Home, and a Few Other Places

Since coming back home, I’ve been thinking a lot about the last two years spent in Europe. Examining, assessing, inspecting as if it were some rare, foreign specimen under a microscope. As if my time spent abroad harbored some answer that I could draw out if I only looked hard enough. Some medicinal cure, something to satiate that insatiable gnawing at my insides—this want (need?) to walk away with some meaning from it all.

The truth is, I’ve been looking and analyzing, pulling apart and piecing back together again, scrutinizing and speculating where that little treasure could possibly be hidden. I’ve been trying to unearth what it all meant, as if there was some secret to it all, this one overarching “why” of my time abroad.

But the truth is, time—nor our experiences—work that way. It shifts and changes and what was the “why” of one period of our lives may not be the “why” of the next. So on we go, transforming and growing as these ever-changing self-examining amoebas. 

That’s why this blog post will be structured a little differently than ones in the past. While I usually try to focus on one topic in these posts, this one will instead be broken out into smaller sections—little snippets, findings if you will, that I’ve unearthed along the way. Because that’s the way it has come to me. In snapshots. In small moments of clarity that morphed and grew into bigger realizations that made me think, Okay, everything just makes a little bit more sense now. 

In other words, this post is a bit of a mosaic, because that’s the way travel seems to work. That’s the way growing and learning seem to work. Piecemeal collections of moments and ideas and ponderings that you stitch together along the way. 

So, with no further ado, here are a few thoughts on my time in Spain, coming back home, and a sprinkling of places somewhere in between. 

I.
As I mentioned, ever since coming back home, I’ve been trying to make sense of the last couple years, wracking my brain for a way to tie it all together. To decipher the hows and the whys, to pull it together in some cohesive way. And as much as I tried to finagle it into one all-encompassing post, I came up with nothing. Nil. I wrote and rewrote—even the intro paragraph—half a dozen times. 

If I’m being honest with myself, perhaps half of it was that I didn’t want to let go of it just yet, I didn’t want to put the final farewell stamp on it, the official adieu to my travels abroad. And yet, at the same time, a part of me wanted to package it up, slap some meaning across the front of it, and present it with a pretty little ribbon. Ta-da!: What I Learned From My Time Abroad.

The truth is, when I try to boil it down into this or that, it just doesn’t suffice. Because how do you fit an experience over two years, of living in two locales with a peppering of countries in between—the people, the places, the food, the cultures—into some nice little book report? How do you even begin to capture all the nuggets of wisdom, the Aha! moments you picked up along the way? 

When I think back on the last couple of years, it comes to me in bursts. Like fragmented pieces of a puzzle that don’t quite seem to fit together. Waking up in a tent in the Sahara Desert at sunrise, savoring the time sitting on a sand dune by myself and watching the sun peel over the adjacent mountains. Or standing under an enormous waterfall in Iceland, mist shooting up onto my rain jacket, surrounded by a crater of black volcanic rock and thick green carpet and walls of lime green moss, in complete awe of nature. Or sitting on the cliff in Cinque Terre in Italy, 15 miles into a hike with amazing people I met less than 24 hours earlier and how we all just sat there with our legs dangling off the cliff, vineyards and ocean stretching out for as far as we could see. Or hiking solo into the misty northern mountains on the island of Tenerife and standing there in silence for minutes on end, just taking it in. 

When I look back at it, there was a lot of savoring. A lot of mentally noting things. Thinking. Observing. When I first started the blog I thought it would be a place to write down all my travels and adventures and weird recipes. And while it no doubt was used for that, more often than not, it was a place for me to work out all those wild, untamed thoughts swirling on inside of me. A place where I could pull out those mental knots and try to unravel what I could. Where I could bring clarity to the confusion.  

I suppose in some basic way, I went away in search of something. I had this expectation that I would walk away from it all with some sort of revelation, pop out of the end of the tunnel with some form of deep self-awareness or personal enlightenment. I think we’re all searching for that in a way. Finding our niche, our purpose. 

