Goodbye, See You Tomorrow

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“Here sitting on the world, she thought, for she could not shake herself free from the sense that everything this morning was happening for the first time, perhaps for the last time, as a traveler, even though he is half asleep, knows, looking out of the train window, that he must look now, for he will never see that town, or that mule-cart, or that woman at work in the fields, again.” –To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

You’ve been living in a tent on the top of a hill in Cape Cod for over two months now. Patches of black mildew blossom in the humidity. Tent freckles, you think to yourself, as you run your finger over them. It is almost time to leave again. Almost.

The summer passed you by in the strangest way. Sometimes it feels like you weren’t even there, like you were a passenger on a train watching the scenery flash by—families rotating in and out, cabin doors slamming shut in their wake—but then there are moments, moments when the window opens and the breeze smells of wildflowers—when a kid hits a bullseye and his mouth falls open in wonderment, when a camper sings boldly into a microphone with the backing of a live guitar—and in that moment you feel present, grounded, like the world is real and you belong, and you’re doing something important, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time.

You want to write something big and meaningful about this summer, about illness and death and human connection, but you feel smaller than normal and words don’t come easily.

Here’s what you can capture, still lifes from the train window:

Some nights you’d make tea and sit behind your mildew-freckled tent and listen to the sounds of the highway while looking up at the stars. You went to Provincetown by yourself and listened to a podcast about the Manson Family as the road narrowed and the traffic swelled, and it felt safe and warm to be alone again in an unknown city, and it made you happy to know that you could be with someone and still belong fiercely to yourself. You found a tree frog in the toilet stall and marveled that a life of tree frogs and shower spiders was now yours.

This has been a summer about empathy. About listening and learning and finding gratitude in every shadow, every narrow beam of light.

Families welcome you into their lives for a week, sharing stories of g-tubes and surgeries and stubborn doctors, and you take whatever they give you, whatever morsel of their lives they are willing to put into your hands. You are a passenger along for the ride. You are just passing through.

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.

 

 

/arrival/

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There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind. –C.S. Lewis

There are things that bring you comfort. The familiar weight of your backpack hanging from your shoulders. The peppermint scent of Dr. Bronner’s soap. Curled pages of poetry that have kept you company around the globe. These are the things that you haul from place to place. These are the things that help you feel like you when the snow globe world has shaken once more and the particles have settled.

Here’s how it goes: You pack your bags thoughtlessly, and then you drive. Roads unspool like ribbon. Music holds you tight. In Montana you listened to Harry Styles on repeat as you drove into plumes of smoke, your hand outstretched beyond the window bobbing up&down up&down in the hazy air. The wildfires were calling you home, and you listened. You burned.

You wear the same three rings, the same five necklaces, the same four pairs of wool socks. You feel like a liar when you fill in your parents’ address on your I-9 form. You are doing your best to call this body home.

After your parents dropped you off as a freshman in college, you threw on a sundress, filled your backpack with notebooks and pens, and ran outside into the arms of the city. I think I’m lost, you texted your then-boyfriend as a nature trail ended at a row of dilapidated houses, beer cans and cigarette butts posing as lawn ornaments. You ignored your boyfriend’s concern and continued onward.

There is so much world to see.

Your nose was pressed against the car window as you wound through the foothills of the Himalaya for the first time, eager smudges on the glass. Bodies swung like pendulums around the curves, colliding in the backseat. You drove higher. Your body thrummed. The mountains felt endless, and your heart burst with sunshine and everything inside of you felt lighter and more radiant than it had a heartbeat ago.

There’s a restlessness that inhabits your bones, that invites you onward, pushes you to new places, into the arms of new people. You don’t fight it. Not anymore.

But that wasn’t always true. There was a time when all you wanted was to stay, when forever felt like something to strive toward. But those days are over, those memories  stitched up and haphazardly healed, and stability is no longer something you dream of.

You wander.
You burn.
You are too much for a single person to hold.

You are in Ohio now. You drink chamomile tea, and listen to conspiracy theories, and you wonder if anyone is thinking of you in that very second, if you’re more alive, more cherished in memory. You sit in a coffee shop in New Philadelphia and remember sitting in a similar one in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where the barista complimented your necklace and then fled to the bathroom to vomit. You loved that place.

Someone mentions the phrase “twin flame,” and you realize how much you’ve left behind, and how you don’t regret any of it.

There is so much world to see.

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.

 

What You Share With The World

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The outer temple wall is in the background, and the holehole stone, where human flesh was separated from bone, is on the bottom right.

 

What you share with the world is what it keeps of you. —Noah and the Whale

 

Situated on the northern coast of the Big Island overlooking the Maui Strait is Moʻokini Heiau, said to be the first temple built on the Hawaiian Islands. Legend says that the temple was built in a single night in 480 A.D. by the Menehunes–dwarf-like master builders who never worked on the same project twice. They stood in a line 12 miles long and passed rocks one by one from Pololu Valley to Kohala. Later, in 1370 A.D., Moʻokini Heiau was converted into a luakini heiau, a war temple, and was dedicated to the war god Ku, thus beginning a new era of human sacrifice.

