The day I moved back to the U.S. from Sri Lanka, I was given a warning.
“Your passport is full,” the oily-skinned customs agent said. It was a Friday afternoon in July, 2012. The immigration lines at Washington Dulles International airport were hours long. The agent glanced at my short hair and round cheeks, then back down at a picture of me taken dozens of countries and a lifetime ago. “You are not permitted to leave the U.S. again until you get a new passport.”
“That’s fine,” I said, adjusting my heavy backpack’s straps. I’d been back in the States for seventeen minutes. “I’m not going anywhere for a while.”
// four years later //
I suspect 2016 will be the most traveled year of my life so far. This past summer alone saw two trips to Europe, three weeks in the New Mexico desert, one solo road trip, and a cross-country move. Since Christmas of last year, I’ve traveled to Germany; Switzerland; Austin, Texas; Green Bay, Wisconsin; Virginia; New Orleans; Florida; Portland, Oregon; Maui; Green Bay (again); Durham, North Carolina; Albany, New York (x3); Germany (again); Poland; Madison, Wisconsin; New Mexico; the Czech Republic; Eau Claire, Wisconsin; New Orleans (again); Boston; Maine; Houston; Door County, Wisconsin. Then it was to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley for my best friend’s wedding, followed by election week in New York City.
Home, by the way, is now Colorado.
At the moment, I’m en route to Florida to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with my boyfriend’s family. (My parents are coming, too. Dad’s several rows behind me on this plane, alternating, I’m sure, between napping and watching wealth management PowerPoint seminars on his iPad.) I’ll spend Christmas with my family and boyfriend Ben at our family’s new home in the Colorado mountains. I’ll kiss 2016 goodbye while hiking down the Grand Canyon on a several-day New Year’s hike. The first big trip of 2017 will be a few weeks later, when Ben and I fly to Rome to celebrate his birthday.
Re-reading that list of travels, what strikes me most is the fact that in a single year, I traveled to Wisconsin on five different occasions. I had no idea what a “cheesehead” was until I fell in love with one, and, well, for a girl who spent her formative years living in Germany, dating a Wisconsinite is all kinds of gemütlich.
Typing out those trips, what came to mind were not window seats and calendars, but a rush of moments. Dancing inside a golf cart on a summer night in Krakow. Cruising down Berlin’s river Spree with Katrina, Mom, and Dad. Riding shotgun past apple orchards sprinkled along Wisconsin’s two-lane windy roads, dusted with autumn’s reds, greens, and golds. Laying in my grandparents’ backyard in northern New York, face in the grass, blinking into the sunshine. Laying on an air mattress in Ben’s apartment, falling asleep to the rain. Laying on the bare wood floor of my apartment—the one I called home for two years—after the movers drove away.
One evening earlier this year, after a long day of writing and sitting at my desk in my Brooklyn bedroom, I pulled on my running shoes and hustled down my apartment building’s five flights of stairs. I burst out onto the tree-lined street and jogged two blocks to Fort Greene park, where it seemed many others had the same thought: time to go outside and play. I smiled. The sight of city-dwellers enjoying their local parks and green spaces never ceases to delight me.
It was early spring and the air was still cool. After my run, I plopped down on the stone steps at the top of the hill. I had begun to look forward to these post-run minutes, stretching in the sunlight, as much as I did the run itself. I caught my breath, watching the golden light fade behind the Manhattan skyline on the horizon, and looked around.
A young woman and her father did Tai Chi in matching navy blue Adidas track jackets. A ripped, middle-aged man grunted and sweated his way through running drills. Teenagers kissed, couples jogged, dogs ran off lead. A man in extremely saggy pants crushed a cigarette and immediately lit another. A woman flew a drone.
I have this bad habit of feeling nostalgic for a place before I leave it. It would be several weeks until I moved away from New York, but I’d already begun to savor the little things in my neighborhood that, for two years, kept me sane. Fort Greene park and its cacophony of people was a refuge. And the desire to remember these seemingly banal Brooklyn scenes, to stubbornly commit them to memory and draw meaning from the mundane mess, was fierce.
