Travel’s Greatest Gift: Home

*A NOTE* I’ve gotten a few questions after this post from friends asking, “Does this mean you’re not traveling anymore?” The answer is hells no. I’ll always be a traveler, but now I’m one with a home. Travel is not my lifestyle , it’s actually my job as I work for a travel company now. In 2014, I will be going on (2-3 weeks) a few times a year and be exploring a lot more of Northern California. 

A few days after Thanksgiving and I went on a hike in Mendocino County with five friends – couples who I had met through work and one woman who I met on my first Meetup outing in San Francisco, three and a half years ago. At Russian Gulch State Park, we walked to a 35 foot waterfall spouting out of a gray rock cliff, into a pool that was boldly interrupted by a fallen redwood, a lighter of shade of gray and covered in smooth bark as if it had tried to get as close of the water as possible and lost its footing. All six of us climbed onto the tipped giant and sat in forested, comfortable silence.

After our hike, we went to a pizza place in Mendocino and we passed around this Walt Whitman poem that I had found on Thanksgiving Day and read it aloud.

Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night
with any one I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so quiet
and bright,
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.
To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.
To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim–the rocks–the motion of the waves–the
ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?

When I found that poem, I was so inspired by Whitman’s celebration of the every day that I decided, in the spirit of Thanksgiving gratitude, I wrote some of my own verses to celebrate the miracles I experience in daily life.  The italics are his to offset my own list of miracles.

Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,

Whether I walk the streets of San Francisco
Or shine my sight on new neighborhoods and Victorian facades
Or walk with sturdy strong feet on the pavement or brown ground of eucalyptus paths
Or talk by phone and text and Skype and gchat with those I love
Or laugh over coffee, separated by a table or 2000 miles
Or sit at a table with fresh caught fish or homemade cassoulet
Or take out my ear buds and observe my neighbors on the Muni on the way to meetings downtown
Or watch the waves and dogs and surfers and couples at Ocean Beach
Or the golden hills and redwoods of Sonoma and beyond
Or the bend of the Russian River’s glassine surface, reflecting the pines
Or the skyscraper horizon caught by golden morning light
Or the physical feeling of grounded and roots and coming home to a place that is thoroughly mine

These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.
To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.

What stranger miracles are there? 

I don’t know.

What I do know, for the first time in my life, I have found a home and these miracles and traveling on big trips allowed me to do that.  Around the pizzeria table with Ripple, Puneet, Charles, Julie, and Asma, I shared these words with my five closest friends without embarrassment or worry that they would reject or not want to hear them. They listened and heard me.

I want to stay put in my beautiful, miraculous life.

I surrender to this realization. When I was living a life I didn’t want, travel was my savior and my hall pass. It was what I was always meant to do and it was an escape from a life I couldn’t live anymore. So escape I did for two unmoored years. My three big trips whirled me up like the tornado from Oz and planted me on a path. Traveling was how I found out who I was. The act taught me how listen to my gut and trust myself.

On a hammock in Kerala, India, in February 2010 on a big trip that wasn’t going as planned, I thought, it’s time to find a home. Where? I asked myself. San Francisco came to my mind in a flash and the pull back to American shores was strong, much like when India popped up two years prior and pulled me out to the subcontinent for my first big trip.

But even after I “settled down” to that home in San Francisco, I lived a duality. I wanted to stay and dig in, but I always had an eye on my next trip. This feet-on-the-ground, eyes-on-the-horizon lens prevented me from rooting. In my mind, the next big trip was just a plane ticket away. And I did travel, to Europe, to Peru, to Africa, and finally “living” in Paris this past fall.

In my social life, I surrounded myself with travelers, wrote about travel on this blog and online magazines, and helped others take their big trips. The friction of home and away continued because I was living the exact life I wanted to and yet, I wanted to leave on more trips. There was nothing to escape from, what was the problem?

To find comfort, I defined my external home as the walls of my apartment. I hung trip photography, lithographs, fabrics, and other travel ephemera collected and carried around the world. These artifacts carried a little extra weight with them in the form of a where-bought-and-how-carried story. I’d look around and feel comforted, knowing that I was still a traveler, despite my stationary state. Pieces of my trips were always plain view, for all to ask about, for me to relive in sharing. They helped create my physical home, with travel still accessible any time I glanced at the Laotian basket or the Indian batik. I could go off again.

But something changed. When I came home from safari this past May, I had a very distinct feeling of not wanting to plan my next trip to Paris. That seemed ridiculous and was also a very new feeling. Here, I had the opportunity to work remotely from Paris and live there for three weeks. It took a lot of effort, public pronouncements on Facebook, and motivational self talk to plan that trip.

Home was not as simple as hanging a piece of art. In leaving to live in another city, I realized I needed to find an internal sense of home. For this traveler, this new home was not a noun, but a verb. “Home” was the active effort of staying still, not just physically, but with unpleasant feelings and boredom and conflict and challenging relationships and fulfillment inside or outside those four walls.

The effort came in not moving. I made deliberate efforts of going through difficult and often painful feelings that I couldn’t and didn’t want to avoid. When life was a bit too raw, I’d find myself daydreaming about croissants at cafes and pink skies seen from 3rd class on an Indian train. These were just distractions. My journey was now through the pain, not over the next pass. Over time, I stopped fantasy trip planning on my Kayak app with “I could just leave then” dates in the date picker. Nothing felt right about leaving.

I started to cultivate a meaning of home –  all in the hope that something solid would form under me, that connections  would deepen. I realized this definition.  I cannot leave my friends, they are my family. I cannot leave my job, it is meaningful and sound. I cannot leave my home, it is comfortable and warm. I don’t want to leave this city, it is thriving and diverse. I love the space I occupy, it is my own.

I wake up with contentment and joy and disappointments and sadness. All these feelings are surrounded by the gut-level knowing that I don’t want to be anywhere else in the world.

I add to my list of miracles.

Every moment is a miracle, each breath with you, each clink of a glass, each celebration large and small is a miracle
Each unearthing of new places of my heart, each new revelation found within my rested mind

What stranger miracles are there?

Recently, I hiked in the Marin Headlands and it was a perfect day. The sun was bright and the weather warm. I walked on narrow paths from the bottom of the valley up to the ridge and then climbed up to a point overlooking the San Francisco Bay. The city of San Francisco spread out on a rolling white horizon.  The blue bay was dotted with sailboats, all bookended by the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges.  Alcatraz rested in the hazy distance. I sat on the ground and looked out. I will never get sick of this view, I thought.

What stranger miracles are there?
and I turn my attention inward and know
this is my home and it’s a miracle.

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