Help! I Went into the Wilderness and It Didn’t Fix Me.
There I was, standing on the shore of Phewa Tal, a lake in Pokhara, Nepal, whose still surface, mirrored the stoic Annapurna massif of the Himalayan mountain range. It was just after sunrise. I was one of a handful of people gazing at the horizon. I stared up at those majestic mountains of lore, took deep, peaceful breaths as the sun emerged among those pillars of time immemorial –and I felt nothing.
That’s right, face-to-face with one of the most beautiful manifestations of Mother Nature and zip, zilch — no epiphany, no swell of inner peace, no sudden understanding of all that was, definitely no a-ha moment. Sorry, Oprah. I stood there, looking across the lake and I realized — it’s still there. And by it, I mean my sense of feeling lost and out of place. It was still stuck to me and saturating my skin, like the stench of fryer oil after a shift at the Chinese restaurant where I used to work in high school.
I had moved to Seattle about 3 months earlier. The recession was about to swing into full gear and finding work was tough. Job hunting was a Wild West in those days. Hundreds of applications flooded every opening, a Master’s degree could maybe land you entry level work, and employers lost any air of etiquette, or perhaps just the time to maintain it, because the “Your Application has been received” or “We regret to inform you…” email disappeared overnight. You sent your resume into the internet abyss, and it disappeared without a trace.
Two years out of Johns Hopkins with a shiny degree under my arm and (what I thought was) a wealth of experience in the form of volunteer service and there I was — slogging through a current of silent rejection and interviewing for a part-time job at the local Barnes and Noble. Make no mistake, I was grateful for the income, or at least that’s what I’m supposed to say, and what I’m able to say now. But then, I was 24, and I was just pissed. And confused.
Most of all, I felt like a failure. That was the deepest hole in my heart then — the one that ran so deep and wide, like a sinkhole lurking beneath the surface, it’s surprising it didn’t disrupt everything it touched sooner than that day I had my showdown with the Himalayas.
You see, my mother also worked at Barnes at Noble. Not at the same one I was applying to, but at a Barnes and Noble in New Jersey, not far from where we grew up. She had worked there since I was in middle school. This would be a minor detail, except for the fact that my mother was born in Portugal and came over to New Jersey (with the rest of her family) in chase of the American dream.
She was 17 when she started working in a factory in Newark. She lived through the fears of a new environment, the discrimination of being an immigrant and what would turn out to be an abusive marriage. She struggled through cleaning houses, working two, sometimes three jobs. And she did that because (as she would tell me time and time again) she wanted my brother and I to do better, to have the head start that she didn’t have. She wanted us to become living versions of the American dream that she had followed here in the first place, the one she gave up on some years ago.
See, so when you know that story, when you picture that woman and learn that her daughter made it to Johns Hopkins on a merit scholarship, you can’t help but feel hopeful. But when you are that daughter, and the best you can do is get a job at Barnes and Noble, when the best you can do is land exactly where your mother landed and no further — well, you can’t help but feel like you messed up and like you tore a hole in her heart too.
Those early days in Seattle, I’d often think, This just isn’t working. This isn’t it. I worked my part time shift. I stacked books and helped customers. I rode the bus back and forth along Lake Washington. But I was sure I was destined for something great. Something meaningful. I was meant to live my purpose — I just had to find it. I had no idea what it was, but I knew it wasn’t Barnes and Noble. This whole thing is just a little too common for me, I often complained. (Oh, the hindsight.)
About a month into Barnes and Noble, a friend who was studying in India invited me to backpack with him over his winter break. I jumped at the chance. Yes. That’s more like it. That’s what I’m meant to be doing. Never mind that I charged the plane ticket to my already-burdened credit card and didn’t know if Barnes and Noble would hire me back when I returned. Hell, I didn’t even know if I was coming back. Who knew what would happen in India. I could be offered a dream job abroad. I could make friends and keep on backpacking. I could even meet the man of my dreams, and oh man, wouldn’t that just change everything?
(Sigh. Such sweet delusions.)
I didn’t know what India would bring, but I knew it was better than the lackluster routine of being a poor, unconnected newbie in a recession-hit city. So off I went.
Fast forward to that lake in Nepal and those freakin’ mountains, mocking me, or better said, magnifying my own discontent. Mountains, nature in general perhaps, has a way of staring you down with its silence. If your own matter is just as strong, just as steady, then you and the mountain respectfully tip hats to one another and move along even stronger for the encounter. But if what you’ve got on the inside is flimsy — little more than a fluid pile of missteps and lessons unlearned — then you crumble when faced with the strength of the mountain. You fall to your knees and get sucked into your own quick sand.
That’s where I was that morning — looking up at some of the world’s highest peaks and quickly sinking to the lowest point I had yet to experience. It’s a scary thing to feel new depths of your own soul and an even scarier thing if all you find is emptiness.
I managed to make it back to my room at the guest house before losing it. Locking the door behind me, I curled up on the bed, my face cradled by the humid sheets, which smelled of mold. Tears welled up, my eyes went blurry, and I cried with my whole body. I felt so lost and alone, I turned on HBO, just for a sense of familiarity. It didn’t help, of course. No, I had to be here, fully in my rock-bottom moment, fully in the shattering of my shield of emotional numbness, which I had been carrying for as long as I could remember.
Oh shit — travel always fixes that empty feeling, I thought. Now what.
You see, our family’s chase for the American dream was not a pretty one. My brother and I had our own stories of living through abuse and poverty. And as we grew up, we coped in different ways. For such a long time, I was angry at him for choosing to cope with drugs. I judged him as he went in and out of sobriety, returning over and over again to the same behavior that didn’t solve his pain but only masked it.
I used to judge my brother, but lying on that bed with HBO blasting in the background, I realized we had some things in common. Yes, escaping your problems through travel looks much better on a resume than battling cocaine dependency. But the truth was, I was still damaging my relationships and still hiding from my past pain. The only difference was that my addiction was socially acceptable.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this was only the beginning of an emotional thaw that would take years to work through. I was lost and I was deep in it. No one was going to bail me out. My mom wasn’t going to pay my rent until I figured it out. I was stuck. This was on me.
I returned to Seattle and tried to make sense of things. I didn’t know exactly what inside of me was broken, but I knew hopping on a plane wasn’t the answer anymore. All this time I thought I was diving in after exciting and new opportunities, and that was the motivation in part. But riding the bus each night, carrying a pile of credit card debt and a mocha-stained apron, it was clear I was running from myself, or my tumultuous childhood or my own sense of failure. Or all of the above.
I ran from Jersey to Baltimore, from Baltimore to Wisconsin, landed in Tunisia for a bit, and even did a 6- month stint in California. I ran and I ran and probably would have kept running if I didn’t run out of money.
Sometimes, yes, you have to jump out of your routine, sell all of your things and hit the road, many times even.
Other times though, if you’re like me, someone who grew up in chaos, you have to sit still, right where you are and face your old wounds. You have to create a routine, create a steady rhythm to-do lists, familiar faces and ordinary tasks. And in that steadiness you have to listen for the parts of you that are unsteady, the ones that are calling out and ready to unravel. I used to “steady””that for all of its dry, tasteless flavor, but after Nepal, I started to see that those small moments, those patterns and relationships are the ones that serve as your foundation. They keep you afloat when you’re off chasing rhinos or riding elephants. (Been there, done that.)
And most importantly, they ensure that when you venture out to smash all the conventions of how life should be, you don’t shatter yourself in the process.