A few weeks later, when the air was considerably hot and heavier, I sat on the roof of my apartment building and composed a text message to Ben:
just walked past the spot you and I had our first kiss. the Brooklyn moon is just as big, but the stars aren’t as bright. it’s a hot and sticky night and everyone’s out under the twinkle lights filling the gentle streets, drinking rosé and smoking cigarettes in their underwear. kids sit on the stoops. it’s trash day so the curbs are piled high and it stinks, these tree-lined blocks are thumping with crickets and I’m a hot sweaty 26-year-old mess, a writer with little money but so much joy in my heart because I got to call this place home, for a blink of an eye. I just got back from walking the long walk back from my best friend’s apartment and I may not know much at all about my next chapter or hers or yours or anyone’s but I do know that there is never a last walk home, not really.
Most of us, I think, are in a state of running away from something and running towards something. (I’m writing this from several thousand feet up in the air, the irony of which does not escape me.) This belief brings me great comfort, but it’s difficult to say why, exactly. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown more comfortable in the in-between. I am an expert packer and a savvy frequent flyer-mile spender. I sleep well on planes and read easily on trains. For the past eleven years, I have celebrated my birthday in a new place. I am at my best when I am on my way.
Traveling has taught me that joy and relationships are location-independent. In fact, for me the two are often location-interdependent: the majority of my travels center around visiting, celebrating, or otherwise being with people I love. My partner, fortunately, also loves to travel, and we’ve naturally eased into being the other’s co-adventurer. Learning how to leverage our airline miles and credit card points to travel inexpensively and/or for free has helped (something my brother, our resident Trusted Travel Adviser, has mastered with one of his side businesses!). As a freelance writer and editor, being able to work from almost anywhere helps immensely, too. I’ll never mind the long, tiring days of travel when it means flying to and from my friends and my family.
“There’s something about moving in a space that is not my home that makes me more aware about my place in the world,” I read once. Coast-to-coast and across oceans, with every trip, my eyes widen and my heart expands. A relative once informed me that I am—clearly—afraid of “settling.” What is “settling,” anyway? The notion has such strong negative and positive associations. I don’t equate settling with staying in any one place. In that sense, I’ve been doing the opposite of settling for a decade. And I’ve grown to love it. What a privilege it is to wander with people who make me wonder—the peripatetic life is the one for me. I have seen and experienced and learned and loved so much that sometimes it’s hard to believe I am only 27. Most days, my default state of being is one of jet-lagged gratitude, of bleary, bright-eyed bliss.
Years ago, I picked up a greeting card that said it best:
“I’m not where I have been. I’m not where I’m going.
But I’m on my way.”
Somehow things feel like they’re coming full circle, but I can’t quite tell. I think it’s just that familiar, bittersweet collision of past and future. A chapter closes; a new adventure begins. As I write this, the sun is setting on top of the clouds outside my airplane window. Tonight, the golden-blue sky rests easy. Beneath the clouds, a million clambering hearts are settling in a million different places. Some, I know, are in pieces; for many, it has been a disheartening month. These are troubling times. I hope, deeply—and perhaps naively, but I don’t care—that restoration and peace resound this holiday season.
Whenever it is time to go, I feel a familiar, curious tug of fullness and nostalgia. Leaving is bittersweet. Coming home is bittersweet. Sometimes the act of putting up my tray table, as I’m being told to do right now, is bittersweet. But, there is this: in a few minutes, the man I love will find me at a baggage carousel and wrap me up in the biggest bear-hug. That feeling of arriving will breathe through our bones—a kind of comfort we’ve grown used to knowing. With our families, we will break bread and share stories and give thanks. And through it all, I’ll be reminded of how we all, in our own ways, make our homes wherever we go.