternative viewpoints, languages, lived experiences.

But, in the past few weeks as I’ve resettled briefly at home, I’ve also realized my travels have presented me with easy, fairly safe engagements with difference. Yes, I may have shared a room, a meal, a month with people of different viewpoints and nationalities. But, when our time was done, I could eventually leave. The more difficult engagement is with the spaces, places, and people we can’t always leave.

On the day after the election, after a few hours of surreal, incredulous processing, I finally wept. I wept not simply because of the results, but because I’d realized most of my family had voted for our now president — or not voted at all. I felt I had failed as an ally, a feminist, a niece, a granddaughter. When it came to engaging with difference, I had not opened up that conversation with the people I’d known my entire life.

Because striking up difficult conversations is always easier with strangers.

This week, I sent an email to some of my extended family. After months of relative silence and stewing, I reached out with an offer: what if we, in our vast differences, actually broke the cardinal rule of families. What if we talked about politics? I’m thousands of miles from them, but I pitched the idea of a virtual dinner table. Because change, I’ve always believed, starts at the dinner table (…Ronald Reagan also believed this and said it first.)

I’m not expecting us to agree or for this to become a constant debate about who knows best. As Appiah said, “conversation is not about principles and coming to complicated agreements; it’s just about hearing all the mess.” I am expecting us to listen, to get out of our respective bubbles, to challenge each other, and to hold each other accountable. And to remember that the political is always personal.

One of my favorite new friendships in this past year is actually with a former colleague with whom I disagree on almost everything. He is a staunch pro-life Catholic, and we have regular conversations about abortion, women’s health, and feminism. I don’t think we’ve changed each other’s minds in this past year, but we have recognized some tenets of our moral compass that point in the same direction. And, we each can now articulate what our respective moral backbones are and when our political actions step outside those bounds. It’s refreshing, surprising, uncomfortable, and, frankly, one of my most essential friendships. 

I’ve had plenty of interactions with people of differing viewpoints that devolved quickly, and I do think there is a limit to how much we can engage with difference before we self-destruct (great self care tips for the coming years here). But, as a white lady with a boat load of privilege, I also realize it’s safe and not as personally exhausting for me to engage with difference. It’s also therefore my responsibility to do so. As one pointed sign said this weekend, “white women elected Trump.” It’s on white feminists to show up in our own communities, to recognize that intersectional feminism is a bare minimum, and to stay educated when it can be so easy, so comfortable to not.

As I approach my last few months of travel, I want to remember that this engagement with difference can and should start at the most local, personal levels. For the coming days, months, and years ahead, I’m taking an oath of my own. Difficult conversations cannot and should not be reserved for foreign spaces. I need to engage with my family, my peers, and my community first. If that initial conversation in Italy is any indication, it will be equally uncomfortable and illuminating. But it will be deeply necessary for those relationships to develop and for this country to slowly arc toward a better future.

on words

Ever since I was little, I’ve collected words. Each year at Christmas, my parents slipped the Guinness Book of World Records into my stocking, and I’d excitedly flip to the page with that year’s longest word. It was always the same, the ever-catchy pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. The first year, I wrote it on flash cards until I memorized it. Each year after, I said it to anyone who’d listen (and plenty who didn’t). Soon, I just started storing away words that I savored the sound of — crestfallen, gumption, woebegone. I repeated them like a lullaby, muttering them to myself like a somewhat deranged, mini radio commentator (side note: if it hasn’t become abundantly clear at this point, I am an only child).

I dreamed of jobs that had to do with stringing words together —poets, speechwriters. Words, I felt, were meant to be said aloud. They had weight, heft, shape. They gained meaning when you said them. I thought words should always be spoken. Maya Angelou once said “words are things,” and it remains one of the truest things I’ve heard.

But travel has introduced me to an ever-changing relationship with words. At my Workaway in the mountains of Ireland, I was surrounded by people for whom words were more primal. There, each volunteer came mostly to learn English — from Germany, from Italy, from France, from South Korea. 

