Sometimes the best way to define something is through the negative.
Sometimes the best way to know what something is, is to know what it isn’t. You can learn every standard definition but sometimes the only way to really understand something is to figure out exactly where the borders are and skim your fingers along the edges.
Sometimes to really know what something is, you have understand what it’s not. It’s something I’ve been using for my own self growth and have been slipping it into my classes as food for thought. Receptivity is not passivity. Neutrality is not pretending your emotions don’t exist. Rewiring is not forced change.
(I wonder how many of my students know that the majority of what I pass on to them are things I had just figured out for myself. The lamp illuminating the next step forward is just an extension of my own arm.)
Five years ago, almost exactly, we closed on the house we now own.
We could’ve had the house as early as the end of June, but the original closing date would’ve landed in the middle of our road trip.
It was the perfect time to do one, amidst a flurry of less-than-stellar timing. I was unemployed for the first time since I was 17. My husband was able to get the time off. We’d been wanting to drive coast to coast for a long time. If there was ever a time to do it, now was the time.
It was horrible timing, the rest of it. I was walking away from my teaching position right as we were applying for mortgages. It meant my income, my impeccable credit score, couldn’t be factored in. Looking back, I should’ve quit earlier. Before we applied for mortgages. Perhaps even before that. Perhaps before the day where I burned out so brightly that I took a copy of the school’s calendar and wrote numbers over the days, creating a countdown until the year was out. When a teacher has that in her possession, the game is over and no one won.
But we got our mortgage and we got our house and we spent 3 weeks driving from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It was on that trip that we fell in love with Wyoming, Salt Lake City, San Francisco. We hit San Fran in the midst of Pride Week, just days after gay marriage was legalized in California. Everything was electric. The whole country felt like a wild frontier we could tame. My wanderlusting spirit went wild with the possibility.
Days after returning, we got the keys to our house.
“What a perfect juxtaposition,” I remember saying. “We wander the country like nomads, right before we put down stakes.”
I don’t recognize the girl from five years ago, who timidly slipped her boss her resignation letter, saying that she wouldn’t be renewing her contract, that she’d finish out the year and then quietly fade into the sunset. But that’s been the theme as of late, hasn’t it? Remark on how different things are. How different I am. To stay on civil-but-distant terms with my former self like a pen pal I hope to never see in person again. To measure the distance, to look at all the things she wasn’t, the things I am now.
Some things can only be defined by what they aren’t.
I applied to go abroad my freshman year of college.
For the previous two years, I had been on a mission: to stop being so afraid of the world and to make up for lost time. I researched programs and found one in Northern Ireland and applied immediately.
I went the summer after what was essentially my sophomore year in a five-year program. I spent my days with our little group of nomads. In lieu of traditional classes, we met with representatives and officials, attended celebrations of the peace treaty anniversary. I worked at an integrated primary school — and it was there that I thought I had found my calling, that I was destined to teach little kids. I wound down my last days wondering if I should even return home — maybe I should stay in the UK, maybe I should transfer fully to Queens, even if it meant uprooting everything, even if it meant saying good-bye to the man who had become my world back in Boston.
These were the things I thought about on my long plane ride back to the States. Live in Europe. Step down from the five-year program. Change my major to education. Become nomadic.
My boyfriend was the only one to meet me at the airport. I ran into his arms and got my luggage and changed my pounds back into dollars.
I’d burst into tears within minutes of getting into his car, so overwhelmingly grateful to be home, to be in his car, to be by his side, not realizing that I had been holding something back until I could release it, realizing that it was his presence that effortlessly popped the cork. Two years later, we’d be engaged to be married, and we’d traverse the Atlantic again for our honeymoon.
Three years after our adventure to San Fransisco, we’d be on a similar road trip.
This time to the Grand Canyon. This time hitting more of the southern states. This time falling in love with Austin, with New Mexico, with Arizona.
A lot had changed since we closed on the house, and now I was itching to get out of dodge. Leave New Hampshire. Leave the epicenter of my problems. Pull up stakes and start a new life somewhere else. I was relying a little too heavily on what the card reader had told me (“That woman was a fraud. She saw the state you were in and told you what you wanted to hear.” “Are you mad that I went?” “Of course not. I’m mad that she took advantage of you.”) and now I was looking at every new territory and asking, “Is this where I should be?”