But truth be told, it didn’t quite work out that way. I never got that one, all-encompassing Aha! moment that I think somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind I was hoping to experience. Funny how that happens, isn’t it? Because when it comes down to it, we don’t work like that. We're not that one dimensional. We're these highly complicated creatures that shift and change and fluctuate and when we try to boil it all down to input/output, that's what we get: one dimensional answers. 

Of course, I learned a lot. I grew. I met some incredible people who helped expand and shape how I see the world. But figuring it out was (and is) a process. I’ve since learned that, more often than not, that Aha! moment doesn’t come in one glorious, earth-shattering breakthrough. Rather, it comes in a culmination of smaller, more obscure moments. Where things come together in unexpected little pockets of clarity. Where the universe hands us clues that help us get a little bit closer towards piecing ourselves together. That help us fill in the holes, the vacuous "I don't knows" that pepper our existence. And little by little we glean bits of self-discovery along the way. 

II.
I recently read a passage in a book that struck me. It was talking about negativity and fear and how, without consciously being aware of it, it tends to creep into our minds with an absurdly high frequency. It starts with small things like, I woke up late. Or [Insert friend/boyfriend/coworker here] is driving me crazy. Or, I’ve been eating crap lately. The book goes on to talk about how from a young age, we are taught the necessity of fear (Don’t talk to strangers) and of following the rules (Color the picture of the sky blue because the sky is blue, not lime green). The author, Pam Grout, says, “We learn to limit. We learn to believe in scarcity. We learn that our natural inclination to love and to create and to dance is impractical and crazy.” 

And it struck me. The life that exists in us is big. It’s this big fiery ball of energy. This beautiful, wild thing that over time, we learn to tame. We primp and polish and refine over the years, layer upon layer piled on top of that natural, raw side of us. We learn the art of bookending ourselves. Over time, we discover who the world wants us to be and we run with this story. We confine ourselves to this narrative as we grow, and we begin to perfect the skill of presenting ourselves to the world as the person we think we should be.

But somewhere deep down, that wild part still exists in us. It may be covered by years and years of neglect, but it’s still there, no matter how far it’s buried underneath. Think about it. Do you remember the last time you climbed a tree and you came back all cut up and bruised but somehow you didn’t mind? Do you remember the last time you went sloshing up a mountain after a solid rain and came back with everything completely ruined with mud? Do you remember the last time you truly did something that scared the sh*t out of you…and were glad you did? It felt good, didn’t it?

You see, we are so much bigger and so much fuller and vibrant than we give ourselves credit for. From the moment we enter school as a kid, we learn to think and produce with the mindset of a key fitting into a lock. Input, output. We create for a purpose. Color the sky blue because the sky is blue—not green. 

But what I’ve learned is that we need to release that wild, creative energy to become whole. We need to re-discover that part of us that wants to color the sky green because, hell, you just feel like it should be green today.

For some people that’s dance. For others, that’s photography. And for others, it comes in the form of music.

For me, it’s writing. With writing, there is no lock-and-key scenario. It’s just this blank page, open to whatever you want to paint onto it. I like the process of formless thoughts, feelings, and ideas transforming into something tangible. The alchemy of transmuting shapeless neurological impulses in your brain into black and white. Emotion and energy from one human to the next. Connection. It’s a place to release that energy trapped inside of us, to tap into that creative void inside and explore. It’s the same with travel. It’s this endless place of potential to explore, to dissect, to ponder. 

When I think back on the last couple of years, I think about how it opened up that space for me. It taught me to take down those bookends, to find that endless space of plentitude, and to take a wander—even if you aren’t quite sure where you’re going at first. It taught me that our “natural inclination to love and to create and to dance”—that playfulness, whether that is in writing, or music, or climbing a tree, or cave exploring—isn’t impractical or crazy. In fact, I think it’s something we not only crave, but something that we need. Something that is vital in order to grow into the fullest and most vibrant version of ourselves.  