So, when I spoke, they listened. Every word a lesson in how to sound American. Or, Californian at least. Why do you say “oh my gosh” instead of “oh my god”? Why do you say “things” instead of “stuff”? Is there a difference between “quick” and “fast”? I found myself asking the same questions of the two Spanish girls, hanging on every word they said, a constant lesson in their entire language. 

Most of the time, I didn’t know the answer to the questions asked of me. But it made me pause before I spoke. I’ve always loved using words in unexpected contexts, so I was more careful here. More literal. People were listening. When you’re surrounded by people absorbing your language — be it students or toddlers — you’re even more deeply aware that words are things. They stick.  So, as someone who oftentimes defines myself by my playful relationship to words, I thought it would be difficult to find my footing when both sides were limited by a language barrier. When words were literal.  But, in these weeks amongst language learners and traveling in countries where I am the language outsider, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I have been surprised by both my sense of self and my sense of connection — for the first time despite words, not because of them.

Because sometimes, words are the spaces in between. What happens in the pause. The bowl of peanuts offered up by the deaf Italian-Kenyan man who wants us to be well-fed during our nightly movie in the hostel. My Italian roommate who makes vegetarian carbonara the night my uncle dies, who offers up a home-cooked meal thousands of miles from California. My German roommate who hand writes 6 pages of notes in green pencil of where to go and what to eat on my German travels, passing them to me in that night of grief. The fresh piece of whole wheat bread the teenage boy makes, offering it to me from the hostel oven. The Zimbabwaean-Irish hostel manager who shrugs and laughs as he watches me write on the misty cold pastures. 

They are wordless gestures, gestures I’ve found to mean more than I thought.

Years ago, in the months after my dad passed away, I struggled to hear the gestures offered to me. They weren’t words; so, what was there to hear? It took time to notice them. The bag of mangoes left on my doorstep from a childhood friend. The carafe of coffee delivered wordlessly for my mom and me each morning. The way my best friend held me as I wept on our dorm room floor. These were the spaces in between. These were the breaths between words. They gave me life.

If grief taught me the weight and salve of silence, travel has taught me the power of simplicity, of unabashed directness. There have been moments of the in-between, moments when I’ve had to make do with less. Fewer words, fewer puns, fewer crutches of sarcasm. When words are stripped to their most primal meanings, I sometimes feared my core would crumble. What space was there for sarcasm, for playful wit, when I could barely remember the past tense in German? Words stood on spindly legs, pieced together solely to convey urgent truths. I’m lonely. I’m tired. Where the hell is the coffee?!

This past week in Prague, my mom and I gallivanted with a dear friend from Slovakia. She’s easily the most fluent person I know in a second language. She and I share a love of the English language and stringing together unexpected sentences. We complete each other’s puns and relish our dark sense of humor. I’ve known her for over 10 years now, and words have always brought us back together. I was reminded that my relationship with words will always bring me back to myself, but it’s not actually the core of who I am.

Because in her city and in these last few days, I’ve had moments of vulnerable, hilarious silence. In the hushed reverence in the Dresden church as my mom and I listened to Vivaldi; of the haphazard lip-syncing to “It’s Raining Men” with a table of drunk Germans at a bar; of the long, quiet late night walk through Prague with a new friend, savoring the misty lamplights. The words I used in those moments were spare and direct in ways I’m not used to. It was just the essentials. And I felt deeply myself.

on the winds of change

When I set out on this journey, there were two images that always stuck in the back of my mind. One was the protagonist in my favorite movie as a teenager, Chocolat. Vianne and her daughter roam the countryside opening chocolateries (as you do in postwar Europe), only moving when the great north wind sends gusts so strong that Vianne knows it’s time yet again to pack their things and go (we also know this is happening because her hair becomes perfectly tousled as she stares wistfully out windows, and a forlorn flute plays in the distance).  The second is Mary Poppins. Aside from being the only movie where you can watch Dick Van Dyke terrifyingly dance with penguins, it features one of my favorite chords at the opening of a movie. Bert, in his bizarre Cockney, sings about the winds coming from the east, a change brewing. Cue Mary’s famous, windy entrance.

