Nineteen years gone. Sixty-six countries visited on six continents. Nine countries, on three continents, have been home for a while. Two passports, but I feel like a citizen of nowhere, not even of the world. The nomadic life is often romanticized, but the truth is that it’s not for the faint of heart, especially if you avoid the expat cocoon. The isolation takes its toll, even on the most introverted. Nineteen years gone. But here I am again, next to this beloved river. Michigan has always been a steady hand to catch me when I fall.
January. The Upper Peninsula beckons. A short road trip brings me to the shores of Lake Superior. Even the mighty fall silent sometimes. Frozen into submission. I may have grown up downstate, but in my heart northern Michigan is my homeland.
Return is only possible because I’m in this wilderness. So much noise, elsewhere. Communication with so many people at once is unnerving. I can no longer hide behind the language barrier. Not only was I physically away from this culture for so long, but there was also a deliberate media/pop culture blackout. I have only vague ideas of what I’m supposed to be enraged about and no idea who I’m expected to emulate. A young man who struck up a conversation with me before my flight from Paris found it hilarious that I didn’t know that there are new late night talk show hosts. I smiled. It is not ignorance, but strategic apathy. Ignorance is being unaware. I’m conscious of the poison that I refuse to consume.
The immensity of the reconstruction unfurls. The person I left behind no longer exists. What did my name used to be? It sounds so strange in my voice. Credit must be re-established. Bad credit is better than none, it seems. My driver’s license has been expired for so long that I must retake the written and road tests. It’s intimidating, being at the helm of a vehicle again after more than a decade.
How will I survive in a land where a person’s value is based on job title, income, possessions, busyness, offspring? Personal experience is worthless. No one is interested in stories of faraway lands. Or different observations of this one. When the despair wells up, I head into the woods. Conjure up the vast internal wealth that I brought back with me. Wrap my arms around myself and take deep breaths. I’m doing the right thing. I’m doing the right thing. Sometimes I wish I could just take the easy way.
There were other options. I could have easily continued to move from place to place. Siberia. Peru. Italy. Opportunities beckoned. But it’s time to let go of the persona that I have so meticulously constructed. The perpetual nomad. A lifestyle is only freedom until you become unable to let it go. So many need to conquer the aversion to solitude. I know how to be alone. It’s time to learn how to be with others.
But there is another reason that I’m supposed to be here. It looms on the horizon, an obscure and benevolent orb. Slowly taking shape. I patiently await its revelation.
February. The falling snow and silence of the woods around my family’s property. We have both changed. Dead wood has fallen and decomposed. The way is clear through regions that once seemed so impenetrable and sinister. The bends in the river are deeper. Its voice is still so recognizable. Welcome back, dear one. You have been missed.
I walk alongside the intense flow, my boots sinking deep into the soft powder. Scenes resurface. Chasing my cowgirl aunt through deep drifts. My little legs got stuck and I fell, knocking the wind out of me. I looked up at her for help. She stood there and snickered. The look on her face said, “C’mon, get up and dust yourself off. Falling down is part of the fun.” This tough love philosophy has followed me through life. Never ask for help. Ever. Asking for help is for weak people. But pride can be another, more devious form of weakness.
Books and articles have been written about reverse culture shock. The identity crisis. The alienation and inability to fit back in. Those who return often end up fleeing again. Forever exiled into a realm of ambiguity. I find this state of consciousness intriguing rather than distressing. The thrill of disorientation and shattered perceptions. Besides, I never fit in to begin with.
March is usually the worst. The suffocating gloom and inertia. But the veil of winter lifts, revealing the slumbering forest. Creatures reawaken. The snow recedes. So very slowly. It’s been unusually cold this winter. Color and smell returns. Naked forest under blue sky. The comforting aroma of cedar.
In recent years, my family has converged on this stretch of river. As if we’ve been summoned. Property becomes available at just the right time. My little brother Billy now owns the cottage that Grandpa built. Once again, we wander this wilderness, picking up where we left off so many years ago. How is it that I’m so much younger now than I was way back when? Billy shows me a beaver den. I point out tracks that may be from the lone wolf that was spotted in these parts. The river’s voice swells, drunk on snow melt and sunshine. I don’t mention the sparkle that I now carry within. Shining the way through an undiscovered territory. Home.