I’m sitting in a waiting room. Directly in front of me is a woman whose language makes her appear half-mad and her appearance only reinforces it: she has the bristles of a broom braided together to form a rope that she has then wrapped around her head, the end left long to hang in front of her face where she chews on the gnarled, dirty ends. When the nurse comes out and calls a name its for her: Petal. She has a jagged-toothed smile that is electric and simply lights up the room. My judgment of her sanity vanishes in the warmth of that smile.
Some days I wonder how I got here, working in a field that routinely takes me to places where I might encounter the broom-wearing Petal and characters even more colorful. I started with the intent to teach, then veered off along the way only to take up journalism, science, and finance only to find that nothing really fit. The only urge that worked was to pack it all into a Uhaul and plow my way to the city without knowing a soul. A cheap apartment in a dangerous neighborhood freaked out my friends and family, but I saw it as adventure. Walking through my neighborhood at night exposed me to a world of people I’d never seen, the poor, the ill, the criminal, the kind, the humble, the brave. Always the brave. I was never afraid, even the night a man being chased by the police nearly burst in my patio door. Instead I learned things about myself and a lot of my biases and beliefs changed in the face of reality and truth.
You can find yourself anywhere. It’s when you take chances that you really see.
Twelve years on I live in the safest of the safe suburbs. I drive a minivan. I carry an outlet designer bag and when I’m not playing in eyeshadow I’m working to try to help the kind of people I met in the old neighborhood. I’m working with the Petals of the world. It’s a far cry from a house in the suburbs and a classroom of kids who are ignoring my efforts to reach them with Shakespeare I used to dream of. It’s the adventure I chose by accident after an act of random bravery, but even as I go down the path I feel like I’m starting to lose the way.
You can find yourself anywhere. If you stop taking chances it’s easy to get lost again.
Last fall I went on that crazy one day trip to Las Vegas. It is probably the biggest city I’ve ever been to, not by population size but by sheer personality. Being mostly alone and completely unfamiliar reminded me a lot of moving to Kansas City. I started to talk to people. My reservations melted away. I learned some life lessons and came back with a fistful of memories that never would have happened playing by the rules. When I went to Chicago last month it was much the same. Alone in a strange place, I crawled out of my box and threw myself into discovery. The thrill of seeing my beloved Lake Michigan for the first time left a tattoo on my very soul. I came back changed. I came back new. I came back knowing that wanderlust is as much a part of me as blood and air.
I know one thing to be true: I am built to leap into the world without a plan and come back the better for it.
Net week I go to Las Vegas again. It’s going to be another quick trip and like before I don’t have much of a plan. There are a couple of must-dos, but what I have most of is time. This time I’m going to do the things I didn’t before. The Botanical Gardens at the Bellagio sound nice. Getting a drink and watching people pass sounds nice, too. But what it really is is a start. On Sunday I sat on my couch and watched news coverage of the earthquake in Nepal. I was reading blogs about hiking and adventures when I heard about the death of Dan Fredinburg. For a moment as I watched the pictures of him pass across the screen I found myself feeling jealousy. Jealousy! Of a man who died in a terrible tragedy! It seems utterly ridiculous, but what I was really feeling was respect and my own desire rising up: this was a man who went out into the world and adventured. He traveled. He tried to change the world for the better by changing himself. He happened to life. Life did not happen to him.
I also thought of all of my friends who have ventured beyond their own homes to see the world: a friend who went to India not once, but twice. A friend that hiked the Appalachian Trail. A friend that decided to move to a foreign country. A friend that regularly travels to far flung places alone. It was then that I realized the unraveling I felt in Chicago and the thrill I felt in Las Vegas were messages leading me to myself again. I live in Kansas, but the whole of the world is my home.
I don’t know that I want to climb Everest or drop out of my life to take long trips into the unknown, but I do want to explore and experience life as other people know it even if only a vacation at a time. I’d like to see Africa, follow in the footsteps of my grandfather in Europe and my father in Asia. Hiking in the Pacific Northwest could be great, too. See the world, come back new and use the new to help make positive change in the world around me.
Even if that world around me is a suburb in Kansas.