Third stop on the sabbatical: United States Of America
A people and places pilgrimage
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave– The Star Spangled Banner, USA National Anthem
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
I didn’t know what to expect from this trip, I really didn’t. All I knew is that I HAD to answer a calling to visit, after five and some years of leaving. A calling to dredge up eight years of places and people from when I lived there, to give the mix another stir and to see what surfaces. Before I set about upending a few vectors in my life, it was time to heed this calling.
I spent four weeks making my way from east to west across four regions, staying with family and friends and soaking in their kindness, hospitality and love. To walk and gawk the streets of New York City and Tempe and Portland, to hug and hold friends and family, this was what the whole month was all about.
Join me, on what I’d like to call a symphonic journey.
East Coast: New York City NY
These vagabond shoes, are longing to stray– “New York, New York” by Frank Sinatra
Right through the very heart of it
New York, New York!
From finding my hostel after getting off the subway at 2am, to wandering the city without navigation the next day, there’s a certain NYC frequency that I seem to tune into. It was fascinating to watch both the city and my reaction to it on this fourth visit, the headiness of a youthful first crush had morphed into a mellow joy of just soaking in the familiarity. I went looking for both old and new sights, creating a montage that only left me wanting more.
East Coast: Hartford CT ; East Brunswick NJ ; Lancashire PA; Princeton NJ
Tucked into this corner of the country were closest family, women I looked up to and their feisty, intelligent, kind little girls. Throw into this mix another two girl friends I hadn’t seen in years and their vastly different life stories that I caught up with, and I had myself a bunch of lessons to ponder on the rest of the trip.
Midwest: St.Louis MO ; Madison WI ; Chicago IL ; Naperville IL
Bet your bottom dollar you lose the blues in Chicago, Chicago!– “Chicago” by Frank Sinatra
The midwest turned out to be a mix of family I hadn’t see in eons and friends I felt like I just saw yesterday. It was a train and bus blitz to cover four cities in three days with endless cornfields for company, but I’ve always been one to love looking outside a window. After wondering if I’ll ever see snow on this trip, there was 3 inches on the ground in Madison, below freezing temps in Chicago and a fresh shower the morning I left Naperville! I never thought I’d call cold and snow delicious, but living at the equator does that to you.
Southwest: San Antonio TX
After walking all around little cities in Switzerland and Spain for three weeks, my legs had ground to a halt once I entered the US (well, after the day in NYC). So I was mighty grateful to Rachel who rescued me from car country in San Antonio. The cold front that I missed in the midwest caught up with me (in all places) in Texas, and usually sunny November days turned into chilly, cloud covered ones filled with long walks with Rachel and long talks with a favourite uncle. I could feel my legs again!
Southwest: Scottsdale AZ
She needs wide open spaces, room to make her big mistakes,– “Wide Open Spaces” by Dixie Chicks
She needs new faces, she knows the high stakes.
Where do I even begin to describe this feeling? As I zipped on a wide open AZ-101, under crystal clear blue skies, past soft desert browns and tall saguaros, towards a brilliant desert sunset? Waves of fond memories lifted my heart in elation, grateful for a chance to be back, to look back. I raced around my uncle and aunt’s suburban mansion, squealing how nothing had changed in decade (well, except a kitchen in the middle of a remodel!). Settling into the couch at the end of the day shooting the breeze with them, I was intensely aware of how time had changed me, from the clueless young girl struggling through school a decade ago to a young woman contemplating major life changes now. Dixie Chicks said it best: wide open spaces to make my big mistakes with new faces and high stakes, a young girl’s dream in a place out west. You’re always, always special, Arizona.
Southwest: Tempe AZ
Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about,
Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out,
To find a dream and a life of their own,
A place in the clouds, a foundation of stone.
Many precede and many will follow,– “Wide Open Spaces” by Dixie Chicks
A young girl’s dreams no longer hollow,
It takes the shape of a place out west,
But what it holds for her, she hasn’t yet guessed!
First times away from home and hearth are defining moments, and this university town holds most of those for me. Wide open spaces, but of the mind. It would take a tome to recount lessons from my two years here at Arizona State University, and it almost wrote itself as I sat in the unchanged library and nearly cried. Was it nostalgia for innocence lost? Was it a feeling of growing up, of knowing so much more and yet looking back and being kind to one’s younger self? Was it a craving for more such dramatic life challenges? Was it a pep talk to go back into the real world and draw from lessons learnt here and be unafraid? It was a heady, lethal mix of it all.
In the one day that I spent at Tempe, I set out on a pilgrimage route that covered multiple places from my life here, all set on one single arterial road. I have shaky photos from everywhere which are squeal-worthy only with my roommates from this era, so only this one will stay up here for a memory.
West Coast: Hillsboro OR ; Portland OR ; Lake Oswego OR
Just when I thought our chance had passed,– “Save The Best For Last” by Vanessa Williams
You go and save the best for last!
