The unspeakable loveliness of leaving

1 Apr 2014

I grew up in a suburb of Dallas, Texas called Grand Prairie, the only child of two teachers, and I was a solitary but exuberant creature from the beginning. In grade school, I developed a habit of telling tall tales in the cafeteria (I was secretly a world class figure skater; I had a long lost twin; I could communicate with trees) and I told them until middle school, when I learned to write them down. Creative writing has always been my most fluent and effortless outlet for an unusually active imagination. 

I stayed on the honor roll until I graduated from high school and then left town to follow a rock band across the continent. During those first months of constant traveling, I realized that I had been homesick for motion all my life without even knowing it. 

For the next five years I divided my time between semesters in college and long bouts of driving all over the country, but no matter how much research I did or how many different courses I tried, I couldn’t commit to a major because I was interested in everything. First it was Media Arts, then Business, then Fiber Arts, then Ethnomusicology, but I still hadn’t truly clicked with anything, so I surrendered in frustration and left the state for four months to hike down the west coast on the Pacific Crest Trail. 

I lived in some of the most magical and unforgiving landscapes on earth, battled glaciers and battered feet, nearly died of exposure, and remembered that writing was my oldest love. So, at the end of 2005, I returned to Texas and finally earned my B.A. in Journalism. But I had fallen irrevocably in love with the mountains that almost did me in, and a few weeks after graduating, I moved to Seattle to be near them. 

 

"The mountains are calling and I must go." —John Muir

 

I arrived with nothing but a backpack, not even a plan, and I ended up in the travel industry. I’m good at getting my head around places, even those I haven’t personally experienced, and I master detail easily, both the organizational and the creative varieties, so I did well.

Looking back, I suppose I had expected my wanderlust to diminish with maturity, but it did the opposite. I found myself increasingly overwhelmed with the desire to experience the whole, entire, unabridged world and yet perplexingly clueless about how to finance such an ambitious endeavor. I lived in a tiny one-room efficiency in Pioneer Square that cost me half of my wages and spent my spare time painstakingly covering the walls with a sprawling collage of maps and National Geographic articles and photographs of faraway places.

Once I moved in with the software engineer who would become my husband, money was no longer such an issue, and we had the financial means to travel. So travel we did. The years when I began spending time overseas were the single most defining period of my life. They were the genesis of my understanding that I am not fully comfortable until I’m out of my comfort zone, that I’m not truly in my element until I’m out of my element, and that I feel most at home far away from everything I know. 

 

I don’t travel to cross out items on the proverbial checklist of the world’s iconic sights. I couldn’t care less if I never see the Eiffel Tower. I travel to experience difference and to learn about the cultural minutiae of how people think and behave and express themselves. It’s a never-ending prism of discovery to me. I love everything about the act of being in motion, even the confusion and the hardships and the fear. 

But as much as I love travel, I was fundamentally unhappy with my work life as a travel agent. I was bored with booking prepackaged tours and frustrated by the reality that my clients had no desire to travel the way I do. They didn’t want to dive into the beauty of not knowing, they didn’t want to listen to the poetry of place. They wanted me to map them out a well-defined fantasy, as far removed from challenge and risk as possible, an escape from the rigors of real life. But for me, real life is out there. 

So I got out of the travel industry. I still maintain my licensing as an independent travel consultant, and I indulge my friends and family by arranging their vacations, but it will never be my day job again. I found work doing nonprofit administration in the child and family services sector, and I became an immeasurably happier person just because I was laboring for the benefit of my fellow human beings and not the bottom line of some corporate entity. But at the same time, I was still under-challenged by the daily routine of managing calendars and drafting reports, and I was still sedentary, glued to a single desk in a single office in the only country I’ve ever lived in, when the world was whispering a summons to my soul.

 

"Put your ear down next to your soul and listen hard." 

—Anne Sexton


After my employment contract expired last month, I couldn’t bring myself to dive back into the search for the next steady paycheck. Adventure was stirring in the depths of my psyche, beseeching me not to forget its name. I wanted to travel slower, farther, with more abandon and more surrender than I could ever manage to find in a three-week paid vacation. I had no job, no commitments, no qualms. I had half a million airmiles to play with and a worldful of wonders to explore. The grandmother clock of the gods struck midnight. The solstice sun aligned with the stonehenge of my heart. Fate unleashed a royal fanfare. And I curtsied. 

 

Next week, I will move my whole world into the powder blue cocoon of my wayworn Rimowa Salsa Air suitcase. My astonishingly understanding and infinitely supportive husband will drive me to the airport. And I will take the first step down the road to who-knows-where. I will spend a week in my hometown, to visit friends and family before I leave. And on the 16th of April I will board a one-way flight to Shanghai. 

 

"In my dream,

the angel shrugged

and said if we fail this time

it will be a failure of imagination

and then she placed the world gently 

in the palm of my hand."

—Brian Andreas

I’ve made arrangements to work in exchange for room and board in China and after that, Nepal. I don’t know where I will go when I leave Kathmandu, but wherever it is, I will go with all my heart. It’s hard to let go of all the things I know and cherish. It’s hard to worry my mother. It’s hard to walk away from my best friend. It’s hard to leave my husband and my city and my cats and my bedful of cozy down pillows and blankets. 

But right now, I have a choice between comfort and happiness. I am going because I have to go home to the beyond, because its address is written in my heart. I am going because I can’t turn my back on the world, because I can’t turn my back on myself. I am going because I have to choose love. 

“I go to seek the Great Perhaps.” - François Rabelais

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