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III.
I’d be kidding myself if I tried to pretend like there wasn’t some grey area of transition time, a recalibrating since being back home. Because wherever we are in the world, we attach ourselves to certain identities. We root ourselves in ideas of This is who I am. It’s no coincidence that people say they need a fresh start and high-tail it to some new location to begin anew. And whenever we do hit that reset button, it’s only natural that some of those ideas become uprooted. Our ideas of who we thought we were or are become slightly disrupted and we have to take a good long look at everything. 

If you haven’t read the book New World by Eckhart Tolle (same author as The Power of Now), you should. It’s one of those books that makes your brain explode a little. In the good kind of way. As in, your view of who you are and how you fit into the world, the universe even, sort of self-destructs and you have to rethink about everything in a new way. 

You see, humans are like rubber bands. We remain in the same shape, with the same ideas and worldviews until we stretch those ideas out a bit. And suddenly, we realize that we are much more expansive than we thought. 

The same is true for travel. Without it, we get accustomed to what we see, what we know. Without stretching out that rubber band of a brain we have, it remains in the same boxed shape that we left it in. But put yourself in the middle of a bustling city in Morocco or in a tiny mountainous region of Slovakia, and your processing abilities will be forced to expand, to undergo change. You will begin to understand that what you’ve known is only a fraction of everything there is to know. That your limited worldview is just a tiny microcosm in the framework of this big, wide world. You begin to realize that you know virtually nothing, and that’s a good thing. 

We lead our lives like water flowing down a hill, going more or less in one direction until we splash into something that forces us to find a new course.
— Memoirs of a Geisha

IV.
It goes without saying that in order to grow we need to allow ourselves to get out of our comfort zone. If we know how to grow then, how do we know which direction to go? How do we change and grow into the person we want to be? How do you define that direction? Left, right, straight ahead? 

You see, we are indecisive creatures by nature. We want to go left when we know we probably should go right. We turn around when someone is telling us to go straight. We stop when everything is telling us to go. All these decisions of where and how and when to go could make any sensible person get deer-in-the-headlights decision paralysis. So sometimes we need a little bit of help. Sometimes, something (or someone) shows up unannounced in our lives and things begin to change. Our course shifts, and sometimes we aren’t exactly the ones who are in control of it. 

And that’s okay. 

We are all, in some way or another, control freaks. We have a tendency to like to know where we’re going and to have some autonomy in how that plays out. But sometimes events or people come into our lives to shift something, to allow expansion, growth, and when we feel like we don’t have complete control over that shift, that can be a little scary.

While we can have an idea of the end result, I think it’s also not terrible to be open when something forces us to find a new course. Because maybe, just maybe, it’s an opportunity and not a roadblock. I think we all want to find our “course,” our niche—that something that makes us feel like a more complete version of ourselves. Hell, if I knew what mine was, I would be getting after it already. But for most of us, it’s a winding process. And it takes a reminder every now and then to remember that it’s not always a linear path. We can’t have all the steps of the way planned out, and in fact, some of the best destinations are the unexpected ones.  

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V.
It's been quite a while since I last wrote a post. To tell the truth, I’ve been marinating. Thinking. I haven’t quite been ready to write because I haven’t yet been able to solidify my thoughts on a lot of events. I haven’t quite wrapped my head around a lot, and even as the dust is still settling, I’ve come to terms with the fact that maybe it’s okay to get my thoughts out on paper even if they are only half-baked. To get something out in black and white even when a lot of it is still grey to me. 

2016 in many ways was a year of change. It was a year that uprooted and unearthed a lot of surprising sentiments, thoughts, and ideas. It was a year of tests. Of adjustments. When we take a look at the world: The refugee crisis reached new horrific heights in Europe. Brexit happened. The U.S. elections happened. When I look at my year personally, it was a year of personal transformation, as well. I moved again to the other side of the globe, back home. I traveled…a lot. Met some amazing people. Came away with a few good stories. Found some epic sandwich spots. I started a new job. It was a year that has given me a lot to reflect on—both on a global and a personal level.

