Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Love Letter to... Life, I Guess

I wrote most of this a while ago and never posted it anywhere, because it seemed out of place on this mostly-not-super-personal blog--and because I was already planning to make an unusually personal post that covers some of what's in this. But it hasn't left my mind, and now that I am currently on an amazing multi-country trip with two of the most amazing new friends a girl could ask for, I figured there was no better time to express some of these thoughts.

Seven months and one week ago, as I was scrambling to finish one of the most hectic and stressful and WONDERFUL semesters of my college career--one where my readings were never quite done, where almost-all-nighters and dashing off short assignments just before class were commonplace practices, and where I was constantly frustrated not so much by the amount I had to do but by the fact that I loved absolutely all of it and just didn't have enough hours in the day to give any of it the devotion I wanted to--I learned that upon graduating I was going to receive substantial monetary awards from two of the departments in which I'd studied. It was the last day of classes and just a few days before my birthday, and I can't imagine a better present for either occasion. I cried tears of joy all afternoon, and I think my advisor must have thought something terrible had happened when I burst into tears AGAIN in her office at the end of the day.

Disclaimer: I don't believe that I deserved either of those awards. I don't think I excelled in either department. That's honesty, not modesty. There were always classmates who were smarter than me, and I never worked as hard as I probably should have at anything because I always wanted to learn and to do everything and was always spread too thin. I worked hard, but in the sense that it it took effort for me to do enough to get by in everything at once. I guess I was more successful at it than I felt, but I still think my professors let me get away with an awful lot.

Regardless, that money allowed me to pursue the internship of my dreams full-time, for the whole summer, without having to depend on my parents and/or kill myself finding and keeping a minimum-wage second job at night. I spent the whole summer dirty and sunburned and mosquito-bitten, digging in the dirt, talking to tourists, sorting through piles of animal bones in the lab. Even the bad days were good days, because I was surrounded by the most wonderful crew of people I've ever had the privilege of working with--people who made me feel included both on- and off-site, who were patient with my mistakes, and whose camaraderie and good humor never failed to make the time go faster even when I was already having fun. In my free time I went hiking, made the rounds of other historical sites, and yes, voluntarily studied eighteenth-century ceramics. My first two and a half months as a "real adult", post-college, were among the best in my life. I don't think I'd ever before been so consistently aware of how wonderful life is or so grateful for everything and everyone around me. (And it must have shown, because someone called me "perky" last summer for what I think had to have been the first time in twenty-two years.)

Now I'm a teaching assistant living on the Western coast of France. Everything about that sentence sounds ridiculous to me, but it's true. I write lesson plans, have awkward off-campus encounters with my students, and marvel at the irony of being an authority on learning a second language in a place where my mastery of my own second language is constantly (and rightly) called into question. And when I tell people I'm an archaeologist, or at least that I'm GOING to be an archaeologist, it feels like I should preface the statement with "Back in my real life..." In fact, I've even begun to consider following another path, at least for a while, making my life even more divided... but more on that later.

I guess in a way it's true that I've lived a bit of three different lives in the past seven months since I opened that award letter on a rainy Friday afternoon. Three dramatically different occupations in three dramatically different places, and I wouldn't trade any of them for anything else. As much as they feel like three entirely disparate experiences, they're all part of me and none of them would be the same without the others.

And a year ago, I had just returned from Ireland, where I simultaneously rediscovered a past self and embarked on an assortment of new adventures. I was still a student, was still trying to grasp the fact that I'd just applied to graduate this year, still hadn't decided yet whether to apply for a job in France or an archaeology internship for the summer. I was too busy learning to be self-reliant, pondering what it means to become an expat, and finding the nerve to do things I'd never even dreamed of doing, from going to pubs alone and talking to strangers to going zip-lining and learning to fight with a spear.

So, four lives. Four places.

I've known for a very long time that I was going to be a nomad. With four moves (and several road trips) in the last seven months and six in the last year (plus several more road trips and not counting the fact that I'd moved TO Ireland in the first place), I guess I'm there. I am practiced in the art of living out of my car, out of a suitcase, out of my backpack; the vast majority of my possessions are packed away in boxes in my parents' house waiting for me to be settled long enough to have a use for them.

Sometimes it's frustrating to think about those things sitting there waiting for circumstances that might not come, for all I know, for years. It's stressful to be always moving on, leaving behind what's become familiar and loved. It's painful not to see and sometimes not even to talk to my family and friends for long stretches of time. It's even more painful to lose friends in all the moving, and of course to feel alone, to be aware that if I needed help or a favor or a shoulder to cry on, there is not always someone physically close by that I could call. True, I am always meeting new people, but too often it's because I'm starting over somewhere where I don't know anyone. To be constantly uprooting oneself like that must be stressful for anyone; for someone pathologically shy and glacially slow to make close friends, it borders on masochistic.

