Due to a whirlwind of finals exams, difficult goodbyes, and a trip to the south of Chile, it wasn’t until I arrived at baggage claim in Sea-Tac airport that I realized what standing there actually meant. Although I was the one landing once again on Washington soil, returning to the Northwest seemed to lower itself around me like a winter fog; I felt both refreshed and vulnerable. The pine trees standing tall in the December chill simultaneously welcomed me and ignored my existence. The scent of our family minivan triggered fond memories, but the English vowels leaving my own mouth sounded harsh and congested. At first, some people appeared to be on social timers, after about four to seven minutes they formally signaled their departure with, “Well, ya know I really should_______.” All this left me with one pressing question: was it true that I’d returned home?
The subject of “home” simmered as I emptied the suitcase that had become a faithful companion through months of travel. Inside I found a small, forgotten slip of paper given to students after completing a semester at the Costa Rica Campus. I picked it up and read the quote, “The mark of a successful sojourner is not that he has finally come to appreciate fully the meaning of home, or that he may have relinquished one home for another more suited to him, but that he has found two places ‘where he can go out and in’.”
As I currently reflect on these words I stumble over the phrase, “where he can go out and in.” Honestly, I find “out and in” to roll strangely off the tongue and am tempted to invert it. Undoubtedly, however, this sentence order was intentional by the author, and as I sit repeating those words I understand the importance of their syntax. After spending almost eleven months outside of the U.S., I now understand that the first step in defining home is leaving it. In leaving the securities of home we find ourselves exposed to an uncontrollable present we once manipulated through planning and cultural norms.
Initially, I believed that leaving meant physical relocation from the place in which I resided. I now realize that the real journey was much more than physical, and that the people I met helped taught me valuable lessons. After all, physical relocation without personal growth is much more like tourism than the (sometimes necessarily uncomfortable) sojourn I believe is being discussed.
When people ask me how the trip went I seem to fall back on a vague, “It was amazing. I learned a lot and am so thankful for the opportunity.” How could I possibly explain that ironically I learned more outside the classroom than in it, or that when volunteering at English classes I learned while teaching? With time I hope to improve this answer. I hope to translate the detail of celebratory meals and eye-opening conversations, to enthusiastically reinvigorate the laughter and friendship shared by many along the way, and to have eleven crucial months consolidated and gift-wrapped for those dearest to me. In the meantime, I offer a new appreciation for life and thankfulness for all who share their experiences and places as together we search for “home.”
In closing, to those of you who read this blog as entertainment, or because there was nothing else floating on cyberspace, I thank you for reading and hope you’ve found something worthwhile. For the others—those loved ones who urged me to start writing and who form my definition of home—I remind you that a couple typed thoughts can hardly reflect the growth of the past months, and that you’ve only received a summary…for now. I look forward to the stories we’ll share, and mil gracias for your support.
So as the year 2013 wraps up, this blog also comes to a closure, but the lessons I’ve learned on the road this year will continue with me indefinitely. Of course, one final thank you.
-Austin Vander Wel