Monday, March 14, 2016

Traveling State of Mind

Traveling through the vastness of China and the Tibetan plateau, many years ago. 


In my twenties and early thirties, I was a wanderer, moving in between states and countries and homes each year; doing stints for college or jobs in Minnesota, Alaska, Montana, and Washington; taking road trips down the coast and into the Southwest; and backpacking for many months through China, Tibet, and Southeast Asia. My email handle was “wandering girl,” and I wrote long letters to friends back home to keep me feeling connected to my extended tribe, and to the full range of my voice in English. I stayed in China the longest—for almost three years, two of which I lived with my Chinese partner—but ultimately I grew lonely and hungry for deeper friendships and greater community. I knew I could not put down roots in China, and I was tired of always leaving and saying goodbye.

Back in the States, I stayed in my parents’ basement for a month or two, before taking on extended house- and pet-sitting gigs, finding ways to live cheaply in order to preserve my meager savings and thus my time—to travel and to write. I thought I would go back to China, maybe in a year or so; I thought my life and work would be forever be tied now to speaking Chinese or translating in between cultures—but I was wrong. Eventually, I fell in love with an American and started putting down roots again in the Pacific Northwest. Each year, the idea of living a peripatetic life or working internationally receded. Maybe I could just travel back to China, I conceded, but not go back and live. Yet now that I own a home, have a young son, and am about to embark upon a home addition and loan, even boarding a plane for a vacation feels like a distant dream.

So, in some ways, it feels strange to offer a travel writing class just as I’m preparing to put down roots in Seattle in a newly committed way. But on the other hand, as I look back on and write about my twenties in my memoir, SEARCHING FOR THE HEART RADICAL, I am constantly reliving those early years of freedom, confusion, loneliness, and self-discovery in new ways. I see my former bravery, as well as my foolishness. I see my unarticulated neediness, as well as my independence. And I realize what I loved the most about the wandering lifestyle: the ability to see things through fresh eyes; to see my life as an open canvas; to stay open to the many paths that a day’s exploration might take. 


It is true that the older you get, the more doors close behind you. You no longer have all the time in the world to imagine that you will master three language, ride the Trans-Siberian express, or become an investigative journalist. A narrowing window of time, energy, and money forces you to reduce your focus and hone in on what you most want and need-- not all of these glittering yet distracting detours, but the heart of your path which remains the same. And there is a beauty in this narrowing focus, a distillation of how your twists and turns have brought you here: to face and embrace what is.


The other day I took the bus downtown to find a permitting office for a walk-in appointment. The trip there and back took me three hours, only 20 minutes of which was spent talking to someone at the office. But I enjoyed the opportunity to sit back on public transportation and be a traveler again—watching, listening, observing. Seeing a cross-section of young and old; black, Asian, and white; homeless and well-to-do; everyone in their own world, going somewhere to accomplish something, furthering the narrative of their individual stories. I enjoyed walking up and down the steep blustery streets of downtown Seattle, exchanging eye contact or a few words with strangers. I enjoyed this brief respite from the desk at home, where I do the majority of my work now, because it reminded me in part of the open-minded state of being that I once inhabited and learned through traveling—the ability to walk through the world and see all the moving parts, or to hop on a bus and not be certain where it will let me off, yet to trust that my own two feet plus asking for help from strangers will get me where I need to go. I do have a cell phone, an ability to call or google for help, which I never had while traveling abroad—so, in some ways, I’m more “protected” from uncertainty now. Yet in other ways, this sense of safety is an illusion, for I know that randomness could intervene at any moment, whether great beauty or tragedy, and that I am always dependent on others. Always, just a small porous part of this moving, shifting whole.



I like to think that traveling taught me to see the world like this. And that it’s important for me to keep accessing this “traveling state of mind,” even when it feels like I’m in a stage of life that is stationary and settled. I like to remember how to walk out my front door and through my familiar neighborhood with all of my senses alert: curious, open, and willing to be transformed.



To learn more about my Travel Writing as Pilgrimage workshop or to register, visit the 2016 Workshops Tab or click here.

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