I appreciate home more than I did ten years ago. I miss my hometown more than I could have imagined as a teenager. But it's not that simple. I also miss Oberlin more than I anticipated (although I did anticipate correctly that what I would miss would be the people and the atmosphere rather than the place). I miss the place I lived last summer, too. I miss Cork so much sometimes it literally distracts me from getting things done. Perhaps, next summer, I will miss Brest. I know I will miss the friends I've made there, probably for the rest of my life. It's the price one pays to wander. I can't stop, because there are too many places I want to see and too many things I want to do before I can think about settling down. But along the way I fall in love with everywhere. I meet wonderful people (and sometimes I fall in love with them, too). I amaze myself with new discoveries about what I'm capable of doing on my own. It's a blessing and a curse: the world is amazing and I want to know it all, but that means letting go of things I love time and again. Sometimes it doesn't even seem like there's a reason I should have to let go. Often, even usually, I don't want to. But there's always something else to do, somewhere else, and I can't stop until I've satisfied the urge to keep moving. Right now, I can't imagine when or even how that's going to happen.

I spend a lot of time walking. I walk as a simple mode of transport, to get from place to place. I walk to explore, because I think the best way to learn a new place, both to get your bearings and to gauge its personality, is on the ground. I walk because I like it, because a couple of hours of hiking brings me a kind of peace that nothing else does. And sometimes I walk simply because it hurts not to, because I need to walk until I'm too tired or my feet hurt too much for me to care anymore why I was sad or angry or upset before I started walking. Whatever the reason for a given walk, I have long held the philosophy that if you get lost, the only thing for it is to keep walking. You can keep walking forward until you eventually come across a map or a signpost or at least a bus stop and a way out. Or you can turn around and go back the way you came until things start to look familiar and you can find a different road to take. Either way, you have to keep moving. You can't just sit down where you are and hope that somehow you'll stop being lost. You pick a direction, and you put one foot in front of the other until you figure it out.

I couldn't have articulated it that way at the time, but I think that's why I started college at the traditional moment in time like everyone else I knew. I wasn't sure that was the right direction, but I didn't know where else to go, so I moved forward. It's also why I left college after my first semester, when it became clear that that was indeed the wrong path (or rather, the right path at the wrong time) and staying on it right then was going to get me nowhere fast. It's why I all but drowned myself in college when I went back the following year, after a friend of mine died and my world was turned upside down. It's [very consciously] why I started trying to build a new life for myself--new friends, new hobbies, new fearlessness--after my ex-boyfriend and I broke up (though there's no denying I did sit still and feel sorry for myself for a long time first).

And it's why I'm in France this year, doing something so far removed from everything else I was doing before. A lot of people observe that this teaching gig is not particularly connected to my original career goals. I've often explained it as being my plan to put off making plans--I came to France because I'm not ready to make big decisions about the future, and this temporary job is an excellent excuse to live abroad for a while before I have to make those decisions and then get too settled in my life to have another chance. It's something I needed to do. Maybe I needed a break. Maybe I just needed to prove that I could do this. Maybe I'm not exactly lost; I'm taking a detour. The scenic route to real life. Who knows, maybe it's going to end up taking me down a different road I didn't know was lurking there, out of sight. And maybe it's just going to loop around and drop me right back off where I started, but I certainly don't think I'll be any worse off for it. I'll have everything I saw and learned and found and became along the way to help me figure out which way to go next.

It's why I retitled my blog "Seeking El Dorado". "'Ride, boldly ride,'/ The shade replied/ 'If you seek for Eldorado!'" I don't believe this year is going to be the only detour.

I don't know what I'm looking for, exactly, but I do know this: I really do believe that every day is an opportunity, and when I sat in the lab seven months ago trying not to get tears all over my award letter from the history department, I was crying because I was overwhelmed by how lucky I am. Not just about the money or even the internship, but for the same reason I moved through my whole summer in awe and the same reason I sometimes pause on the sidewalk in Brest to cherish the cold wind off the sea or the smell of wood smoke in the air. Because life is awesome and I want to love every minute of it.

"Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?"

I try. I acted in that play (Our Town by Thornton Wilder) the same semester I applied to college, and every word of it rang true to me in the midst of my seventeen-year-old self's existential crises. And I started trying to do just that. Sometimes, I almost do.

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