Dear Pacific Northwest, as soon as I got off the flight and saw the familiar blue checked airport carpet (it hasn’t changed!), I knew I was home. I knew exactly where to look for Mt.Hood and yelled in delight when I saw it, and I knew exactly where my cousin will exit five different freeways to get us home.
But wait. This was home. It’s not anymore.
I waltzed into apartments where I lived and places I worked and stores I used to shop at. It was surreal how little every one of these had changed. I almost went looking for my dark blue Honda Civic to drive back home.
But wait, these aren’t where I live, work and shop anymore.
I met colleagues and friends and didn’t miss a beat as we picked up from where we left off five plus years ago, over meals they lovingly whisked up.
Now these are definitely here to stay. Across time and countries and life stages.
Spending three days in Hillsboro and Portland was a surreal experience. Part of my brain settled in comfortably from the get go, like how one would at home. And every so often, the other part would gently remind me that this was not home. Through this strangely pleasant dichotomy (no, I still can’t explain why it was pleasant), I plotted and savoured a sampling of six wonderful years here. I’m so, so glad I came back to give this little part of the world a warm, loving, grateful hug!
Lake Oswego was a southern suburb I had hardly paid any attention to. And this time I got to poke around for a day, thanks to another cousin who lived here.
West Coast: Olympic National Park WA
I am a mountaineer in the hills and highlands!– “Hello Seattle” by Owl City
Oh my sweet god, how I’d forgotten how a road trip to a national park feels like! A knot in my stomach when we left at 8pm on a 5-hour journey to Olympic National Park unwound to a soaring feeling of gratefulness as we stood on Hurricane Ridge the next day. Knowing how much I love hiking, my two cousins made sure we poked into at least one wilderness in my really short time with them. As we pulled out of our cabin in the woods after just a day, I ran into one of those “this vacation needs to be longer!” moments. Dear Pacific Northwest, if there’s ever a next time, there will be more time!
West Coast: Seattle WA ; Bay Area CA
Hello Seattle, I am the crescent moon, shining down on your face.– “Hello Seattle” by Owl City
I remember the day my BFF of 26 years moved to Seattle. The accordion of life which had taken us apart and brought us together many times over continued three years later when I moved out of Portland, but that’s the thing about BFFs. In the (surprisingly rainless) two days I spent here, no topic was off the table, no advice was unsought. Between warm hugs, long talks and famous Asian meals, my soul was restored and life issues clarified.
If you’re going to San Francisco, you’re going to meet some gentle people there.– “San Francisco” by Scott McKenzie
Most all friends I knew in the Bay Area were Portland runaways, the lure of the bay stole them in waves. Between meeting them all and sneaking in other short visits, all I remember about one day walking the streets of San Francisco was drooling in the aisles of Whole Foods. One of the most unique downtown memories of this trip!
Thoughts From The Road
The story of stuff
With just a couple of exceptions, the story of stuff seems to have woven itself into the story of everyone’s life. Whether it was a 900 sqft apartment or a 2000 sqft suburban mansion, whether one has lived there for a year or twenty, whether there were kids in the house or not … it was everywhere. I was a hoarder when I lived here a decade ago, but three subsequent moves and the realisation of consumption habits has made me terrified of … stuff. Lesson 1 to let go of perfection, declutter the best I can and let the rest go.
Girl friends! How I miss them all! There’s something about a heart-to- heart with sisters, sisters-in-law, aunts, BFFs, ex-roommates and colleagues-turned-dear-friends. What’s app doesn’t hold a candle to a live session!
Having said that, I miss the rest of my friends too. An absolutely lovely bunch of people now geographically too far apart to have another weekend out at a beach house, but we all live in hope of one!
I also watched families with young kids, and compared the setup to an Asian one. The biggest difference was that there is a wide social understanding of paternal responsibilities in the west, empowering men to publicly admit they need time and help to parent. Women’s empowerment at a certain level intersects with releasing men from the social shackles of being the primary breadwinner and nothing else. Lesson 2 to let go of perfection, the feminism dream I harboured till my young adult years is really not entirely in my hands at all.
… and families
Kids! I spent time with kids I hadn’t seen in a long time and kids I hadn’t met at all. I quite surprised myself by being the patient, fun aunt (mostly). Lesson 3 to let go of perfection, they aren’t little terrors at all times, and there’s barely any such thing as healthy food and no-screen-time in a child’s life!
An attempt at conscious travel
This trip was not entirely free of single-use, thanks to multiple trips on trains and busses.
This is an appropriate place to bring up the cars factor. Driving was one thing I sorely missed after I left the US, making sure to drive at least once on this trip at ASU, and being on a couple of road trips on either coast. But then, in my current green goddess avatar, I now question the wisdom of cars being the sole means to get around these crazy huge distances. What a colossal waste of fossil fuels! It’s aggravating to see that there’s no robust inter-country fast public transport in place, considering that there’s no dearth of tech know-how for a bullet train. What I loved once is now a source of angst, and this cognitive dissonance is taking a while to resolve.