So I wrote this letter to an old professor of mine.
So I’ve been thinking the past week or two about the request you made in your previous e-mail – for to tell you about my travels since I left the J-school.
I’m always sort of baffled and intrigued by the premise of Summing Up. As you may recall, my grad thesis was 178 pages long, when 78 may well have sufficed. Brevity has never been my strong suit. Despite that, or perhaps even because of that, distillation in any form strikes me as a useful, if slightly maddening, exercise. So I sat down and started writing out an answer and I guess in the end it was mostly a letter to myself but I’m going to send it along to you for posterity and whatnot. Onward!
I spent the summer after grad school traveling through Central America, mostly because the ticket was cheap and I wanted to practice my Spanish and I’d decided I’d rather eat paint chips than spend one more summer in the armpit of the Midwest. So off I went. I made my way through Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras that Stifling Summer of 2009. I met some beautiful people along the way, hitchhiked a bit (only when it felt right!), ate a few drugs and even witnessed a military coup.
It should have been magic, but the experience left me listless and bored. I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t sleep. I smoked so many cigarettes that I craved them even when I had one hanging from my lip, which definitely makes you question the whole freaking point of the endeavor. I’d wake up in the middle of the night to smoke these terrible, shitty, dusty cigarettes, and I’d sit under my mosquito net, ashing my butts into this little pink seashell I’d found down on the huge, empty Nicaraguan seashore and trying like hell to just only think.
It felt so at odds. I’d imagined that journalism school would be a polestar of sorts for me, something that would steer my broke ass in the proper direction, give me a career path and a whispered clue as to how to be a grown up, which I’d definitely been failing at ever since I was ejected, unwillingly, from the haze of adolescence at some point in my mid-20s. Instead, I came out the other end more dazed and unglued and untethered than I’d been when I’d started, which is surely saying something.
I guess you could call it a “crisis of conscience.” If you wanted to be dramatic about it. And I do. Because it sort of turned me upside down. When I was younger, I vowed I’d never stop traveling the world. I think the count was 27 countries by the time I landed in that cornfield in Missouri with my mouth hanging dumbly open.
That summer in CentroAmerica, though, it felt like nothing beautiful could touch me anymore. Like this old, black hound dog was always trailing at my heels. Like I was only moving because I was afraid, suddenly, to sit still. My stuff had been in storage for almost a decade. I was lonely, but I couldn’t seem to drop my bags long enough to be anywhere, entirely. Ever. Really be there, I mean. Home, at that point, seemed like the most exotic and terrifying destination my drugged-out brain could possibly conjure up, late at night, alone, beneath a frayed mosquito net, choking on cigarette exhaust in a strange and dangerous land.
So I downshifted. I quit those nasty cigarettes and I moved back to Oregon and I threw my passport into a desk drawer. I got a job at a newspaper on the coast, and a nice boyfriend who didn’t talk too much, and that was that. For two years, I camped out in the rain, pulling 60- to 70-hour weeks, writing like a maniac. I got promoted to editor. I wrote some more. I went abroad just twice, to Mexico both times, for five days at a stretch. I told myself it was enough. I kept that little pink seashell on my desk at home, and when my feet got itchy, I’d take it out and rub its ashy underbelly and I’d remind myself why this was where I now belonged. I reminded myself so hard.
Can you guess what happens next? I bet you can! This is the moment in the narrative arc where the internal conflict escalates. One day, I woke up and I went to the office and I quit that newspaper job. And then I dragged said nice, quiet boyfriend back to CentroAmerica with me. Even though it had been the source of so much discontent the last time around.
Sadly, CentroAmerica Redux wasn’t any better, really, but for different reasons. Among them: salmonella poisoning, sketchy run-ins with El Salvadoran gang members and lecherous expat pedophiles, and the slow dawning realization that – was it just me, or was my nice, quiet boyfriend kind of acting like a dick? Again, I felt antsy and restless and discontented.
So I came home and I dumped my boyfriend and I moved home to Portland. The place where I’d started from 12 years before.
It’s been seven months since I got back. I’m a freelancer, now. I sleep late and I work late on all sorts of projects and I visit my old, old friends and I’m mostly at peace and I’ve vowed to never again take a job that doesn’t give me the winter off, so that I might see one new country each year for as long as I am able. This winter, I visited India and Sri Lanka.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, I was full of trepidation. I hadn’t had a run-in with the black hound in awhile, but wondered if he was still waiting for me, somewhere out past the horizon, with his yellow liquid eyes and his sad, clicking jaw.
He and I never did cross paths in India. I did, however, meet all manner of other skinny, crippled pups, yipping little fleabitten sacks of flesh and bone that I’d ply with large chunks of garlic naan and fistfuls of Oberta Turkey Jerky. Them, plus Brahmin painters and young monks and migrant workers and a palm reader and a national cycling champion turned train conductor and a filthy family of Pavement Dwellers squatting in a gutter demolishing the innards of a discarded chocolate cake at midnight on New Year’s Eve. And it was like the color had been switched back on. My life snapped into focus for the first time in a long decade. In India, I could sit still for hours at a stretch. I could stare at dirt or water or grass and appreciate it in its minutest, most infinitesimal detail without that old restless dread tickling at my bones. I smoked, but only a little. And I slept like a dead man. Every night, no matter how many cups of chai masala I gulped down, or how hot or cold the jungle air, or how many screeching roosters and drunken beachside revelers came ambling past my cocohut. And when it was all done, I came home to Portland and to my work with no sense of boredom or chagrin.
You know, I’ve still got that little pink seashell. It’s actually sitting on my windowsill just a foot away as I type this. I cleaned the grime out of it and polished it up awhile back and sometimes when it rains just so fucking inveterately and I get that old, sad, bad feeling, I pick it up and think hard about what it means to live a life that is balanced. Equal parts working and wandering. Because in the end, surely, as Bob Dylan once so wisely noted, “Everybody must give something back for something they get.”
We strike so many deals with the universe every moment of our lives. Have the things I’ve traded for my freedoms these past few years been worth it? I don’t have my answer just yet, but some days I think I’m perilously close.