In search of “home”

I do some of my best thinking on the Metro. There’s nothing to do, really, except think and go over things in my mind.

My little epiphany this morning was in my realization that, while I can safely say that I don’t feel much emotional attachment to where I grew up — without my friends and parents and other family there, I’d have no reason to go back — I also don’t have that many roots in D.C., despite living here for a year and a half. I think deep down, I see my time here as temporary and transient. Will it end up being so? Maybe. Maybe not. Plenty of people in D.C. planned to stay for a year or two, and lo, 30 years pass and they’re still here.

Then I thought about what makes a home. How do you decide to lay down roots? When should you decide? Should you fall in love with a place, and stay out of love for that place, or should you fall in love with a person, and lay roots with them wherever? I don’t think it’s too much to ask to love someone and stay with them in a place that you’d love even if you weren’t with them. I hope to be so fortunate.

I’m also not sure that time expended counts toward a feeling of home. I still think of England as “home” on some occasions, despite only living there for two years. On the one hand, almost two decades in the Midwest hadn’t done much to solidify nostalgia for that place. The jury’s still out on D.C., I have a certain fondness for it, but can’t help this nagging feeling that it too is just a pit stop on the road to … somewhere else.

Traveling is something I have to do, almost compulsively. Even my trips that get planned months in advance receive almost obsessive attention. Is my travel bug some subconscious method of “scouting” a possible home? Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes I’m afraid that I’m destined to just be a wanderer, moving here and there whenever I manage to overcome inertia.

At the end of the day, I think a true home has to combine both people and location. It’s not enough to live somewhere you love if you have no one to share it with, and it’s not enough to be with someone you love if the location makes you miserable or unhappy.

Wish me luck eventually finding that happy balance.

Back to Blighty, for a little while

It’s no secret that I’ve put off going for my Ph.D. Mainly it’s an issue of finances and the fact that my job in D.C. is going well. But I still miss England fairly often, so I decided to head back to visit for a little more than a week in September. I’m flying to Manchester, not London, and seeing some parts of the country that I haven’t before, or haven’t seen in a long time: Manchester, Liverpool, the Lake District and that general area.

I plan to be joined in this adventure by my good friend Deborah, with whom I went to Uni. Kent and formed part of a formidable pub quiz team (Grandma’s Wisdom for life!). I also hope to meet my pen pal (which sounds archaic and quaint but is the best way to describe it), a fellow nerd (we bonded over “A Song of Ice and Fire” and it doesn’t get geekier than that) and software developer/physics enthusiast who lives near Liverpool. I’m hoping a beer or two can help us figure out if it’s worth traveling down the Kingsroad, so to speak.

I have mixed feelings going back, even though it’s just for a brief period. I was probably at my personal and emotional nadir when I left the last time, and I’ll be going back on a far, far higher note, with good friends and a great job and other prospects. I’m hoping that that change in perspective lets me see the country more pragmatically and maybe figure out if going back long-term is really something I still want to pursue. If nothing else, I’ll get to see some great people and have some new adventures.

Since my tax rebate is funding this little sojourn, I splurged for an exit row aisle seat on my flight over and back. Worth every penny. Or pence.

Advice I’d give my younger self in J School

Last night, I had drinks and caught up with one of my friends from university who also lives in D.C. As is our habit whenever we get together, talk inevitably turned back to the college days, when we were on the student newspaper. I remember my last semester, when I worked a second time as the Kansan.com managing editor instead of being editor-in-chief. At the time I was disappointed but ultimately accepting. Looking back at where I’ve been since, it may have been a blessing in disguise at best, and irrelevant at worst.

So I’d tell my disappointed 21-year-old self, “Don’t sweat it. It will work out.”

While I learned a lot at the Kansan about production, teamwork, ethics and judgment, and made some amazing friends there, many of whom I still keep in touch with now, it was my internships that ultimately propelled my professional career, now that I look back. No one at The Columbus Dispatch cared that I wasn’t the editor; they liked my Dow Jones internship, which I earned by passing an editing exam and essay, not because of where I was on the Kansan staff. No one at The Kansas City Star cared, either; they liked my previous two internships. And POLITICO ultimately valued my three internships, my knowledge of online publishing (which I polished as Kansan.com editor and wouldn’t have had much of a chance to work on as editor, where most of my focus would have been on the paper) and my master’s degree.

My friend was in much the same position. After not being chosen for editorial leadership, she took up internships at smaller Kansas newspapers and eventually ended up in D.C. as the editor of a political news website, and will soon be a White House reporter for the bureau of a major publication. Another fellow alumna works at The Hill after having interned there. Just about everyone I work with on production at my current job had impressive internship experience that stands out. Two of my friends who are copy editors for major, large-market daily newspapers were “only” ever copy chiefs at the Kansan, but they each had strong summer internship experience. Another close friend had mid-level editorial leadership experience but branched out to editing and social media work for the university city government, and now does travel writing.

