On Coming Home: An explanation for those who’ve stayed

Of the last 13 months I’ve spent 11 of them outside of the United States. Six months in the South Pacific: Australia, Fiji, Papa New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu etc before coming back to the US for two months. It was ‘strongly encouraged’ by my mother that I attend my sister’s wedding before taking off to work and backpack in Europe.

I’m not special for leaving. Far from it. Tons of people leave what they consider ‘home’ for long periods of time, sometimes, forever. Some for jobs or school. Some to be with someone they love and others simply to “find themselves.” The reason doesn’t matter as much as actually departing the place you learned to call home does.

In Paper Towns, John Green wrote “It is so hard to leave—until you leave. And then it is the easiest goddamned thing in the world.” Completely true. The hardest part of leaving was the anticipation and waiting to leave. It felt like I treading water. I couldn’t start anything new. I found myself distancing myself emotionally from people both for my sake and for theirs. What was the point of meeting new people if I was just going to leave?

I was counting down the days, waiting for my next adventure, not realizing that I was just wishing days of my life away. I wondered what the future had in store. If it’d involve the same people that I’d grown so used to or if once I left everyone would forget about me and continue on with their lives. Was my leaving ending friendships I had spent years building?  Truth be told it did.  But leaving also strengthened many old friendships and yielded new ones.

But this isn’t about leaving it’s about coming back.

It’s impossible to completely isolate yourself from your past. Even working on a cruise ship with horrible internet and being 13,000 miles away I still was pretty aware of what was happening back home. But I would only see the highlights of my friends lives. The big parties, the weddings, the babies, the engagements, the breakups, the new jobs, the big events that they felt a need to share with the world. At times, it made me feel like I was really missing something. I had to remind myself that I was changing as well; having special moments of my own that I just couldn’t share as easily.

Coming home the first thing every person asks is something along the lines of “so how was it?” or “Dude, tell me a crazy story.”

It’s like me asking you what your favorite moment of 2013 was. How do you answer it?

I hate questions like that. Almost as much as I hate when Australians ask “How ya goin’ mate” because replying “good” just doesn’t seem like the right grammatical response, nor do I believe one exists- but I digress for now.

Just like the question constantly posed by Aussies there’s no good way to answer “so how was it?” I constantly find myself saying something lame like “it was good” and smiling.  People look at me with complete and utter disappointment as if I was withholding the secret of life from them. When I respond like that it’s not because I’m trying to be a dick or that I don’t want to tell people about my trip.  It’s because when someone puts you on the spot there’s just too much to even begin to describe that words fail me.

Traveling for months isn’t like going on a one or two week holiday. With something that short it’s easy to recall everything you did. Where you went, who you met, what you ate and drank. It’s easy to identify your top two or three highlight moments. But when you’re gone for months things blend together making it difficult to separate what you did, or who you met, and sometimes even where you ended up going. You visit so many cities, see numerous famous sites and meet countless people that it’s overwhelming when you look back trying to recount it to someone else.

At times, I ask myself “what’s the point” in answering people’s questions about my travels. All of the stories I have involve people they don’t know, in places they’ve never seen, doing stuff most have only dreamed of. The odds of them understanding, appreciating or even comprehending what I’m telling them are so low that it seems like a waste of my time to try to explain. It’s no one’s fault that these things go over their heads but it’s always on my mind when the inevitable questions come.

Recounting how I ended up meeting and partying with Vlade Divac’s (used to play Center for the Sacramento Kings) two sons in Serbia and having the most fun and random Tuesday night of my life wouldn’t matter unless you were there. Telling the story of how I met 3 guys from Brooklyn on a bus in Hvar and later that night got bottle service at Carpe Diem to celebrate one of their birthdays wouldn’t impress you because you don’t know how crazy Carpe Diem, Hvar, or these Brooklyn guys were. Even the confession of how at every Cathedral me and the R&D Department went to in Europe we ended up having very un-Cathedral appropriate life chats while sitting in the pews. It’s difficult trying to describe why I loved Florence or how incredible Tomorrowland was because I know that I’ll never do either justice and just make it seem trivial.