When I look at the moments where I felt the most fulfilled, I tend to find one common thread in all of them—movement. Progression. Whatever you want to call it. But I was going somewhere—it might not always have been forward, but it was somewhere. I think the one thing that is a sure way to eat away at happiness is stagnation.

And by that I don’t mean stillness. I think some of the best progress can come in moments of stillness. When we slow down, soak up, think, savor, take it all in. Reflection is a form of movement. You’re taking everything that happened and dissecting it into something meaningful, something that you can learn from and grow from. 

What I mean by stagnation is the feeling of being stuck. The way you might find yourself in quicksand. Unable to go forward, backward, sideways. We’ve all felt it—whether it’s a job, a relationship, a geographical location… That feeling of not going anywhere, of feeling stuck in the same spot. And quite often it comes down to change—or rather lack thereof. 

We fear change. We fear not knowing. Because we are afraid to fail. Or we’re afraid to succeed. Or we don’t trust ourselves that when sh*t hits the fan, we’ll be able to handle it. Because change can be scary. But along with change comes growth. You learn. You make mistakes. You readjust. You do some right and some wrong. You move. It’s a matter of whether you can see change for what it is. You see, life isn’t linear. We oscillate. Between the good and the bad, the captivating and the dull, the satiating and the unfulfilling. It would be unrealistic to expect life to be a constant state of unraveling into exactly what we expected to happen all the time. In fact, it’s rarely what we expect. And besides, we would never learn that way.

I’m no exception. This is something I’m still trying to work out in my brain. How to ride the tide of change gracefully. How to embrace it. How to use it to propel you forward rather than paralyze you. It’s a constant learning process. It’s the moments where we stop learning, where we start to flat-line, that we sell ourselves short. Because in the end, all the shifts, all the changes that we experience—regardless of how they may seem at the time—are opportunities to reflect and progress towards a better version of ourselves. I’m not saying it’s always easy, but the opportunity is there.

VI.
Every so often we tap into these creative or intellectual portals where a light goes off in our heads and we think, YES! That's me. We read a book and we find a passage where we think, Holy sh*t it's like this person was in my brain. Or someone says something so acutely what you feel, puts just the right words to these swirling, wordless thoughts inside of you, that you can’t help but have this feeling of wholeness. It’s almost like closure, like the world just makes a little bit more sense from a few handfuls of words that have been beautifully strung together. Or you listen to a song and it suddenly opens up this creative abyss inside of you, this jackpot of thoughts and ideas that comes pouring out of you. Or you travel to some place, and something—you can’t quite put your finger on it—taps so deeply into your core, that you begin to actually believe in this whole “connected energy” thing in the world. 

But finding these little portals don’t just happen at the snap of your fingers. They catch you in those candid moments when you’re unaware, when you’re caught off-guard, not expecting them. So I suppose then that the next question would be: If we can’t help when we stumble across these moments, can we help how often we do? 

What I have come to find is that to find this space, these little portals of connectivity, it takes vulnerability. And in order to be vulnerable, we need to shed layers. We need to pull back all of the layers and layers of crap that we’ve built up over the years about what we think we know—about ourselves, the people around us, and this big wide world of ours.

For me, that process came in the form of travel. It came in the form of putting myself in a new place, of stripping back all that was familiar in order to do a bit of self-reflection. Because I think the more we recognize our own shortcomings, the more capable we are of filling in the holes of who we are. Or rather, the more we find those missing puzzle pieces, the less we feel like we have to fill in those gaps with who we think we should be or want to be. It’s a process of searching for that mushy, vulnerable goodness inside of us that is real, raw, and authentic. 

