I had an unusual visitor at my campsite along Jack Creek: Homesickness. After all the wonderful people I had met in Alaska, I was finally enjoying some stationary time to myself. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t spent any time alone over the summer, but that time had been while driving Daisy from one place to the next. In Alaska, darn near everything is at least a two-day drive away.
So sure, I had spent plenty of time without human companionship, but not quiet, still time. As much as I love Daisy, and she is incredibly good company, I hadn’t experienced the solitude that I had come to find. When I headed back to Alaska after my romantic misadventure in Costa Rica, my only plan was to find a remote campsite, pitch my tent, crawl inside, roll into the fetal position and have a good, long wallow in self-pity.
Instead, as Fate, and the kindness of strangers, would have it, I spent the next months meeting new people and making dear friends out of many of them. It was a much-needed reminder that I am an interesting, kind, intelligent person who is liked by interesting, kind, intelligent people in return. It was an incredibly potent salve for my wounds.
When I finally drove Daisy over the stream crossings that led to that solitary campsite, it wasn’t so that I could crawl inside my tent and hide; it was so that I could view what had happened in Costa Rica from a healthy distance.
I spent the days waking to bird song, rock-hopping up clear streams into steep canyons, and watching a beaver in a nearby pond as the setting sun highlighted the ridges and stars appeared in the sky. The distractions of the summer dropped away, and I discovered that I had recovered from my heartache. Even more surprising: I discovered that I was homesick.
As you can probably tell, homesickness is not an emotion to which I am particularly prone. Over these years of upheaval as I left my partner, sold my house, and quit my job—all changes that completely dismayed my loving family—I had held myself very rigid, afraid that any relaxation in my attitude would cause me to waiver and all the changes, all the pain I caused myself and others, would be for naught. I held my loved ones at a distance, arms straight and elbows locked, fiercely determined not to slide back into the complacency of the known world that had been so unfulfilling for me.
That fierceness gave me the courage to join the expedition to the Arctic, learn how to row and rock climb, pitch a tent and light a camp stove. It gave me the determination to move to Costa Rica, make a home out of a bug-infested casita and try to speak a new language. It gave me the energy to dust off my outdoor gear and head back to Alaska after my Costa Rican romance fell apart, heartache be damned.
After the stranger, Homesickness, joined me at my campsite, I became aware that wrapped inside the sourness at the pit of my stomach was the visceral need to hold the hands of the people I love: my mom and dad, my sister and brothers-in-law, my niece, the friends who have so patiently and perplexedly watched as I shed my old skin and tried to grow a new one, and my former partner, despite the hurt that still stands between us. It became intensely important to me to take their hands, look them in the eyes, and tell them I loved them. So I turned Daisy back down the dirt road and headed south.
I’ve been back in the Bay Area now since fall. I have held all those hands and looked into all those eyes. But in the busy-ness of helping my aging parents cope, my niece apply for colleges, and my sister move to a new home, I lost sight of my confident, adventurous “Greenhorn” self. The doubts started to pour in: maybe Greenhorn is only make believe. Maybe I should give up on my dreams of building a new life of writing and conservation and go back to being the good daughter, sister, auntie, partner, and professional.
But that way of thinking was what brought me to the precipice in the first place, and it forced me to learn something the hard way:
You can compassion yourself out of existence.
You can have so much compassion for the wounds and needs of others, always telling yourself, “It’s OK, I’m strong, I can dig a little deeper, give a little bit more, try a little harder,” that in the process you become invisible to yourself as well as to others.
That is where I was three years ago. I had gotten smaller and smaller and smaller until I came to a place where I would either collapse inward and become a black hole or explode. As much to my own surprise as everyone else’s, I exploded. The shrapnel wounded everyone around me, myself included, but in the process I started expanding outward, creating a new universe for myself to inhabit.
Since I have been back in the Bay Area, however, the gravitational pull of old roles has caused me to shrink again, and the constriction has been excruciating.