After walking three miles in the wrong direction, my family and I finally found the torn-up strip of road that led to the temple. The guidebook hadn’t lied when it’d said some of the puddles were large enough to have their own ecosystems. The water was vermilion  and reminded me of the turmeric latte I’d had the day prior. Who knows what was at the bottom. Waves crashed to our right, while the road snaked along the coast and then jutted inland to the remaining temple ruins.

We walked and walked and suddenly we arrived, a dilapidated sign the only prelude to the monument. There were no signs telling us the history of the temple. No labels at the holehole stone where human bodies were stripped of flesh. No placard with numbers explaining when, and who, and how many. All of that had to be scrounged up later. The only sign present was a bronze plaque recognizing this as a national historical landmark with the words “United States” and “U.S.” symbolically pounded out.

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Different landscapes conjure different feelings within us. I’m always shot with eagerness and a touch of ferocity when I barrel down the sidewalks of NYC, while all I feel is reverence when I stand in Yosemite Valley at sunset, dwarfed by sun-splashed granite walls. Standing there at Moʻokini Heiau with rain clouds scattered in the distance and a broken rainbow clinging to the air, I didn’t know what to feel. Awe and sadness and beauty all wrapped together. But this wasn’t my culture, these weren’t my people whose lives were given to the gods, and without context, without information to orient myself, I didn’t know how to carve out the distance between myself and these ruins.

There are different levels of public access in Hawaii for historical monuments and ecological wonders. It ranges from sacred burial grounds marked with crossed sticks and a sign reading Kapu, keep out, to national park visitor centers that are open 365 days a year. Although part of the U.S., Hawaii has its own history and culture, and the people there don’t share everything with us. They don’t have to.

Moʻokini Heiau wasn’t always accessible to the average person. The temple was only open to ali’i and kahuna, chiefs and priests, until 1978 when Kahuna Nui (High Priestess) Leimomi Moʻokini Lum lifted the taboo and rededicated the temple to the children of the land (Hawaii). She later rededicated the temple again in 1994 to the children of the world. Since then, Leimomi Moʻokini Lum and her family have hosted a variety of visitors at the heiau, including many school groups and curious children.

“I invite everyone to visit,” said Mealani Lum, a direct descendant of the Moʻokini lineage, in an interview with Big Island Television. “I like to talk to people. Especially kids. Hawaiian kids especially because if they don’t know where they came from, they won’t know where they’re going.”

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Knowing that the heiau welcomes outsiders–at least by the family that runs it–perhaps I would’ve felt differently as I stood in the rays of slanted sunlight, staring at green carpeted rocks, trying to imagine the textures of life that had existed in their presence. Or maybe I wouldn’t have. Maybe I still would’ve felt like an intrusive outsider peeking behind a door meant to be locked. Maybe that’s the point.

“For anyone sensitive to the colonial environment which has rendered this ancient cultural site into a quaint and isolated scenic adventure often taken by non-culturally affiliated tourists,” write Peter Mills and Kathleen Kawelu in their paper Decolonizing Heritage Management in Hawai‘i, “the very act of visiting Mo‘okini evokes an uncomfortable sense of misappropriation.”

Monuments like this resurface the complexity of our bloody, tangled history. We are no heroes. No nation of this world has ever been strong or great without carving their name into the backs of others. Every victory is a scar. So in places like this, it’s a gift to be invited in to witness and learn. A gift to feel uncomfortable and think about cultures that are not ours, that we haven’t respected in the past, that time and time again still allow us to partake in their rituals and private histories. It’s a gift.

“The Indigenous person occupies a world of tradition in a sense that is generally unknown to a western generation,” writes Chris Ryan. “It is the clash between a sense of eternal relationship of self and place versus the culture of the 15 second sound bite.”

I think this is why we–white, culture-deprived people like myself–like to visit places like Moʻokini Heiau. They feel unfamiliar, and we long to tap into something greater than ourselves, something that brings us closer to divinity or death. In the era of the 15 second sound bite, it’s easy to feel untethered. But places like Moʻokini Heiau remind us that things can endure. That art and history and culture won’t disappear if we drop our phone into a puddle or lose our external hard drive. The collective memory of the world will outlast us all, and sometimes that feeling alone is reassuring.

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Sources:

Chapman, Dohn. “The Eerie Aura of Mo’okini.” Earthstonestation, 29 May 2015, earthstonestation.com/2015/05/22/the-eerie-aura-of-mookini/.

Mills, Peter R, and Kathleen L Kawelu. “Decolonizing Heritage Management in Hawai‘i.” Scientific Research, Aug. 2013, file.scirp.org/Html/35283.html.

“Mookini Heiau and Kamehameha Birthsite, Kohala.” Big Island Television, Hawaii, 29 May 2015, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdPost_3Q0I.

Ryan, Chris, and Michelle Aicken. Indigenous Tourism the Commodification and Management of Culture. Routledge, 2007.

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.