The “winds of change” has been a phrase bouncing around in my head for many years now. It’s the name I gave the gut feeling that was brewing, the feeling I knew something needed to change. For awhile, I changed the small things. I briefly gave up coffee (HUGE MISTAKE), I started spin classes (surprisingly not awful), I adopted a cat (the best cat in all the land, shoutout to Toby). But, somewhere deep down, I knew what needed to change was the big stuff. Last March, I finally took a cue from Vianne and Mary. I packed up my bags and left because it felt right to.

In the time since I left in March, I’ve certainly listened to those winds often. I’ve changed course, I’ve come home; hell, I even got a tattoo of Mary on my ribcage (I committed hardcore to this imagery, apparently).

But, then I arrived in the hills of Ireland. You see, the thing about my interpretation of the “winds of change” idea is that it was largely internal. I was drawn to these women who knew their gut and acted upon it. It wasn’t about responding to actual wind; the extreme hair-tousling moments in those movies seemed a little excessive, and I thought a distraction from the inner language of instinct. Resolve.

A few nights ago, on a particularly wintry evening here in Enniskerry, my roommates and I huddled in our TV room and watched Chocolat. I hadn’t seen it in years and, like any good story, I heard it differently this time. Vianne, in all her comings and goings, was reacting just as much to the story the landscape was telling her, as much as to the voice within. She let that landscape shape her.

As a student always situated at the crossroads of literature and history, it’s a concept I’ve long adored. I remember reading Borges and Marquez in high school, fastidiously consulting my dictionary, fascinated with realismo mágico’s relationship with time. In college, I fortuitously took a class with an English professor who shared his undying love of Thomas Hardy with us. Mayor of Casterbridge, 100 años de soledad, Labyrinths — these were odes to the cyclical nature of time. When you ground your words in a singular place but you move down the axis of time, you see how stories repeat. People impress themselves on the world around them, but the world makes its mark on you. The landscape leaves an imprint; the stories it carries and the things it remembers linger on the surface. They can change you.

In my 9 months of travel, I’ve lived and worked in particularly remote areas. Miles from local villages, tucked on hillsides, waking up to cow bells and distant church towers. I’ve been in places where it’s easier, more inviting, to read the land for the stories it can share. At home, especially in the Bay Area, there is little focus on the land, much less its history. Land is for groundbreaking, for new beginnings. 

But in the places I’ve been, it’s about places that haven’t changed but for time. It’s about landscapes that haven’t been marked by physical developments, but by temporal ones. It’s a subtler story.

One of my favorite poets, John O’Donohue, hails from western Ireland. He writes often of this place and of its landscape. In my all time favorite interview (from On Being, which likely everyone has heard me wax poetic about at this point), he says, off-the-cuff about his native Ireland: “What amazes me about landscape [is that] landscape recalls you into a mindful mode of stillness, solitude, and silence where you can truly receive time.”

Every afternoon, after we finish our chores, my roommates and I go for a walk in the mountains. We’re nestled along the Wicklow Way, a famous rambler’s paradise in southern Ireland. The sun sets around 4, but I don’t seem to mind the darkness. The hours of daylight are greener, mistier, and more rich than most landscapes I’ve lived in. Most days, we walk in silence. We listen to the sheep, the wind, the hills. I wonder what stories haunt these hills. I wonder what story I’m now a part of. It’s easy to forget what this land remembers.

I recently listened to the first scene of Mary Poppins again, when Bert sings his eery opening chord. I’d never really noticed it before — I was distracted by this whole winds thing — but he ends with: “Can’t put me finger/on what lies in store/but I feel what’s to happen/all happened before.”

In this quest to listen more deeply to my gut, I’d forgotten about listening to a far more primal voice — and one, given my parenting, just as deeply in my bones: history. My story isn’t singular. It’s part of a bigger landscape, a story likely repeating. Though I only root myself in places for a short while, I’ve realized it’s my job to deeply plant myself when I do land somewhere, so I can stretch along that axis of time. So I can learn other histories and be shaped not just by my own resolve, but by the stories that came before, the stories these lands remember.

