Almost exactly seven years ago, I bought a one-way ticket to Berlin because I didn’t know what to do with my life. It wasn’t the first time I decided to leave everything behind and start over. I mean, that was my thing, and I did it usually every few months or years. It was like cleaning out my closet. I would get anxious, depressed, frustrated, like something wasn’t right. I would look at my life and think, “Okay, something has to change, something has to go, like TODAY.” Usually it was a boyfriend. Sometimes it was the job. Sometimes the apartment. Sometimes the city where I lived. So, in the few years leading up to Berlin, I had lived in three cities, changed apartments five times, quit two jobs, a Ph.D. program, broke up with three boyfriends, and one fiancé–oh yes, and I traveled around the world alone, landing in 15 countries.
By the time I got to Berlin I was so used to running, moving quickly and moving on that I hardly knew what it meant to stay put, to live my life as it was. My emotions were much easier externalized, as in, if I could shift something externally, I could ignore, fix, or at least avoid how I was actually feeling. I usually just waited for something to trigger my next escape. I would stay somewhere, do something, be with someone as long as I could, until my emotions got to me, I couldn’t do it any longer, and my unease became so overwhelming, that I had to go.
After a decade of this being my adult life, I was exhausted- emotionally, physically, and spiritually. On one of those early nights in Berlin, I remember sitting on the balcony, I could hear the techno music from one of the clubs nearby and all I could do was smoke cigarettes and stare out at the night sky. I was tired and lonely and though wanted to pick myself up and start over again, I almost lost the energy, the know-how, the audacity to change.
I didn’t know what step to take. I was tired of running and disconnecting, and reconnecting, and trying to find purpose, and reinventing. I just wanted to be.
A Lithuanian girl named Lauryna moved into our apartment for a few days and even though she was only 22 at the time, she seemed so certain and directed in her life. She trained in the Lithuanian army and was so dedicated to her country, committed to returning home to her family and her life. I didn’t understand this loyalty or interest in settling, because for me, life was always about forward momentum, finding something new, never staying in one place too long.
That summer I visited a psychic in Sedona who told me that my spirit animal was a black horse. “You are free, but almost too free,” she told me, “There is something dark about your freedom,” and she seemed almost confused when she added, “I’ve never seen this before.” I wasn’t confused at all about this interpretation. My life was full of movement and freedom, but also, dark and chaotic. I had no commitments, I was afraid of settling down, as moving quickly, running to my next thing always made more sense, and felt better than staying put.
Somehow this disorder and running made me feel like I was doing something, or taking some action to make my life better. Or at least distracted me from my emotions and what was.
But even in this knowing, I was still me. I moved quickly. Lonely and longing for some connection in Berlin, I got online. I started dating on OKCupid and went on a few really bad dates before I met Eric, a handsome triathlete from Detroit. Our early days of courtship were wildly romantic and I fell into his life the way I had fallen into many versions of my own- sort of thoughtlessly, haphazardly, but not without passion. I was all in. Our first date was in September. I moved in the end of October. By November I was back in San Francisco collecting my things for a permanent move to Berlin. I proposed to him in June and we were married in December that year. Yes, looking back, it was another desperate sort of co-dependent thing to do, but sometimes I think that answers come to us in our missteps.
In those early months, I had no reservations. Of course, I would rebuild my life in Europe. I’ll just learn a new language (no problem!), say goodbye to my friends and family (we can keep in touch!), and, you know, just generally completely start over (easy!). In some ways, I had nothing to return to, so I never worried too much about what I was giving up. I also never thought that it would be this big move that would force me to face myself and my life.
Everything changed when my daughter was born. Life wasn’t carefree. No more booze, drugs, and romance. No more carousing until 3 a.m. along the Spree or drinking Aperol Spritz until the sun came up. Suddenly, with this new person to take care of, I couldn’t check out. I couldn’t run physically or emotionally. I had to deal with my addictions and face this huge life decision I had made to live abroad. I desperately missed my family. I wanted to buy baby things at Target. I was completely overwhelmed and frustrated because daily life was more difficult in a foreign country.
All of these things that once seemed really exciting about living abroad were now a total burden and seemed really, really hard. Life seemed really, really hard.
I never really thought about commitment until the possibility of leaving was not there for me. I mean it was, technically—I could runaway, leave this country, run out of my marriage, and my children and abandon this life I had built, but I know that’s not really who I am, and not even what I wanted. Yet, because it’s so engrained in my patterns and my history—I did think about it. Should I? Could I? What does escape look like anymore? In my deepest fantasies, I still wonder who I would be without any ties. There is this passage from the book Outline by Rachel Cusk that I’ve never really forgotten because it so perfectly summarized my experience and thought-life:
“I felt that I could swim for miles, out into the ocean: desire for freedom an impulse to move, tugged at me as though it were a thread fastened to my chest. It was an impulse I knew well, and I had learned that it was not the summons from a larger world I used to believe it to be. It was simply a desire to escape from what I had. The thread led nowhere, except into ever expanding wastes of anonymity. I could swim out into the sea as far as I liked, if what I wanted was to drown, but this impulse this desire to be free, was still compelling to me: I still somehow believed in it, despite having proved that everything about it was illusory.”
Over the last seven years, I’ve had to investigate, what it feels like, what does it look like to stay put. For the first time in my adult life, I’ve had to think about what I have, where I am at, the choices I have made, and what it means to invest, to build something, even if it doesn’t always feel perfect. What matters now, is that in all of these hours, days, and years, I’ve had to keep showing up. And I’ve seen what it means, to be grateful, to undertake the sacrifices, that has been my challenge and my gift. Coming up on seven years abroad, five years of marriage, four years of motherhood, I am very aware of what it means to stay put, to build something, to commit to myself and my life, even with hardship. Truly, I don’t know what life would mean anymore without it.
Last week, I got a visit from Lauryna. It had been seven years since we were climbing a rickety ladder to drink beers on the rooftop. Her face still looked young, but something was different. She carried herself, almost more carefully, more softly. “I’m not traveling alone this time,” she smiled as she revealed the news and held her belly. Unlike me, Lauryna, never had that way of desperately seeking or searching. She had without hesitation, returned to the home country she loved. She married and bought a piece of land where she will build a home not far from her parents. Her life, as she had planned, is on with being and purpose.
I had always struggled to understand that in the past, though for the first time, I feel like I understand her dedication and motivation to be settled, to be home, to be connected to her life—not the illusory one, not the one that is always just out of reach (if only), but the one that she has.