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.