What A Long, Strange Homecoming It’s Been
“Let’s sleep with the kids,” I said on our first night back in our house, which echoed from emptiness because our belongings remained in storage. Morgan agreed, and with relief I unrolled my sleeping bag on my daughter’s floor, putting her and Kyle on one side of me and Morgan on the other.
I wanted to hear their breathing and feel their closeness one more night before everything changed back to our non-traveling life — before the movers came and filled our house with so much of the furniture and boxes of stuff that I now feel ambivalent about owning, and before my kids moved back into their own rooms and we all established our separate domains in this house that feels too big and fancy. I wanted to curl up in my sleeping bag and fantasize we were camping the way we did on the banks of the Colorado River or on the beach of New Zealand’s Abel Tasman Park.
Everyone has been asking how it feels to return home. The short answer is: weird, and tiring! I haven’t felt this conflicted and unsettled since … well, since we pulled out of our driveway to start the trip on August 15, 2009.
At first, we were giddy with anticipation while driving back from the Eastern Sierra and seeing familiar landmarks that meant we were getting closer to home. Kyle even pointed to a freeway barrier and exclaimed, “I remember that wall!” We collectively felt the poignancy and optimism of starting a new chapter in life as Morgan heads down a different career path, I start some new projects, and the kids fix up their rooms and gear up for school.
Finally we reached our freeway exit and drove the final mile. The kids literally were shrieking with excitement and I held my breath as we braked to turn left onto our street, knowing our house would come into view and signal that we really had made it back, the round-the-world odyssey really was over. How would it look? How would I feel?
And then we made the turn, and what I saw caught me by surprise and deflated the moment in the most fitting and funny way. There at the edge of our driveway, like a monument or middle finger, stood a big ol’ porta-potty for use by workers at our neighbor’s house. How perfect: a harbinger of all the crap — of all the moving boxes, bags of mail, health insurance headaches and wood rot in the windowsills — waiting for us once we started to unload and settle in. I had to laugh.
This all happened three weeks ago. It has taken me this long to start to get my head around the transition and to return to this abandoned child of a blog.
We arrived on the Summer Solstice, when everyone was taking off for summer vacation. By contrast, we’d experienced summer all year long, having been in the Southern Hemisphere October through February, and it felt to me as though summer should be ending and we should get back to productivity. My daughter, let down by the realization that many of her friends had left town just as she was returning, unknowingly expressed my mood by what she wore her first full day back: she dressed all in black and donned an absurd Santa hat she found in a moving box, and she glumly hobbled around on crutches, having dislocated her knee the prior week, like a bird with newly clipped wings.
It felt so odd and slightly stressful to move our furniture back and confront the detritus of our past lives — the boxes and boxes of clothing and memorabilia I had forgotten about. I don’t need this I said to myself repeatedly — I don’t need the uncomfortable dress shoes I bought for a job I no longer have, the boring coffeetable books I displayed but never looked at, the 12 extra tea cups I saved for brunches I never hosted, the dusty picnic basket I put on top of the fridge for decoration even though we never made time for picnics — so I started a give-away pile that continues to grow.
And all those linens for our one bed — Morgan and I shook our heads as we unpacked giant boxes filled with the down pillow-top mattress cover, the thick damask duvet and the nine pillows. What bed needs nine pillows? We added the down pillow-top cover to the give-away pile because we’ve grown accustomed to futon-style thinner bedding while traveling, but we spread out and tucked in those expensive sheets and stacked all those velvet pillows in their place. Then Morgan put his hands on his hips, stuck out his chest and theatrically proclaimed, “I feel like a little prince!” which gave me another fit of crazy crying-laughter because this bed — this epitome of our union in comfort and luxury — no longer seemed like a cozy fit. But how long could I justify sleeping in my sleeping bag?
