Self-Portrait at Twenty-Five

 

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You are 25. A quarter of a century. You feel 25. You’re still young but somehow, without noticing, you’ve slipped into adulthood. You like being 25.

You sport a $16.95 haircut, and thrift-store sweaters, and purple Vans you bought in California back in high school. You still own your Death Cab for Cutie hoodie from eighth grade.

You sneak glimpses of your body in mirrors as you walk through your poorly insulated house, dashing from bedroom to bathroom through the chill of the living room. You are thinner than you once were. Stronger. You lift boats and hike mountains and belay children for a job. Your body feels capable and thriving.

People ask if you have matches on you, if they can borrow your pocket knife. These facts make you feel strong and capable, too.

You think about aloneness a lot. You remember your eighth grade English teacher pulling you aside and telling you things got better—English teachers always knew you best—and now you’ve come to realize that you misunderstood him. You thought that things would change. They don’t. But aloneness is something different now. Something comforting and desirable like your red down jacket with the duct tape patch on the cuff. You’re not sure how to live any differently, and you don’t think there will ever be a time when you don’t feel this way.

Friends from once-upon-a-time invite you to hang out, and their invitations make you pause. You have come so far since then. Since whenever. You are further and further away from who you once were, and you find it increasingly difficult to reconnect with people from your past. You don’t know how to explain your wildness. Someday you hope it won’t need an explanation.

You have a list of inspirational women that you thumb through in your head like rosary beads—Hanya Yanagihara, Rebecca Solnit, Arundhati Roy, Lindy West. All of them are strong and motivated, and you often worry that you’re not doing enough, that these women work harder, fight more fiercely, and you’ll never be one of them. You compare yourself with others in terms of accomplishments because you’re scared one day you’ll wake up and regret things undone. You worry about time. About wasting it. About not having enough.

Your world is a lot bigger than it used to be. You daydream about dusk in Yosemite, and backpacking in Nepal, and the David Wojnarowicz exhibition at the Whitney that you didn’t get to see (Hanya Yanagihara saw it). Your goal for this winter is to practice cello and learn how to bake bread.

You think about your past selves. You picture them all together like nervous actors before auditions crowded in a waiting room. Childhood Channing is reading Harry Potter in a matching neon green outfit, sprawled unapologetically in a chair. Teenage Channing has discovered eyeliner and nihilism. College Channing holds a can of PBR in one hand and a PBJ sandwich in the other.

It almost scares you how much you’ve changed because you’re only 25. Who will you be in five years? Ten? Twenty? So much is unknowable and sometimes you wish you had a master plan, a well-lit path to follow. But mystery is too inviting. So you push onward in the darkness, hands out in front of you, hoping not to stumble. You’ve learned that it takes the human eye about twenty minutes to readjust to darkness, which is something you tell kids when you lead them on night hikes, challenging them to abandon their flashlights and trust their primal selves. This is how you travel now. No lights. Just courage.

 

 

A Year

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One year ago, I was sitting at a desk. It was a nice desk. The chair was padded and it swiveled; I had an entire drawer dedicated to colored paper, glue sticks, and craft foam; a painted alligator made of egg cartons and cardboard boxes watched me work. It was a lovely desk.

Fifty-two weeks ago, the end of my desk life was in sight. I was leaving my job at the end of June and embarking on a new adventure. I was ditching my office desk for a collapsible one my dad and I made that fit snugly into the back of my car. Farewell to my padded chair and hello to a bright red camping chair that had a single cup holder in the right arm. Spontaneity was swapped with security. AC was abandoned for smoke-stained Western air.

Three-hundred-and-sixty-five days ago, I thought I was taking a break from the 9-5 lifestyle. Just a couple months of wildness, I told myself. Then I’ll be ready to start again.

But those couple months stretched and stretched, until here I am, one year later, with no foreseeable end in sight.

The past 525,600 minutes feel heavier than those that came before them, weighed down by the places I’ve visited,  the trails my shoes have pressed against, the people I still daydream about. Time passes without significance in the cogs of routine, but adventure forces you to be present every moment.

3.154e+7 seconds ago, I was a different person. I loved fewer people. The world felt more hostile. In this narrow space of becoming, I shed my skin and ran, growing with the world instead of against it.

One year ago, I left my lovely desk job. I haven’t looked back since.

 

 

Leaving/Left/Gone

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Bilbo: I’ll be alright. Just let me sit quietly for a moment.

