I am fast approaching the end of all this, having arrived at the sodden tea leaves swirling round the bottom of my cup. I eye them half-heartedly. But as much as we would like a roadmap, such things belong in stories and not here, on this cynical–though wondrous–plane we inhabit. Home and all it entails is looming once again on the horizon. I sit here, or rather, I wander slowly back along the road I arrived by, and watch its approach. When it hits me I’ll know it’s time to squeeze who I’ve become back into the Kaelyn-sized space I left, knocking down walls and splitting seams in the process. Another paradigm shift in the making, another cliff’s edge that in all seriousness I should be toeing anxiously, despite my travel-tested wings, yet all I want at the moment is to lie in a hammock with my book and order some delivery Thai (beautiful dream). In the shadow of big changes, it’s the small appetites we turn to and seek to sate.
I started this journey from behind a desk, ducking my head whenever the boss went by lest his dreadful vulture’s eye fall on me. I will be ending it back in the city of fears realized–Bogotá, Colombia, where I was once mugged twice in a week. But so much has happened in the meantime. For one thing, I think I’ve had my fill of reggaeton for the rest of my life; also light beer; also the Ecuadorian tax system; machismo; Zhumir–the small and inconsequent gripes that accumulate after any longish amount of time in one place. But the good, the wondrous: I’ve found soulmates and peace and friendships, flames that will be rekindled in different places around the world again and again; the scent of palo santo; the new meaning of the word chola, which now evokes ebony velvet braids and swinging skirts; a lit match will always bring to mind three women from three different parts of the world whose laughter rang through Cuenca’s cobblestone streets. Now, a day after I’ve finally left Cuenca, and all the things that have made up my daily life, I’m in a place called Mindo, where it’s raining so hard it seems the river is going to rush through my windows and maybe wash it all away. It has me thinking about endings. All things end, and all begin, but it is what comes between that makes things what they are.
I’ve left and come back home so many times now that I could do it without thinking. But I do. Think, I mean. It’s like finding my old racing suit and being surprised, bemusedly so, that although tighter in some places, it still fits, still serves its purpose. It hurts though, in a subphysical kind of way–hurts because, without even noticing, you’ve expanded and become so much greater since you’ve been away, and then you’re home and in the same size space you left, and all the beauty and all the substance you’ve brought with you must struggle to make a place for itself.
Homecoming hurts, but it no longer feels like a punishment, an event requiring a large inhalation of breath and a considerable lung capacity to hold it until the worst is over. I left that baggage along the roadside somewhere, along with my penchant for over-processed white bread and glitter eye shadow. Homecoming has alchemized into something less sinister, not quite gold but far from lead. It is a sloughing off of one set of responsibilities and a shouldering of another. It is family dinners and small comforts, it is a sense of no longer having to look over my shoulder quite as often, a brushing off of whatever remnants of projected cultural shame have managed to settle into my hair and skin. Home is where fewer, though by no means no one, question who I’ve chosen to be.
I have no idea what kinds of things I will begin, continue with, and end this year. No idea what version of myself I will be when I look back a year from now. I don’t feel anxious or fearful, but nor do I feel excited, exactly. I think the overriding feeling is curiosity. I can predict only slightly more about this next phase of my life than I could when I decided to travel South America, and later live there. In spite of having lived most of my life in California, anything could happen there, just as anything could, could have, and sometimes did happen in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.
At the risk of an excess of imagery, permit me one more. Coming home after an extended absence is a bit like jumping out of a plane—you’re pretty confident the terrain will be familiar on landing , having been an unwitting (oft unwilling) student all your life, and you’re reasonably sure your parachute will open at the appropriate time. Yet there is still risk, still a palpable tinge of uncertainty, albeit wearing the home team’s colors. We cannot know what exactly will be waiting for us when our feet once again sink into the soil of home. We cannot know if the person we have become is quite as willing to live among the ghosts of the people we were before.
The tea leaves can’t tell me anything. I can’t tell the future. I can’t even objectively analyze the past. But I have myself, my will, and I continue, as always, to cling relentlessly and with immeasurable force to the ever-changing form of my dreams.
Who would cry out
To the petals on the ground
Knowing as we must,
How the vivacity of what was is married
To the vitality of what will be?”