It’s probably only because I’m a few years out of university that I can look back with clearer eyes. To be blunt, I don’t see much of a correlation between the professional success of my fellow students and what positions they held on the campus paper. The ones who’ve gone the furthest (in terms of the relative size/prestige of the publications where they now work, if they work for one) made the best use of internships and outside-of-school reporting/editing opportunities, regardless of whatever work they did for the Kansan (which, to be fair, provided many of us with our first clips). That isn’t to say that former Kansan editors don’t or haven’t achieved substantial professional success (I know a married pair who’ve both gone extremely far, including a Pulitzer), just that there’s not really much of a link, from where I’m sitting. Being editor of the Kansan is not a guarantee of professional success, and not being editor of the Kansan isn’t going to keep you from professional success.

So that is what I would tell myself, if I could go back: Enjoy the student newspaper. Have fun, learn the process and make friends. But it is a stepping stone to other things that are stepping stones in and of themselves. In the professional world, no one will care all that much. I have fond memories of the Kansan, but the environment, pace and workload of my job now resemble it about as much as a Nilla Wafer resembles a wedding cake. And that’s fine, and doesn’t have to diminish the value of my campus newspaper experience. It just puts a lot of things into perspective, and I’m glad to have it.

Refusing a bite of the apple

I might be one of a rare breed of female twentysomething journalists who consider themselves city mice: I have never made any serious, good-faith attempt to “make it” in New York, nor have I ever wanted to and honestly, unless an amazing opportunity arises or I move for a partner, I sincerely can see myself never wanting to.

A friend of mine shared this blog entry today, which I read and which maybe finally made me realize why I never sought that city the way so many women my age and in my profession do. New York City, the presumed epicenter of culture, literature and intellectual thought, is crowding out (and has been crowding out) the very people who contribute those things to the city. Creativity must be nurtured, and that requires basic security, energy and time, things that can be difficult if not impossible to attain in the city, especially if, like the blog author, you have to work a “real” job to make ends meet. The author decided to ultimately sacrifice location for that trifecta she needed to do something fulfilling, and left.

Which brings me back to myself; reading that, I have to wonder if I always knew, subconsciously, that I wouldn’t find in New York what I needed to fulfill me. Rather than needing to live there to realize that, maybe I always had a sense that it wasn’t really worth it. It wasn’t worth paying four figures to live with a bunch of other people in some outer borough, or doing a menial and unrewarding job, or going without food, just to be able to say, “I live in New York.” If “living in New York” doesn’t really come with the actual lifestyle implied by “living in New York” (creative freedom and intellectual growth), then what the bloody hell good is it? It’s an empty phrase, designed to impress outsiders or people from home; it would have no bearing on how I actually lived my life. That air of superiority, given the living circumstances of so many people like me in the city, just felt unearned, and I’d be damned if I moved there to perpetuate it.

And obviously it’s different for different people. I have friends there who love it, and I freely admit that I’d feel perfectly happy living in that other New York-esque metropolis with which I’m so familiar (London, I mean London). But after reading the blog entry and seeing a woman who might, in another life, have been me, it clicked. I had “gotten it” before I really even knew what I had “gotten.”

But then again, I never really knew or noticed how prevalent “Good-bye, New York” writings were. Time and again, young women aspire to go to New York, do so and then leave, for one reason or another. Maybe I just cut out the middleman.

In all fairness I do say this as a Washingtonian (via the Midwest and some stints in Britain), living in a place that isn’t exactly inexpensive. Many people in D.C. view it as a step on the way to New York, including at least a few of my friends. The District’s alleged inferiority complex is often remarked upon, and I’d be lying if I didn’t find the Times’s sometimes downright snotty coverage of the city (including, at times, bush-league geographic errors) to be grating. It seems like no matter what D.C. has, New York has more of it. Which is to be expected, as New York has more than 8 million people and D.C. only recently topped about 650,000, although it’s only getting bigger. But often, any criticism of New York by a D.C.-er brings allegations of jealousy or attempts at one-upping.

Which is why I found Andrew Sullivan’s own farewell to New York to be comforting; it’s rare (at least in my experience) to have someone that high-profile in the creative/journalistic community so publicly and forcefully side with D.C. over New York. For once, we’re not the ones being jilted. And Sullivan noticed that, too. It was “incomprehensible” to New Yorkers, he said, that a person might choose D.C. over their city.

And that’s at least partly why he left.