I can’t explain to someone what the Great Barrier Reef looks like when you’re scuba diving or how blue the Adriatic Sea is. I can’t express how it feels to be on a cruise ship in the middle of the Pacific and see nothing but water and realize how truly insignificant you are.  Or how special it makes you feel when people from 6 different cruises come together one night and show you a great time for your last night in their country.

A lot of the moments that I look back on and want to share with others are completely unrelatable because they are subjective and special to me.   It feels like trying to describe the sunset. You see it in your head and want to describe it but you just can’t do it justice even if you tried.

To be completely honest a lot of my favorite moments wouldn’t impress anyone. When I think back to my time in Australia or Europe I don’t think right away about parasailing in Cairns, scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef, spending my days walking around Paris seeing Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower or visiting the Prague Castle. Honestly, I think about the random moments with my friends. The would-be-lame-anywhere-else theme parties on the cruise ship and watching every dress up in some ridiculous way. The do nothing beach days. How I had my first Guinness in Dubin with my friend Amanda and her family.  The time we tried to play beer pong in our tiny crew cabin.  The games of “bullshit” to pregame and kill time while backpacking. The low key nights I spent with the people I met and care about having conversations about both trivial and significant things. One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that it’s not where you are that matters nearly as much as who you’re with.

When I first got back from Australia I was really bothered by how nothing had changed. It annoyed me how I had disappeared for 6 months but after returning the only that seemed to have changed was me.  It was like time froze while I was gone.  Perhaps I was naive to not expect it.  But even after all the “highlight” moments Facebook had showed me everything was still the same. I didn’t have the patience to talk to people about superficial things knowing full well that if I were to leave tomorrow I wouldn’t keep in touch with them. The transition back was really tough. It seemed like everyone cared about the dumbest things. Their scope was so minimal. They seemed to either not know or not care that there was so much more to life than Omaha and even the United States. Their goals were so opposite of mine that I thought something was wrong with them. How could they not see it.  It took awhile before I realized that it was my perspective that had changed and my attitude that needed changing. I didn’t realize it until coming across the following passage in a book I was reading:

            “Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away… and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast…. be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend. Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust…. and don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Basically the first time I came back to Nebraska as a pretentious asshole. I thought that because I had been to places others hadn’t or met people from different countries my views were more important and accurate than the people I’d left. But as nerdy and lame as it sounds, once I read what Rilke wrote everything changed. I was able to take a step back and see from where other people were coming from.  I began to see why they cared about what they did.

Personal growth is essential. But even more essential is to do it in a way where you don’t think less or trivialize others for choosing a different path and growing at a different rate. There’s no need to “step on other’s toes.”  Instead try to find common ground -regardless of the complexity of the topic- with whoever you’re talking to. I didn’t need to be constantly talking about traveling or telling stories which would draw attention to myself yet making others feel like they hadn’t done anything worthy of note.  Honestly, I really don’t like talking about traveling in large groups. I don’t enjoy that particular spotlight. I’d prefer to have a conversation instead of giving a Todd monologue.

I’ve written all of this to get to this point.

People believe the biggest reason to travel is to share your experiences with others. That’s bullshit.   When you travel it’s for yourself. You can’t take anyone with you. Not on your back and not in your experiences. Social media has made the sharing of personal moments seem real and genuine but it’s nothing but a facade. For all the Instagram pictures and Facebook tags there are a hundred stories that can’t truly be understood by another person. Real life-changing experiences can’t be shared, downloaded, or liked because they happen deep within a person.   My buddy Chase one told me “to those who know the feeling, no explanation is necessary; to those who do not, no explanation is possible.”

You’re alone in your life and in your travels. That’s exactly how it should be. It’s not the big moments that change you but the little ones you don’t even notice happening. You come back to what you used to call ‘home’ feeling unchanged; believing yourself to be the same person as who left. But all you feel is surprise. You haven’t noticed how the changes have added up over time. Soon enough, the long hours, the traveling, the broken sleep have all crept into your being and become part of you, so everyone can see it, in your attitude, your gaze, the way you move and talk. In life, nothing changes day to day but when you look back everything is different. Don’t stop the changes embraces them. For our ability to accept change reflects our desire to truly live.

Instead of relying on other people’s stories go out and create your own. Because at the end, all you’ve got are the places you’ve been, the people you’ve met, and the stories you created along the way.

Stay Gold.

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