Two and a half weeks. We hiked the Grand Canyon and made plans to return and make it all the way to the Colorado River. We talked about converting a van and someday just living out of that. We talked about the past couple years and what the future might bring. We talked about my father’s death, my brother’s motorcycle accident, the inevitable fate of our brother-in-law. We talked about problems and solutions. We did what we do best on car rides: we dove deep in our conversations with the road out in front of us.
I still remember how it felt when we got off the highway and started driving the roads of our town again. We felt like we had gone through a time warp, that we had only been gone a few minutes — a trip to the grocery store, a trip to the neighboring city — and were returning home at the end of June, not mid-July.
We pulled into the driveway and I felt the ache of homecoming. It took, in part, driving through half the states in the continental US, but I understood that my time in New Hampshire wasn’t done. That maybe, just maybe, I was exactly where I needed to be. Maybe, just maybe, I was home.
“Maybe I was supposed to be told those things, so it would shape my thinking process and bring me to where I am now,” I reasoned, months later, the majority of what spurred me to leave now floundering in the rear view.
“Or maybe the card lady was a con artist.”
“I think I figured it out.”
We were hiking through Topanga State Park — the adventure portion of what was technically a low-key, beach vacation this year. A low-key vacation that started in Vegas and included road trips across the width of California and a weekend in LA. As we descended back down to the trailhead, we were discussing exploration vacations versus relaxation vacations, and my desperate drive to always be somewhere new.
“Traveling reminds me where home is,” I continued.
There’s a line I stole from Jeanette Winterson: I’m a housecat, so long as the door can stay open. Give me limitlessness, and I’ll eventually draw my own lines. Give me limits, and I’ll find a way to rebel against them.
I wonder if I’ll always be like this — be someone who needs to periodically define home by what it’s not. I feel like I must show up on the doorstep of every house in order to affirm which one’s my home. Like I have to try a thousand beds just to remember where I prefer to rest my head.
Am I simply someone who needs to figure things out through the inverse, lest I constantly try to defy the proper definition?
There was a joke my dad used to say — once I hit my teen years and started going out with friends — started saying “yes” to life, every time I came home: “The prodigal daughter has returned!” It is, oddly, one of my fonder memories.
I’m closing in on the three-year anniversary of his death, and I find myself in increasing retrospection, as if that event was ground zero and I’ve started to walk through the outer rings of the fallout to the epicenter.
Every year, the ripples are a little less intense. The summer before he died hits me with a little less force. And honestly there’s a part of me that doesn’t know what I will do when it all fades into the sunset, when memories of a time when I bruised my shoulders against the borders are just that — memories, and it’s clear that my soul has moved on.
Some things can only be defined in what they no longer are.
My husband’s and my seats on our flight back home from Vegas are in the emergency exit row, with the flight attendant’s seat to the left of us. We chat with her briefly during takeoff, then see her sporadically as she delivers drinks and snacks and collects garbage. Meanwhile we cuddle in and watch Supernatural while sharing a set of earbuds. Eventually we switch to our books, one hand on the e-readers, our free hands intertwined with each other’s.
“Are you guys from Vegas?” she asks when she sits back down again for landing.
“No, no — Boston.”
“Oh! Did you guys go to Vegas to get married or…”
“We’ve been married way longer than that. Seven years, actually.”
I kiss my husband’s shoulder before resting my head on it. I decide that she’s making that assumption based on our behavior — surely only newlyweds would be so snuggly on a plane ride.
There is a part of me that relishes in the idea of just flying off to Vegas to elope. It’s the same part of me that rebels against the practical simply because it’s practical. The part of me that needs to travel the globe and won’t rest until every corner is sniffed out. The part that needs to jump out of planes just to test her own boundaries and find newfound comfort in both feet on the ground.
Perhaps it’s all a part of what I inherited from my father, the set of character traits that can be an asset when trained and a liability when left unchecked.
Left unchecked, that side of me wouldn’t end up just married in Vegas. She’d probably be dead there, eventually, too.
Asset when trained. Liability when left unchecked.
Some things can only be defined by their borders.