Gandalf: You’ve been sitting quietly for far too long! Tell me, when did doilies and your mother’s dishes become so important to you? I remember a young hobbit who was always running off in search of Elves in the woods. He’d stay out late, come home after dark, trailing mud and twigs and fireflies. A young hobbit who would’ve liked nothing better than to find out what was beyond the borders of the Shire. The world is not in your books and maps. It’s out there.

Bilbo: Can you promise that I will come back?

Gandalf: No. And if you do… you will not be the same.

You left. It started with a dream, a fragile wisp as light as a daffodil petal. You sat at your office desk and planned, and schemed, and imagined a world covered in blue pines.

You are always leaving.

They told you that you could have adventures, but they never told you that there was a price. You could have your wildness, but you’d lose the sense of comfort you’d feel when you’d walk down the sidewalks of your old neighborhood, dogs barking, children laughing, garbage men waving as you pass by.

No one ever told you that adventure is accompanied by loss.

People will talk about their jobs behind desks and debate the meaning of business casual, and you will feel alone. They will say, did you know Tory Burch is having a sale, and you will respond, one time I burned a hole in my jacket while making tea in the shadow of Mount Shasta. 

You will sleep in your childhood bed, you will visit the offices of your first job, you will meet up with your ex-boyfriend, and even though your jeans still fit, even though the pantry is still stocked with your favorite cereal, this life is no longer yours. You left, and you changed, and there is no going back.

And that’s OK.

That was the point, wasn’t it? To change, to become, to tap into this life you knew existed if only you tried a little harder, drove a little further, followed more stars. You started drinking seltzer water as an excuse to leave your desk at work, and you knew that if you didn’t run, your lungs would always feel this tight.

So you left.

You are always leaving.

One time in Idaho, you sat with your feet propped up on your back tire, coloring in an adult coloring book. A guy approached you and asked about your journey, gesturing to your New York license plates. You told him. He was impressed. Not many people actually do it, he said, and you thought that was the greatest compliment you’d ever heard.

Because you did it. You left, and it was worth it.

Home doesn’t mean what it used to. You’re not sure what it means these days. A place, a person, a feeling you get when you’ve hiked all day and the wooded valley ripples outward below you, like you were the single tossed stone that set everything in motion. You think it’s OK that home is nameless and undefined, a specter instead of a solid presence. You think it’s OK that your skin is restless. You think it’s OK.

A man at Mount Rainier stopped you as you passed him on your descent and told you that you looked strong. You smiled. He was right.

You are gone.

 

Memories Are Stronger Than Bone

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I met a guy in Moab, and I can’t remember his name. He told me about how he was airlifted off Mount Whitney  along with the body of a dead girl, a girl who went hiking with her fiancé and came down with AMS, but instead of following her down, her fiancé chased the summit and she wandered back alone. They found her in a frozen waterfall, crashed through the ice.

I can’t remember his name. The guy who told me that. I can’t remember his name.

He had a dog, and a Subaru, and worked at a bike shop on the main strip in Moab. He’d moved from Vegas two weeks earlier, leaving behind a wife and a pile of debt. Her pile of debt. I didn’t know about her loans, he told me as we sat in the desert, his voice whisky strong. I didn’t know.

I can’t remember his name.

I can’t remember the name of the guy from Québec I met at the Grand Canyon whom I talked with for two hours in the parking lot. He showed me his renovated van, and we discussed Trump, and California gas prices, and where the hell the closest showers were.

I also can’t remember the name of the woman I met at Lake Tahoe. It was the only time on that trip that I got lost while hiking, and we stumbled our way back to the correct trail together. She was mid-50s with a sparkly blue nose ring and a daughter about my age. How do I become like you, I thought as she talked about rowing on Lake Tahoe in the early, sun-bitten mornings. Her nose ring caught all the light. How do I become like you?

Maybe it’s OK that I can’t remember. After all, names only mean so much. Words too have shortcomings. Because when I say, I loved every minute of it, what I mean is, I’m a different person. And when I say, I’d do it all again, what I’m actually telling you is, None of that’s behind me. 

I think about that guy from Moab often. Is he back with his wife yet? Is he still sleeping in his car? How hung over was he after his night of confessions? I think about him, and everyone I met, and how even the bad days were amazing, and how my skin and muscles felt like home.

This is just the beginning. The adventure continues. I’m chasechasechasing the life I want, and I hope you are, too.