A few years ago, I could contort my life so as to be available for everyone else. I could do that without any conscious pain. In fact, I took pride in it. Now I am aware of how much it hurts. It is not that I think I am any more important than the next person, but what I have finally learned is that, while I am not any more important that the next person, I am just as important.
I am not ready to give up on myself. I am still a Greenhorn, willing and wanting to learn. I want my universe to continue to expand. I have more exploring to do, both of myself and of this great planet of ours.
So I am launching myself into my next adventure and preparing to head off to Madagascar to do marine research. I’ll learn how to scuba dive and collect data on the health of coral reefs. I’ll experience firsthand one of the poorest and most environmentally degraded countries in the world. It’s a new opportunity to challenge myself, and in the challenging, relearn how to shake my head up and down, up and down, and remind myself, “You can do this, Sal.”
As I’ve struggled this winter, I have pondered what it is about going to new places, trying new things, and meeting new people that has given me such fulfillment. I realized the biggest gift of these past few years has been the heartfelt conversations with the astonishingly beautiful human beings that I have gotten to know along the way. And I have come to recognize one of my talents. I’m not sure it’s a talent, really. More aptly stated, it is a willingness.
What I have is a willingness to be vulnerable. To allow myself to be seen for who I am, including parts of me of which I am ashamed. When I meet new people, I have the active choice of presenting myself however I want. I could hide behind the costume of the civilized, got-it-all-together me, don the armor of my resume and attempt to impress. Instead, I consciously decide to be the most authentic version of myself that I can. I challenge myself to present the raw, unformed, Greenhorn that I am.
I am willing to take a cautious step into telling people I know and new ones I meet about myself, uncertainties, insecurities, and all. Some people can’t take it. They look away and mention the weather. Some are downright judgmental. But some maintain eye contact, even ask a question or two. Some continue to listen, bring their own heart to the conversation. And some precious few reach inside and share with me some of themselves.
At those moments, I know I have found home.
Through those conversations, I have come to understand that shame thrives on darkness, but it cannot survive sunlight. When you take something of which you are ashamed and hide it deep inside, it grows fangs and claws, slimy scales and shining eyes. You become convinced that if anybody knew of the monster inside of you, they wouldn’t love you.
But the truth is that when you reach down inside and pull up your monster and show it to a kindred spirit, when they say, “Oh, I’ve got one of those too,” then that shameful thing you hold in your hand transforms. You watch as the scales and claws and thickened skin slough off your monster, and finally you recognize it as it sits trembling on your palm: it’s simply a tiny piece of your humanness.
From the very beginning of this journey, I have been blessed with meeting many of those generous souls. We’ve shared hopes and fears, joys and sorrows, and de-clawed a few monsters in the process. The lingering lavender twilights of the Arctic, the celadon sea of Costa Rica, the mercury ripples of silty Alaskan rivers have all played host to those conversations.
This winter back here in the Bay Area, I have feasted on the memories of those encounters. And in pondering whether I would give up on Greenhorn or keep adventuring, I realized that if my life consisted of nothing more, no other accomplishments, possessions, procreations than 1000 of those conversations, it would be a life of unimaginable richness. For I would have touched 1000, no, 1001 lives. Mine most of all.
There have been plenty of times that I have hated myself for leaving my former partner. For telling my aging parents, “I am going to start living my own life.” For the times I have had to admit to dismissive colleagues “No, I don’t have a 9 to 5 job. I have a 24/7 job: I am inventing a new life.”
Some people say to me they would never have the courage to do what I am doing, that they would be too afraid. I say to them: I don’t know whether I’m courageous or not. It has not been a choice. It has simply been a wild, instinctual, insanely messy grasp for life. They are right, however. I am not afraid.
I am terrified.
But I will not allow that to stop me from putting one foot in front of the other, feeling with the very tips of my toes for the next wobbly stone in the stream.