So often we become stuck in these rigid boxes of “what is.” And our energy fields, our potential, whatever you want to call it, has no room to breathe. We accept. We settle. And we stop observing—what's around us, what goes on inside. We stop questioning. 

I've been trying to concentrate on finding the beauty in the imperfect. In finding things that don't go as planned or detours as spaces opening up for something better to come into its spot. We have so many things planned out in our heads and if you're anything like me, when you have a plan in your head you're hell-bent on making it happen no matter what. But what I've also learned about myself is that I'm also a huge believer in energies. And sometimes the way energies change and interact in the world isn't quite what we expect.

The thing is, sometimes we have to break ourselves a little to become a bit more whole. I'm trying to be more malleable, to find flexibility in (and enjoy the process of) the unknown. I’ve since learned that in order to find that flexibility, we have to find the imperfect in ourselves and to try to find the beauty in it. It’s no coincidence that after a breakup, an injury, or an end to something we were holding onto so closely, and after we reassess it all, we usually come out better versions of ourselves. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and all that jazz.

VII.
I don't think it's too outrageous a claim to say that many of us, more often than we'd like to admit, are constantly calling into question the timing of our lives. Why are we here when we should be there? Why haven’t we had that big break in our career yet? Why am I not happy in my (job/relationship/insert general life situation here)? Why, when everyone else is getting married and having kids, am I over here just trying to adult? (Or vise versa.)

And yet, somehow amidst all of that self-doubt, you know that you’re in that place because you’re meant to be. Maybe you haven’t gotten your “big break” in your career yet because you’ve been doing other things—like getting a Masters or a PhD, or maybe you took some time off to travel, or maybe you’ve been starting a family. Maybe you haven’t found the love of your life yet, because deep down you know you’re not there yet. You know it’s not your time. 

Because that’s just the thing. Everything has its time. If we simply stop pushing and trying to make something fit into a mold it’s just not meant to be in. I was thinking the other day about the fascinating inner clocks of some animals. How bears just somehow know when it’s time to hibernate. How geese just have a sixth sense when they should begin to fly south. And it got me thinking. What if our bodies or our minds or some other primitive part of ourselves, carry some similar primitive intuition of when things are supposed to happen? Call it our gut or whatever you want, but more often than not, if you ask yourself whether something is supposed to happen or not, you’ll sort of know the answer deep down. 

Granted, sometimes our intuition is off. Other times, in spite of what we feel—whether we feel like it’s “time” or not—you’ve got to do it anyways. Graduating from school, hitting deadlines at work, taking a big exam… Sure, there are plenty of life events that we have no control over, schedules and deadlines that we can’t dictate the timing of. I’m talking about the life events we do have control over. When we can feel we’re ready to make a career change—but we’re just too afraid to do it. When we find someone who we are so into but we’re afraid of letting ourselves fall too far into something where we might get hurt. Or where we’re ready to take on a big challenge for ourselves—creatively, athletically, or professionally—but we’re held back because of all of the reasons why not. Because it “isn’t the right time.”

It’s an easy excuse. Blame time. We’re good at that, us humans. Whenever we’re scared, we tend to push the blame on something or someone else. Like I said, sometimes timing isn’t right. But what if we took a good hard look at the situation, would we find excuses or would we feel in our gut that it was the right time with just lot of fear blocking the way?

I once read a quote that said that we should accept every moment as if we had asked for it. Timing then simply becomes a frame of mind. If something lands in our lap, we can view it in one of two ways. One, whether it is the right time for this or that or the other, whether we deserve it or are ready or can handle the challenge, or whether we are enough in this moment for whatever it is. Or two, we can take it as if this was supposed to happen, as if we had asked for it to happen. And this simple shift in thought drastically changes things. Our minds shift from Am I ready/Am I enough? To I am ready/I am enough/Now what? The timing magically becomes “right.”