The Solo Traveler

It was after 11 p.m. Saturday by the time I was finally able to sleep. I had been awake for almost 24 continuous hours, barring some bad sleep on a plane. My trip back to D.C. had involved a long-distance ICE train, two planes, an airport shuttle, a bus, a subway and a taxi. I was exhausted and sore and still I’d rarely felt more personally satisfied.

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I’d spent the last week away, first in New York City for a day visiting a friend, then in Germany over Thanksgiving. It was the first time I had traveled abroad on my own, without going (back) to school or doing something for work. I’d done a European circuit in college with my best friend and had just gone to Sweden with that same friend. But this was different. It felt riskier — apart from simply wanting to go, I had no good “reason” to, no justification. It felt empowering.

I planned and booked the entire thing myself, asking some advice from friends who’d been to the cities I was visiting. I ditched my normally strict tendency to plan every day to the detail, and just did what felt right, whatever I wanted to at any given time. One day this involved eating a plate-sized Schnitzel with fried potatoes and a Frankfurt-style green herb sauce, washing it down with half a liter of beer (that was somehow the smallest glass available). I ended up visiting a modern art museum, wandering around Frankfurt’s Dom before the sun had risen, strolling through a giant food hall. 

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I went to Bonn for a day and wandered around its Münsterplatz, which was packed with stalls for the annual Christmas market. I found a present for my mother, ate sweets from the stalls and just took in the atmosphere.

Thanksgiving morning, I sat alone in an empty first-class train compartment as we zipped through early-morning fog. I saw glimpses of little villages along the river, buildings that looked ancient and sleepy. I wondered, sleepy myself, what it might be like to chuck it all in and settle down in some little burg.

When the train arrived in Cologne, my last stop, the first place I went after dropping off my luggage was to the Dom. More than any other cathedral I’ve seen apart from perhaps York’s minster, it evokes the phrase “pillar of the Earth.” Photos of it, though I took several, do it no justice. It is simply mind-boggling in its enormity and it amazes me that the people living in Cologne must just get used to it, like a stone Godzilla just sitting there.

Cologne’s Christmas market seemed to go on forever; it actually has several of them and they just bleed into each other. I had mulled wine and hot potato cakes covered in apple sauce. Everywhere there are sausages, sandwiches, cookies, cakes, pretzels, wine, hot chocolate and arts and crafts. At night, with the strung-up lights illuminating the sky and the Dom in the background, it’s downright ethereal.

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I perused Cologne’s Greco-Roman Museum in the afternoon, admiring the mosaics, jewelry and pottery on display. Later that night, I went on a date and ended up drinking Kölsch in a Brauhaus and sipping hot mulled wine in the Christmas market, snuggling up to stay warm. Thanksgiving indeed.

I’m in that buzzkill-ish period right after a trip, when it’s over and done and you just think, “Well now what?” But going on this trip, short though it was and to a place I’d been before where I more or less knew the language, gave me a lot of confidence. It might be the introvert in me, but I really believe that you have to be able to manage on your own before you can manage with anyone else. So for that reason I enjoyed my taste of solo travel (although I still plan to travel with friends, obviously), and I feel brave enough to do it again. It was also exhilarating to go somewhere just to go, because I could, without it being for school or anything else or anyone else but me. 

I think I owed myself that.

The Hierarchy of Needs

Earlier today one of my friends shared an … edited … version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The base — the broadest, most pressing immediate need — was Wi-Fi. Some days, that’s a very accurate assessment.

Maslow’s hierarchy should be familiar to anyone who took a high school psych class, ever. The actual base is physiological fulfillment: food, water, warmth. Next is stability and security. Love — friendly, familial, romantic — is in the middle. After that comes self-esteem and respect. Self-actualization is the highest point. The idea is that you have to fulfill the lower needs before you can fulfill the higher ones.

Marking my one-year anniversary, both at my job and in D.C., has lately gotten me to start reevaluating my needs and what I want out of my life. Despite seeing so many of my friends starting families, I reaffirm to myself that that’s something I want, but only when the timing is right. It’s not something to do just to tick off a box.

I guess the hardest part of climbing the pyramid is figuring out what self-actualization, on an individual level, actually means. Some days I’m afraid that maybe I’m doomed to be a nomad, shifting from place to place without ever putting down real roots. Then I think of staying in any one place forever, and I can’t breathe. So it’s a pull in opposite directions: fear of loneliness on the one hand, fear of being trapped somewhere on the other.

Ultimately, I think, self-actualization (and the accompanying feeling that you’re where you’re meant to be, doing what you’re meant to do, with whom you’re meant to be) is probably like being in love. When you’re there, you know. And if you have to second-guess yourself, look for exits or wonder if you’re there, you’re not.

So for now, until I do get that feeling of actualization and permanency, I’m going to embrace my nomadic nature and appreciate people and places that I know are probably fleeting. And when I get to the “right” place, I’ll know.