One day, my friend told me that she was moving to South America because she felt like, whatever she was meant to become, she wasn’t going to become it here. (Here was Washington, DC, and for what it’s worth, I feel like DC seems pretty big and “discovery-ready” for many people. It was for me at the time, anyway.) There’s always a certain air of pretentiousness, of privilege, surrounding blanket statements like that. We were having coffee in a city I had long dreamed of coming to, and she couldn’t wait to shed it off of her like a molting snake. I suddenly felt embarrassed over being so excited about DC, like it was only a stepping stone when she was moving onto The Real Thing.
She came back two years later. She was tanner, and thinner, and had longer hair. From what I could tell, though, she was pretty much the same. She seemed content, and to have found what she was looking for. As long as she got something out of it, that’s what matters.
We are told to look for ourselves, and the things that we are supposed to do as though we are going to find them under a certain rock on a certain street in a certain city. There are people who spend years traveling around, uprooting themselves any time they feel their heels digging into the dirt, looking for a fresh start to appease the sense of itchy restlessness that accompanies a stagnant zip code. Aside from the initial questions about financial logistics that a life of wandering conjures, one wonders what can really be constructed when you are constantly saving up for your next ticket out. “Go find yourself” is an appealing question only when you have the means and the time to be constantly looking.
One can hope to find a safety net, I think. If you find the ability to stretch out in all directions and make mistakes and meet new people, I think you’ve found something exciting. On my first birthday upon arriving in France, I’d only been here for a few weeks. I thought I would be spending it alone, maybe going to dinner with one friend if I was lucky. As it turned out, a half-dozen of the people I had known from my previous visit to the city had gotten together to celebrate with me in some of their favorite bars they wanted to show me. Some of them even brought gifts. I think I cried that night. I’d never felt so lucky, so safe. It became apparent that what was most important to me when I was going across the world to find myself was to find people who cared about me, to find a home, just like the one I already had. If you can find that sense of home in a new place, maybe you can start to find yourself.
But we are everywhere. Even though we left every city we used to be in, we were there, too. And even the places you were the most exhausted with in the moment are transformed into something nostalgic, even magical, when you get enough distance on it. You see the same people, the same bars, the same streets long enough, and all you want to do is get away to “find” yourself somewhere new. But you leave, and then you think about those friends and those bars and they all seem so wonderful — maybe because they belonged to a different version of “you” that you weren’t even aware you had.
It is so important to take those moments every day to stop, breathe slowly, and look around at what you have. Because even if you want to get on the next plane out of the country to find a better future, there is something significant around you right now. You are finding yourself in this restaurant, in that park, in this crappy little apartment. You are finding yourself in the wrong person’s bed after a long night. You are finding yourself waiting for the metro on the same route you’ve taken to work for the past seven months. And even if it takes moments of significant beauty — like those people who got together to make my first birthday here special — to make us notice it, we are always living it. There is always a part of us which is growing, which is learning something new, which is taking something for granted.
I asked my friend what she found in South America. “A lot of stuff,” she said. “But I kind of missed DC sometimes.” I think the city missed her, too. She needed to go and find something, and it’s good that she went, but she’ll never be the precise person she was when we knew each other in DC again. I hope the person that she found in South America was better, and more mature, and ready to learn even more things about life. But I hope that person — the one she became — is able to understand that the person she used to be was just wonderful the way she was, too.