Where do we come from? It’s a question with a million answers. Some choose biological rationality; some seek the answer from a great divinity; others dodge the question entirely. Traveling has always been my answer. Latitudes and longitudes are built into my DNA. I’m a mishmash of GPS coordinates folded and jumbled into a human being. Place names and passport stamps are all part of the equation of me. But in every answer, there is a singularity. Most of us spend our lives trying to find this granular, all-encompassing answer that both defines who we are and gives our life motivation. This search is one reason I have traveled so much, and why I will probably always be a traveler. To find that one spot in the universe where past and present, purpose and potential, all coverage into a cosmic explanation of self.
This past week, I think I got pretty close.
A five hour flight and a three hour time difference brought me back to northern Virginia – forever my origin. It’s the place I’ve lived longest on the entire planet but a place I haven’t truly been in years. An overwhelming sense of familiarity quickly drew me in, rebuffed by an undercurrent of detachment. What had been my home now wasn’t. The subtle changes were a stark contrast to the memories that flitted across the landscape. Driving by my childhood home, I saw a younger me dashing about playing hide-and-go-seek, climbing trees, and wandering down to the creek to catch crayfish. These reminiscences were startled by a new swingset in my old back yard – a clear sign that my childhood memories now belonged to a new generation of playdates and leaf piles.
There were also the familiar spots where my friends and I would grab drinks after work. The lunch spots I used to hustle to from my internships. The monuments where I used to walk around on nervous first dates. But even these were no longer the same. The Wednesday night bar where my friends and I would meet to unwind is no longer there – an empty storefront in a mall that has been completely deserted to make room for an improved array of memories.
In this week, I also saw a stream of people from all different points in my life. They had all been brought together in this place, an overlapping representation of all of the places and all of the people I had been. A week’s worth of happy hours were filled with longtime friends from high school who used to be the center of my universe. A friend from grad school who delved into my long-abandoned intellectual mind. Fellow Peace Corps compatriots. And of course the ex-boyfriend. I was reminded that those separate pieces of my life are interconnected – geographically and, of course, inside me.
When you stay in one place for too long, it attaches itself to you. You look around and see familiar things with familiar memories. The most innocuous places hold essential pieces of ourselves. Even years later these momentary glimpses of our past can transport us back to a person we no longer are. Or no longer want to be. And that’s exactly it.
It’s astonishing how defeating the silence can be when the hustle bustle of the world fades and you become intensely in-tune to the quick shallow intakes of breath. The cathedral of your life folds up on itself like that once scene in Inception: you can see the cars driving over your head and all of your expectations are shattered. It’s that precise moment when you are both outside of reality and too deeply in it that clarity feels tangible. This moment, the pause between two breaths when time slows to a stop, this is when I knew I’d found it: the geographic center of me. It’s not on the edge of a cliff or the top of some historic building. Instead, I found myself frozen to the floor of a shopping mall, feeling the universe of emotions I’ve felt since high school. I could feel the laughter and the betrayal and the sadness and the elation all contained with this gaudy, commercialized structure. In that breath I was transported back to a tiny, indispensable moment of my personal history. I relived that moment, and every moment since. My heart welled with the heartbreak and determination that led me away from this exact place and has carried me ever since.
The real answer
But the very next moment I knew, that place is not where I’m from any longer. Despite the epiphanies and torrents of emotion, this was only one answer to that all important question. Where am I from? I will certainly always be from northern Virigina. I’ll be that sixteen year old girl watching the walls crumble around her, and the seventeen year old who left it all behind. I’m also from northern England where I began to explore myself and trust myself enough to grow. I’ll also be from Botswana, where I saw myself torn down and rebuilt again. I am all of these places. And none of them. For now, my answer is Seattle. It’s a choice that I have made. I’m the girl living the shoebox apartment settling into a life she’s happy with, and maybe even proud of. My geographies and histories and selves are all settled here, on the edge of the Puget Sound. Until, that is, the universe carries me onward.