And, just perhaps, generations from now, another woman on the precipice of 30 will wander these hills and be moved by the winds of change.

on traveling while female

The thing about cheap, long term travel is you’re constantly someone’s guest — hostels, friends, friends of friends, work exchanges. You have to navigate not making too much of an imprint, living out of a backpack and whatever space is provided to you. I’ve learned how to roll my clothes quickly, repurpose the same shirt, live with less.

As a perpetual guest, it’s also easy for me to fall into one of the many gendered aspects of being a female traveler: take up less space. I’m aware of how big my backpack is on the subway (a lean 22 pounds, if we’re being honest), how much of the floor I take up when I unpack and repack, how much I eat of the food I’m offered. It can be an exhausting feeling, doing the mental math of how much has been given to you and how much you owe. The calculation always ends with me owing something.

But, there’s a certain point you reach in long term travel when you start to give fewer fucks. And recently, I’ve learned to differentiate between what was given to me, and what was mine to take. My dear family friend’s guest room in Cambridge? Generously given. That leftover piece of pecan bourbon chocolate pie? Given. Those extra three inches of space on the subway, so I can not contort into human origami whilst holding my backpack? Those, those I can take.

The past few weeks, I’ve been the guest of people I know well, and some I’m beginning to know more. I slept on my dear friend’s bed in New York while she pulled a grad school all nighter; I slept on the rollout bed of my childhood best friend’s apartment; I blissfully sprawled my clothes across her husband’s parent’s guest room. When my friend’s dad told me to use the coffee machine whenever I wanted, I did. I didn’t ask 12 times or apologize repeatedly. I just made a cup of coffee.

My parents used to threaten they’d make me put a nickel in a jar for every time I said “I’m sorry” when I didn’t mean it. Until recently, I would say I’m sorry to people who ran into me on public transportation. Hell, after bodychecking people on the basketball court in high school (legitimately a thing I did regularly), I apologized profusely. It was my protective shield. I’m sorry I’m here.

Being on and off the road for the last 8 months has put me directly into situations where I just have to take up space. My backpack is probably going to brush your shoulder, sir. Que dijo el conductor del tren? (my sad attempt to use Spanish to speak to a broken down train car full of Italians) Why yes, an extra hand with my things would be pretty great in this torrential downpour. It’s nice to say yes sometimes. I’m also aware that as a blonde, college-educated, cis white lady, it’s usually safe for me to take up space. To draw awkward attention to myself. When I drop something, we’re told I’m someone who you should help. It’s a constant balance to be aware of that privilege but to not let it diminish you. To take up space, but make sure that leaning into that space doesn’t become leaning on someone of less privilege.

But, there are universal places and ways in which I’m committed to taking up space. I know that my body isn’t inherently more valuable the less space it takes up. I know that being a good guest can mean joyfully accepting what’s offered to you. I know that I can indeed bring my backpack into a crowded bus, and we’ll all be fine. I know that it’s OK if I bodycheck someone (just kidding, I don’t do that anymore). So much of this journey has been about saying yes to the unexpected. The last few weeks have also taught me to say yes to the most familiar things — the hospitality of friends, the giving spirit of the holidays. And that the only thing I owe to those things which are truly given is deep and abiding gratitude. So, I tossed green beans, tidied dishes, helped carry a 150 pound statue of St. Francis (it’s a long story). I absorbed the spaces and generosity given to me, so I could carry it with me. So I could take up space of my own. 

So, to my wondrous hosts these past few weeks, friends new and old: thank you, thank you, thank you. Onward I go, backpack in tow, ready to carve my place in this world.

on choices, change & kumquats

When I was a senior in high school, I made one of my first big decisions — college. I was choosing between Scripps, a longtime favorite, and the University of Pennsylvania, the late-addition curveball. In the end, I went with Penn, mostly because it seemed different. My best friend was going there, and it was in the city where the Constitution was signed (teen logic, at its finest). Despite having an amazing roommate and adoring the city of Philadelphia, I knew from the start it wasn’t where I wanted to be. So, I sent out a new batch of applications. And, when my dad got sick again, it was clear where I was meant to be. I moved to Scripps the following fall (and, my parents deserve a goddamn gold medal for not saying “I told you so” on that one.)