Everything in the house seemed to grow while we were away because our sense of size had shrunk; my bureau dresser, for example. It’s about 4 feet tall, with three columns of drawers in ornately carved mahogany. I began unpacking my things into the drawers on the right-side column because that’s what Morgan and I did whenever we’d unpack in a rental — I’d take the drawers on the right and leave him the left — and as I tried to remember how we divided the drawers in the middle column, I had a going-down-the-rabbit-hole moment of jumbled perception and jarred memory when I belatedly realized that Morgan in fact has his very own dressing area in the adjacent room with his own drawers, and this entire bureau is mine to use. I had totally forgotten this fact of how we used to live. I’m supposed to use this all myself? Why do I need all these drawers? Does this mean I can’t share space with Morgan anymore? I don’t want to unpack here, I never liked these frou-frou brass handles … all those hyper doubts and complaints sped through my mind as I unpacked two pairs of jeans and left the lower drawers empty. Only the drawer for running clothes had enough to fill it.
I was unpacking the clothes from two giant suitcases we used for storage — massive suitcases with wheeled bottoms that we bought long ago, before we realized the benefits of smaller, non-wheeled luggage. “I can’t believe we ever used to travel with those,” Morgan said. And then he looked at the one wheeled suitcase that we had taken on our trip, which was sitting near the bigger ones from storage — the black suitcase we used as a communal school supply and gear bag, which we derisively nicknamed “The Tick” because it looked so bloated and would stick to us when we wanted to get rid of it. Around the world we complained about The Tick, since it seemed so heavy and unwieldy compared to our lightweight clothing packs.
“Oh my god, did The Tick shrink?” Morgan asked. Indeed, it seemed like it had shrunk when we placed it next to the suitcases we used to use. Travel, I realized, truly had changed our perception of size and necessity. All my negative feelings toward this scuffed-up, black-sheep suitcase that we had lugged around the world melted into feelings of fondness and the realization that it symbolized our simpler-living, road-schooling nomadic life. I declared with sappy emotion, “I love The Tick! I want to keep it forever.”
In addition to moving back in, we faced the reality of literally plugging back in; that is, of re-establishing accounts with service providers such as electrical, trash, phone and cable that all generate bills from which we had been liberated. I cringe daily at the sound of the mailman on our porch delivering junk mail and bills.
We got a new SIM card for Morgan’s cell phone (the old one being leftover from Europe) and for over a week we shared that one phone, since I didn’t want to deal with setting up a land line and didn’t really want my own cell phone. I had this reclusive feeling of not wanting to hear a phone ring and not wanting anyone to contact me — not yet, anyway. The funny thing was, the new SIM card came with a number still registered with someone else’s name, someone named “Dorothy Bean,” which the phone company can’t seem to clear up, so all our outgoing calls show up on caller ID that way. I sort of like the element of disguise. Now I can call Morgan “Mr. Bean” and remember all the times he acted like the bumbling Brit on our travels by circling repeatedly around round-abouts while we hastily determined which exit to take.
I’m afraid I’m coming off like a complainer, and I’d like to say “yes!” when people ask, “Is it good to be back?” In many ways it is good, especially from the kids’ perspectives, since they’re happy to reconnect with friends and walk freely around their familiar neighborhood. And what a gorgeous neighborhood it is. I have renewed appreciation for how lovely these landscaped gardens and well-maintained homes are, having unpacked in so many modest abodes in areas with crumbling infrastructure. And some of the unpacking and settling back in has brought genuine joy. I was happy to unpack my kitchen tools and restock our pantry, for example, since I’m eager to cook recipes we haven’t tasted in a year.
Reconnecting with friends and neighbors has been the best part of this transition. Several families invited us to their homes for dinners, coaxed us to return to our annual tradition of building a 4th of July parade float, and paid us the ultimate compliments when they said we seemed more mellow and happy. Then, one week after our return, seven extended family members came to stay under our roof for several days, delightfully filling up this house and making it feel more like a home again.
Round-the-world travel gave us so much, and yet we missed the connection with local community and extended family. But it still feels weird to be back, and oh how I miss discovering new places, people and perspectives through far-flung travel. I’m trying hard not to lose touch with the positive ways that travel changed our behavior and awareness. I really don’t want to stir up the manic, multitasking, materialistic, controlling, bitchy and provincial parts of my personality that long-term travel helped me tame, nor do I want our stronger family bond to weaken.
I’ll try to write about the challenge of “maintaining change” (that’s not an oxymoron, is it? I hope not) in a separate post. For now, I’m happy to report we haven’t lost that awareness or closeness, and we’re really trying to live differently than we did before the trip — though I admit, that bed and all those pillows feel pretty darn comfortable.