Stories of the World

Re-entering the River... Returning Home After Time Abroad

Last year I spent three months in an artists’ residency in a stone house by the sea. Later, I visited fjords and waterfalls and the moonscapes of Iceland, awed by the drama of the cliffs and the searing songs of birds and the sheer expanse of space. I spent a month exploring the isles of Croatia, staying with locals and sampling seafood and colorful brandies and olive oils. In a township outside of Cape Town I helped share the concept of digital storytelling with students who chose to showcase the poignancy of teenage motherhood in their community.

I stood at the confluence of the Atlantic and Indian oceans, smiling broadly with my new friend Astrid and my sock monkey George. I traveled 3,000 miles in a hot Land Rover throughout southern Africa and shuddered that my thin nylon tent was the only separation between me and the jaws of night-feeding elephants. I discovered the fluidly-beautiful world of undersea diving, drifting between tides and rapture of the floating, finning, and fanning creatures off Zanzibar.

And then, after all of that and a hundred million other scenes impossible to share, I returned home to a city I love- Seattle- in the drizzly and graying month of December.

Of course, I am grateful for my amazing and altering journey, my second year abroad, and one of a dozen trips beyond the boundaries of North America. But there is a strange sense of isolation in being a seeker. Even as my empathy grows and my lips are quick to smile, whether in the Pacific Northwest or downtown Kabul, I often find other Americans more alien to me than anyone else. I’ve not tracked movie titles or the lives of Hollywood stars. I know little of popular culture, dance clubs, or fashion.

I’m used to being introduced as a party trick- fanciful for a moment, then ushered off Stage Left. It used to really bother me that even those who love me most have such a slim appetite for photos or anything more than the briefest of anecdotes. I hear that dismay in the voices of those who have also returned to homes suddenly less familiar.

I find myself sharing less, embracing solitude more, and in fact even stymied in writing my experiences and culling through images- even those that shimmer in my mind or that broke my heart open.

Of course I plan to share... there is, undoubtedly, an unforgiveable sin of being blessed by the abundance and opportunity to travel and then not producing a salient and transformative work. And here I am a writer and photographer, for whom capturing spirit and story and the subtleties of both strengthens my capacity for joy in a way not unlike lavender or verbena or fresh cracked black pepper enhances taste.

But there is a gap in the immediacy of being able to trace along the golden thread that weaves its themes of desolation and renewal and remembrance and surprise through all our journeys. The thread is there, of course, weaving itself around us in a golden gown, suitable and perfect for our shape and gifts, intention and inspiration. But we still need time and space and the eyes to see it.

When I meet other travelers-returned, aid workers, service volunteers, I recognize the guarded flashes of desperation, the simultaneous brightening and tarnishing of spirit, a general vague malaise toward concrete plans. The social fallacy toward those who have spent significant time away is that now they have (finally!) figured it all out, that they’re ready to jump back in with both feet- into work, into relationship, into shopping at grocery stores with their inexhaustible rows of goods and supplies with their bright packaging and glaring advertisements. Or worse yet, a mall.

We have, unfortunately, missed some significant events: births, deaths, struggles and celebrations. For some this is hard to forget, or forgive. We must pass through a period of testing with our re-entry, proving that we are worthy, still and again, to be trusted with people’s hearts and the magnitude of their daily lives.

It can be difficult too, for we-returnees, to be understood. We may look the same, but no one around us can know how it was, running from a gunman across a darkened park in Turkey, or caught in the rapids of a muddy river in Nepal, or crying with an Afghan without hope, who had lost her legs in a landmine, or being the only witness of the rapturous, riotous sunrise over Lake Malawi.

Some people try to understand the catch in our voice, the stories fresh in our minds, to inquire when we respond differently, or erratically. But typically, after a few months, they stop asking, and it is as though we never even left. For me, that is when real loneliness begins.

I love music. I love people. But I find myself craving the quiet spaces, radio off, television irrelevant, little patience for casual or inauthentic exchange. It’s easier to shout, “THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES!”

I’m clearer on my desire for a life of meaning. I understand fragility more completely and the pang that no two beings will ever travel exactly the same way again. And that not everyone who leaves on an adventure comes home.

My soul needs feeding far more than my belly now. I crave those who understand me, or I’d rather be alone. I spend hours staring out at the water watching the light move. Working even part-time exhausts me.

I am thinking. I am pondering. I am waiting. I am growing. I am sorting myself out from the inside.

Perhaps this is laziness.
Perhaps this is lack of productivity.
Perhaps this is liberation.