Scripps was exactly what I never knew I needed. I baked hundreds of loaves of challah each week, walked backwards guiding prospective students to consider a women’s college, and read feminist theory beneath my own private kumquat tree (I’m really not exaggerating, people). I met some of the most important people in my life — a suite mate who became a soulmate, women who made me laugh and think. My women’s studies professor and our director of admissions became extended members of my family, and I can’t imagine my life without them. My world was small, less busy than it was in high school, but it felt so, so right.

When treatments stopped working for my dad, I knew a change was in the air for me, too. I finished my coursework at Scripps early and came home. I immersed myself in my thesis, reading silently in the company of my dad. That time we shared was slow, intentional, full.

After he died that September, I packed my warmest clothes and temporarily moved to Philadelphia to work in one of my favorite archives. I walked 30 blocks each way in the snow, poured over letters from people history had forgotten, and waxed poetic about the Bromance of 1802. As my mom and I say, it was a time when we had to put on our own oxygen masks. We needed to start to heal on our own. The summer before, I had called my dad each night, reporting from the archives on what I had found — colonial wigs, cannons from the Revolution. This time, I walked those 30 blocks, playing over and over again what I would tell him. It’s how I got my oxygen.

A little over a month ago, after thousands of miles and months on the road, I felt a change in the air. I was weary, ready for home. So I changed course, booked a flight home, and unpacked my bags. I’ve  picked up odd jobs — editing, organizing, writing. I’ve restocked my bank account and my energy. I go on swims with my mom, cook her dinner each night. This time, healing meant coming home. For a time, coming home, changing plans, also felt like some sort of failure. Coming home didn’t feel particularly brave or adventurous. But, I soon realized that listening to myself and what I wanted was precisely why I started this journey.

A few days ago, as I was opening the fridge, I noticed a small note my mom had written years ago. It’s a list of four lessons my dad shared years ago in one of his infamous baccalaureate addresses at our school. The last three are ones I regularly list to myself — live with meaning, always be able to quote old movies, and remember puff (the dragon; it’s a long story) — but for some reason, I’d forgotten the first. It reads: “paths are seldom straight.”

Until I was 18, my life was fairly linear. I went to the same school my whole life, had wondrous, healthy parents, and befriended my tribe when I was 6. But the 10 years since have been anything but linear — something that could pain me, or something that could fill me with hope. It’s precisely what my dad warned would happen. He no doubt saw the cracks in that linearity as I transferred schools and saw as I recognized that the world didn’t collapse. It opened.

It’s opened each day that I’ve made those hard choices, the days that I’ve done what it seems my gut wants me to do. It’s how my parents made the tough choice to leave their previous lives and find each other. It’s pretty much how I came to be. Doing what feels right is perhaps as much in my DNA as my propensity for sunburn.

So, with a new leaner backpack and a bit more resolve, I’m heading onwards again. This time, I’ll be trekking east — first to visit dear friends on the east coast, then to Ireland and Germany. In the new year, I’ll be working on a farm and hostel in New Zealand. And damn, it feels right.

on home

When I was 13, my house was demolished to make way for a parking lot. My parents and I lived on a school campus, some of the few year-round residents of an international boarding program. But, when the school needed to expand, our corner, along with the dorm rooms that made up my eclectic childhood, had to go.

It wasn’t an easy decision, razing dorm rooms and a way of life, a long chapter in the history of our 100 year old school. After our head of school delivered the news in our kitchen, my mom did what my mom always does. She faced the future head on with her awe-inspiring mix of gumption, irreverence, and pizazz. Within seconds, she had put on Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” and I remember laugh-crying, as Joni and my mom harmonized on the line “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

Since then, our school has continued to change. The corners where I first rode a bike, practiced free-throws with my dad, or learned to swim, all have become something else entirely. My mom’s office is now perched 100 feet from our old kitchen. When I visit her, I park in my old bedroom.