While we may not have an animalistic sixth sense to predict when events should or shouldn’t happen in our lives, perhaps we do have enough intuition to understand that life happens as it does. People come in and out of your life at the moments they do because those were the seasons they were supposed to. Maybe the events that happen—both good and not so good—happen because we needed them then for one reason or another. Maybe your seasons of learning, of growing, of happiness and sadness, of getting lost and finding your feet on solid ground again are all happening at the right time. It comes down to whether you want to see it that way or not. Whether you take any given moment and see it as a moment to learn and grow or whether you see it as this oppositional force that is happening at the wrong time. I’m not saying it’s easy—especially in certain moments—but perhaps if we train ourselves to rethink about the concept of timing, about whether things are supposed to happen when they do in our lives, we might begin to think about everything in a new framework. 

Maybe we ought to give ourselves more credit. Maybe we actually do have an inner clock. Think about it. Our bodies miraculously know when to make our hearts pump blood without us even thinking about it. Our stomach digests our food without any conscious input on our part. What makes us think that under all that complex biomass, we might have a little bit more intelligence than we give ourselves credit for? Because maybe, just maybe, the mythical “I just feel it in my gut” has a little bit more credibility than we thought.

VIII.
Because I’m a literature nerd, I’m a sucker for a good quote. I’m talking about the kind of quotes that reach in and grab hold of something dormant inside of you and shake it awake with its efficacy. I mean the kind of words that take hold of something that you may have only been vaguely aware of previously, a dull ache of a feeling, until they brought it out into the light. The kind of quote that wraps something up nicely, the way a glove fits a hand. So with no further ado, here’s one such golden nugget:

I want to contribute. I want to say things that I wish I had heard ten years ago. I want to grope through the dark halls and flip on the lights. I want to sprinkle seeds out the holes in my pockets. I want to be confusing to certain people. I want to be a longed-for amen for those who don’t get to say it enough. I want to be naïve enough to do impossible things. I want to be savvy enough to cutivate naïveté in others. i want to read enough books to realize that any normal day holds in it every lesson in every book. That one rain storm watched through a window is enough truth forever, if only I had time to pick it apart. I want to know that I was an instrument in the symphony, and that I was tuned and played. What more do I need? What am I chasing if not ideas of identity... And the magic potions that promise to fill the holes in my boat? What if those holes are the holes in my flute?
— Jedidiah Jenkins
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So, as we reach the end, this is where I attempt to pull it all together and wrap it up nicely. Even if only figuratively, I’d like to leave this post untied, unraveled, no bow on top. Because discovering these tidbits, these moments of self-awareness, and stitching them together is an ongoing process. It's about gleaning these little bits and pieces of yourself along the way, putting the puzzle pieces together. Because if we're not careful, we can miss them. If we become too distracted or unmindful, we can easily overlook those little golden moments thrown into our paths to help us become more perceptive, more connected, and wiser human beings. 

So I guess the point I'm trying to make here is that when I pull it all together, when I look at the big picture of the last two years, I see it more like a kaleidoscope than one big shiny star. Like a sporadic spray of color, bursts of firecrackers here and there, instead of some big all-encompassing beacon of light. It comes to me in fragments, frequencies of smells and colors and feelings. Most of memories do. 

I think about the places—the thermal pools of Hungary, the sea caves of Mallorca, the seaside towns in Greece, the mountains of Austria, the vineyards in Italy. I think about all the people I met along the way—from Israel to Botswana, from Tasmania to Slovenia, from Iceland to Egypt. I think about all the adventures and misadventures along the way—getting stuck on a ski chairlift in Slovakia until we couldn’t feel our fingers, drinking wine and watching fireflies by the ocean at night with new friends in a small Italian town, listening to live music and eating dinner by the Douro River in Portugal. 

These are the moments that root us to our past. The trail of breadcrumbs, if you will, that leads us to where we are now. They’re how we grow. And finding that space in front of us, of being open and perceptive to these clues is what helps us grow in the future. The important part is to be self-aware enough to see it all unraveling before us. And to appreciate—and I mean, to really savor—the process of it all taking place.