Are You Ready?

Naturally, my return to Des Moines has been on my mind all week. On the flight from Guatemala City to New York, I happened to sit next to a woman who runs a group of safe houses and children’s homes in Guatemala and Mexico. She asked me about my travels and I filled her in, telling her this was my last portion of the the trip and my first time in the US since May – and that I would be returning to Des Moines shortly after. “Are you ready?” she asked.

It wasn’t the first time the question was asked. A friend from Des Moines jokingly made a comment questioning my ability to come “back to reality without going nuts.” Another friend asked if I had “re-entered the real world” yet, as if I had been somewhere floating outside of reality in an alternate universe and these experiences weren’t part of real life. It seems as if the definition of real life from this side of the argument is one that is static and routine, in one place, with consistent people, and attached to work. It’s not real life if it doesn’t consist of those things.

I got the same question from other travelers, but in a completely different way. Most would grimace when told I was on the home-stretch and offer their condolences as if I was suffering from some illness or about to experience a terrible calamity. A Canadian man asked the question during a conversation, and before I could answer fully he concluded for me that I wasn’t ready to go back. According to him, one can’t travel for a while, return home and build a life, and travel again. In his eyes it was all or nothing. According to his definition of real life, it’s lived only when totally free from attachments or responsibilities toward any one place or group of people. It’s not real life if you are restrained from living in utter freedom, with the ability to roam when and where you please.

The irony of the two definitions struck me some time this week while wandering the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn. The grounded ones (for lack of a better way to describe them) predictably tried to define real life in one way – their way, using their values. But the flighty nomads, who are generally described as free-thinkers, had done the exact same thing and set a rigid definition of real life according to their way, using their values. Both of them dismissed the other as not “right”, not real.

Here’s the question I’m left with: why can’t it be both? Why can’t the definition of real life have elements of both of these views?

I was perusing thoughtcatalog.com and came across this piece by Liz Colville about wanderlust that put into words one way of looking at it. Some snippets:

…The desire is always to be somewhere else. Here is this perfectly good day: cloudless, dry and breezy, but I feel as if I’m watching the commercials in between my life: when will the show come back on? The desire has always been for a place, rather than myself, or the people that inhabit a place, to change me and improve me. Maybe something incredible will happen if I go here today…Such is the weakness of those with wanderlust: it’s just a flicker of a thought, a few frames of a movie, the actual thinking about what would happen once we got to the place we’re lusting after…

I will always have wanderlust. It is not something that you “get out of your system.” It feeds on itself; the more you travel, the more you want to travel. Travel will be a part of my life until I am no longer able to do it. But that doesn’t mean I’m not excited to come home, see my cat, stop living out of a bag, cook healthy meals for myself and friends, sit on my couch on a sunny afternoon and read a book in the peace of my own apartment, have a glass of wine on a fall evening while sitting on the back stoop of my porch, see faces that know mine, hug my family, see places that I haven’t seen in four months, sleep in my own bed (YES!), or tackle the challenges that lay ahead in carving out the life I want for myself.

On that flight from Guatemala City I finally answered her and said, “Yes and no.” I told her some of my fears around returning to Des Moines. Before we parted ways she said to me, “If you were brave enough to quit your job to go do this, I think you’re in a good place. Suerte [good luck].”

True to form it took me several days to decipher my own hesitation; it was a result of the way each person defined and expressed their view of the next step in my life. I couldn’t say yes because someone else’s definition – whether from a grounded person or a nomad – of what I was returning to was not appealing.

It’s nearly midnight as I write this. It’s my last night in NYC. It seems I’ve come full circle. I’m spending my last night at the home of the first travel friend I made way back in Ecuador, Miles. I’ve just returned from the concert of a band whose album I bought just before leaving and listened to non-stop while traveling. At the show tonight, I felt the sounds of songs that had carried me through my travels wash over me. Bass thrummed through my bones and into my rib cage, where it rattled my heart free of any trepidation left. I decided I am ready to return, under my own definition of “real life.”

See you in a few hours, Des Moines.

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