I’ve long believed that places become homes by the moments that happen there. Places merely have coordinates and faces; homes have memories. My home had meaning not because of the walls that made it not-a-parking-lot but because of the rowdy noises that come with living in the boys’ section of a boarding school, of the smell of cup-of-noodles during Saturday sleepovers, or fried rice mornings in the school kitchen on Sundays. The dorm staff were my babysitters, the teachers my aunts and uncles, the boarders my siblings. My mom’s defiantly jubilant Joni Mitchell serenade was a reminder that no bulldozer could take down the home we had built during those 13 years.

15 years after they paved paradise and put up a parking lot, my school community is still central to who I am and how I navigate this world. I met some of my best friends in kindergarten, two dorm parents were my honorary family at my college graduation, and a dozen fellow teachers organized a food delivery for my parents and me during my dad’s hospice. Hell, I met my partner in middle school (he would like to assure everyone we did not start dating at age 12). Each of those people is a piece of me, and in turn, a piece of my home.

In the years since we moved off campus, I’ve continued to build that house. I met my platonic soul-mate in college and slowly collected grown-up friends. When I started my most recent job, I knew I had found my people. My home grew.

When I planned this trip, I wondered how much I’d feel pangs of homesickness. Though my home did not have coordinates, it had stories that were indelibly linked to the terrain where they happened. The Bay Area had long held the stories of my belonging — the smells of my favorite coffee shop, the backroads that lead to my friends’ childhood homes, the faint sounds of highway 280 around the perimeter of my school. But it also held something else.

I never envisioned returning to the Bay Area after college. For what would be his last birthday present to me, my dad painted a wine glass, at its stem the words “NYC 2010.” I had dreams of a future spent in a Manhattan archive, losing myself in the newspapers of the 1840s and historical salons. But as he faded away that year, it was clear that dream would too. The Bay Area was where I should be.

And, just like most things we don’t realize at the time, it was precisely where I needed to be as well. But staying also meant that some of my fondest childhood memories — the moments that wove together to form the fabric of home — were now layered with new associations. My favorite coffeeshop became the site of one of my dad’s bad falls. A week before he died, we went to a James Taylor concert in the same place I graduated high school. 3 years prior, my dad had handed me my diploma. Now, we sat in the audience, he in his wheelchair, my mom and I holding back tears. A month later, our school, the place I grew up, hosted his memorial.

In the years that followed, I crafted new memories in those places. I wanted the land to recall the good, the ugly, the full range of feeling that had happened there. When I left, whenever that might be, I wanted to be able to return to a land that did not just recall loss. I wanted to recall beginnings, too.

By the time I did leave, I had etched new memories into the places of my childhood. My mom and I attended a joyful yearly scholarship celebration, in my dad’s name, in the same school building as his service. We curled up on the couch, eating candy and drinking wine, in the same spot his hospice bed once stood. I moved to San Francisco, then to Berkeley. I wore an old boarding school shirt to bed, lined my bookshelves with my dad’s old history books, and hung photos of childhood friends on my apartment walls. I hosted Galentine’s Day parties, watched two of my dearest friends get married, adopted a cat. The new and the old Bay Area coexisted to create a home — a home finally strong enough to walk away from.

I write this on day 63 of this journey. I do, on occasion, feel homesick. And it is one of the most welcome, wondrous feelings. It means my home has shape. It is not a vacuum of loss. It is not a razed parking lot or scattered ashes. It is something I built and rebuilt. It has texture, story. It fills me to the brim, even from thousands of miles away.

In 17 days, I’ll be back in California. The European leg of my adventure will come to a close — for now. A few days after that, I’ll be on the open road again, driving across North America for 3 months. While I’m home, I will watch my childhood best friend get married. I will be reminded of her dad and my dad, men we miss dearly. I will make new memories amidst my oldest friends. I will sit in my mom’s backyard with wine and tacos (mom, consider this my wine + taco request). I will likely hate saying goodbyes yet again. I will experience the full range of feeling that my home recalls. But at least I can take solace that my homesickness is an ache that soothes me. It reminds me again and again that there is and always will be a home to return to.